Genres Collide: Clashing Realities Don’t Play Fair

Roles of Science and Magic in The New Weird

Navigating the Bleeding Edge: Understanding which facets of science and superstition interface within the New Weird, and what that means for the story.

A few articles ago, when we first started charting the Amorphous Sea that is the New Weird, I commented that my introduction to the term came when someone told me my books were New Weird by introducing me as a New Weird author. I’ve since realized one of the biggest reasons that first speaker introduced me as a New Weird author was because of the way my books treat science, magic, and the interrelation between the two.

That particular interface is one of the key facets to the New Weird genre, so whether you are trying to figure out whether you’d like New Weird stories or not, sorting out which parts of your eBook library ought to have a New Weird tag, attempting to label your book recommendation tweet with #NewWeird, or learning how to write a New Weird story fans of the genre will enjoy reading, you’ll need to understand which facets of science and superstition interface within the New Weird, how they interact, and what that means for story.

Obviously, just because a story or a fictional world has aspects of both magic and technology, doesn’t mean that it’s following the New Weird “formula.” Many works of fiction have the two concepts existing side-by-side, though drawing clear distinctions as to which is which. It’s also not uncommon as a trope in entertainment to see a story of magic and technology fighting each other to become the supreme methodology for humanity (though some might argue it’s uncommon to see that done well).

Is it Science, or Magic? Clarke’s Third Law notwithstanding, the entities are not always mutually exclusive.

First, it should be clearly stated that not every New Weird story is marked strongly by the presence of science fiction or fantasy tropes. Some, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and American Gods [ 1 ] [ 2 ], for example, both inhabit realms of fantasy, with the science fiction in the latter being an openly acknowledged artificial construct, a specific skin deliberately wrapped around portions of the fantastic universe by beings within that universe. My own Blank, at the other end of the spectrum, has a great deal of science fiction, but includes such fantasy staples as telepathy and reincarnation, both with completely “scientific,” in-world explanations. No one would call American Gods science fiction, nor would they call Blank fantasy, but both could fall into the New Weird, in part due to the nature of the in-story reality which causes that slight bit of otherness to show up.

The Questions of Existence

The reason for that frequently uneven duality in New Weird fiction comes back to what we spoke of as the core of the genre, whether it’s hidden deep under the surface or a shining beacon on a hill in any work: existential dilemmas which often engender horror. It’s integral to insinuate a specific thought into the reader’s mind if you want to successfully create such existential thought; you must bring the reader to question if that bit of muscle and mind, that ghost driving a skeleton covered in meat that they think of as themselves, is not what they think it is after all. This is not a new idea by any means; the concept of existential questioning shows up in many genres and sub genres. In some, like literary fiction or other “non-speculative” work, it is an occasional foray, or the subject of a single work, like Stranger Than Fiction with Will Ferrell [ 3 ], or any of the many, many works which ask variations on the question “what do you look like through someone else’s eyes.” In weird fiction and its most glaring spiritual ancestor, Lovecraft’s Mythos, the question is a major part of the landscape of the genre. Every single work addresses it in some way in another, either obliquely or directly.

This brings us back to the nature of worlds and settings in the New Weird genre. When writing a work that intends to question the nature of existence, whether it is the existence of the self or the existence of reality, there are a few things that are practical requirements. First, the reality must be one which, on the surface, appears to be fundamentally consistent with some aspect of the reader’s existence. This could mean a fundamentally mundane modern world, as is seen in American Gods before the veil is ripped away, or it could be a fictional world with apparently similar physical laws and major touchstones of commonality, like Blank’s far future school or Castle Perilous’ medieval castle [ 4 ]. In other cases, it could even be a world with only tiny touchstones in common with our own, but touchstones which allow the reader entry and a belief they understand how the world works.

The Magitek armor/mecha of Final Fantasy or the Elemental Airships of D&D (amongst others) all blur the line between the two power-sources.

An excellent example of this would be Sandman, as it connects our mundane reality to the realms of the Endless via the conduit of dreams. This connection to mundane reality is an important one; it allows a reader to believe, however tentatively, that the events in the story are happening around a corner, or yesterday, or tomorrow, or somewhere within their own subconscious, but they are, or at least could be, happening. It’s the same feeling you get from watching an X-Files episode where Mulder and Scully discover aliens, Bigfoot, or some other cryptid or mystery, only to have the evidence of that discovery disappear by the end of the episode. Our heroes—and by extension, anyone who’s enjoying the media through watching or reading it—know the truth, but the rest of the world has no idea of what’s going on below the surface.

Elemental Addition

With that connection established, the author begins the next step of the process: adding some element of the other to the setting. In American Gods, the main character begins seeing gods and other supernatural entities existing in the world around him, a world that only recently consisted of nothing but the walls of his prison cell. In Castle Perilous, the hero meets non-human characters—something that should not be possible in the reality they originate from—and is then exposed to magic, an even more unavoidable piece of evidence that the universe is not what they thought it was [ 5 ]. In Blank, the heroine experiences memories she never lived through, something that, again, should not be possible but happens anyway. Major or minor, fantasy or super-science, these elements are then used to lead the reader, who has accepted the setting and protagonist as a real place and a real person, into accepting changes to the reality in which the characters exist.

This is where the seed of existential questioning is planted. In some works, that seed is nurtured and forced to grow like a hothouse flower, compelling the reader to stare at its comfort-erasing blooms and take in its status-quo destroying scent. The corpse flower might smell like death, for instance, but it sure does get your attention, doesn’t it? In other instances, the seed is cast on the wind and settles in a seemingly hostile environment, to make its way or not depending entirely on the fertility of the reader’s own imagination. A gentle rain of tiny thought-provoking irregularities scattered throughout the story, plus the luck of settling in the cracks and crevices of a reader’s imagination, can lead to that seed growing in the most unlikely of places.

By carefully adding foreign elements into a setting where the familiar elements have been described in such detail the reader has accepted them as real, those foreign elements are accepted as just as real as the familiar ones. Suddenly, a troll in the living room makes as much sense as a toaster on the kitchen counter. A harpy driving a school bus is as real as a high school student sitting down in homeroom. Turning the next corner is just as likely to reveal terrifying aliens playing three-card monte as your typical teen angst.

Seen some movies based around the fantastic that feel more “human” lately? The visuals might be unusual, but the concepts are familiar. Most fantastic places will be given an equivalent to a cup of joe in the morning, or a parallel to the irritation found in midday traffic. But let’s not forget that the person on the screen—in order to be relatable—will likely do something that reminds viewers of what they do on a daily basis; even if that something winds up being not being sure how to cook an obscure recipe or walk their pet (be it a dog, a dragon, or a Martian cactus).

The Brute-Force Approach

Not everyone likes to use subtlety. For those authors and works which do more than lay a seed and hope, there are many ways to nurture the growth of existential dread. There are so-called “brute force” approaches that can be just as effective in triggering existential questioning, especially when employed consistently. In some cases, a narrative can undergo a steady, ongoing shift away from reality until the entire setting is a sane, understandable structure made entirely of insane, ineffable parts. This inexorable shift from a logical world to an illogical one that yet works under its own specific logic forces the reader to question what is real and what is not when they put the book down and are confronted with everyday objects which suddenly appear alien. This works especially well when the characters in these narratives that are experiencing the shift do not react to the shift at all, rather treating each new oddity as completely normal. Other books take a different, more immediate tack, with characters reacting to the fragile edges of reality they experience. This, in turn, forces the reader to stop and evaluate his own reality to be sure it has not shifted as well without their notice.

Of course, in some cases that aspect is another layer of unreliable reality since the point of view may be that of an unreliable narrator. A person lacking in the ability to discern the true nature of reality, be it mundane or esoteric, complicates the narrative even more, as it leaves the reader questioning not just the subjective reality of the story being told to them but the objective reality that exists outside of the narrator’s possibly skewed or filtered perceptions. That, however, is an entirely different tool, one we will get into later.

The familiar is (or at least, can be) the anchor. When everything around you is going to hell, or at least into the unknowable, you want a point of stability. That’s your frame of reference, your source of comfort, and your final line of sanity. You both guard it and take it for granted, thankful for that newspaper, those neighborhood kids, or that funny plaque you’ve never been able to read completely. If that’s finally taken away from the protagonist in a story about the change from the mundane to the surreal, they must decide whether to sink or swim; to accept the new reality or fight for what they once knew. But if it never goes away? Do they rebuild their life around it or simply adapt?

The world is change: many of older generations are more than familiar with the existential horror we just laid out for a protagonist. Sometimes that means acknowledging concepts that weren’t in the mainstream decades ago, and sometimes that just means accepting that you need a smartphone and your city’s political leanings have shifted. 

For now, enjoy reality as you know it, before delving too deeply into the New Weird takes your faith in its certainty away forever, and I’ll see you next time as we Navigate the Bleeding Edge.


  1. “Is it Science, or Magic? Clarke’s Third Law notwithstanding, the entities are not always mutually exclusive.” Source:
  2. “The Magitek armor/mecha of Final Fantasy or the Elemental Airships of D&D (amongst others) all blur the line between the two power-sources.” Source: Eberron Campaign Setting (D&D 3.5) Baker, Keith, et al. Eberron Campaign Setting. Groot-Bijgaarden, 2004.

Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach.  Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”


  1. Polo, Susana. “American Gods, Explained.” Polygon, Vox Media, 17 Apr. 2017,
  2. Clough, Rob. “DC’s Sandman explained.” Looper, Static Media, 6 Aug 2020. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
  3. Stranger Than Fiction. Directed by Marc Forster; written by Zach Helm; performances by Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Linda Hunt. Columbia Pictures, 2006.
  4. Todd, Mel. “Castle Perilous.” Bad Ash Publishing, Bad Ash Publishing, 13 May 2019,
  5. “Literature / Castle Perilous.” TVTropes, TVTropes Team, 16 Jun 2020.  Accessed 3 Nov 2020.