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I am writing scenes of a work where the primary setting and theme is a medieval style world. I believe the genre should be described as Heroic Fantasy.

One element of the story is that the creatures people see as gods are being from another planet. Aliens.

Am I right to think readers will assume the story has changed to Sci-fi partway through? If so, how can I avoid this confusion?

An example of the effect I want to generate; consider the folk story "Tale of the Bamboo Cutter". The character of Kaguya comes from the moon. However nobody would think to tag this story as Sci-fi.

I realise many cultures attribute gods as from "the heavens" but this setting not only has those gods interacting with humans, but their planet is also a physical location.

  • "I realise many cultures attribute gods as from "the heavens"" - Maybe the origin of the gods should not be specified too much. Like, they came from another world, totally different from this, they are very old and possess powers we can only dream of, they have traveled a long way and want/need something from us and then leave it at that. – Trilarion Sep 28 '17 at 7:58
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    If you want to see an example where this switch from heroic adventure to awkward sci-fi has been done very hamfistedly you can watch the last Indiana Jones movie (or, even better, don't). – xLeitix Sep 28 '17 at 11:20
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Whether your story appears more like fantasy or more like Science Fiction will depend on the perspective of the narrator.

If you tell of spacefaring aliens from the viewpoint of a medieval person, then their (medieval) interpretation of the events will make it appear as fantasy. They might see spaceships and laserbeams, but they will think of them as dragons and magic. The reader might understand the true nature of the objects, but the story will still be fantasy, or Science Fantasy. An example for Science Fantasy is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which has a medieval-like setting but actually takes place in the far future.

If you tell of an advanced civilization visiting a primitive one from the viewpoint of a person from the future, then even in the absence of spaceships and laserbeams the medieval world is part of Science Fiction. An example is Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, in which persons from the future timetravel to the middle ages. During most of the novel the protagonists live in the past without any advanced technology, but their scientific knowledge and understanding defines the narrative.

The genre is (mostly) defined by how the narrator sees and interprets the events, not (completely) by what happens.

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    Raymond E. Feist's "Magician" series has a traditional fantasy land (with magic and whatnot) be visited by "aliens" by way of some form of portal. Ie. "magic" rather than "sci-fi", it's all in how you "explain" it (keeping in mind Clarke's law, something perceived as magic might in fact not be). – KlaymenDK Sep 27 '17 at 11:53
  • Thank you, @KlaymenDK, Feist's Magician an even better example than the Book of the New Sun. – user26838 Sep 27 '17 at 18:11
  • The Tripods is a different take on this, where the point-of-view characters are always the "primitives" but it takes on a sci-fi tone nonetheless (although with more of an H.G. Wells vibe than a contemporary one). – Bradd Szonye Sep 28 '17 at 8:05
  • Another example is "the high crusade" (where a bunch of knights hijack an alien spaceship which made the mistake of trying to invade medieval England) – Tim B Sep 28 '17 at 14:51
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I believe Blizzard (the gaming company) has done this pretty successfully in both StarCraft (the Protoss are an alien race that just doesn't seem as Sci-Fi-ish as one might expect) and especially in World of Warcraft (the Draenei), which has a medieval setting. Maybe you can take hints from there.

Things that I have observed (not only in Blizzard games) include:

  • Both the Protoss and the Darenei are very spiritual races. If they do have advanced technology, it's usually somehow based on magic or faith.
  • In World of Warcraft, other planets or stars are never refered to as planets or stars, but rather as worlds. The terminology already makes it clear we're in a mythical environment rather than in a futuristic one. Give your sci-fi stuff medieval names.
  • There shouldn't be any focus on advanced technology. In fact, I think it helps if the aliens don't bring any "new" technology at all. And, as mentioned before, if they do bring anything new, it better be something magical or spiritual.
  • I feel like in medieval ages, there was this idea that our planet and mankind are the centers of the universe. This not only meant that people believed the sun rotated around the earth, it also meant that the purpose of everything that existed was directed towards mankind. Futuristic, sci-fi universes usually have a much broader perspective where we're being viewed as just a tiny little part of the universe and not its center. If you want to create a more medieval setting, I believe it helps if the perspective is more medieval, putting our world into the center of the universe and believing that aliens surve a purpose in our world rather than in theirs. I think you have the foundation layed out for this with the belief that the aliens are in fact gods. Don't broaden the scope, don't reveal that there's other earth-like planets that these god-aliens could care for. Make it very clear that earth is still the center of our universe and that earth is all a god could ever think of reigning over.
  • In medieval settings, there's often plenty of different dimensions where demons come from, there's the idea of heaven and hell and all kinds of places in between. Make your foreign planets resemble these ideas of dimensions. Maybe your people could believe that the planet your god-aliens come from is actually heaven. Don't make these planets new places that the people have never heard about, destroying their idea of how the universe works. Instead, make it clear that they have always known these places exist (as in, they believed in the existence of heaven or hell), but they are just now learning about the physical location of these places.
  • To add on to that - don't make the people or the reader feel like you're surprising them with "huh, the world acutally works very differently from what I imagined - it has rules that I never thought of". Instead, incorporate the arrival of the aliens into your world by giving explanations that are consistent with what the reader and the characters in your story believe to know about the world. Again, you have prepared this already by making the aliens seem like gods. I believe if your characters start wondering "How does this work?" - "What if your universe is actually very different from what we thought?" it all goes a bit sci-fi. If, however, your characters are like "Wow, these gods came with magic from their god-dimension to free/enslave us all" you're not breaking the established, medieval world.
  • I feel like much of the sci-fi feeling is made up by the idea that there's other plantes that you can travel to. This accessibility is what sci-fi is about. Fantasy might have foreign places, but it's always hard to travel to those. And if you do, it's usually through portals instead of by physical means like space ships. Make it clear that those other planets are very, very far away and almost inaccessible to mankind. If they do travel there, make the journey magical, mystical, spiritual, but don't put an emphasis on the technology.
  • Sci-Fi is a lot about exploring and the characters are adventurers and diplomats (see especially Star Trek). If there's nothing diplomatic about how your aliens and people interact and if there's a clear hierarchy established right from the beginning, it's much easier to believe that these foreign creatures might be gods instead of technically advanced aliens or demons instead of alien invaders.

Hope any of this helps. Sorry for my english, I'm not a native speaker.

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It is most typical, in a fantasy setting, for the otherworldly creatures to come from another realm, or plane of existence --fairyland, or hell, or the outer realms, etc. If your otherworld creatures are from outer space, I would question what aspect of that specific origin is important to your story.

Assuming that it is important for them to actually be space creatures, I would look at three things. 1) What is their home like? Is it the actual cosmos that modern science teaches us about, or is it a more mythic region, "the Sky Country," for example? If it is clearly not mappable to what we actually know of outer space, it becomes easier to read as fantasy. 2) What do the earthlings know or understand about where the creatures come from? It takes a fair amount of technological advancement and scientific sophistication to know about the actual structure of outer space. If the story focuses too much on the technology, however, it feels science-fictiony, even if the tech is outdated. 3) How did they get here? If they came in a modern spaceship, your story becomes science fiction, by definition. But what if they arrived in an actual (oceangoing) ship? Or walked? Or used a magical ring?

The book Enchantress From the Stars is explicitly about a narrative that plays both as fantasy, from one point of view, and as science-fiction, from another. You might find it an interesting resource. And Raymond E. Feist's book Magician features alien magicians from another planet, who travel via magical portals, not technology.

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This question is looking at this from the other side (i.e. attempting to mix both sci-fi and fantasy), but my answer is going to actually be quite similar to the answer that I posted there.

It's important to mention that the aliens are actually aliens right at the start, even if you frame them as "creatures of the sky" or however the people in your world see them. Opening a fantasy novel and then suddenly introducing aliens part-way through would definitely be an immersion-breaking act that would jar readers.

However if the readers understand that the aliens already exist and they are simply part of the world, together with a justification for their existence from the context of your characters, then they will simply understand it as part of the worldbuilding instead of attributing it to a plot device.

Even if the aliens only appear in the midst of the novel, their arrival must be foreshadowed in some way so that it's not so much of a surprise when they are revealed. Even if it's a twist, the clues must be set so that the reader can later put all of the clues together to come to the realization that the story was going to progress this way all along, rather than springing it from nowhere.

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Genre is to a great extent a label you stick to the book to sell it. "The Time Traveler's Wife" is an example of SF that's labelled literary fiction in order to put it on a different shelf in the bookshop. There are sets of tropes and narrative structures and framing devices that come with particular genres and affect reader expectations, but you don't have to stay within them if you can make it coherent otherwise.

Possibly the key element of SF is scientism: the world is supposed to be legible and understandable. Interplanetary travel is something which has a scientific expectation. Aliens are real creatures bound by physical law, even if this includes law we've not discovered yet. The more effort is put into this consistency, the more likely it is to be labelled "hard science fiction".

However there's a huge penumbra of SF stories for which the mechanics is not so important, and simply devoted to asking "what if": what if the world was different in some way?

Whereas fantasy narrative structures draw from folklore and fairytale, looking backwards. There tends to be more emphasis on destiny, birthright, hubris/nemesis, magic as the extension of the will, forces beyond the control of humans, and so on.

The more you explain, the more SF it is; whereas keeping the mechanics out of the way and framing within fantasy tropes of gods and monsters will make it more "fantasy".

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The most important thing to start with is not too get too hung up on distinctions between fantasy and sci-fi. Plenty of classical-fantasy fiction (pseudo-medieval setting, magic, monsters, etc.) is actually set in the future - Gene Wolf has already been mentioned, and The Sword of Shannara is explicitly a post-apocalyptic world. Conversely much classic sci-fi is really just fantasy with a different skin, even if it is set in the future - Mad Max could just as easily be Conan if you replaced cars with horses, for example, and there's very little of Star Trek's spaceship and engineers which couldn't be directly replaced with seafairing magicians boldly sailing where no man has sailed before.

If you want to stick with the medieval context and not have to suppose that the "gods" are stranded aliens with no way to repair their spacecraft, then you need some way for them to travel back and forth across space. The AD&D Spelljammer environment integrated space travel with the classical AD&D medieval-fantasy environment with a fair degree of success. You may want to have a look at that and see if it gives you any ideas.

As for the gods turning out to be mortals, albeit mortals with extraordinary powers, that's got plenty of form. Star Trek frequently met so-called gods who turn out to be aliens of varying types and sanities. The ancient Greeks explicitly put their gods into the physical world (they can change form, but they are corporeal) and even a home (Mount Olympus) which is remote but accessible. And the number of evil wizards who want Macguffin X to become gods is huge.

Note that discovering your gods are mortal is going to be a major shock to your characters. Everything they thought was beyond doubt, they now have to question. So whether this works will entirely come down to your ability to write that believably.

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May I just add that aliens does not necessarily have to come from other planets, dimensions, etc. When the white man first set ashore in South America, the natives saw them as aliens. The locomotive (as a physical construct) was referred to as an iron horse in victorian times. An alien object.

I also agree with Grahams point, that distinctions between scifi and fantasy is less important.

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As an example you could check out the movie The Great Wall in which Matt Damon battles aliens in a medieval China... (how awesome is that?)

The aliens arrived in a meteor having crashed into the mountains 2000 years ago. Now it is around 1000 AD and the aliens are actually perceived as "monsters" by the Chinese. In fact they consider them a godly punishment. So the viewpoint and setting is very Fantasy, while as a viewer you realise the monsters to be aliens - with a classical Sci-Fi hive mind and everything.

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    Huh, interesting - I have not seen The Great Wall and from the few trailers I'd seen I never suspected they were aliens. That must be a good example of maintaining the fantasy feel. – Michael Sep 28 '17 at 15:45
  • @Michael: It really is a good example :-). – Make42 Sep 28 '17 at 17:11
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I would say focus the aliens more on pulp and less on scifi. Think John Capenter's Mars and Jules Verne's Earth to the Moon. Give their ships less functional and more ornate designs (think the Naboo ships vs the Millenium Falcon).

Any advance tech should be seen by the locals as magic and if the POV is medievel, never explain the principles behind how the tech works. I'd also recommend checking out the Star Trek TNG episode where Picard was worshiped as a god by a medieval population (forget the name).

Star Wars is a great idea of Fantasy in Space, where the Heroes Journey is a major theme and a lot of it's inspiration came from Japanese period dramas (Jidaigeki) such as The Forbidden Castle. In Star Wars, the story doesn't rely on how FTL or advance tech works. We didn't need to know about the Clone Wars in A New Hope or what a Nerf was in Empire to understand the aspects being discussed. They were drops of lines to show the Universe is more vast than what was on display, but the crux of all six movies was the fall and redemption of one man, a story which translates to any genre. Contrast to Star Trek, which was very much about a society that was more advance than our own, and a blueprint of what the world should work too as well as using metaphor to safely discuss hot button issues.

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