This site was founded on a love of science fiction shared between two friends. But when we refer to sci-fi, what is it exactly that we’re talking about? There are so many different types of movies, TV shows, novels and comics that have been labeled as “science fiction” stories. Some of them, like say The Martian, are very closely tied to what may be perceived as realistic – or very nearly realistic – science. Others, like Star Wars, which is of course a space opera, have very little to do with “realistic” depictions of science and are instead more about character relationships and drama.
It was Hugo Gernsback, publisher of early pulp magazines, who coined the phrase “science fiction.” For him, it essentially referred to a type of fiction that could help to drive scientific innovation in the real world, and an almost myopically positive perspective on the forward march of science. But this is, of course, just one type of “science fiction.”
In her book Science Fiction: A Guide for the Perplexed, Dr. Sherryl Vint, a professor at the University of California Riverside, explains that, “…our understanding of [science fiction] must necessarily be multiple, and further…this heterogeneity describes not merely the genre as it exists in the twenty-first century, but also the range of texts that have been retroactively incorporated into histories of genre…”
I couldn’t agree more. Science fiction isn’t just one thing. You’ve got everything from B movies like Attack of the 50-Foot Woman to groundbreaking literary works like 1984 and Brave New World. Attempts to define science fiction, and the criteria used to try and do so, vary widely, as do the stories themselves. But many of us who consider ourselves fans of the genre tend to love it all – or at least some of all of it. We can enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy just as much as 2001: A Space Odyssey, though they’re very different films with very different relationships to science.
So, this leads me to conclude, like Vint does, that what’ important isn’t necessarily setting down a list of definitive rules with which a story must comply in order to be considered science fiction, but instead, to appreciate that there is a range of different types of fiction that have at various points been included in the genre by some.
Given its heterogeneity, what is it about the genre, then, that so many of us find so rewarding? What’s the through line that causes us to love these stories that are, in many ways, so different from one another?
The easy answer is to just assume that we like stories about aliens or robots. That our inner 12-year-olds think astronauts are cool. But we all know there’s something more going on here.
For me, it has to do with the concept of “speculative fiction.” Dictionary.com defines speculative fiction as, “a broad literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements.” So of course, this encompasses fantasy, as well – which I think is why so many of us love both genres.
The important bit here is the word “speculative.” Science fiction speculates about imagined possibilities. It proposes imagined technologies, future worlds, alien species, and imagines what it would be like if they existed. This in itself is intriguing enough, but what really fascinates me is the opportunities this gives us to explore various aspects of society and culture as they actually are today.
Star Trek, for example, imagines a future in which humanity has put aside prejudice and embraced the diversity it finds through the exploration of space. And this leads us to ask the question – what if we decided to start trying to combat prejudice in our own world?
By stepping outside the storytelling constrictions of dramas set in the “real world,” speculative fiction is able to question our world in a way that other forms of fiction may not be able to do. Yes, any type of fiction can challenge social norms. But speculative fiction is uniquely strong when it comes to imagining a world in which things are different. And that, in turn, often calls into question the status quo.
Speculative fiction also has the ability to challenge social conventions precisely because there’s a bit of distance between the world of the story and the real world. The imagined possibilities of the story, then, can be seen as allegories for conditions and experiences in the real world.
Take, for example, the film Minority Report (which is, of course, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story). In an imagined future, new technologies are used to observe citizens suspected of being likely to commit crimes. Those citizens are often arrested before they have the chance to actually commit the crimes. For many, this is seen as an allegory for the kind of racial profiling that exists in the real world. The hope – and my personal belief – is that a story like this, because of its subtlety, can potentially cause supporters of profiling to reconsider their beliefs about the practice, whereas a film explicitly about profiling set in today’s world might be so on-point that supporters of the practice may not even choose to see it.
That’s not to say that fiction set in the real world can’t powerfully impact social change. In fact, it has done so repeatedly. Many still credit Will and Grace with helping to change attitudes about same sex marriage, for example. But speculative nature of science fiction encourages viewers and readers to step back and look at aspects of their world from a different perspective.
Of course, not every speculative fiction film, TV show, book, or comic has the goal of changing attitudes about profound social issues. And I’m not suggesting that those stories, therefore, can’t be considered science fiction. But even the silliest speculative fiction stories, like say Gremlins or Mars Attacks! (both of which I love) ask us to use our imaginations and envision a world different from our own. And that exercise in itself is highly valuable because it helps us to resist rigid ways of thinking and the tendency to get stuck in our entrenched worldviews.
So what is it that we love about science fiction? Of course, all fans will have their own answers to this. But for me, it’s really about being challenged to imagine something outside my own experience, and to think about the implications of that for my life and for the world in which I live.