Science in Sci-Fi film

John Holbo has a veryy good post up trying to classify the various types of science-fiction films by their approach and attitudes toward science. He lists quite a few – 1) pro-science/pro-rationality 2) anti-science 3) split the difference … and so on and so forth.

It’s a very good piece, but I think Holbo is trying a bit too hard (as is Michael Lind whose Salon piece was the impetus for Holbo’s). I’m glad he does, but I think there are unifying features here that may bely some of the seven categories. Most of these films share a common theme. Typically they are neither pro nor anti-science, and they’re not exactly trying to split the difference. Science fiction, more often than not, presents science as something quite powerful which ought to be respected and used wisely. In the wrong hands it can do a great deal of harm. A lot of science-fiction was written during the nuclear scare, so this is hardly surprising. The movies reflect this theme. It’s a pro-science stance, but it treats science and technology as fire that isn’t to be played with. I think most of the films Holbo lists in his first three categories could fall under this larger umbrella. They just take slightly different approaches. And even a film like Blade Runner touches on the boundaries of man’s experimentation with nature and technology. Clones are just another sort of nuclear weapon in a sense.

Also, I never really thought of Star Wars as science fiction. It’s a space opera (as is The Fifth Element which even has a space opera in it). Space operas are really just fantasy with laser guns – there is nothing particularly scientific or speculative about them at all. So maybe that’s a worthwhile distinction to make.

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24 thoughts on “Science in Sci-Fi film

  1. I read an excellent essay by Philip K. Dick on this topic called “Who Is an SF Writer?” which I cannot find in electronic form. I did find this excerpt from another Dick essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, however, which is germane to the trenchant criticism here of the bizarre binary classificationism that seems to plague science fiction criticism:

    “So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes that *do* fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe–and I am dead serious when I say this– do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.”

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    • For me, as far as categorizing SF, there’s always been the problem of stories about dystopian futures. On the surface, they don’t seem to involve or be wholly centered around a particular technology or strong scientism. For these I think of The Giver, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

      And yet the desire to have SF include them as their own (as oppose to relegating them to general fiction section) seems to point toward the things that underlie technology and science: humankind’s unending need to explore and shape its reality. Because of progressivism’s strong links to life made better through technology and expanding scientific knowledge, the fact that dystopias directly challenge progress (humankind’s inevitable ascent), they also directly demonstrate science/technology’s failures to inevitably lift up and better humanity. Ergo, SF.

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      • Quite right. I think this is also why it is sometimes called “speculative” as opposed to “science” fiction. There is a bit of hope and a bit of power-skepticism in much of science fiction.

        In the Accidental Time Machine (Haldeman) he explores various futures. There’s the one without science (for the populace at least) wherein the entire East Coast of the United States is a totalitarian theocracy. There’s the future Los Angeles (essentially all of the West) where everyone lives such a good life, they have a super computer running the joint and degrees in shopping and other inanities. And then the far, far distant future, where some other time traveler has brought a virus which has wiped out most of the world’s population.

        So I think it can be at once pro-science and very concerned both with power and overreach – and accidents, for that matter.

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        • I just read that one. (Note to self: catch up with the Haldeman you’ve missed.) The Future LA is also a parody of Anarcho-Libertopia, with all transactions between people being barter-based high-tech auctions, up to the point of “Come over for lunch, and we’ll work out what you owe me for the food.”

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      • Because of progressivism’s strong links to life made better through technology and expanding scientific knowledge, the fact that dystopias directly challenge progress (humankind’s inevitable ascent), they also directly demonstrate science/technology’s failures to inevitably lift up and better humanity

        I find Philip K Dick to write the best dystopias for this very reason.

        I’m thinking of, in no particular order, Blade Runner and Screamers and Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

        You can see what the creators in these worlds were going for. You can see that they had pretty good intentions as these things go. It’s the unintended (and yet perfectly logical) consequences that are screwing up everything.

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  2. A professor of mine grouped science fiction and fantasy under the category of “speculative fiction,” which I tend to do as well. I wouldn’t call space operas like Star Wars speculative in a deep philosophical sense, but often they’re reworking old and new myths and therefore have a speculative aspect to them. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the use of categories like science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction is an imperfect way of organizing stories.

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  3. To those who are wondering “Why
    isn’t ‘S-F’ the same as ‘sci-fi’?”
    Well, you see, there’s a fine line
    between Robert Heinlein
    and ‘Son of the Two-Headed Fly’.

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  4. To postulate a universe where the absence of one person would change the course of all of human history would be the most sophisticated of science fiction. It would explore the uncertainty principle in the life of a single individual. That would make It’s a Wonderful Life one of the deepest sci-fi films ever.
    Likewise, to fictionalize science seems more fantasy. The idea of a transporter or a monolith buried somewhere in the solar system seems nothing about science and more about story.
    I guess where I’m going is similar to one aspect of the post — what really is the question?

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