Science Fiction — A Discussion of Defintion

It has frequently been brought to my attention in the past few months or so that our society at large is disturbingly unclear on what constitutes the genre of science fiction. For serious, people, this has got to stop. There is no single way of saying it that highlights all of the aspects of the genre, but one thing I am certainly tired of is people assuming something is science fiction just because it involves spaceships or laser guns. A look over Wikipedia’s article will tell you sci-fi is “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” That’s a pretty good starting place regarding setting, but it’s also extremely vague, and it doesn’t really touch on what kind of themes we should be looking for, either.I would complicate the above quote by adding the following: “Science fiction seeks to discuss the portent for humanity of these possible future events, including but not limited to the consideration of ethics, morality, longevity/survivability of the species/our native planet, and the implications thereof for modern humanity. The genre frequently chooses to remain morally ambivalent about said considerations; on the other hand, it also frequently uses the depiction of possible futures to warn or admonish the audiences of today.”

In order to demonstrate the definition that I’ve laid out thus far, I think a comparison of two well-known and well-loved films is called for. One is a near-perfect example of science fiction at its best, and the other (while a great film in its own right) is often mistakenly judged as part of this genre.

In my experience, The Terminator (1984) is regarded either very well or very poorly (in the same categories respectively, you generally find people who have seen it and people who haven’t). Judgments of quality notwithstanding (I happen to love this movie), it is a prime example of many different plot devices and themes often employed by the genre — namely, time travel, artificial intelligence, nuclear holocaust, and the human ambitions that bring these situations about. The film elicits sympathy for Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese as they suffer the results of actions entirely beyond their control.

Two aspects of this movie in particular strike me as exhibiting the qualities of science fiction: it spends considerable time and effort on Sarah and Kyle’s psychological reactions to their situation, and it wisely restrains itself from depicting the Terminator as “evil”; rather, it is a persistent, unfeeling antagonist that forces the intense humanity of Sarah and Kyle’s interactions with each other into closer focus. As a result, the film is first and foremost a tense, frantic flight from our own realized fears, asking the audience to recognize its various story elements (nuclear weapons, AI, etc.) as valid concerns for the near future.
In short: The Terminator is thoughtful and realistic (within imaginative limits), a gripping account of how humanity’s own ingenuity can have unforeseen consequences. This fits pretty much perfectly into the definition listed above.
In comparison, the movie frequently named the best science fiction film of all time is not, in fact, science fiction. 1977’s Star Wars may feature such things as space travel, alien species and swords made of pure energy, but this is (in most cases) where its similarity to sci-fi ends. Whereas a primary goal of films like The Terminator is to consider how humanity deals with the unexpected or the unknown, Star Wars simply assumes the existence of said elements and then fails to comment on them in any way. By “fails” I only mean to say that the film simply does not address the societal or cultural effects of the sci-fi story elements it employs.

Star Wars places far more emphasis specifically on morality and conflict themselves rather than the issues that inform and cause them. This may seem like a relatively negligible difference, and yes, some titles blur the line in really cool ways, but consider this: What would Star Wars be without the intense division between good and evil? It is those two forces that shape the film’s plot and create the galaxy-spanning civil war that culminates in Return of the Jedi. I would argue that one of the reasons we enjoy Han Solo so much is that we’re able to see and identify with his progression from selfish mercenary to swashbuckling hero — but how much would we like him if he had ended up on the other side? (Think about how you feel when Lando Calrissian cooperates with Vader.)

The myriad alien races, the dogfights in space, and the advanced technology of all kinds add an exoticism to the film that enhances its appeal and originality, but in its thematic focus, Star Wars is far more similar to The Lord of the Rings than other sci-fi titles involving space travel, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or Battlestar Galactica. Star Wars is a morality play that emphasizes the dichotomy between good and evil as the defining conflict in the very fabric of the universe. Space fantasy, if you will. Science fiction (at its most interesting, in my opinion) tries to avoid such sweeping statements in favor of complexity of character and ambiguity regarding difficult and often undesirable situations.

None of this is to say, however, that certain titles do not significantly blur the lines between sci-fi and many other genres — some of my favorites being Firefly, Serenity, and Back to the Future. On the contrary, it becomes easier to identify these blendings of genre when we have a clear notion of what we’re talking about when we say “sci-fi” or “fantasy.”

So, next time you hear someone say that Star Wars is the greatest sci-fi movie of all time, tell them they’re wrong.

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