What Is Science Fiction? 5 Murky Areas of the Genre that Defy Definition
Once upon a time, Comic Con was just a few people in a basement looking at comics. Now, Comic Con is a convention for anything and everything geek: comics, science fiction, fantasy, etc. Really, it's just anything fringe or cult, which I discovered a couple years ago at the Philadelphia Boondock Saints panel. Boondock Saints has a cult following, but it doesn't have any supernatural elements to speak of. Technically, the two main characters receive a "calling" from God, but the audience isn't supposed to take for granted that they're not hallucinating, and automatically calling religious tropes "fantasy" will get you in trouble in some circles.
Similar to Comic Con, the definition of science fiction has become looser and more inclusive over the years. There are many problems inherent to the task of defining the genre, but the biggest problem is distinguishing it from fantasy. Generally, people tend to think of fantasy as involving "magic," or purely supernatural forces, while science fiction is grounded in science that has advanced beyond our current capabilities. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov asserted that "…science fiction, given its grounding in science, is possible; fantasy, which has no grounding in reality, is not." Similarly, Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling claimed that science fiction was "the improbable made possible" while fantasy was "the impossible made probable." This all sounds like a simple enough distinction, but there's actually a great deal of ambiguities and overlap. For example, many works of science fiction portray faster-than-light travel, which may very well be impossible. One could argue that this is nitpicking, that science fiction just has a different "feel" to it, but where does that feeling come from? And does that, by nature, suggest that there is no objective definition? When it comes right down to it, the common ways of distinguishing science fiction from other genres, especially fantasy, are often extremely subjective and arbitrary.
Fantasy Pretending to Be Sci-Fi
[Credit: 20th Century Fox]
We generally tend to think of a work as fantasy or sci-fi based on semi-arbitrary categorization of certain tropes. Vampires, ghosts, dragons, powers like telepathy or telekinesis, angels, demons, and medieval times are all associated with fantasy, while zombies, space, evil governments, apocalypse or post-apocalypse, parallel universes, robots, aliens, and anything associated with the future are all associated with science fiction. But then in that case, where do we place Firefly, which generally features space, evil governments, and futuristic technology, but also has a main character with psychic abilities? Or American Horror Story, which has ghosts and witches, but also briefly features aliens and explores mad scientist mutant experiments?
This categorization of these tropes is arbitrary because it doesn't depend on the explanation behind these phenomena. For example, Star Wars is considered the ultimate sci-fi series, mostly because it takes place in space and features futuristic technology like high-tech spaceships and light sabers. But then there's The Force. It's capitalized because it's a reverent, mystical, metaphysical power that draws on the universe itself. This kind of power is explained by magic, not science, and therefore Star Wars should be considered fantasy to some extent (yes, yes, I know, midi-chlorians, but people were specifically angry about that because the Force is supposed to be magical). The entire idea of a "Chosen One" is 100% a fantasy trope, found in a range of fantasy classics from The Sword in the Stone to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which we'll get to in a minute).
Similarly, the recent FX show, The Strain, is about a vampiric epidemic. Epidemics, particularly when they fall under the pandemic apocalypse category, are generally considered to be science fiction. But vampires are generally found in works of fantasy. But theoretically, vampires should only be fantastic if they exist by virtue of magic. If vampirism is simply a fancy name for a disease or a genetically engineered master race, then they belong squarely in the realm of science fiction.
Sci-Fi Pretending to Be Fantasy
[Credit: The WB]
Which brings us to the real problem: the murky definition of "magic." Many works of sci-fi/fantasy view magic as science for which we simply have not found an explanation yet. The Force eventually found an explanation in midi-chlorians, but does that make it less magical? If the witches on American Horror Story found out that they had a gene that gave them magical powers, but they still called themselves witches, could witches be considered a sci-fi trope?
Several television shows have turned the tables on their mythology in a similar manner. Buffy the Vampire Slayer seemed to be a no-brainer: between the magic of the vampires and demons and the magic that makes Buffy the "Chosen One," it's clearly fantasy. But then, in its fourth season, mad scientists who work for the evil government (a double whammy of sci-fi tropes) begin to conduct experiments on these supernatural creatures. They are even able to manipulate the chemical makeup of a demon enough to create a Frankensteinian human-demon-robot hybrid. If that's not science fiction, then I'm not sure what is. But after that season, the show essentially abandoned any mention of the science behind vampirism, and you won't find anyone (except me, apparently) who would call Buffy the Vampire Slayer a science fiction show. Similarly, in its fifth season, The Vampire Diaries showed mad scientists using some kind of science to mutate normal, human-eating vampires into cannibals, literally changing the defining characteristic of a vampire, which was supposedly a mystical creature. At one point the protagonist expresses disbelief that the mad scientist could change a vampire to that extent, and he just tells her that he's "brilliant." So one could argue that every fantasy trope is just one "brilliant" character away from becoming a sci-fi trope.
The question of the difference between sci-fi and fantasy has many possible answers, but my two cents happens to be that there isn't a clear difference between the two. (For the record, there was actually a genre in the 1950's called "science fantasy" that incorporated tropes from both science fiction and fantasy, but it was never clearly defined and the term fell out of fashion fairly quickly.) They're both under the umbrella of speculative fiction; "pure" science fiction would be on one side of the spectrum, while "pure" fantasy would be on the other, but there's no way to clearly demarcate between the two, and most works of speculative fiction fall somewhere in the middle.
Fiction About Science
[Credit: Warner Bros Pictures]
This is a pet peeve of mine, especially since I've consistently seen the film Gravity appear on "Best of Sci-Fi" lists, even though all of the technology used in that film exists today. There are certain scientific inaccuracies for the sake of plot contrivances, but for the purposes of this discussion everything in the film could plausibly happen, which goes against the entire definition of speculative fiction. One could argue that "takes place in space" is a science fiction trope in itself, but I don't think anyone considers Apollo 13 to be a science fiction film, for example.
We tend to think of anything dystopic as science fiction, even if they very closely resemble the world in which we live. For example, the world of the new HBO series The Leftovers is completely within the realm of possibility, with the sole exception of the Rapture-like event that takes place before the show begins. So we call it sci-fi because it's vaguely post-apocalyptic, but since we still have no idea whether the Departed were taken by God, disappeared through magic, or abducted by aliens, the heart of the show could be sci-fi, fantasy, or religion for all we know. Similarly, the Divergent series takes place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago in an unspecified year. Veronica Roth confirmed that it's supposed to take place in the future, but if it took place in an alternate present timeline, would it cease to be science fiction since there are no futuristic technologies or aliens to speak of? Or would it still be considered science fiction purely because it's about an evil totalitarian government in a society that doesn't quite resemble ours? And the same goes for fantasy; would someone who didn't know there were dragons or Wargs in Game of Thrones have to ask whether it was fantasy? Or would they assume it was because it takes place in a fictional medieval setting like the Lord of the Rings?
Superheroes have generally been lumped into the sci-fi genre, and some of them inarguably fall into that category. Spider-Man, for example, is a genetic mutant, and Hulk was created when he absorbed massive amounts of gamma radiation. But several of them are not grounded in any kind of "science," even by the loosest standards. There are weak arguments to be made for heroes like Batman, since he occasionally uses technology that seems futuristic. But there is little to no argument to be made for Thor, for example, who is a Norse god with a magical hammer. And comic book adaptations tend to be lumped into the sci-fi conversation, but it's not always appropriate. V for Vendetta is dystopian, Watchmen has Dr. Manhattan, who is clearly science fictional, as well as superheroes, but Sin City, for example, is a crime thriller that does not feature anything that couldn't exist in the world as we know it. I suppose one could argue that it's dystopian, but really it's just supposed to represent the darkest parts of cities as they exist today.