This past Friday, HNG fan James posed a seemingly simple and obvious question to me:
That is an excellent questions James, and believe it or not, one I’ve never really thought about. Science fiction has been such a constant in my life since I was a small child that I never stopped to think about what my definition of science fiction is.
When you think about it, it’s a pretty broad term that can be applied to just about any story. After all, most humans are cyborgs in one way or another. For example, everyone who wears glasses, has braces or uses a pace maker is technically a cyborg.
So does that mean that every movie with a computer in it can claim to be science fiction?
Merriam-Webster defines science fiction as such:
science fiction (noun): 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.
By this definition, a movie about a kid who mixes the wrong chemicals in chemistry class and accidentally blows up his classroom could be considered science fiction. After all, his mistake has impacted his society of classmates in a scientific way. Would I consider this science fiction? Probably not.
Wikipedia’s definition is more to my liking:
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting.
Science fiction differs from fantasy in that it is based in reality. That may sound bizarre but it’s true. We take what we know to be real, say…the internet, and transplant it into an imaginative situation, such as The Matrix, to get a fictional story with some basis in truth.
Computers were a relatively new concept when Gene Roddenberry came up with his idea for a “wagon train to the stars.” While he was in the process of fine tuning his concept for Star Trek, he consulted with every scientist he could get his hands on in order to find out what technology was feasible. 45 years later, cell phones, scanning devices and hyposprays are so integrated into our everyday lives that these so-called “devices of the future” seem antiquated in comparison.
Science fiction can be subtle or glaringly obvious. Take the subject of clones, for example. One on hand, you have The Island, a futuristic clone farm where everyone is forced to wear white and cannot leave the confines of the compound for fear of deadly pathogens. When their organs are needed by their wealthy sponsors, the clones are told that they’ve won a lottery that will allow them to live the rest of their lives on an island free of the toxic air. The protagonists escape and fight for their freedom and right to exist.
At the other end of the spectrum is Never Let Me Go, about a group of cloned children growing up at a boarding school in England. They live relatively normal lives until a teacher lets it slip that they have been cloned for the purpose of organ donation. As adults they are allowed to come and go as they please but they are resigned to their fate. Only Tommy attempts to change his destiny and he does so by creating art. When that fails he accepts his lot in life and “completes” his purpose. These two movies essentially have the exact same concept but they treat the topic with completely different approaches. Are they both science fiction?
I have to say yes. Cloning is a reality but scientists haven’t reached the point (that we know of) of cloning humans which elevates both tales to the realm of science fiction.
Science fiction doesn’t have to be set in the future but it sure helps.
Firefly is essentially a Western, it just happens to be set in the future where spaceships are as common as horses. Take the spaceships away and it ceases to be science fiction. Take the spaceships and aliens out of Star Trek and you have NCIS.
You get the picture.
So to answer your question James, my definition of science fiction is a story that takes a reality and manipulates it through science, technology and imagination to make something completely unique and exceptionally awesome.
And I’ll take it over real life any day.
Now here’s a question for you readers out there. Is there a hard line between science fiction and fantasy? Would something like “Farscape” be considered sci-fi, fantasy or sci-fi/fantasy?