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Hard fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy literature that strives to present stories set in (and often centered on) a rational and knowable world. Hard fantasy is similar to hard science fiction, from which it draws its name, in that both aim to build their respective worlds in a rigorous and logical manner. The two diverge in that hard science fiction uses real scientific principles as its starting point, while hard fantasy postulates starting conditions that do not, and often cannot, exist according to current scientific understanding.
Unlike that of its sister genre, the definition of hard fantasy is amorphous in practice. Some instances of the genre feature alternative geography and cultures without the presence of magic, dragons, and elves stereotypically found in many other fantasy settings. Other hard-fantasy settings may feature those elements but with a more detailed explanation for their existence.
The hard aspect of hard fantasy can refer to different elements. It can refer to a consistent history and folk lore, as we see from Lord of the Rings, well-defined magic systems as seen in Mistborn or The Name of the Wind, and is sometimes even applied to A Song of Ice and Fire for its political system, though the latter only defines limits of magic the main characters learn.
Hard Magic and Sanderson's Laws
One of the aspects of Hard Fantasy, is Hard Magic, and one of the most prolific authors of hard magic systems is Brandon Sanderson. He teaches a creative writing course at Brigham Young University, and has formulated a set of laws for story telling and world building with hard magic. These are not necessarily rules for all genres, but they serve to define the hard magic part of hard fantasy quite well.
The First Law states, "An author's ability to solve conflict satisfactorily with magic is directly proportional to how well the reader understands said magic." While originally created as a rule for magic systems in fantasy novels, Sanderson has specified that this law need not apply just to fantasy, but is also applicable to science fiction.
He qualifies the two extremes[note 1] of design as being: (1) Hard Magic - magic/technology has well defined rules that the audience understands, and as a result, one can use this to solve conflict more easily as the capabilities are cleanly defined; and (2) Soft Magic - magic/technology has unclear or vague rules, or none at all, which allows for a greater sense of wonder to be attained for the reader, but the ability to solve problems without resorting to deus ex machina decreases.
The Second Law simply states "Limitations > Powers". That is, a character's weaknesses are more interesting than his or her abilities. In explaining the second law, Sanderson references the magic system of Superman, claiming that Superman's powers are not what make him interesting, but his limits, specifically his vulnerability to kryptonite and the code of ethics he received from his parents.
Sanderson's Third Law teaches, "Expand what you already have before you add something new." This implies that the writer should go deeper with worldbuilding before going wider. Magic, Sanderson points out, does not take place in a vacuum, and a good magic system should be interconnected with the world around it—it is related to the ecology, religion, economics, warfare, and politics of the world it inhabits.
- The Incomplete Enchanter (1941) by Fletcher Pratt, L. Sprague de Camp. This is generally considered the prototype of the genre.
- Magic, Inc. (1941) by Robert A. Heinlein
- Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) by Poul Anderson
- The Magic Goes Away (1976) by Larry Niven
- Master of the Five Magics (1980) by Lyndon Hardy
- The Unconquered Country (1986) by Geoff Ryman
- Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn (1988-1993) by Tad Williams 
- Dragon Cauldron (1991) by Laurence Yep
- The Saga of Recluce (1991–present) by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
- The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) by Michael Swanwick
- Metropolitan (1995) by Walter Jon Williams
- Mistborn (2006-2008) by Brandon Sanderson
- Kingkiller Chronicles (2007–) by Patrick Rothfuss
- The Stormlight Archive (2010–) by Brandon Sanderson
- Rivers of London (2011) by Ben Aaronovitch
- Dragon's Trail (2016) by Joseph Malik
- In the essay, Sanderson clarifies, "Most writers are somewhere in the middle between these two extremes."
- Lindskold, Jane (January 6, 2009). "Hard Fantasy". tor.com. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
- Brennan, Marie. "Hard Fantasy". swantower.com. Retrieved 2012-04-24.
- "Hard Fantasy". bestfantasybooks.com. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
- Sanderson, Brandon. "Sanderson's First Law". Retrieved February 10, 2011.
- Wilson, C.L. "Worldbuilding 101 - Making Magic". Retrieved April 29, 2016.
- Sanderson, Brandon. "Sanderson's Second Law". Retrieved January 17, 2012.
- Sanderson, Brandon; Howard Tayler, Dan Wells (May 18, 2008). "Writing Excuses Episode 15: Costs and Ramifications of Magic". www.writingexcuses.com (Podcast). Retrieved February 10, 2011.
- Sanderson, Brandon (September 25, 2013). "Sanderson's Third Law of Magic". Dragonsteel Entertainment. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
- Sanderson, Brandon. "2013 Brandon Sanderson - Lecture 3: Limitations Are More Interesting (7/7)". Retrieved August 3, 2013.
- Dozois, Gardner, Modern Classics of Fantasy, page xix. St. Martin's Press, 1997.
- http://www.tadwilliams.com/2016/09/not-too-much-longer-now/. Missing or empty
- "Annotation Mistborn Chapter Thirteen".
- Hard fantasy, sfnovelists.com, 2008