Is “Gravity” Science Fiction?

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.

However, as a starting point, here are a couple of definitions provided by Asimov and Clarke, two experts in the field if there are any:

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”.

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9 thoughts on “Is “Gravity” Science Fiction?

  1. Meh. I’ve seen Gravity (loved it!), and with my Librarian Powers of Categorization I say it is not SF. Sci-fi belongs under a larger umbrella of Speculative Fiction (including fantasy). Under your “most people can’t go to space” rationale, Apollo 13 would be Sci-fi, when it’s actually historical. Base your genrefication, instead, on “Is it Possible?” If no, then fantasy, if “Well, logistically, yes, IF” then it’s sf. If the IF isn’t there, then it’s realistic fiction. Steampunk falls under Speculative fiction -> Science fiction -> Alternate History (usually). Subsets of sf also include social science fiction like dystopias which aren’t necessarily dependent upon science itself (eg, 1984). Obviously, I fall into the Clarke school. While I’m not a physicist nor an astronaut, it appeared to me that everything that occurred in Gravity was actually possible TODAY with CURRENT technology. That’s means it’s not SF.

    Also, in my humble experience, authors are not always the best people to ask to categorize things… *ducks*

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    • I think I’m coming around. I certainly bow to you when it comes to categorizing fiction. 🙂

      But no, Apollo 13 could never be Sci-fi, because it’s not fiction to begin with (separating out “fictionalized” from “fictional” here).

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      • Well… “Fictionalized” is akin to “Sorta Pregnant.” When it comes to movies, if it’s not a documentary or instructional, it is in the fiction column. Apollo 13 the movie would make a crap resource for a research paper – you, Shane, would never think of using it as an authoritative source, right? So how is it not fiction? “Based on true events” are not true events.

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  2. It is “science fiction” when the “science” <— is "fiction". The science/technology does not necessarily need to be future, just fiction.

    In Jurassic Park, the timeline is in contemporary time, but the science is fiction (yes I consider Jurassic Park Sci-Fi). For that matter, Transformers, Independence Day, and Hitchhikers Guide all exist in modern day (not future), but deviate from normal fiction into science fiction only when the science pushed beyond its accepted boundaries.

    It is the same for steampunk, and other "past that never existed" scenarios, the science/technology does not exist, or did not exist in that time period. I think we all agree that depictions of future advances in technology also fall into science fiction. If we wrote a historically accurate accounting of the civil war, with the small change that everyone had cellphones…it would be science fiction.

    Even if we consider Apollo 13 fiction (based upon a written script version of reality), it is not science fiction because the science/technology is based on reality.

    I have not seen Gravity, but if it is set in current time, and does not push the science/technology beyond what is currently accepted and being used in our current world, then it is not science fiction.

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    • Okay, these are good points. So it’s not that the story has to take place in the future, only that the technology depicted in the story has to be fictionalization (or from the future) relative to the time period in the story. So that definition naturally includes steampunk.

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  3. A weird way to think of it Shane would be tto ask yourself if the “science” is the “fiction”. When I saw Gravity everything in the movie had a feel of realistic events that could happen based on todays technology. Since the science in the movie is realistic, it is just fiction, not science fiction.

    Taken another way timeframe does not matter, a famous example would be Frankenstein. It is set in the 18th century but since science is not able to cobble together new life using old body parts (yet) the science is the fiction and I would label Frankenstein as SCI-FI.

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    • The relevant quote, from the filmmaker: “I don’t think the film is a science fiction film in the sense that it takes place in the present with technology that exists. We heighten the reality because obviously there are plausibility issues, but I’m happy with whichever label [it has].”

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