Sunday, April 29, 2007

How Do You Define Sci-fi?

Science Fiction n. A literary or cinematic genre in which fantasy, typically based on speculative scientific discoveries or developments, environmental changes, space travel, or life on other planets, forms part of the plot or background. sciencefiction sci'ence-fic'tion (sī'əns-fĭk'shən) adj. Peter P, a fairly regular contributor here, made this statement in a previous thread: Firefly/Serenity is not even science fiction. It is a story about life in a dim future. It has almost no sci-fi elements. (Other than the fact that characters live inside a rocket ship.) Do you agree? To be honest, I don't. I think science fiction is meant to be mostly reality based. It's meant to see into the future to some degree and tell us what technological advances we might see someday. I think Serenity fits the criteria perfectly. I would also argue that Peter's argument is flawed since Serenity/Firefly had more elements than just space ships. The technology used to "study" River's mind was certainly advanced. And if I remember correctly, River also ended up with certain psychic abilities due to the experimentation she endured. And maybe it's just me, but I seriously doubt her fighting skills were a result of lots of martial arts training. And weren't the Reavers also a result of scientific experimentation as well? There was an attempt to give the show a Wild West feel, but the sci-fi elements were there. Nonetheless, I may be mistaken in what I believe sci-fi really means. Should sci-fi be so much beyond our experience that we just sit in awe? I remember when I first saw the alien in the movie Alien. That was certainly beyond anything I had ever experienced. Should sci-fi movie makers/authors strive for that all the time? Or do you think Peter was just trying to pick a fight? (sorry Peter)


Carl V. said...

It is definitely science fiction...sorry, one cannot even mount a decent arguement that it isn't.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Peter, peter, peter...

Science have been fighting over definitions of the genre for half a century. Still, under even the most narrow definition, you have to consider "Firefly" science fiction.

Like the best sci-fi, the series took situations from the present and extrapolated how an alternative future might affect the individuals within that environment. To deny Firefly as science fiction is to deny Star Trek and Outland. It's an absurd position.

Science fiction, from my narrow minded position (forgive that allusion to an adhomynm attack made upon me by alex on another website), but I'm willing to accept that science fiction is taking dramatic themes from the present and past and projecting them into a future or alternative setting. It can be ten days in the future, or ten millennium.

Consider these films, probably not science fiction by Peter's standards, but certainly science fiction by my own:

1)Jurassic Park
2)Minority Report
6)Twenty Eight Days Later
9)Slaughterhouse Five
10)Brave New World

And again, I think the value of science fiction is to deal with social and political issues in an alternative setting to encourage re assessment and discourse.

I think Peter might want to take a step back and examine his parameters. Maybe he might consider picking up some books on science fiction or reading some old classics to see how science fiction evolved since Post WWII.

Just my two cents...or credits.

ShadowFalcon said...

I was going to do my phd on ethics and morals in science fiction. Mainly due to the fact the people imposse human ethics on these fantastical stories. Science Fiction opens the door to explore all those theoretical issues without leaving your sofa. The best sci-fi are the ones that mirror life and life can be dim just as it can be amazing.

Serenity is 100% sci-fi.

I mean would you claim "the Man in high castle" isn't sci-fi cos thier are no space ships or aliens?

SQT said...

Moral dilemmas are always the best in almost any kind of fiction. But good sci-fi gives us all kinds of new material. The ethics of using certain technologies (many we are now seeing in our day-to-day life in areas like medical stem cell research). What would the ethics of time travel be? Or, what if certain technologies are only available to people of a certain social stature, but are overwhelmingly beneficial to all?

I could go on and on, as many authors have done before me-- far more eloquently.

Hey there, Skippy said...

Perhaps we ought to take a leaf out of the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's 1964 definition of pornography: "I know it when I see it."

UFR said...

I think Peter also missed/forgot about a major element of the series was the off world colonization/terraforming of other planets and the interplantary war than ensued when many of the frontier planets did not want to fall in line with the core systems. Sounds pretty science- fictiony to me.

Tina said...

I think there are so many different branches of science fiction within the genre that it is become increasingly easy and difficult to "tag" something as sci-fi. For example, there's cyberpunk (a predominately 80s backlash against both technology and capitalism), steampunk (which takes a "what if" approach to technologies of the 1800s), traditional sci-fi (as definited by SQT), sci-fi that crosses over into fantasy, sci-fi that crosses over into horror, sci-fi that crosses into magic realism, hard sci-fi, soft sci-fi, military based sci-fi, utopian sci-fi, distopian sci-fi, space opera... you get the point. What they all have in common is that they SPECULATE--examine the "what if" of our future. What if the U.S. did lose it's super-power status? What if there are little green men? What if space travel to other planets, and thus habitation of said planets is possible? What if there are really beings with special powers out there, how woudl they fit into the modern technological world? What links all these different "what if" scenarios is the manner in which they look at the future. 'Nuf said.

crunchycarpets said...

Yeeeeah..everyone is sounding mighty clever this monday am...tooo clever for me.

however... I think if we stuck to P's narrow definition most sci fi today would NOT be counted as sci fi.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Nowadays, films, books and tv series can't be pigeonholed as easily as before. They can just be another form of drama.

Morgen said...

Just re-watched the "Firefly" pilot episode last night.

But, definitely sci-fi.
Excellent sci-fi.

Peter P said...

Wow, my comment made it to the front page. Perhaps I should duck and cover.

I think Firefly/Serenity is not sci-fi because the plot of the story will hold even if we substitute the space-ship with something else.

Minority Report is definitely sci-fi because the story will fall apart if the pre-conitives are removed.

The same goes for Jurassic Park.

Peter P said...

I think Peter also missed/forgot about a major element of the series was the off world colonization/terraforming of other planets and the interplantary war than ensued when many of the frontier planets did not want to fall in line with the core systems. Sounds pretty science- fictiony to me.

That theme is also eerily similar to the colonization of the New World. Think British Empire. Think East Indian Company.

Peter P said...

Remember, a story is more than its fluff. If we take away all the "sci-fi" elements and the story stands, it is not a sci-fi story.

(Similarly, if you take away all the sex scenes and you still have a story, it is not porn!)

Peter P said...

I totally forgot about River and her psychic abilities.

Oops. Sorry.

Sarah said...

I think the sort-of thesis statement of Serenity/Firefly is who you become and what morality you create for yourself when you're living in a vacuum, ie: space. This is expressed by Mal in the beginning of the show when he's talking about the Reavers and he says that they're not men, because they've forgotten how to be. "They're just nothing. They got out the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothing, and that's what they became." This is a paraphrase of Nietzsche's saying that when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you. I think it's a fundamental question of the show. It's certainly the question that Mal's character is built around.

Could you have it without space? Maybe. But, I would argue, it would be altered. The show is very much about emptiness (moral, emotional, etc.) and what we create to fill it, and the fact that it takes place in space is a physical reflection of a major theme.

Sorry, this is sort of a different tangent. I majored in philosophy.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Well, Peter by your definition, Star Trek isn't science fiction. Hell, put Kirk on a ship in the Atlantic, substitute his five year mission to explore new worlds, with a five year mission to explore new continents for exploitation, and instead of Klingons and Vulcans, we'll give him French and Spanish to battle.

In Minority Report, we don't need precogs, instead of that, let's have a government agency profile a community based on past crime statistics. They can probably create a certain profile of who might be likely to commit a crime. At least based on statistics. They go around arresting those people. Then one officer looks through the profiles and discovers that through a mandate to expand operations, his own family is being targeted. He runs.

Who needs Science Fiction, eh P?
You see, your argument falls apart when you are forced to consider that science fiction is merely a branch of fiction, and that all good fiction shares certain elements. Also, since so much good science fiction is about metaphor, it isn't hard to strip it of the science fiction element and still keep it a story. Want to see another example, P???

Several city states are dependent on oil (or melange?). As the city states fight one another for control of the oil,, a messianic figure arises among the people of the oil producing nations and leads a jihad against the imperialists...we can call it Dune.

SQT said...

Stew's right Peter, saying that if there were no sci-fi elements, it wouldn't be sci-fi? Well, duh. Isn't that the point of sci-fi? To add scientific elements that portray a possible future or other societies? You could take the same story of any sci-fi movie, take out the space ships and aliens, add castles and ogre's and then call it fantasy. The story is just a framework, it's the other elements that give it it's genre.

Carl V. said...

"If we take away all the "sci-fi" elements and the story stands, it is not a sci-fi story."

What?!?!?! That makes absolutely no sense at all. The sci-fi elements are what makes it science fiction, or speculative fiction if one prefers that term. If you take those elements out of the story and the story continues to have some structure, to me that just means there is a darn good story in there. But say what you will, taking Firefly/Serenity out of the science fiction universe would change the story dramatically as those small elements that place it in the realm of space weigh heavily on the look and feel of the show and also have a significant impact on the psychology of the characters in the show.

Surely you are just making these silly statements to watch us all bluster. You certainly don't believe this nonsense, do you?

Peter P said...

SQT, you are right. I stand corrected.

Carl V. said...

No Peter, don't give in! Fight, fight! ;)

SQT said...

I know Peter from another blog and he is one of the nicest people I "know." He's been a very good sport.