Quentin Cooper, looking over a top 100 sci-fi movie list which has many questionable entries, ponders this question: BBC – Future – Why is science fiction so hard to define?.
Time Out, the weekly listings magazine, recently ranked the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time. They did it by polling 150 “leading sci-fi experts, filmmakers, science fiction writers, film critics and scientists” and getting them to each provide their 10 favourites.
As lists go it’s a decent one. It’s hard for me to take issue with a top three of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Alien. Especially as my not-quite-four-year-old is named Hal partly after the homicidal computer in 2001. If we’d had a girl it was toss-up between Pris and Ripley.
Once you begin to get away from the top though, things soon get less clear cut.
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – their number seven – is my all-time favourite film (or at least it is most days) but I don’t think there’s much science amid the dystopian fantasy. Go one place higher – and for all its spaceships and robots and aliens, Star Wars is essentially a hi-tech fairy tale, with Luke Skywalker a space-faring Harry Potter figure using the magic of the force to battle evil Darth Voldemort.
Cooper goes on to look at past attempts to define science fiction. Personally, I think science fiction is relatively easy to define. It is speculative stories that we can’t rule out as impossible. The problem is that few stories appear to fit this definition. And I think this is because much of what we commonly call science fiction is a blend of scientific fiction and outright fantasy.
As Cooper mentions, Star Wars is straight fantasy, but it is usually categorized as science fiction because it looks like science fiction, with spaceships, robots, and lots of machinery all around. I’m a big fan of Star Wars, but the writers and producers make no apologies for having their spaceships move more like airplanes and aircraft carriers than actual spaceships. Indeed, most of us groaned when Star Wars attempted to give a pseudo-scientific explanation for the Force (midichlorians), the most obvious element of outright magic in the franchise.
I think Star Trek, at least in many of its TV incarnations, is more science fiction than fantasy, but it largely is a blend of both. Many of the fantasy elements were added by Gene Roddenberry as compromises to make a weekly TV show work (warp drive, transporters, humanoid aliens, artificial gravity that never fails, etc), but they’re there all the same and have only become progressively more dug in over the years, even though the original need for many of them is now gone.
Hard science fiction in TV and movies is exceedingly rare. The most obvious example is ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a movie that, aside from geeks and Kubrick aficionados, is usually found to be too uncompromising for casual viewers.
On the other hand, hard science fiction remains a strong category in science fiction literature. But even literary hard science fiction is rarely “diamond” hard. I’m a big fan of, and highly recommend, Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space series, which is usually lauded as hard science fiction space opera. But even Reynolds takes some liberties to keep the stories interesting, such as having his 1g starships powered by a mysterious secret technology that turns out to involve time wormholes.
Of course, almost all fiction has fantasy to some degree, either in the way people behave, the capabilities of tools, or in how nature works. We don’t read fiction because we want cold hard reality. If we wanted that, we’d just read non-fiction. Most of us read fiction because it’s usually more fun than the non-fiction alternatives. In that light, it makes complete sense that science fiction authors incorporate fantasy elements into their stories.
All of this is to say that there’s no bright line separating science fiction from fantasy. It’s more of a continuum, with stories from Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke being much closer to the science fiction ideal, and stories from J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis being much closer to the fantasy ideal, with a vast sea of material in between.
And the real difference between the genre of science fiction and the genre of fantasy is that one typically has spaceships and machinery, while the other typically has dragons and magic. Fantasy with spaceships will typically get categorized as science fiction, and medieval fiction with rigorous science for its “magic” is likely to still get put in the fantasy section of the bookstore.