Sci-Fi… What Is It Really?

I’ve mentioned this before in writings and podcasts but I think now is the time to figure out something about this thing called Science Fiction. I’m not entirely convinced it’s actually a genre. Bear with me. I’ll explain. Let’s get this out of the way, yes, it is fiction. That part isn’t in debate. But science fiction is considered to be a genre that includes such films as “Star Wars,” books like “Dune” or television series like “Star Trek” or “Doctor Who.” But are any of those really science fiction?

That particular list can be considered in other genres as well. “Doctor Who” is whatever it needs to be for that particular episode. Because it involves travel through time and space, it can be a mystery in the past or a drama on another planet, but never purely science fiction. “Star Trek” is similar. “Star Wars” is, at it’s heart, a fairy tale with princesses and knights. “Dune?” That’s a medieval story about warring kingdoms. Now, they are all considered to be science fiction, but is that the genre?… or the SETTING?

For it to be a genre, shouldn’t there be some stories that are purely the genre? “Murder on the Orient Express” is a mystery and very little else. Many movies fall into the category of mystery, which is often mixed with thriller, for some reason. “When Harry Met Sally” is a great romantic comedy but doesn’t really fit into any other genre. “Die Hard” is, primarily, an action movie – although some would argue it also falls into the category of Christmas movie, and rightfully so. Ford vs. Ferrari would be something of a historical drama. “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is a brilliant comedy that I’m not sure would fall into another category.

Then there are the movies that combine genres. The Pet Shop Boys movie “It Couldn’t Happen Here” might be a musical but I’ll be damned if I can figure out what that’s mixed with. The movie “Clue” mixes comedy with mystery (brilliantly, I might add). This, I think, is where science fiction comes in. It’s the setting of some great movies but they all fit into other settings. “Mission to Mars,” for example, is an action/rescue film in a sci-fi setting. “Alien?” Horror movie that happens to take place on a space ship, which, if we’re honest, is the only reason it gets lumped into sci-fi. A monster is, really, just a monster. “AlienS?” Horror/action on another planet. It could very well be “Die Hard with Xenomorphs.”

I’ve been going through my library of sci-fi in books and movies and can’t find anything that is PURELY science fiction. “Ghostbusters?” Comedy. “Dreamscape?” Horror/Drama/Political Thriller. “Kubo and the Two Strings?” Children’s Horror (brilliant movie by the way). “TRON?” Action/adventure inside the computer. “Blade?” Horror. Akira? Horror/Drama. “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?” Probably my favorite book, but it’s a comedy. Isaac Asimov’s Robot and Foundation series(es?)? The robot books are primarily mysteries and Foundation is a political thriller. All of these, of course, are drizzled with a magnificent sci-fi sauce.

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE science fiction. I’ve written a few sci-fi novels myself. I love the stuff. I just can’t find something that is ONLY sci-fi. “2001?” Philsophical/borderline religion. “Blade Runner?” Either of them? Nope. Thriller that could have been done in the 1800s with a few tweaks. Space Battleship Yamato? (Or for those who only know the “American” version – “Star Blazers.”) Disaster film. “Godzilla?” Same. “The Matrix?” Very political action movie. “Frankenstein?” The one many people believe to be the beginning of “sci-fi.” Nope. That’s become more of a horror. Reanimating the dead? That’s very horror.

So, my main question still stands. Is science fiction actually a genre or just a setting? I don’t necessarily have an answer because there might be something out there I don’t know about. Do you have any ideas? I’m open to examples. Just reply to the post.

2 Comments

  1. I think this is a great topic. Science fiction is, in my opinion, taking a “what if” that could be possible and exploring it. Such as, “what if a human was raised by a different species and had complete control of himself and the world around him?” It is theoretically possible. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is the result of that thought experiment. So, yes, science fiction is, in a way, the backdrop with the story being told in one of the common forms (comedy, horror, mystery, etc).
    Early science fiction, such as the 1940’s, followed the thought experiment with little else. It’s also challenging to read without a PhD. The characters are flat and the settings perfunctory. I suppose those could be considered “pure” science fiction.
    In my opinion, this label gets slapped on too great a range of stories. If you write for children and use an animal as a character there should be a reason. Curious George, for example, has to be a monkey. Monkey traits are vital to the story.
    In the same way, simply putting a story in outer space, but then telling a story space is not integral to, is not “really” science fiction.
    What do you think?

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    1. Asimov did a story like the Heinlein one, and since that’s the one I read I’ll go with, is it Sci-Fi or just a variation on the “fish out of water” story? And I’ll agree about Curious George. Technically it would have to be sci-fi because George is “so advanced.” Or is it just a fantasy kid’s story? It’s a weird subject, eh?

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