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”.
A while ago, Sara and I were listening to a story on NPR about a guy who discovered he had asperger syndrome. What was interesting was that Sara and I were having totally different reactions to the same story. The whole time I was listening, I was thinking, “Ugh, this is so annoying. I can’t stand it when regular, normal, everyday people claim to have some affliction that makes them different from everybody else. This is clearly an average person who wants to feel special.” Meanwhile, listening to the same story, Sara was thinking, “Oh my god I can’t believe what a weirdo this person is.”
This all came to light during a particular segment of the story. The man’s wife was describing how she was giving him a test to see if he had aspergers, and she came to a question that said, “Do you think about making traps?” She was absolutely convinced it was a typo, because the question didn’t make any sense, but her husband immediately answered, “Yes!” Everyone on the program had a good laugh over that one.
“This is so stupid!” I exploded. “Who doesn’t think about making traps?”
Sara looked at me in bafflement. “You think about making traps?”
“Of course I do.” Now it was my turned to be puzzled. “You don’t?”
“What kind of traps? Like for trapping…people?”
“No. I don’t know, any kind of traps,” I said. “Like how they work and if you could make them, or like if you were out in the wilderness if you could actually outsmart an animal and catch it. I mean, I don’t think about this all the time, but it crosses my mind.”
“I…do not think about making traps.”
This got me thinking that perhaps I was a weirdo after all. Obviously, however my brain worked would seem normal to me, so maybe I was a little asperger-y too. Maybe I identified with this guy a little too much.
A couple of days later, I was working with my brother in the garden.
“Do you ever think about snares?” he asked. “Like, how they work? I can’t really figure out how you could build one that would actually catch an animal.”
“Just a minute,” I said. “Hey Sara, could you come over here for a minute?”
Sara came over to stand with us in the garden.
“Nathan, do you ever think about making traps?”
“Yeaaaah…” he said suspiciously. “That’s what I was just asking you about.”
“You guys are unbelievable,” said Sara.
At this point, we started to speculate that maybe this was just a difference between men and women. Maybe some hidden hunter-instinct, long buried in men’s psyche, caused us to think about traps.
“No way,” said Nathan. “Rachael definitely thinks about traps.”
I decided to follow up on his hunch. It did seem highly likely that our sister had spent some time thinking about traps. I don’t know if this makes sense, but it somehow seemed like it would be in character. If so, maybe it’s familial rather than gender-based. I called her up.
“Hey, I’ve got a question for you. Do you ever think about making traps?”
“Yeah, you know. Do you ever think about them?”
“What kind of traps? Like for trapping…people?”
“No, I don’t know. Any kind of traps. Just for trapping things.”
Rachael was decidedly suspicious about this line of questioning. “Why would I think about making traps?”
“This definitely counts as a no!” shouted Sara in the background.
“No reason, I was just curious,” I said, and hung up.
So what’s the deal? Are Nathan and I on the spectrum? Is it a male/female thing? Do you think about making traps?
I used to wash my car. Nothing fanatical, but just every once in a while I would give it the old once over. I always felt vaguely anxious about needing a car wash, because I never really knew exactly how often I was supposed to be doing it. It sure seemed like my dad was always washing the car growing up. On the other hand, it never seemed to make much of a difference, so I didn’t completely see the point (unless I needed it to rain, har har har!)
As the years went by, I went longer and longer in between car washes, until eventually I just stopped washing the car altogether. It has now been at least 10 years since I’ve washed my car. And here’s the thing: nobody noticed.
I don’t have any rust, and my car doesn’t look any dirtier than anybody else’s car. In fact, the reason this came up was because my car was parked next to my mom’s which had been recently washed, and they looked almost identical as far as the dirt was concerned. You wouldn’t have been able to guess which one had been washed last week, and which one hadn’t been washed for 10 years.
I’m sure at some point I’ll get rust, etc. on my car, but then I would say, “Well, the car is 12 years old, what do you expect?” My car has not sustained any more deterioration than anybody else’s. In fact, it might have sustained less. We were talking about this at work, and other people said, “but I wash mine all the time and the tailpipe already rusted off!” Maybe my dirt actually protects my car!
So here’s the question, to wash or not to wash? If there’s no noticeable difference, why do the work? Is there something I haven’t thought about?