I love science fiction, have since I was a kid. I used to dream about going into space, inventing warp drives, and other such flights of fancy. Alot of my love stems from my parents, growing up Star Wars and Star Trek were in heavy rotation for viewing in my house. My parents themselves as teens and young adults read the works of Asimov and others and once I was old enough, I too read many of those works. A quick glance at my bookshelf I see works of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, and Orson Scott Card. But as I’ve grown older, and I’ve tried to explore science fiction in both literary and visual media, I have grown to appreciate just what is so wonderful about the genre.
It’s that in my opinion it’s not a genre. At least not in the sense of “drama,” “action,” “comedy,” and other such labels you find at the local video store, though there is always a “sci-fi” section (many times lumped in with “horror”). Or even in a bookstore, you have the “literature” section, then sub sections for “romance,” “mystery,” and “science-fiction/fantasy.” In my opinion science fiction is a genre that transcends genre. It’s a setting that can be anything it wants. It can be action, drama, romance, comedy, horror, mystery. It’s a genre that is so rich and varied. Not to mention an underdog that has been looked down upon since its early days, and still is for the most part. When was the last time a sci-fi film was up for Best Picture? Maybe Star Wars?
But despite the snubbing of many of the intelligentsia (or intellinistas as I like to call them…hey I’m one too), it is a “genre” that has flourished and has become so rich and varied that many people have a hard time knowing if to call something science fiction unless it blatantly involves robots, aliens, space travel, or preferably all three! Many people say the TV show Lost is science fiction, but is it? There is definitely something unknown and strange at work, weird scientific experiments and such. But unless the last two seasons have some really strange twists (which I don’t really put anything past J.J. Abrams), there will not be any aliens or robots or space travel. Though they did just move the entire island, which was pretty cool.
But look at how science fiction is action and drama and comedy. What science fiction funny? Read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy lately? Action? Drama? Star Wars is both in one, as is Trek. If you want just action, look no further than The Matrix or Total Recall or The Terminator movies or Aliens. Horror? How about original Alien, or the more recent Sunshine (which is more 2001 drama until the last act when it turns horror). Pure drama? How about some 2001? Too slow or cerebral? Well maybe Dark City, which is also cerebral, but also a good film noir too, along with a little drama and romance. Or if you want so really good long form “space opera,” then check out the new Battlestar Galactica. That should be dramatic enough for anyone. Hell, it’s practically a soap opera in space. The only thing it’s lacking is a coma patient pregnant with Admiral Adama’s love child. But maybe we’ll get that in the last half of season four.
I guess my favorite thing about science fiction, though, is its ability to make us think. The good science fiction challenges us and makes us think. But changing the setting from what is known about our world, tweaking it, making changes to force us to ask questions. Questions about humanity, what makes us who we are. Questions about reality, what is real, could we tell the difference between reality and a completely convincing illusion? Or what if we ourselves are the illusion? It can force us to look at our own reality and see the absurd in how we act to each other. As in the classic original Star Trek episode “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield.” You know the one with the race of people that are half white/half black, and dependent on which side of your body is which you’re either slave or master.
Rodenberry was never exactly subtle with his points, but they were effective none the less. Science Fiction is in many ways like the jester of Shakespeare. I know, I know I’ve used the reference many times before, even in the previous post, but it is such a classic literary device. Anyway, because Science Fiction is not dealing with the “real world” it can get away with more, just like the jester could comment on the king through comedy. Since people didn’t take it seriously, we could dream of a better world, comment on just how terrible our current times are. Or ask the really hard questions about our human nature.
There is a great episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine where Captain Sisko has a hallucination about being a science fiction writer back in the 1950s, “Far Beyond the Stars.” He dreams up the entire DS9 universe complete with a black captain, which of course sparks a huge debate on whether to publish the story. It captures much of what is great about the genre, not to mention why it had such a hard time gaining even the respect it has today.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Science Fiction has so many of the qualities that make other genres great, but it does them in such a way that it transcends those genres. It’s more than just a genre. What is a genre really? I know there is great debate in academic communities on this very question, but I would ask if Science Fiction fits many of these qualities. It has both drama and comedy, and aren’t those the two most basic genres? Science Fiction can challenge us to make a better future and make a better self. And this, among many other reasons, is why I love it so much.
And space ships are wicked cool.