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The Best Science Fantasy

recommended by Vajra Chandrasekera

Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera

by Vajra Chandrasekera


We use 'science fantasy' when a book seems to be both science fiction and fantasy. What distinguishes the two, and what does it mean to combine them? These books are an opportunity to explore our ways of knowing, reflect changing cultures, and find humour in the unexpected, says award-winning fantasy and sci fi author Vajra Chandrasekera.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

Rakesfall by Vajra Chandrasekera

by Vajra Chandrasekera

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Science fantasy is a newly popular term, but maybe not a new idea… Could you introduce us?

Science fantasy is actually a surprisingly old term that fell out of use, and is now making its way back. It’s a delightfully ill-defined term. I think the most common use case is the obvious one, where people use it to refer to stories that blur the boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Sometime around the mid-20th century, it was also used in the way that we now use ‘speculative fiction’ – as a kind of umbrella term for everything that would generally fall into science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction… whatever. But nowadays, we normally say ‘speculative fiction’ for that.

What interests me the most about science fantasy as a term is this blurring of the boundary, because it forces us to ask the question: what was the boundary in the first place? Everyone who’s ever written or spoken about this has their own version of how to place these two genres in relation to each other. The popular way among critics and writers generally is to position them as parallel but distinct ways of imagining a world, which is in some way other than what we presently understand the world to be. But the science fantasy approach is to say that science fiction and fantasy are actually the same imaginative act, separated mostly by how they think about science – what science means to them. Science fantasy is what happens when writers of fantastical literature are not committed to positivist scientism as an ideology, much less as a storytelling tool; but are very interested in the way that scientific and scientistic thinking permeate our culture and our imaginations.

The way we think about everything is very based in our civilizational paradigm of science. We use scientific thinking in all kinds of contexts, mostly non-scientific ones, to talk about how we think about the world; to think about it methodically or rigorously, based on empirical thinking. That kind of scientific thinking applies outside of pure science – which is, I think, what science fantasy is trying to say.

For me, what’s most interesting about science fantasy, especially in the books I’ve chosen, is that it likes to create these transpositions between the two genres that it bridges, as a way to demonstrate their ultimate non-duality. Like, for example, the far future and the far past: what if these were the same thing? You’re in a setting that seems like the far past to you, but it actually turns out to be the extreme far future, where technology is magic and magic is technology. What is the difference between a fantasy monster that’s scientifically explicable versus an alien that’s logically incomprehensible? At some level, they’re the same thing, right? This pits reality as objective and knowable and practical, something that you can grasp, against reality that’s shifting and unreliable and uneasy. Even when you invent other worlds, they are in some fundamental way the same as our world, rather than purely imaginary – worlds that are actually another way of looking at our own world.

I think these are the things that make science fantasy something in itself, something a little bit distinct from what we would normally consider fantasy or science fiction. For the books that I’ve picked, I intentionally ignored all the writers and books who were classically called science fantasy in the mid-20th century definition of the word – Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Vance and the Dying Earth novels, Gene Wolfe in the ’80s. To an old school fan, these are what science fantasy means, because these were the books that originally made these transpositions and connections between the genres. But I like to think that we have a whole bunch of 21st century books that are doing something very similar.

We’re starting to see the term used now. I’m seeing people talk about the Locked Tomb books, for example, as science fantasy. It’s interesting to me; I feel like this term is coming back because people are finding it useful to talk about books that are very current.

Your first choice is a debut: could you introduce us to The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell?

This came out in 2019, and it was a phenomenal debut – it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s set in Zambia. It’s organized as a set of multiple stories following different people, members of several families with intertwining stories, over three generations: the grandmothers, the mothers, and the daughters. That covers the recent history of Zambia from the late colonial period through independence, to the present day, and then the near future. So this is a story of stories, which is my favourite kind of story! It’s also the classic post-colonial novel format, the multigenerational family epic – many South Asian literary fiction novels have this same structure, following a family or a set of families across independence and into the upheavals of the post-colonial era.

What makes it science fantasy to me – and I don’t think that phrase was used to describe it at the time very much, but I’m applying it – is that this book commits very deeply to both the fantastical and science fictional devices in these different narratives. The very first viewpoint character is Sibylla, a girl who in later chapters becomes a mother and a grandmother. Her whole body is covered in long hair that grows so fast, she has to shave it off multiple times a day. And it’s magically prehensile – she can use it to defend herself and so forth. It’s kind of like an X-Men-mutant-power-magical-hair situation. Later on in the book, I think in the second generation, we meet someone else who can’t stop crying – literally, she cannot stop. For years, she cried endlessly, so much so that she becomes this cultic figure. She has followers who are also crying, but performatively crying, whereas she actually can’t stop. At the same time, there are these other threads – for example, we follow the 1960s Zambian space program, which is a real thing; and the search for an AIDS vaccine; and eventually as the narrative moves into the present day and the future, the development of drones, a swarm of tiny drones that eventually become the chorus of mosquitoes that narrates the story. So the machinic and magical aspects coexist, in much the same way that they do in real life – especially I feel in post-colonial nation states, but frankly for everyone. How much of our politics and our history and our social crises are driven by the collision of the mythic and the technocratic, right?

So this is why I picked Serpell’s book. It’s an absolutely magisterial work in whatever genre you want to place it. But I think science fantasy actually makes a lot of sense as a way to think about it, because you don’t have to reject either side of its world.

Do the sci-fi and fantasy elements inhabit different narratives, in this multi-narrative book?

Different and the same. Because the same people persist in later narratives as family members of the current protagonist. So it’s, “Oh yes, my grandmother was a magical hair lady, but I’m building drones” – or whatever. It’s the same ongoing story, and there’s no denial. People don’t necessarily take it seriously, the magical things that happened to their ancestors – but then, who does? But there’s no retroactive writing off of those things – those things actually did happen in this narrative, and they have no other explanation.

Could you tell us about your next choice: Gnomon by Nick Harkaway?

I think Gnomon is the oldest book I’m recommending today; it came out a couple of years before The Old Drift. And like The Old Drift, it’s also a story made out of stories, which again is my favourite thing in the world.

One of my favourite things about Gnomon is its structure: it starts off as a murder mystery set in a very-near-future England, ruled by an AI which runs a panopticon. A lot of social problems have been ‘solved’ – so this is a utopia, which is also actually a dystopia. But from the point of view of the character that we first meet, who is a cop, this is a utopia.

This woman is given the task of investigating a suspicious death. This death also takes a science fictional form, because one of the technologies that this society has is invasive mind reading – enabled through technology, not magic – used as a tool of interrogation. So a woman, a political dissident, was interrogated, and she died during the interrogation. Our first protagonist is given the job of investigating this death and finding out if it’s accidental, or if there’s something more to it.

Obviously, there’s something more to it – quite a lot more to it! Her first step in the investigation is taking those memories that were recovered from the dead woman during the interrogation and replaying them. She expects to find out about this woman’s life, but she doesn’t get any of the dead woman’s memories at all. She gets memories from entirely different people in different historical periods. For example, there’s the memories of a playboy financier in the mid-twenty-teens era, our recent past, who is a whiz at stock market manipulation because he had a near-death experience with a shark, and now gets stock tips through hallucinations. That’s one sub-story that gets unearthed! Then she keeps digging deeper, and other people show up in the memories. One is an Ethiopian painter who has now moved to London, and whose daughter is writing a video game; and the setting of this video game is the world that we were originally in, the one with the cop and the AI! So now, which of these stories is the real one, and which one is telling the other? And then a third set of memories surfaces, and this one takes a huge leap backwards into time: we encounter the memories of an alchemist way back in the day of St. Augustine of Hippo. She’s actually St. Augustine’s ex, from before he was a saint; and she is also being called on to investigate a murder – in a magical chamber, which legend has it is outside of time somehow. She has to investigate using her alchemical toolkit. Eventually, she has to journey into the underworld to bring back her dead son, the son that she had with Augustine – which is the reason that they are estranged. So this is a straight up magical story – underworld and all.

So the story diverges into multiple stories, and each story feels like it’s in a different genre. And then it braids itself back together, to show how and why all these stories are in this woman’s head, and what she was trying to accomplish in this interrogation: how she was trying to survive it, and how she was eventually killed. It’s a beautifully designed, very architectural story. You go deeper and deeper into memory and to history, and then you come back out, having been transformed. The overall narrative structure is a magical journey into the underworld in itself.

It’s very absorbing. Like The Old Drift, it’s also a big doorstopper of a book. I think in both cases some readers struggled with that – the sheer density of the material. But if you’re into stories inside stories, and meta stories that play with the whole concept of narrative, then these books are both very much masterclass endeavours in that kind of storytelling.

It’s interesting that again, we’re going back into the past for fantasy elements…

Yes, and I think one of the many juxtapositions that exist between fantasy and science fiction as classically envisioned is that one is future-facing and one is past-facing, right? Tolkien fantasy has a pastoral romanticism – this is not all fantasy obviously, just one of the most popular varieties. I think that’s why that impression exists, that science fiction is forward-looking and fantasy is backward-looking. I don’t think that’s actually true, but it’s definitely something that both of these books are playing with.

It’s funny because, for example, the alchemist’s murder investigation is very scientific. She’s using scientific methods in her own alchemical framework. I think that’s a common thread in a lot of these books as well: you can apply scientific thinking in contexts that would not, in our world, be called scientific.

Your next choice avoids this past-future dichotomy, and brings its sci fi and fantasy elements together in a single futuristic mash-up. Tell us a little about Tamsyn Muir’s Harrow the Ninth – it’s the second in the Locked Tomb series which, as you mentioned, is somewhat synonymous with science fantasy right now…

The second, yes, in what’s going to be a quartet – the final book is not yet published, we’re all waiting on it! I picked the second book, because this one is my favourite so far.

It’s a far-future story in a full grand space opera style. There’s an empire of multiple planets, there are mysterious space beasts… But also, everything about the civilization is fundamentally rooted in necromancy as the core mechanism of power – both magical and political power. The first book tells the story of how the two main characters are called upon by the god-emperor to research and carry out this magical process of empowerment and ascension, because he wants them to help in his own higher purposes. They succeed, sort of –  very ‘sort of’. Harrow the Ninth is about the ramifications of ‘sort of’ – what does ‘sort of’ mean exactly.

The necromantic research in both books is presented in very scientific terms. There are learnable techniques and replicable methods; there are laboratories and technologies; there’s engineering, there’s schools of thought. Tamsyn Muir does something very clever in the way that she leads you to greater and greater levels of complexity as the series progresses. When it starts off, in Gideon the Ninth, it seems very quippy and swashbucklingly straightforward – as the now-famous tagline has it, “lesbian necromancers in space”. But it seemed more straightforward than it eventually turned out to be. It rapidly becomes evident that there’s a lot more going on. And in Harrow the Ninth, we’re doing some very beautifully complicated things.

One of the main narrative threads of Harrow the Ninth is re-telling the entire story of Gideon the Ninth, the first book; except that it rapidly diverges, quite dramatically, from the actual events of the first book. The main difference is that Gideon, the main character of the first book, has been completely excised from the narrative. Harrow doesn’t remember that there was ever such a person. So we’re getting that same story again, and now we are tracking the differences and trying to figure out what the differences mean. At the same time, Harrow is struggling to deal with her semi-botched ascension as the newest and most junior hench person of the tyrannical god-emperor in the war against the space beasts, who turn out to be the collective ghosts of dead worlds – the very worlds that were once killed and resurrected by necromantic powers to form the empire. So this is an empire that’s literally haunted by its war crimes.

We follow Harrow as she discovers exactly how her god is flawed, and there’s so much history that has been hidden. In that sense this is actually similar to The Old Drift and Gnomon, because in both, to understand the story of the later generation you also have to understand the backstory of the previous generations. Those generations are widely separated in time in the Locked Tomb books, but they’re also not, because these people are immortal – so they’re kind of the same people that they were when they were annoying millennials, before the earth died. Now they’re all-powerful immortals, but they’re still the same people. They talk the same way. And their relationships with their offspring and their successors are very relatable.

It’s a wonderfully addictive series, and I recommend everyone catch up with it before the fourth book comes out. I actually share an editor with Tamsyn Muir, and I keep trying to get him to tell me when the fourth book is coming out so that I can time my re-read… But he won’t tell.

The series plays with minds, separate to bodies – both living on as space beasts, and transferring between bodies. Gnomon has the same themes. This seems like prime science fantasy territory, because consciousness is disputed territory – scientific understanding is so partial. You play with the same topic similar in your own book, Rakesfall…?

Yes, so Rakesfall is a very different approach to the concept… Not to get all theological, but reincarnation is a major theme of – well, of many religions and belief systems, but in my case the religion that I’m setting myself against is Buddhism. It’s the culture I grew up in. So Rakesfall is about people being reincarnated, but it’s also a critique of the whole concept of reincarnation – of what it actually means to have other people who are ‘you’ in the future or in the past. Does that mean that something of yourself was transmitted? Is a soul moving, or is it more like an echo? Is it more that we can have a kind of solidarity across deep time with people who share so much of their personality, of their values, with us, that they are in a way a version of us?

So that’s how Rakesfall approaches it, following these – well, two people or one person, depending on how you look at it! Again, much like the Locked Tomb. What interests me is the idea of stretching these histories and political projects of liberation across vast stretches of time – because we have a culture focused on immediacy. It’s the outgrowth of this neoliberal atomized culture, that we’re all very focused on the moment. Which is why even dealing with climate change is so hard: no one thinks beyond the electoral cycle. So deep time is one of the things about both fantasy and science fiction that’s always been very interesting to me – the idea that you can think in these vast stretches of time.

For Rakesfall, I wanted to go all the way from the mythic past to basically the point at which the sun swallows the earth. So it’s a very large span of time! It’s following – rather than two people, maybe I might say two perspectives, which are sometimes even embodied within the same person. They go through different personhoods, different bodies, different ways of relating to each other. And I want to get across this idea that self and personhood are very porous, that we shouldn’t draw these very strict lines between the one and the other, the inside and the outside, because we’re all a lot more similar than we think we are. And that holds both among all of us alive today, and across time. That commonality is one of the things that you can cling to, I think, in the face of inhumanly vast time scales.

Could you introduce your fourth choice: Exordia by Seth Dickinson?

At one level, this is a very fast-paced science fictional thriller about an alien invasion of Earth. But also at another level, it’s a very deeply philosophical story about the nature of sin. The primary viewpoint characters are all sinners. I don’t mean sinners in the, “Oh, we’re all sinners” way – I mean, these people are murderers and enablers of murderers, each terribly burdened by guilt in their own way. This is partly what draws them together, the shared sense of sin and guilt. And it’s also what leads to them being used as pawns by the imperial alien invaders, and the alien resistance. There are aliens on both sides of this – an alien empire and an alien resistance – and one representative of each side has come to earth, and each has picked its pawns among humans.

This is very much a book about empire in general – it’s about hegemonic imperial adventurism, both American and alien, because a lot of the viewpoint characters are enmeshed in the American military-industrial complex or the government end of it. So their guilts and crimes are contrasted against this much bigger and much more dangerous alien empire. This is of course a classic science fictional trope, the persecution flip: what if an earth empire had to deal with a much more powerful alien empire that treated it like it treats, you know… everyone.

So that part is there, but that’s not the main thrust of this story. What makes it science fantasy in particular is that it turns out that the aliens, with their superior technology and their much higher-order science, reveal to the humans that sin and souls are real, and consequential. Not only sin and souls, but heaven and hell and damnation too, are actual real things that you have to deal with. That narrative itself can be weaponized and is one of the fundamental forces of the universe, that there are seven great passions, which have literal physical and political meaning. The seven great passions are each a way that sentient beings can relate to others. Each one is basically a different kind of doomed love.

The alien empire retains its power over all its subject colonies by asserting narrative control over the souls of the people it’s conquered: they call it ‘pinioning’ the souls of the conquered people. This means that narratively, any uprising is doomed to lose: that’s what it means to be pinioned. The humans haven’t been pinioned yet because we are the backwater, and this is the first encounter we’ve had with the empire.

Theology, physics, narrative form, and interpersonal drama are all united into this single framework, which is how this book works, and its fascinating to me. It’s also hilarious – almost laugh-out-loud funny, despite how violent it is. It is very violent. I’ve never seen so many nuclear bombs go off in a single story before. But this is also a book where you can’t make the spaceship go without the power of a deeply tortured love-hate relationship. So there are levels at which factors like emotions and souls, and also like things like damnation – literally you die and you go to hell where you’re tortured, that kind of damnation – these factors play into this techno-thriller war-with-the-aliens scenario.

My favourite character is this Chinese scientist called Li, a woman whose dedication to the objective truths of pure mathematics is the only thing that keeps her alive. It makes her very strange, but it keeps her alive. She’s continually beset by these other characters who are having very Hollywood moments at her while she’s trying to do her research; and she’s like, “Please, I’m working.” And people are saying, “We’re in crisis, there’s a war, aliens are dropping bombs on us…” At one point, they have less than three hours until human extinction, and they need a breakthrough now. And she’s like, “I don’t care, I’m working on theory”. I just had to stop and laugh! And it turns out that she’s right –  she did in fact need to work on theory at that particular point. Mathematics in this world is the platonic realm of higher reality – our world is an expression of mathematics. So ironically, the mathematician who is working on theory gets to the important realizations faster than the realpolitik-obsessed bureaucrats and soldiers.

The Locked Tomb books are funny as well – I suppose there’s already something irreverent and playful about smashing genres together in this way.

Yes, it’s a very funny approach to take to things, in general. Something about genre collisions naturally lends itself to humour. Unusual juxtapositions are a big part of jokes anyway – and these stories are full of that kind of thing. There’s a fighter pilot who eventually gets to pilot the alien spaceship, and his entire worldview is structured around the movie Top Gun. He essentially gets the aliens to build him the Top Gun cockpit because that’s one he knows. And that’s just really funny – and it’s also a pop culture reference, like the memes in the Locked Tomb books. It’s a way to lighten the whole death and destruction and murder and damnation angle of it all with humour.

Though I have to say, Gnomon and The Old Drift were not particularly funny…

Maybe it’s easier to be funny if you’re in a sci -fi aesthetic, than if you’ve taken a mythic tone with gravitas…

Yes! Tolkien finds it harder to be funny than – well…



Your last choice is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Tell us about it!

Piranesi is Susanna Clarke’s very-long-awaited second novel following, obviously, the wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. This is by far the tightest and most contained narrative of all the books I’m talking about today. It’s the smallest book in terms of page count, a tiny little book, but it’s also the largest in terms of its imaginative space.

We open with the character Piranesi – rather, a character who has been given the name Piranesi – in this other-worldly space that he calls the House. The House is his whole world, and it’s rapidly obvious that it is some kind of higher order symbolic world, the platonic world of higher forms, which appears as a giant, damaged and deserted house, of apparently infinite size. It has endless halls and rooms lined with statues that seem to have deep symbolic meaning. The upper level of the House has clouds and birds; the lower levels have an ocean, and there are dangerous tides.

Piranesi is the only living inhabitant of the House. There are bones and remains that indicate previous inhabitants, now dead. His only human contact is with a man he calls the Other. The Other shows up and visits the House at intervals from somewhere else. And Piranesi doesn’t remember anything other than the House, so at first we don’t know who he is, or where he came from. As far as he’s concerned, he’s always been there.

The reason I call this science fantasy is because scientific research and method are the entire heart of the book in many ways. Piranesi and the Other represent the two great warring aspects of science. Piranesi’s science is the science of wonder and discovery: he studies the House because its mysteries delight him. He’s a relentless, methodical observer. He keeps these journals documenting everything he sees and experiences; he names things; he maps things; he speculates about their nature. In the process, he learns how to live in this place, how to find food, how to survive the tides when they come in, and how to care for the dead that he finds in the various places in the House. So he builds himself a ritual structure in which he’s the caretaker of the people who are no longer alive, but also an explorer of the House’s expanse. Whereas the Other, the visitor, has the exact other kind of science: the science of exploitation and extraction. His every visit is about exploration as well, but exploration of the colonizer sort. He’s looking for something – he calls it the ‘great and secret knowledge’. He wants the secrets of the House, and he would tear it apart to get at those secrets if he could. He doesn’t understand that the House itself is the great and secret knowledge, which is obvious to Piranesi, and also to the reader.

I think the great and secret knowledge of the House – which Piranesi understands instinctively – is basically that there is a meaning to what we are and how we live and how we treat other people. And the House, like mathematics in Exordia, is at a higher symbolic level. When Piranesi recovers his real name and identity and history and goes out into the regular world, our world, he starts to see parallel faces that he recognizes from the statues in the House, faces on actual people walking around – people who are the expressions in ‘the real’ of the symbolic principles that he knew in the House. So the world and the House mirror each other, in exactly the same way as an equation and a fractal, where the one generates the other – the one derives from the other and expresses the other.

It’s such a bamboozling book: you’re in a fantastical secondary world, but it turns out to have this intense scientific explanation, and the plot structure is a mystery. But the aesthetic is… none of the above!

Basically – or all of the above! I would argue it’s not even a secondary world – it’s not a portal fantasy, even though it has all the trimmings of a portal fantasy. It’s more of a re-telling of the relationship between Piranesi and the Other that happened in the real world: the conflict and the exploitation happen again in the House, but at a much grander mythic scale, and through this reenactment of myth he finds himself again. So the two worlds are too similar to be a separate secondary world.

All of these books are playing with what can be known and how we can know it – but perhaps Piranesi addressed that head on, more than any of the others.

Yes, it cuts straight through: here, let’s have this out in black and white. Here is the House. You will see this in your dreams, this House. And when you see it in your dreams, you will know it; because it is in some sense, absolute. We are reflections of it, rather than the other way around. The ability of imaginative literature to reach for such a thing and reflect it back at us is, I think, the single greatest thing about all speculative fiction.

Interview by Sylvia Bishop

March 23, 2024

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Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka and is online at His debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors won the Crawford Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2023. His short fiction, anthologized in The Apex Book of World SF, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year among others, has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His second novel Rakesfall is out in 2024.

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka and is online at His debut novel The Saint of Bright Doors won the Crawford Award and was a New York Times Notable Book of 2023. His short fiction, anthologized in The Apex Book of World SF, The Gollancz Book of South Asian Science Fiction, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year among others, has been nominated for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His second novel Rakesfall is out in 2024.