With Vikings vs. aliens movie Outlander rocking our gauntlets in theaters, it's time to take stock of the long and glorious history of science fiction set in the Middle Ages. We've got a list, gentlefolk.
Before you go nuts telling me what I left out, let me explain a few of the ground rules for this list. I counted something as Medieval science fiction IF AND ONLY IF:
1. It involved the Middle Ages on Earth, not an alien planet of "Medieval People."
2. The Middle Ages are affected by something science fictional, including aliens and time travelers. I preferred stories where the time travelers brought back some tech with them, or helped their Medieval buddies build futuristic tech.
And now, let us begin our list, which is in no particular order.
A Michael Crichton novel about a group of archeology nerds who travel back in time to 14th Century France, this tale was later made into a silly but nevertheless relatively fun movie. After being transported back in time with a scary military dude, our historian heroes find themselves fighting alongside a Joan of Arc-esque character called Lady Claire and help her hold off the enemy by building futuristic explosive devices.
Army of Darkness
While Timeline tries (a little bit) to be historically accurate, Army of Darkness is pleasingly ridiculous. The third movie in Sam Raimi's celebrated "Evil Dead" series, in this movie our badass, chainsaw-armed hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) time travels back to a Middle Ages ala Ray Harryhausen - complete with claymation skeletons. Not only does Ash kick major ass with his twentieth-century chainsaw, but he arrives in the past in a car. Plus he wins the princess' heart!
A group of ex-angels have stolen a map from Heaven that shows all the temporal flaws on Earth, and they use it to jump from time to time, stealing loot as they go. One of the stops they make is in the Middle Ages.
The Merchant Princes Series, by Charles Stross
This excellent and weird series of novels barely squeaks into this list because it's about people who leap between contemporary Earth and a parallel Earth whose socio-scientific development is late Medieval. Since the alternate world is technically Earth, and the series kicks ass, we'll let it in. Essentially, it's about a bunch of slipstreaming mobsters who smuggle illegal goods across the US by transporting it through the Medieval world. Gradually, as technologies start leaking between the worlds, the two timelines become intertwined.
The Time Warrior (Doctor Who story)
A Sontaran spaceship crashes on Earth during the Middle Ages, and its pilot promises to aid a group of brigands with magical (i.e., high tech) weapons. Aided by the warlike Sontaran, a bad guy named Irongate begins conquest of the region. Can the Doctor stop this temporal travesty before things get out of hand?
7 Soldiers of Victory, by Grant Morrison
In this tour-de-force reboot of the DC team "seven soldiers," Morrison writes seven interconnected stories, one of which deals with an Arthurian knight named Ystin (AKA Shining Knight) who comes forward in time to contemporary New York City via a high-tech vortex thing. Ystin fights to prevent the evil queen of the Sheeda from destroying Earth. Her contemporary knight outfit blends perfectly in a city where costumed superheroes are everywhere, and though the Sheeda resemble blue-skinned faeries they are in fact a race of future humans who are trying to manipulate the timeline in order to survive.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, by Mark Twain
This is the classic medieval scifi tale, written by Mark "Huck Finn" Twain during the late nineteenth century. Weirdness ensues after a modern (nineteenth century) man named Hank finds himself transported back to the legendary Middle Ages of King Arthur. Mostly Hank hoodwinks the superstitious knights and wizards into thinking that he has amazing powers. Though this is mostly Twain's sly sendup of religious buffoonery, it's become a classic of the time travel genre that inspired many other stories.
In some ways, Black Knight is a direct progeny of Connecticut Yankee. Martin Lawrence plays an Average Joe who works at a Medieval Times-style restaurant. After an injury, he awakens in the real Middle Ages, where he has to learn to be a knight and a gentleman to win the princess and fight the bad guys.
Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Like the historians in Timeline, time travelers Bill and Ted go to Medieval France - but they meet up with the real Joan of Arc.
Lest Darkness Fall, by L. Sprague de Camp
In this classic alternate history novel from the late 1930s, a modern guy named Martin Padway is sucked into the Dark Ages. At first he thinks it's a dream, but eventually he decides to survive by "inventing" brandy, newspapers, double-entry bookkeeping, and many other modern innovations. As a result he manages to prevent the "darkness" of the Middle Ages and create an alternate timeline.
In this surreal, intense late-1980s film from New Zealand, a village of peasants who fear the Black Death dig a tunnel that they believe will take them to a distant city - and wind up in twentieth century New Zealand. We never know for sure whether this journey is literal or metaphorical, and that's part of the emotional power of the film.
Star Knight [or El Caballero del Dragon]
An alien comes to a Medieval Spanish village, and is perceived as a dragon. With Harvey Keitel and Klaus Kinski, this movie is also about a smackdown between the local priest and an alchemist, and has a groan-worthy subplot about a shy knight who wants to get laid.
The High Crusade, by Poul Anderson
A group of belligerent aliens land their spacecraft in 14th Century England, where they attempt to take over the planet. Unfortunately the locals think the ship is a French trick, and murder all the aliens - who have, despite their advanced technology, forgotten about hand-to-hand combat. Eventually the nobleman takes over the ship, leads a space crusade, and turns the galaxy Catholic.
Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn
According to Publishers Weekly:
Most of the narrative focuses on the consequences of the discovery in the 14th century by Eifelheim's pastor, Father Dietrich, of a crashed space ship carrying the "Krenken," horrific grasshopperlike aliens. Despite Inquisitorial threats, Dietrich befriends, baptizes and attempts to help the aliens return home. Flynn (The Wreck of the River of Stars) masterfully achieves an intricate panorama of medieval life, full of fascinatingly realized human and Krenken characters whose fates interconnect with poignant irony. Through human frailties, the very Christianity by which Dietrich hopes to save Krenken souls dooms them all.
Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
In this classic plague time travel tale, a Medievalist from a pandemic-wracked twenty-first century takes a time machine back to the Middle Ages, where an accident forces her to stay far longer than she'd planned. She completely integrates herself into the life of the village, which is rapidly being destroyed by plague. Emotionally intense, this novel is as memorable for its characters and historical details as it is for its notions of how time travel might work in a future where historians can study their eras of interest first-hand.
An 11th Century knight and his servant find themselves in present-day France, and extreme wackiness ensues. A popular comedy in France, the film's director and star later remade it in America under the title Just Visiting - with the welcome addition of Christina Applegate.
The Trolley to Yesterday by John Bellairs
A young adult novel in the Johnny Dixon series, Publisher's Weekly describes it thus:
Johnny, Fergie and Professor Childermass leave their native New England far behind when they ride an old trolley back in time to 15th-century Constantinople. The Professor dreams of saving the ancient city's citizens from slaughter at the hands of the Turks. Johnny and Fergie are more concerned with simply keeping their crotchety old friend out of trouble.
Additional reporting by Alyssa Johnson!