What is science fiction? For some, it calls up images of the rather simplistic black and white movie serials like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers with Buster Crabbe. Later generations remember the genre from the classic 1950’s films like Earth Vs the Flying Saucers and The Day the Earth Stood Still. Then there were shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and the culture changing icon Star Trek from the sixties. That decade also brought us the ground breaking 2001: A space Odyssey. Science fiction was entrenched in the global pop-culture. But can anyone truly and accurately define the genre?
The seventies were replete with sci-fi films and television programs. There were cult hits like Space 1999 and more broad-based hits like the widely popular Six Million Dollar Man. Then there were lesser known and short-lived programs like The Star Lost and The Phoenix. Battlestar Galactica’s short and troubled time on television left and enduring warm spot in the hearts of millions of fans. Then, of course, there was Star Wars which came, in 1977, to rival Star Trek’s level of cultural saturation. In 1979, Ridley Scotts Alien blurred the line between science fiction and horror. Science fiction series came and went but the genre was enduring.
In the eighties we saw the return of Buck Rogers to the small screen with Gill Gerard in the namesake role. Flash Gordon came back the theaters in a film that paid considerable homage to the old serials. Tron made us question what a science fiction film should look like. Films like Highlander and Krull tested the boundaries between sci-fi and fantasy. Star Trek returned to television with The Next generation and was followed by a somewhat darker interrelated series; Deep Space Nine. Both Star Trek and Star Wars continued to produce popular theatrical films. By this time critics and prominent literary figures, with few exceptions, derided and dismissed the science fiction genre as intellectual and literary flotsam and jetsam. Yet science fiction not only continued to attract fans; it attracted fans that were more dedicated and enthusiastic than those of any other entertainment genre. Not only did sci-fi fans love science fiction they wanted everyone to know it, and share their passion.
In the nineties Star Trek: Voyager succeeded Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 found a somewhat small but incredibly devoted fan base with a more politicized, less optimistic take on the future. The X-Files brought contemporary politics and intrigue to science fiction and drew viewers that had never before appreciated sci-fi. The Running Man gave us a wonderfully dark view of what the entertainment media might look like in the future (an exaggeration of today’s ‘reality’ TV) and Gattaca made us wonder if the mapping of the human genome was actually a good idea. The nineties got a bit darker for sci-fi.
The twenty-first century brought us more Star Trek in the form of Star Trek: Enterprise. Debuting in 1999, the first of the Star Wars ‘prequels’ gave the franchise a boost into the new century; but, like Enterprise, left fans a bit disappointed. A ‘reimagining’ of Star Trek breathed new life into the franchise and the upcoming Star Wars continuation: The Force Awakens has two generations of Star Wars fans all tingly with anticipation. Battlestar Galactica rose again minus the original series’ campiness. Doctor Who continued the long run of popularity that began in 1963. Science fiction’s most notable and enduring franchises are still alive and well.
I have concentrated thus far on the visual media. This is because ii is that which shapes the general concept of science fiction for the general, non-sci-fi initiated public. The vision of great science fiction authors like H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Aldus Huxley and George Orwell have, for the most part, have been distorted by film and television. However, the greats of science fiction gave us equally diverse points of view. H.G. Well’s The Shape of Things to Come showed us a socialist paradise brought about by a governmental force with overwhelming technological superiority while Huxley’s Brave New World showed us a future population that was drugged into submission. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers saw society being totally militarized while that same author brought us a peaceful, thriving world in For Us the Living. Even when comparing works by these giants of science fiction and their peers, it is still hard to answer the question: what is science fiction?
Merriam-Webster on-line defines science fiction as: ‘fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component’. That is a pretty broad net to throw over such an expansive a genre. In an attempt to narrow things down sci-fi enthusiasts broke science fiction into a multitude of sub-genres. But, in a way, that only made things worse. I myself do not think that you can define science fiction for what it is. You can define it by what it does or, at least, intends to do.
Science fiction creators, by and large, want their work to do one of two things; show bright, positive goals for humanity to aspire to, or warn humanity about some dire folly that might befall it. In Star Trek’s many incarnations we see a human race that has not only unified itself, but has joined with other non-human races in a technologically dependent utopia. In Orwell’s 1984 we see technology used to perpetuate war and keep a destitute proletariat in a state of slavery. Star Wars gave us a simplistic, wonder-filled vision where evil and good were clearly defined. The X-files showed us a present day with dark foreboding and fear of a mostly unseen, ephemeral threat that consisted largely of fellow human beings in league with otherworldly powers. All of these offerings are considered to be science fiction and all of them were vastly different in both tone and message. What they had in common was that that they wanted to make people think in different ways; to place ideas and philosophies in different contexts.
Science Fiction works with ideas in a way that is different than any other genre. I dare say it may be superior to other genres in that regard. Sci-fi frees ideas and concepts from the confines of the ordinary. It provides a comfortable mental cushion between a person’s steadfast beliefs and ideas that challenge those beliefs. It provides a buffer between the troubling issues of today by providing the psychological distance of an imaginary tomorrow. Science fiction allows us to think about the unthinkable without guilt or shame. It, like its cousin genre fantasy, is a genre that frees us from our own egos and cultural programming and lets us ponder other cultural paradigms. The ‘science’ in science fiction is only a backdrop for the fiction.
So, science fiction at its best is simply fiction with science used as a setting for telling tales or as a catalyst for examining society and the ‘human condition’. That is where sci-fi triumphs over the other forms of fiction. Science fiction can look into the future and see what might be, while other fiction genres are limited by what is. Science fiction can serve as a warning about the future, or can provide an ideal to which humanity can aspire. It, more than any other type of fiction, can inspire people to look to the future with hope, while guarding against developing evil. It can bring out our best, or show us our worst. It helps us not to be defined by our own perceived limitations. It may even allow us to act to shape the future rather than simply react to the present.