When selecting a work of nerdarific escapism, one usually has to choose between Sci Fi and Fantasy.
Oh, sure, you can blend the two in many ways. Usually, however, you end up with total crap.
There are three sub genres that successfully blend the two to varying degrees.
First is the Japanese RPG where you’ve got dudes with giant swords racing around a high tech city, or mystical elves on spaceships, or an ancient Samurai Robot.
There are examples of this genre that are genuinely brilliant. Coming from a western perspective, however, I universally find the genre blending too overt and confusing.
“why wouldn’t I swap my heavy ass sword for one of those laser canons?”
“why is everyone acting all medieval when we’re culturally advanced techno gods?”
“ummmm… who built the Robot and why does no one think it’s unusual?”
I find that the successful examples of this genre do not actually blend sci fi and fantasy; rather they give you one and throw in a bit of the other (ok, often to give you an excuse for melee combat, fair point).
The second is Steampunk. I am, unabashedly, a fan of this genre. The blending here is slightly more coherent.
The approach being that it’s a world where there’s magic, but the people who wield the magic actually understand how it works.
It doesn’t usually fall into either the fantasy or sci fi genre as the technology is old tech set in a slightly older world. Late industrial tech in an early industrial world. The fact that it can not properly be defined as either science fiction or fantasy but has strong stylistic characteristics of both makes this a subgenre where the best of the best is truly a successful blend of sci fi and fantasy.
However, the Steampunk genre isn’t, on the whole, really a true blending of the genres. Steampunk is sci fi that is set in a fantasy environment or fantasy that is set in a sci fi environment. It’s like taking Hamlet and setting it in depression era California. You can call it a cross genre performance, but it’s hamlet with dust and winos. So, while it is sometimes genuinely both, most often Steampunk tries to be neither sci fi nor fantasy and ends up just being one with a splash of the other.
The third, and I argue most successful, is the postapocalyptic genre. Post apocalyptic worlds give you an environment where it feels totally organic that elements of both sci fi and fantasy would exist coherently side by side.
They are worlds where you face fantasy challenges every day.
“Giant green monsters are trying to drag me away to a dark cave where I’ll be exposed to a potion that turns me into one of them”
“a group of roving bandits are attacking me as I walk the 50 miles through the woods to the next town.”
“I need to traverse this pass but it’s crawling with hostile undead.”
You also face sci fi challenges every day.
“I need to find equipment to remove the atomic radiation from this water”
“how can I upgrade this plasma rifle to pierce that new power armor.”
“These robots are shooting automatic lasers at me. Oh my!”
Further, the environment itself organically contains elements of both sci fi and fantasy. It contains ancient ruins filled with magic treasures that happen to run on nuclear batteries. I use magic here in the Clarke’s Third Law sense.
To a scavenger born in a tent out in the wastes, some lasers or robots or whatever are, in that sense, indeed magic. This is where the genre really shines. It creates a world where the characters organically understand things but where you the player comprehend them in a way that the characters cannot. This allows the events to be either sci fi, fantasy, or genuinely both at any given moment without the flow of said events feeling in any way jagged.
Unlike the other two (with rare exceptions) post apocalyptia gives you both sci fi and fantasy at the same time in a way that usually feels totally natural, given a little suspension of disbelief as to the “fine print”.
Finally, I now realize, I must point out a fourth sub genre: Firefly.
Firefly is not quite any of these three blends. It is not Japanese (in their case Chinese) fantasy, it is not really Steampunk though it shares many of the same trappings, and it is not really postapocalyptic even though it is set in a future where an unlivable Earth was abandoned centuries ago.
Firefly also succeeds in crafting a universe where you get fantasy and sci fi simultaneously in a way that is totally organic.
To a lesser extent (only in the sense that it is mostly sci fi but it has fantasy elements) Cowboy Bebop is also an example of this fourth “microgenre”.
Arguably, BeBop is an example of Eastern style fantasy in a sci fi world. The main plot with Vicious does give that impression at times, but I don’t buy that argument. It’s anime space opera crossed with film noir; just like Firefly is Star Wars crossed with a Spaghetti Western. It’s a near future setting with advanced technology and a post apocalyptic earth but a fully intact and unbroken human civilization. That makes it neither fantasy nor any of the three defined subgenres. It is only the unwavering sci fi setting that puts it behind Firefly in terms of genre blending.
Firefly, however, is mostly a pure western but a spaceship is the main character, this grounds it in sci fi much of the time. While a spaceship is also the main character in Bebop and though it is “the work which becomes a new genre unto itself” it is pretty much pure sci fi with some fantasy storytelling elements.
Both these universes are, perhaps, a successful blend of the three main subgenres which is something only a Whedon or a Watanabe should even attempt.
It is due, however, not to a necessary extension of the environment, but to the pure brilliance of the storytelling that these shows succeed in blending the two nerd genres.
Having solved my nerdsistentialist dilemma of why I like postapocalyptia so much, I must now tackle the dilemma of “would I rather have a berth on the BeBop or Serenity?”
So, to sum up, postapocalyptia is the greatest of nerd genres because it is a natural feeling instance of legitimate “science fiction fantasy”. Also, go watch Firefly and Cowboy Bebop again.
I leave you now with an unattributed quote I heard Rod Serling recite in an interview: “Science Fiction is the art of making the improbable possible; Fantasy is the art of making the impossible probable.”