What is Science Fiction Anyway?

Having the monstrous ego that I do, I’ve been watching the Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies Canon meme go through the blogosphere, and also reading comments people have been making about the selections for the Canon, and their own choices for addition to or subtraction from the Canon. One of the major complaints I see is the lack of the appearance of King Kong or of notice of any of special effect genius Ray Harryhausen’s films in the Canon itself (I will note Harryhausen is quite prominent in the book proper, in the "Icons of SF" chapter).

The reason for the lack of inclusion of these films, and several others that people feel passionate about, is simply that I don’t consider them to be science fiction films. One of the things I decided early on was to leave out films that were primarily fantasy films — and many of the films people are asking about are, to me, fantasy and not science fiction.

This naturally leads to the question of, well, what is "science fiction?" As it happens, I answer that on the first page of the first chapter of the book, when I map out three criteria for a film (or, indeed, any work) to be considered science fiction. I don’t think it compromises the book to share those with you here. So — Scalzi’s Three Criteria for Science Fiction are as follows:

1. The Work Takes Place in the Future — or what was the future when the work was completed. Alternate timelines may also qualify if they follow at least one of the other criteria.

2. The Work Uses Technology that Does Not Currently Exist — or (again) did not exist at the time the work was completed. Extrapolation from existing technology qualifies as well.

3. Events Are, By and Large, Rationally Based — I’ll quote myself here: "Though important events, situations and characters may in themselves be fantastical, science fiction assumes an explanation based on a logical universe. This is opposed to fantasy works, and some horror, in which such ideas are described through magic or the whims of the gods." This one gets stretchy, I’ll admit — there are plenty of science fiction films where the "rational" explanation for events is pretty damn stupid ("The creature was exposed to harmful Zeta Rays!!!"), but if those are the cards they want to play, you’ve got to play them.

One of these criteria is often sufficient to describe a work as SF, but it’s best when at least two of the criteria are in play. The Road Warrior, for example, takes place in future time and is rationally based, even if the technology in it is already known to us. Star Wars uses futuristic techonology and is largely rationally based, even if it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The Matrix is future time and futuristic tech, but the computer universe in which the events take place has a rationality that is best described as malleable.

Employing these criteria eliminates a number of films that seem at least cursorially SFnial. King Kong fails all three (present time, present tech, no rational explanation for a 50 ft gorilla), as do many of the classic monster flicks. Harryhausen’s most significant films were mythologically based, so they’re out, too.

This is not to say these films don’t share an important heritage with SF films, both in terms of audience and in terms of production (particularly relating to special effects); they clearly do, and I address much of the "backstage" stuff like that in the book. Be that as it may, these films aren’t science fiction, at least as I defined it.

Let me also note that these three criteria do leave plenty of room for judgement calls. For example, Superman is an SF film to me, largely due to The Man of Steel’s origin story (from another planet, which involved future tech to get here, and also a rational (if silly) explanation for his superpowers), but Batman isn’t — he’s just a guy with many cool gizmos and the need for lots of therapy. I wouldn’t classify most James Bond movies as SF, even though he employs some future tech with his gadgets, but on the other hand Moonraker is total SF, and there’s no getting around that. 28 Days Later… qualifies as SF for its "rage virus," but Night of the Living Dead is fantasical horror.

There are a lot of movies (not to mention books and other media) that are on the bubble in terms of being science fiction or something else. You can get pretty Talmudic parsing which films qualify as SF and which don’t, and naturally I had to do some of that. Generally I think I made good calls, but again I don’t assume everyone will agree, and indeed am having a blast reading examples of where people don’t. But at least now you all know where I’m coming from when I say that I didn’t consider some of your favorite science fiction-like films to be science fiction.

Suffering the Idiots

You know, when Michael Behe, the star witness for Intelligent Design at the Pennsylvania evolution trial, admits on the stand that the only way that ID can be considered a scientific theory is to change the definition of "theory" to such a lax standard that even astrology would qualify as a scientific theory, isn’t it time to stop the trial, find for teaching actual science in biology classes, and then send a bill for the whole ridiculous affair to the idiots that changed the school policy to shoehorn ID into the classroom? Does this farce really need to go on any further?

The only value to this whole thing so far is that it got Behe to admit that in order to get ID to work, you have to cheat — you have to make words mean different things than what they mean. You know, the science community already has a word for the new, more lax definition of "theory" Behe wishes to promote: it’s called a hypothesis. Should Behe manage to get his way and change the definition of "theory," what becomes of the word "hypothesis"? Is it demoted? Discarded? Given a nice gold watch for its years of service to the scientific community and then taken behind the barn to be plugged with a shotgun? And if is merely demoted, then what will become of the phrase "drunken paranoid ramblings?" That phrase has nowhere else to go.

Behe also compared ID to the Big Bang theory, suggesting that, like the Big Bang theory, all ID needed to do was wait until the intractable old scientists died off, leaving a new generation of scientists who welcomed ID with open arms — giving the illusion that acceptance of ID is inevitable. What Behe of course neglects to mention (and which someone cross-examining him ought to bring up), is that the reason the Big Bang theory gained acceptance was that the theory explained the observational data we collected about the universe better than any other theory. ID, on the other hand, fits absolutely none of the observational data, except to a very lax "I can’t explain this personally, therefore it must intelligently designed" negative standard, which, oddly enough, doesn’t actually raise to the level of science. Behe likes to wave off scientific hostility to ID as "politically motivated," but there’s nothing political about noting that a hypothesis doesn’t fit the observational data. That’s what scientists are supposed to do.

The reason ID isn’t like the Big Bang theory is that ID starts off broken and goes downhill from there. Indeed, the hypothesis for Intelligent Design is the best possible refutation of the concept, because it’s so entirely lacking in either quality described in the phrase. The only way it will achieve the sort of scientific acceptance the Big Bang has is if we lower the quality of scientists we produce. Mind you, if ID is allowed to be passed off as "science," this will be precisely what will happen. Instead of scientists who will honestly explore the physical world and hold their work to a rigorous intellectual standard, you’ll get more "scientists" like Behe, whose solution to promulgating an untenable "theory" is not to discard the idea but simply to change the definition of words to get them to mean what he wants them to.

It’s embarrassing. It’s embarrassing for Behe, who claims to be a scientist. It’s embarrassing for Behe’s employers (who have been forced to acknowledge the embarrassment Behe causes them on a regular basis by posting a disclaimer on their web site), and it’s embarrassing for anyone who likes to imagine that science should actually be about science, and not about comforting people twitchy about the fact they share a common ancestor with whatever animal it is they like the least. It’s not embarrassing for those people, of course, but the fact it’s not makes me embarrassed for them. I think it would be ashamed to go through life so afraid of ideas that I’d be willing to force ignorance on others to make myself feel happy and safe. Seems a little selfish, and a lot sad.