Great Debate #10 – What is science fiction?
Science fiction can be defined in any number of ways, from a simple tale with highly scientific or technological advances, to a meaningful genre about ideas. Given that stupid explanation I just gave, I guess science fiction is hard to define. My definition of science fiction is a combination of many of the things I’ve read, but I think it’s essentially a genre with scientific, technological, or futuristic elements. I would say the best science fiction is thematic and explores ideas, but most people know science fiction when they see it, meaningful themes or not.
My earliest exposure to science fiction was HG Wells. I never took to Isaac Asimov, even though he’s considered a more “serious” science fiction writer, but I like HG Wells better. The Time Machine and War of the Worlds are probably two of my favorite stories and true classics. However, after that, I don’t think I like any of his other stories, which is a shame, because there are only a few to really choose from when it comes to Wells science fiction. In comparison, I think Isaac Asimov has written dozens upon dozens more stories, including Fantastic Voyage, the one I know the most about.
I can’t remember my first science fiction movie, but the most popular one ever is Star Wars. Is it science fiction? It has fantastic technology. It has futuristic aspects. It has themes and explores social ideas. Check, check, check. It is one of the most straightforward science fiction fantasies ever made. However, it wasn’t until the late 80s and 90s when science fiction exploded like crazy.
Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted in 1987 and I watched it all the time. I think this show proved that science fiction could still be modern and topical, as if that wasn’t already proven in the 60s. A lot more people were willing to take a chance on science fiction on TV, and that’s what gave rise to a crapload of cable science fiction off-shoot shows, some good, some bad. Stargate, Babylon 5, etc etc. It was just a crazy time.
I like a lot of the work by Phillip K. Dick, not just because he inspired the film Blade Runner, but because his work is meaningful. The primary reason Dick wrote his stories was to explore themes and social issues, not simply entertain. The films Blade Runner, Silent Running, and Interstellar share this quality. I like that. I like that science fiction can be allegorical and symbolic, making any subject interesting and contemplative. Sometimes you come away wondering what the meaning was behind a lot of things in science fiction and I think that’s okay. Science fiction is perfect for addressing perspectives about many different topics.
Then there’s science fiction stories and movies that explore ideas, but never do anything with them. What I mean is, they pose questions, but never go deep enough. This is what I think 2001: A Space Odyssey does. It is stunningly visual. It has a lot of ideas, and even has themes, but it never goes anywhere or draws any conclusions. It just shows us these things and that’s enough for it. To be honest, I can’t think of any other science fiction story or movie that seems so deep, but is really quite shallow. In comparison, Blade Runner does the opposite. It shows us stuff and explores it, has consequences, and the whole nine yards.
Lastly, the “popular” science fiction of today seems to be stories with young people about how life will be in the future. This is pretty much how I categorize The Hunger Games and many other young adult movies/stories, like The Maze Runner. It’s no surprise that the theater is now bloated with this type of movie because that is what makes money However, they don’t seem to be going any deeper than they need to. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a young adult novel, but a horrible movie, reviewed very negatively by a lot of critics, including Roger Ebert. Maybe somebody will get the novel right for the big screen someday.
Science fiction is hard to define, even for movie makers. You can see that in a lot of movies that try to explore ideas, but don’t go anywhere, or just end up being action movies in disguise. That’s not to say science fiction has to explore ideas, but I think ones that do are more mature and better for it.