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.

40 Comments on “What is Science Fiction Anyway?”

  1. John, it would be interesting to know the titles of movies you thought were, as you say, “on the bubble” and yet you ultimately judged not to be SF. ANy chance of sharing some of them, so that we can all debate them?

  2. Ron:

    I wrote up a thumbnail for Boy but I don’t know if it made it into the book. Harlan Ellison’s in there, in any event.


    Actually there are several in the “Crossovers” chapter of the book.

  3. SF Tidbits Part XX

    Throw another definition on the sf fire…In response to blogosphere comments on the contents of his Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies book release, author John Scalzi presents: Scalzi’s Three Criteria for Science Fiction. Spike TV has paid $60 million for…

  4. John, I’m not sure number 1 is necessary at all. The main point is to use technology that doesn’t exist on Earth at the time of writing. So you could write an SF book set in 1890 with time machines. Or a book set in the present with teleportation. It just happens that the future offers a handy rational explanation for why the technology exists.

  5. Individually, none of them are necessary (so long as you have the others). But generally speaking if a book is acknowledged to take place in the future, it’s lumped in with SF.

  6. I like the three criteria–especially if you’re stipulating that even one of them, or more likely two, will be sufficient. Of course, genre definitions are sometimes most fun when they’re bent and twisted.

    Somehow, though, none of those criteria (except maybe number 3) really covers a basic element of what I find most satisfying in the best SF…the development of a comprehensive, internally consistent, fully-worked-out (or at least having that apperearance), alternate universe. At least that’s the best I can describe a rather nebulous concept.

    In my scale of preferences, it’s the fully-worked-outness and consistency of the world of the story that ranks highest. Your criteria numbers 1 and 2 are important in distinguishing SF from fantasy (a distinction which is not always important). But the fantasy I like best has the same quality as the SF I like best.

  7. Well, I think the criteria are mechanical rather than aspirational — with the criteria you get science fiction, but you don’t necessarily get good science fiction. That takes other things (which is what you allude to), much of that relying on the skill and craft of the writer/filmmaker.

  8. Re: Bending and twisting.

    I would say that there should be a subrule for when you write something that is clearly based on SF work, even if your work itself is only marginally SF.

    I mean… Snow Crash is so blatantly MODERN that I have trouble thinking of it as futurism, even though it has technology that is beyond us.

    The whole universe of Steampunk stuff only has the “rational basis” stuff. (Save the entirely irrational patience and energy of the tinkergineers clockworkers.)

    I’d also say it’s useful to throw out a list of SFish elements:
    Outer Space Travel
    Time Travel

    I mean… the whole thing is pretty fluid… and you can change a story from fantasy to SF by changing the phrase “Magical portal” to “Trans-dimensional wormhole” if the rest of your story is malevolent beings come to modern earth and we fight them off with American know-how and F18s.
    So for instance ID4 is only SF because the bad guys came from space, rather than Hell.

    More to the point… The Hellraiser movie where they’re in space… SF or Fantasy? Or SF-Fantasy, just like all of the shelves say at the book-store?

  9. What ever happened to the definition that it is cience fiction if, when you remove the science, the story falls apart? That is a far better definition than the list you’ve posted, and it throws almost all of Hollywood’s offerings into Science Fantasy, where it belongs.

  10. That definition is now generally called “hard SF” and is a subgenre under the larger SF rubric, as “science fantasy” would be.

  11. I seem to recall that my neighbour, Ursula K. le Guin had a pretty similar definition of science fiction included in the foreword of one of her anthologies. Though I don’t think she parsed them quite the same as you, I do think she got pretty much the same idea across.

    So, it would seem that you’re in good company, John.

  12. I don’t know, John. The new TV show Commander in Chief takes place in the future, but it’s not science fiction. I think the technology/rational explanation aspects are really the keys to science fiction. I guess once you go WAY in the future, it’s almost impossible not to consider it SF. But I’d still argue that a book/movie set in the future not involving technology and rational explanations is much more likely to be a political/historical work than an SF work.

  13. I’m not exactly sure what your argument is here, Dave. I don’t watch “Commander in Chief,” but I suspect if indeed the show is actually acknowledged to take place in the future (i.e., someone in the series notes it’s 2006 or beyond), then it inhabits the same sort of “future” as “The West Wing” does, which is to say, a near-term alternate timeline that allows the show to posit a realistic present-day scenario. In which case the “alternate timeline” conditional applies, which suggests that one of the other two criteria need to be engaged for it to be considered SF. Which is to say, it fits well within the rubric noted.

  14. One of the most amusing things to me about the meme is it shows me what movies each of my friends have and have NOT seen. The latter is often far more interesting than the former, I find. Most people I know have seen 90 or more of those films, but in some cases there were (what were to me) very suprising gaps.

    If that list is an example of our shared geek heritage, it was interesting to note how some of my friends, who I’d assumed had seen all the films I had, in fact had not.

  15. What if you had a show like “Commander” or “West Wing” set in 2200, but it was all about the different geopolitics of the time and didn’t really integrate any new technology? I wouldn’t consider that science fiction.

    So this supports my argument that the “future” part isn’t really necessary — it’s all about the different technology and the rational explanations.

  16. My two quatloos:

    I think criterion two should be revised to state that it involves technologies that either did not exist at the time of writing, or that did not exist in the past historical period that the novel is set in.

    This lets in 1632 and similar alternate histories that explore the effects of modern technologies on historical settings.

  17. Dave Munger:

    “What if you had a show like “Commander” or “West Wing” set in 2200, but it was all about the different geopolitics of the time and didn’t really integrate any new technology?”

    Leaving aside the issue that I’m entirely confused how postulating 200 additional years of geopolitics isn’t science fiction — A show set 200 years in the future without any new technology? That’d be like suggesting you could do a show about the current day, but with the technology exactly like it was in 1805. Which is to say, it’s kind of ridiculous. The techology is part of the setting.

    If we were to posit a TV show that happened in 2005 but only featured 1805 tech, sooner or later you’d need to explain why that was the case (and then you have M. Night Shamalyan’s The Village). Likewise, a show that takes place 200 years in the future but doesn’t have humanity progressing past cell phones needs to explain why that happened, because it doesn’t make sense.

    This is aside the separate but practical point that no one in Hollywood would make a TV series based 200 years in the future without a) either employing new tech, or b) coming up with a rational argument as to why the future has no technical innovation and making that speculative element a central part of the series. Again, there would be no point to doing so.

    If you have to hypthothesize entirely ridiculous scenarios to make your point, Dave, it’s not a very good point.

  18. Come on, Scalzi, now you’re just being obtuse. Obviously two hundred years from now, there’s not going to be any technological advancement.Didn’t you hear? They’re starting to teach Intelligent Design as science…I personally expect the borders of human understanding to become fixed by, oh, 2008 or so.

  19. Well, they damn well better develop my rocket car to the moon by then. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

  20. Well if you want to be a strickler about your guidelines for what determines Science Fiction “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”, by your first rule you have to count out all of the Star Wars movies. Those all took place a long time ago (though it was in a galaxy far far away). With the entire setting placed in the distant past, it doesn’t qualify as SF (by your definition). Unless of coures you’d like to make an exception…

  21. With the H.G. Wells stories, don’t they usually take place in the present (of the author’s point of view)? The Time Machine is such, unless you think it is the near future where such a machine is invented. Likewise with the War of the Worlds, it takes place in the present (or the near future where Martians invade). I think you have this quibble covered with the caveat that not all three criteria need to be covered (Note this, Dane), just an observation.

  22. Okay, maybe “West Wing” in 2200 wasn’t the best example. I guess my point is that you can set something in the future without science being some kind of key to the plot. Like a poet, imagining what kind of poetry his great-granddaughter would write. And you can set something in the present or the past, where science is exactly the point. Star Wars would be one example, but also perhaps a lost technologically advanced civilization on Earth.

    The future thing comes up so often because it makes a great “rationally based” explanation for all that cool technology.

  23. Dane:

    I address the issue Star Wars in the actual entry. Also, you’ll note I don’t require all three criteria to be in play; I note that just one is often sufficient. Not to sound snippy, but please go back and read the entry again for all of this.

    Dave Munger:

    “I guess my point is that you can set something in the future without science being some kind of key to the plot.”

    Well, sure. But get too far out into the future — break out of a “useable present” tense — and the speculative nature of the endeavor brings it back under the aegis of science fiction in one sense or another.

    One thing that should be made clear here is that the term “science fiction” is descriptive of the genre of artistic experience under its umbrella very much like the term “firefly” is descriptive of the species of animal under its umbrella. Fireflies are neither flies nor on fire, after all, but most of us can get through the day accepting that the description is not necessarily 100% literal.

    By the same token, quite a lot of “science fiction” is not at all scientific in any rigorous sense (although it is all fiction). Nevertheless, “science fiction” is a useful common term for what might more accurately be described as “rationally-oriented speculative fiction,” and it’s been use for something along the order of 80 years, so it has a common currency.

    I would also note that science fiction doesn’t have to call attention to its speculative elements to be science fiction. One of the movies in the Canon, On the Beach, qualifies as science fiction because it speculates on the end of the world thanks to a nuclear exchange — but it does so in such a prosaic, no special-effects fashion that most people blink hard when you say, “that’s science fiction.” Well, it is — it’s the end of the world as we know it.

    If there’s one thing I hope this book achieves, in fact, it would be pointing out just how many science fiction elements are in play in mainstream entertainments. Indeed, one entire chapter (the “Crossovers” chapter) points out how SF elements have managed to get swallowed into other genres without much fuss.

  24. I think you’re starting to convince me with the argument that when you get too far into the future, it’s almost by definition science fiction. I mean, if you set a book 500 years in the future, and nothing appears to have changed from a scientific/technical point of view, then you damned well better have a rational explanation for that — like we all somehow became the 26th century version of Amish after a nuclear war or something. Heck, it’s probably been done, but that’s not a half bad premise for an SF book.

  25. “Well, they damn well better develop my rocket car to the moon by then.”

    That reminds me: we were supposed to have jet packs for our commutes by now. Where’s my g-d jet pack?

  26. Silent Running takes place on a spaceship orbiting Saturn. How could it not be science fiction?

  27. That reminds me: we were supposed to have jet packs for our commutes by now. Where’s my g-d jet pack?

    The funding for personal jetpacks was eaten in order to produce the Segway.

  28. like we all somehow became the 26th century version of Amish after a nuclear war or something. Heck, it’s probably been done, but that’s not a half bad premise for an SF book.

    So, *did* A Canticle for Liebowitz make the cut?

  29. For my book? No, because it’s not a movie. I would classify it as science fiction, however.

  30. 26th century Amish would be interesting, but not for the reason you think. Remember, they aren’t stuck at a particular level of tech; you can petition for some new invention (such as electricity) to be adopted, and the elders will decide based on a) potential for use b) potential for abuse and c) potential to corrupt society by contact with the Outside World. This means that some Amish communities have accepted electricity, but only at 12V; this is enough to power milking machines and soldering irons, but not to power anything fun like TV.

    Practically speaking, they’re just really late adopters. So the Amish of 2550 might well have colonised the asteroids, but would be having arguments about whether ion drives made travel too easy and opened up their bubble habitats to corruption from the Yankee Worlds, and whether they should just stick to cryogenic fuels and ensure Godliness that way.

    Or weirder. “No wormholes for us! When we travel, we go slower-than-light in cryogenic suspension, as God intended!” The equivalent of the horse and cart…

  31. “Events Are, By and Large, Rationally Based…. 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.”

    John: I can’t help observing that if one of these criteria is “sufficient to describe a work as SF,” then the original Night Of The Living Dead (in which a newscaster links the reanimated dead to the radioactivity from a recently-crashed satellite, and the living dead follow consistent rules re: how they come back and what puts them back down) does appear to be sci-fi. Personally, I consider it more sci-fi than one of my favorite fantasy films, Star Wars (a movie in which the hero destroys the dark knight’s castle with the help of magic and the word “parsec” was so badly misused I noticed it when I was five–yeah, I was that big a geek even then).

    This isn’t necessarily to fault you for your preferences: there’s a limit to what you can put into a list, and I figure the real benefit of an effort like this is to get people thinking and talking (you’ve succeeded). And, of course, the debate over “what counts as sci-fi?” is ageless and endless–I’ve never seen a definition yet that didn’t raise a “Yeah, well what about…?” response; this may be a testament to the sheer inventiveness of the sci-fi greats who never let a formula get in the way of a provocative idea or good yarn.

    Before I hit “Post”: on the Harryhausen issue, I’d assume you mention Earth Versus The Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles To Earth–Harryhausen disn’t direct either one, but both films are basically his.

    Oh, and if I wasn’t clear on this: thanks for the list–it’s been provocative!

  32. Robert J. Sawyer and the Definition of Science Fiction

    SF author Robert J. Sawyer is interviewed in the December 2005 issue of The Internet Review of Science Fiction. (Requires free registration. If you don’t have an account, get one.) One interesting topic that we’ve talked about here at SF…

%d bloggers like this: