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What is a “Science Fiction” film?

What makes this genre uniquely stand apart? Is it just extra-terrestrial locations or space travel? I think it’s pretty easy to see that those would define the genre in a very superficial way. What does the film think it’s about? (Yes, a reference to Daniel Framption’s Filmosophy) What does it make you think about? The answers to these questions in the most general sense are the themes of a film. So to discuss what science fiction is I will prefer to focus on the themes commonly explored by the genre.

Themes are basically what movies are about in a general sense. Rather than examining the specific details of each film’s world, characters, or story, an examination of theme allows us to compare films very quickly without dipping into spoilers. For example both Contact and Arrival are depictions of encounters with aliens that involve much decoding, with a large part of that “decoding” being thanks to the emotional state of the main character. Blade Runner and Terminator explore outcomes of our own AI creations getting beyond our control. The Running Man and Death Race 2000 are about dystopian societies defined by their devotion to the reality of their media. Easy enough.

But we want to generalize the whole genre of Science-Fiction. Can we? From a mainly literary standpoint Wikipedia summarizes with a couple quotes: According to American writer and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov, “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”[5] American science-fiction author and engineer Robert A. Heinlein wrote that “A handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: 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.”[6] (emphasis mine). Both of these definitions highlight the genre’s tendency to describe human changes or futures imagined around our understanding of science and technology. This is easy enough to utilize for film.

After that, this section on Wiki then descends into pretend/non-definitions given by editors, writers and modern academics. The whole point of a definition is to provide boundaries to a discussion so that it makes sense (i.e. about something). The last sentence of the section is useless and adds nothing to our discussion: “Author and editor Damon Knight summed up the difficulty [in defining science-fiction], saying “science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”[9] Right before that we are challenged “American science fiction author and editor Lester del Rey wrote, “Even the devoted aficionado or fan—has a hard time trying to explain what science fiction is,” and the lack of a “full satisfactory definition” is because “there are no easily delineated limits to science fiction.”[8] Really? Speaking as a “fan” or devoted aficionado I have no trouble explaining what science fiction is. Perhaps it’s my math and physics education? Asimov and Heinlein not only wrote in the genre, but they also had science backgrounds. Some may scoff and jab “well you’re talking about hard sci-fi”. That’s fine if it makes you more comfortable think of it that way. But I don’t think being rigorous with definitions is hard. Let’s use their simple and clear definitions to delineate limits.

First, then, let’s go down another level: What is science? Science is the knowledge and the methods by which we acquire further knowledge. Secondly, what is technology? Technology is the tool that either assists our methods or is what we create from current understanding to assist us in other actions. We can see how the human desire to explore is motivated equally by the additions to both of these. We explore to grow our understanding, and we then create something that allows us to explore more, then we push that technology to it’s limit, which creates an new “necessity” – putting us in an cycle of invention and exploration.

It’s interesting to note that technology isn’t always a physical tool, from the Wikipedia article on the subject: “Technology can be the knowledge of techniques, processes, and the like or it can be embedded in machines”. So certain types of knowledge are technology. I’m familiar with this usage. I recall something as simple as making lists or labeling things a certain way being referred to as “technology”. Another example, to help remember your 9 column on the multiplication table: simply put your hands out, then count the number you wish to multiply by 9 and drop that finger. The number left the lowered finger is the tens digit and the remaining number of fingers to the right of it is the one’s digit. I suppose then “reverse psychology” could be considered a technology. These are all bits of knowledge that when applied function as tools. Science is the knowledge considered in the abstract, but technology is what we get when we utilize that knowledge. Said another way, science is concerned only with the knowing of a thing, but technology is the application of that knowledge – it is where the actual effects then come from.

Recall that Asimov said that sci-fi “deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Given how closely science and technology are related – and that those measurable reactions are results of the effects of applied knowledge, we can say simplify that to: Science Fiction is the genre which explores the effects of technology on humanity.

Now that we have a rather simple looking definition let’s see how it applies to some well-known films.

Some are very obvious: Blade Runner, Frankenstein, Westworld, The Terminator, THX 1138, Zardoz, Sorry to Bother You, and The Matrix all deal with man’s creations biting him back. Notice with THX 1138, Zardoz and Sorry to Bother You that we have different levels of embedded technology but still have a story that explores possible effects of social technology. We can throw in A Clockwork Orange, Equilibrium and Brazil. Interesting to note that we have surpassed some aspects of these film-worlds in terms of technology, so the hubris comes from the application. In this way the dystopian sci-fi sub genre is well-established and detectable.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Timecrimes, Primer, The Fly and Lucy all feature relatively small pockets of people effected by a new technology. A film’s focus determines its themes, so by focusing on those effected or involved with the technology we can say that our definition holds.

Then we have the idea that our advancements get us closer to extra-terrestrials, Alien, Starship Troopers, Event Horizon, Solaris, and Star Trek: First Contact all stem from the idea that we’ll encounter aliens once we’re sufficiently advanced. This brings us to the first possible challenge to this definition. What if the film features alien contact with modern/current levels of embedded technology?

Arrival, Contact, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind deal with current humanity first getting in touch with alien life. In these cases the aliens just come to earth unprompted by humans. The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey that’s exactly what happens, as well as Close Encounters, Predator, E.T. and Virus. In 2001 after the initial contact, the monolith is moved and it’s later detection does depend on sufficient advances in technology. But there are a large number of alien encounters that feature the aliens doing all the traveling requiring no technology by humanity. Does this break my definition? I don’t think it does, since it is not necessarily implied that the technology is a result of human tinkering or ingenuity. It is no small feat to traverse the great distances in space and that achievement would effect everyone involved. Alien contact is completely dependent on technology. Of course that aspect of such encounters within a film-world are far overshadowed by the much more society-altering alien contact.

Now, to possibly rock the boat: Star Wars has many tropes or accoutrement common to science fiction but the themes are not anything like we’ve been considering here. The robots, aliens, and spaceships are nothing new, in fact, they are old and commonplace. The presence of advanced technology is not examined by the story, because the technology is not advanced to that world. One could argue that the Death Star is new, but the Empire is already in control before it arrives and the potential to examine an even more dystopian galactic society stops with the films climax. Vader even points out that the Force is more important than the technology. As is now common knowledge the story is modeled after the hero’s journey which comes to us from mythology adventure stories, so that is the primary theme of the story.

A similar example: The 5th Element. Again we have a movie that looks high-tech to us, but all the characters are used to flying cars and space-travel. Everything is new to Leeloo so her reactions don’t count for the world, and while she is a main character the film doesn’t focus on presenting the world to the audience from her perspective. Though this is an unknown they are working against it is no presented as something to explore.

I’d like to rewatch Earth Girls Are Easy to see how it shakes down. It’s like ET, but we don’t really see the same sort of reaction from society, the romance is the main focus. The ship repairs aren’t some big story element, nor does the world react much to the presence of here-to-fore unknown alien life. Rather we see the human-like aliens blending in just being slightly off, and thanks to those only slight differences a bond is formed. The climax has our main character leaving with the aliens, so that perhaps is our defining moment to consider. She is not motivated by a desire to explore the unknown but by the emotional bond formed with the alien. How is that different from Contact or Arrival? Simple: In those last two the whole world is involved, so the movie most certainly focuses on the effects of alien contact with humanity. But didn’t I say that the main characters determine the story and therefore themes of a film? I did.

See? Even with hard and fast definitions there’s still plenty to discuss and debate. I think such a debate is much more interesting than just throwing our hands up and declaring everything is relative, ambiguous, or just a system of possibly contradicting dualities.

I argue that genre should come out of a work’s themes, which come from the character actions and story of a film. A useful definition for the genre of Science Fiction is that it consistently explores the effects of technology on people.


Author: davidbehlman

Studied Math and Physics at University of Minnesota Morris. Studied 'hands-on' Film-making in 2007-08. Been an avid reader of many subjects for a while now. I feel very strongly that far too many writings wind-up ignoring their definitions and thereby forsake real content and logic. I hope to add to the sensible discourse.

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