Successful Worldbuilding in SFF Mashups

Science fiction and fantasy mashups are popular right now.  They give us an excuse to abandon typical SFF tropes for elements we’re familiar with in other genre fiction.  Here’s some tips and tricks for successful plotting and worldbuilding in a mashup genre:

Familiarize Yourself with the Blended Genre

Okay, so you’re writing a space opera detective story.  When was the last time you read a good detective story?  Get a few crime novels and bone up.  Make sure your research material includes the most-cited classics of the genre, as well as some of the most currently-popular books.  Get a feel for what you’re trying to do, especially if you feel you’re trying to reach crime fiction readers as well as SFF ones.

Avoid Reading Similar Mashups

Even if you’ve read them before and that’s what inspired you, don’t read The Dresden Files while you’re writing fantasy noir.  It’s just too easy to find those ideas appearing in your own fiction.  Put another way, reading similar mashups while you’re working runs the risk of limiting your own imagination.  Do it your own way.

Consider Areas of Conflict and Resolve Them

Continuing with our example; noir fiction depends on a feeling of darkness and hopelessness.  It’s important the protagonist be badly hurt, cynical, and unable to solve every problem.  Now we’re introducing magic into the mix.  How can magic be limited to prevent it from solving every problem?

Jim Butcher’s solution is simple; the bad guys have magic too.  Also, magic is not something everyone can do, so simply having magical ability is isolating, which gives Harry Dresden a whole grab-bag of personal issues to unpack.

Historical fantasy is another danger zone.  If magic is easily available, why would a historical period remain the same?  For instance, an enchantment that allows a person to send a message to someone else instantly at a distance could spawn the Information Age in Regency England.

Naomi Novik solves the difficulties of bringing dragons into the Napoleonic Wars in three ways.  First, dragons are rare, so it’s not as though they can be used in place of modern aircraft bombers; Napoleon would have been all over that!  Second, dragons are impossible to control.  They have their own needs and wants, and much of her plot centers around them finding ways to get those needs and wants fulfilled.  Third, social attitudes, such as presumed human and Colonial superiority, prevents historical France and England from maximizing their dragons’ full potential.

Consider the Tropes of the Blended Genre

A delicate balance is needed here.  One of the reasons we like blended genres is because we enjoy another genre’s tropes.  On the other hand, if you’re just going to trade one genre’s tropes for another, you run the risk of being just as tired and dull as if you stuck with pure pulp sci-fi/fantasy in the first place.

If your plot runs on some of those tropes, consider them through the lens of SFF.  What would be good reasons for those tropes to continue to exist in your altered world?

The best example I can think of for how to do it right is Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels.  This is a Renaissance-tech level world with a feudal society and dragons; and yet, it’s entirely science fiction.  Every “fantastical” element has a reason for being there, from the genetically-engineered dragons to the feudal structure needed to support them in consideration of the lost technology of her far-flung colony world.

You could also take an alternative approach.  You could use the blended genre specifically to subvert the tropes!  A Song of Ice and Fire, although it takes place in a fantasy world, specifically subverts high fantasy tropes by contrasting them sharply with the realities of medieval historical societies.

Consider Natural Consequences

If the normal world all of sudden learned that vampires and witches had been having a secret war for control of humanity for centuries, what do you think would happen?  I think there would be riots, revolutions, and literal witch hunts, with a bunch of heavily-armed soldiers in lead-lined helmets to guard against telepathy.  When dragons in Novik’s Temeraire world succeed in achieving equality, the world changes.  Don’t be afraid to make those changes; that’s part of the fun.  But if you don’t want them to happen, find a consistent in-universe method of preventing them.

Avoid Problematic Elements

Because certain genres were popular in specific eras, they may be laden with problematic social elements that alienate the modern reader.  Noir, for example, is as sexist and racist as the 1940s were.  George Lucas, whose Star Wars films were essentially Republic serials set in a science fiction universe, is often (rightfully) criticized for allowing certain racist and sexist stereotypes to bleed through.  Try not to make that mistake.

Have Fun!

Above all, enjoy what you’re doing, because it’s no fun if you don’t.  That’s the beauty of SFF – nothing is impossible!

Just sayin’: The Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga are both SFF mashups.  The Wyrd West is a dystopian post-apocalyptic cattlepunk Weird Western.  The Toy Soldier Saga is a military science fantasy planetary romance space opera. You can check them out at the links above, or on my About page.

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