Recently, Sara and I saw the movie Gravity. It was a fantastic movie, and I definitely recommend it (and I think this post is spoiler free, so feel free to read if you haven’t seen it yet). I was saying to my co-worker that I always get excited when she wants to see a science fiction movie. “But Gravity is not science fiction,” he protested.
It never occurred to me that Gravity would not be considered science fiction. The entire movie takes place in outer space, which is traditionally a hallmark of science fiction. Many of the typical science fiction tropes and devices are in play. However, I subsequently had this argument with many other people, and everyone seems to agree that I’m wrong; this is not science fiction.
Now, as a writer of science fiction, I am probably a little more versed in the numerous sub-categories of science fiction than the average person. You’ve got “hard” science fiction, “soft” or “social” science fiction, Cyberpunk, Steampunk, Space Opera, Space Western, and contemporary or “near future”, to name a few. My point is that I am accustomed to viewing the label of Science Fiction as a rather broad umbrella, perhaps broader than some might consider. In other words, I believe you can have science fiction without aliens and laser guns.
The debate seems to center on the word “future”. Everyone I’ve talked to about this stands firm on the idea that science fiction must depict the future. However, to my mind this presents two problems: 1) you have to ignore alternate history stories that actually occur in the past, such as Steampunk, and 2) how do you define “future”? How far out does it has to be?
For example, if I write a legal thriller that takes place in 2014, that’s clearly not science fiction, even though it takes place in the “future”. So to me, it’s more about the feel of the story, rather than a time frame. And Gravity feels to me like science fiction.
But we’re certainly not going to be able to agree on a definition that includes “how Shane feels about it”, so I tried turning to the Internet. It turns out, the Internet is just as confused as I am about all of this. There’s really no clear consensus about what makes something science fiction.
Isaac Asimov. 1990. “‘[H]ard science fiction’ [is] stories that feature authentic scientific knowledge and depend upon it for plot development and plot resolution.”
Isaac Asimov. 1975. “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”
Arthur C. Clarke. 2000. “Science fiction is something that could happen – but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though you often only wish that it could.” (emphasis original)
So based on those definitions, I would argue that “Gravity” fits the bill. On the other hand, one of my co-workers counter-argued that essentially all stories depend on technology for plot advancement. Receiving a phone call on a cell phone? Driving in a car? Using a computer? All dependent on technology. It doesn’t become science fiction until the technology depicted is technology of the future. At that point we’re back to arguing timeframe again.
Finally we settled on the idea that the timeframe can be anything, but the technology has to be something that “most people don’t have access to”. Under that definition, I think “Gravity” qualifies because most people don’t go into space, and it would stop being science fiction when space travel became mundane (the way cell phones and computers have).
However, when one is forced to argue with essentially everybody on a point, whether or not one convinces them, one must consider the fact that he is, in fact, flat out wrong. So we will settle this the way we settle all important arguments around here; with a web poll.
What say you, Internet?
At the end of the day, the label “science fiction” is a marketing term. It’s a way for bookstores and movie rental stores to classify stories. It’s essentially meaningless, other than to help people find stories they would be interested in seeing.
Under that notion, I’m confident in saying that someone who enjoys science fiction would also enjoy seeing “Gravity”.