What is "Science Fiction"?

Sam White
Sam White's picture

What constitutes “Science Fiction”?

This is probably one of those questions you’ve never bothered to ask yourself. Fans of the genre, however, ask it a lot—and write about it a lot. Some of them even get angry about it.

Take a look at the following titles of movies and books (that I hope you have at least heard of): Star Wars; Plan 9 From Outer Space; Star Trek; Buck Rogers; Flash Gordon. Which of these would you consider science fiction?

The general public would probably say that all five are science fiction (or “sci-fi”), but among science fiction aficionados, the answer could be from one to five to none.

To many “hard core” science fiction fans, all five of these productions are fantasy, not science fiction. Sci-fi, they argue, is fiction with a scientific basis.

As with religion, though, it seems easier to get these people to agree with what isn’t sci-fi than what is.

Within this very discussion there are different feelings. Some of these hard-core people who will jump at the chance to tell you something is fantasy and not sci-fi are fans of fantasy, they just advocate for a more specified nomenclature of the two. [Others, unfortunately, are of the type who not only want a clear nomenclature, they want to insult everyone who doesn’t hold to their view of how that nomenclature folds out.]

I liken the discussion, to an extent, to that of the practice of medicine. To most of the general public, “practicing medicine” can mean anything from neurosurgery to acupuncture to holistic healing. That’s not to say that we give all such practices equal worth—we might even be disdainful of some of them—but we don’t have a problem with lumping them all in one pot when asking a question of Aunt Sue such as, “What sort of medicine are you pursuing for your chronic backache?” Dr. Neurosurgeon over here, however, who went to umpteen years of school and sits on the boards of 8 hospitals might resent being in any way classified in a general bunch with Hippy Harry over here who “studied” holistic healing under a shaman in New Mexico for three weeks last summer. And who can blame him?

What it seems to me that those who argue for a stronger separation between Sci-Fi and Fantasy need is a more specific set of titles (and less of a knee-jerk reaction). For starters, I think many of them need to add a word into the description, such as “Science Fiction-Futuristic” or “Sci-Fi-Speculative”. For instance, if the criteria for science fiction is “fiction with a scientific basis” then I would argue that the best science fiction show ever on television was “Quincy, M.E.” It was a fictional show with a solid scientific background (unlike “C.S.I.” which my cousin Rusty, who is a forensics expert with the Texas State Police, refers to as his favorite comedy), whereas “Star Trek” was a fictional show with an occasional dubious nod to science. I’ve never met anyone who thought of “Quincy” as sci-fi, though, because it only deals with science and fiction; it doesn’t take place in the future and it doesn’t involve speculation about the possibilities of science and (maybe, though this could be argued) it doesn’t teach us anything about the human condition. To which I want to object, “Hey, wait a minute! None of these things are even IMPLIED in the phrase ‘science fiction’!” If you use a broad term such as that, I can’t see how you can reasonably argue against broad usage.

If you go to your GP and he, for instance, hears a murmur in your heart, he doesn’t say, “You need to see another doctor.” No, what he’s probably going to say is, “You need to go to Amarillo and see a heart specialist. I can recommend these three, or you can do your own research … “ Now, that concept would have been covered by the phrase, “You need to see another doctor,” but your GP knows that specificity is needed. Some science fiction fans do this (and I applaud them). A conversation with them might include a phrase like, “I’m into speculative fiction about how life might exist on a planet without carbon.” Just as you might be confused by your cousin’s declaration that, “I’ve decided on endocrinology as my specialty,” at least you’ve got some concrete words you can pursue further in the conversation (possibly after a quick trip to the dictionary).

And we all know how annoyed we get when, just because the doc went to 20 years of college and has a house roughly the size of your neighborhood, he acts snotty and condescending. No one likes that. So, sci-fi-ers, keep that in mind when you express your (possibly valid) opinion on why someone who referred to “Star Wars” as sci-fi was wrong.