Re: The Science Fiction Failure Mode

Since I’m saying it other places, I thought I’d note it here as well: regarding the oh-so-defensive shibboleth that “Star Wars isn’t science fiction, it’s fantasy!”:

Well, no. This argument is often provided by people who can’t stand that Star Wars is (correctly) regarded as science fiction despite the fact that its science is so bad.

But you know what? The failure mode of science fiction is NOT “fantasy,” it is “bad science fiction.”

Just accept that Star Wars is Science Fiction with far more emphasis on “fiction” than “science.” And then try breathing into a small paper bag. You’ll feel better.

There. Done. Moving on.

138 Comments on “Re: The Science Fiction Failure Mode”

  1. Or conversely (and somewhat more accurately), science fiction as a sub-genre of fantasy.

    But the point is that when science fiction has bad science (or more generously, bad rational causality), it doesn’t then leave the sub-genre of SF by default. It just becomes bad SF.

  2. That’s what I said :) Fantasy as the supergenre of SF = SF as a subgenre of fantasy.

  3. Wow. I read your AMC article this morning and just chuckled. I mean, how many of us have sat around trying to justify Star Wars? Ok. Everyone can put your hands down now.

    I say keep up the good work there John, you have them right where you want them

  4. Honestly i would not know being that i have never seen Star Wars. Then Again i have seen Every episode of Star Trek (except for enterprise *it did not exist*) and all of the movies. and im 22 (or will be on Saturday)

  5. Oh, ack. Here I am, following from one site to the next, doubling back and quoting you to yourself in a comment in the previous thread, and you’re crossposting the same quote. Now I’m confused. At this rate, the droids are going to start looking like the product of intelligent design.

    On the other hand, it makes the quote way easier to bookmark, so thank you!

  6. Take the science out and one has fiction/fantasy. However, the two can be blended together. Any of you familiar with Fred Saberhagen’s book “The Broken Lands” and the atomic elephant?

  7. I always thought Star Wars fell into science fantasy myself, but that’s probably a question of definition.

  8. Romeo @10: Historical fantastical science fiction?

    And let’s not get started on the bad history part of bad historical fiction. Or the bad history part of bad fantasy.

  9. I love reading Fantasy. I love reading Science Fiction. I don’t consider either one the ‘failure mode’ of the other.

    However, I do feel the difference between magic and science is a useful method of distinguishing between the two genres.

    Yes, I know of Clarke’s Law. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But genre authors tend to write magic-based and science-based universes differently, so it is still a useful distinction.

    I agree that Star Wars became Science Fiction with the addition of Midi-Chlorians. Pre-Midi-Chlorians, however, “The Force” was just another word for “Magic”.

    Yes, there is science involved in spaceflight. However “Space Fantasy” is a genre of its own, which I do feel Star Wars (episodes 4-6) was a prime example.

  10. Saberhagen’s “Empire of the East” and the subsequent ‘Swords’ series were initially presented as a swords-and-sorcery fantasy…and then it became obvious that it was really a SF setting, but that most of the inhabitants didn’t know that.

    And while the science was…interesting, an SF explanation for everything (including gods and magic spells) was given.

  11. I also feel the difference between Magic and Science is a useful method of distinguishing between Creationism and Evolution – but that comment might belong on a different post.

  12. John:

    “However ‘Space Fantasy’ is a genre of its own, which I do feel Star Wars (episodes 4-6) was a prime example.”

    Meh. “Space Fantasy” or “Science Fantasy” is a phrase that got coined in the wake of Star Wars as an attempt to cordon it off from the rest of the science fiction genre, if memory serves.

  13. I think Star Wars – the original trilogy – was science fantasy. It retroactively became bad science fiction when Lucas retconned the hell out of the Force by introducing the much-maligned and never-to-be-spoken-of-but-with-scorn-and-ridicule midichlorians. Before that, the Force was just some mystical magic-like … um, force. Jedi and Sith were simply hopped-up sorcerers who could fly spaceships really well.

    So, yes, the lesson, as always: blame Lucas.

  14. Isn’t this issue why we invented “the singularity”? So we could still have our heroic protagonist wielding magic sword of destiny accompanied by buxom lady comrades, and tell ourselves it’s sci-fi cause, you know, nannites?

    Bruce Sterling called it the “bottomless book of plot coupons.”

  15. Several of the Star Wars books feel like Science Fiction (some good, some bad), but the original trilogy (which I adore) _feels_ like Fantasy.

  16. I was right: Science fantasy, as a term, arose in the 1930s to describe stuff like the Mars books. Rod Serling was the first to actually coin a definition for it, in the 1950s.

  17. Saberhagen’s “Empire of the East” and the subsequent ‘Swords’ series were initially presented as a swords-and-sorcery fantasy…and then it became obvious that it was really a SF setting, but that most of the inhabitants didn’t know that.

    Perhaps we can argue that the difference between Fantasy and SF is in the presentation. Clarke’s Law applies to the universes, but not to the way they are described by the author.

    Saberhagen’s initial novels were Sword and Sorcery Fantasy. The introduction of the science behind the magic was Science Fiction. Same universe, but different genres — there’s nothing wrong with that.

    In the same way Episodes 4-6 of Star Wars was, and will forever be Fantasy. Episodes 1-3 Science Fiction. Same universe, different genres.

    [Neglected to change my Name and Link in recent comments.]

  18. These kinds of debates just cement for me the futility that is inherent in attaching genres to types of writing or movie making.

  19. Okay, completely off-topic question for John:

    I often don’t notice the Whatever sub-head, but I did today. At the (slight) risk of derailing the thread, is the current sub-head a reference to the recent comments of a certain Representative from Massachusetts?

  20. Michael Swanwick’s “Dragons of Babel” just came out in paperback, and besides being awesome, is it fantasy or sci fi?

  21. I thought I had heard that Star Wars fell into the Space Opera genre (or I had read about that somewhere). That has always made the most amount of sense to me as it’s not really Science Fiction and yet, not quite Fantasy either. Big epic story with really loose rules.

    Great article on AMC though. I giggled and then watched the drama unfold on Slashdot. This geek found both amusing.

  22. You know, any argument that Star Wars is anything but bad science fiction died when George Lucas invented midi-chlorians, i.e., an attempted rational explanation for the Force. So I’m still not buying Star Wars as anything other than science fiction (nor that Lucas intended it to be seen as anything other than science fiction).

  23. This seriously matters? John, your article at AMC was hilarious, and spot on. I can’t wait to see the one about Star Trek. Wanna to B5 and BSG as well (pref. after I’ve finished watching BSG…)?

  24. I’m actually more weirded out by the insistence by some people that particularly good scientifically-based speculative fiction (such as 1984 or Brave New World) is NOT science fiction simply due to it’s quality as literature.

    What’s the old joke? Sam Delaney’s been trying for 40 years to get his books out of the SF section and into the Lit section while Ursula K Le Guin has been trying for that same period to get her books out of the Lit section and into the SF section.

  25. At a previous place of employment, we built a simple demo movies database with title, director, genre, etc. We had the usual genres (science fiction, comedy, romance), but also threw in “Bad.” Seeing Episode I assigned the genre “Bad” drew chuckles from more than one client…

  26. I shouldn’t disagree with Our Benevolent Host, but I think it’s the geek equivalent of arguing about whether a punt is a type of kick–not about sports as a whole.

  27. Midi-chlorians killed it for a lot of people.

    Going after the B5 universe would be interesting as I thought they really tried to use the best available science at the time. Although it’s a moot point seeing it’s the AMC blog and the B5 franchise only made for TV movies.

  28. I preferred Star Wars when it was bad science fiction. The midi-chlorians killed it for me.

  29. Well put. I think that, while not exactly defined, fantasy is distinctly different as a genre from Science Fiction. However, I might be inclined to agree with the claim that Star Wars is fantastic.

  30. I don’t think science fiction and fantasy are exclusive, to the extent they are well defined in the first place. (And they are not very well defined.)

    My answer to the question: “Is Star Wars Science Fiction or Fantasy” is “Yes.” I think that Lucas was deliberately trying to hit both genres, to smear out any line there was between them.

    In any case, our bacon-taping host is indeed correct that “failed SF” is not “fantasy.” That’s low grade snark, at best.

  31. While Star Wars has terrible science, it is true, I can’t help but laugh at people who call one of the most popular movies ever made “bad.”

  32. Sarcastro@34: Neither Delaney nor Le Guin struck me as writers particularly worried about scientific accuracy in their work. I am not sure that “good” and “scientifically accurate” are all that well related, and I think that when people say “scientifically accurate” they mostly just mean “internally consistent”, which is good writing.

    I personally find the whole “Science Fiction” vs. “Fantasy” argument tedious, especially in the edge cases.

    I heard Star Wars called “Space Opera” a lot more before the current crop of modern SF writers rescued space opera from the schlock pile and turned it into one of the most literate SF subgenres, which in itself shows how little genre matters in terms of quality.

  33. I’d thought the prevailing idea prior to Ep’s 1-3 was that Star Wars was a Western with some SciFi/Fantasy trappings.

  34. So…what DO you call good movies with SF trappings that pay little heed to accuracy in the science presented?

    If SF doesn’t have room in it’s camp for Star Wars IV and V without calling them “bad” examples of the genre, then SF’s tent is too small and Star Wars (and similar non-suckful movies) do need to be considered under another category. Not Fantasy, certainly, but -something- that doesn’t require “bad” be in the description.

    Like, I dunno…how about a SF sub-genre like Science Fantasy that doesn’t marginalize or denigrate them from the get-go. Really…what’s wrong with that?

  35. “So…what DO you call good movies with SF trappings that pay little heed to accuracy in the science presented?”

    Science fiction. It’s also what I call bad movies with SF trappings, etc etc.

  36. I agree that Star Wars became Science Fiction with the addition of Midi-Chlorians. Pre-Midi-Chlorians, however, “The Force” was just another word for “Magic”.

    Um — I’d love to have the edition of Midi-Chlorians for Dummies that explains how magic VD capable of bringing about a virgin birth qualifies as “science”.

  37. John Scalzi@46:

    I’d also say there are some otherwise damn good movies, with or without “SF trappings”, that have plot logic holes (badly filled with frantic hand-waving) you could drive the Death Star through.

    Prosecution exhibit A: District 9, which I saw last night.

  38. How can any argument that SW is anything but bad science fiction have died when Lucas invented midichlorians? If he invented them after the original trilogy was made, then they’re not relevant to the status of the original trilogy. The original trilogy contains science fictional trappings, but it also contains fantasy trappings – most notably, the Force. Hence it is both science fiction and fantasy – this has nothing to do with its quality.

    Oh, and by the way – the BBC Proms recently had a concert in celebration of evolution. After playing various pieces of myuisc inspired by animals, etc., they ended with a piece that would take us in to the future. Star Wars. Um…

  39. “Science fiction. It’s also what I call bad movies with SF trappings, etc etc.”

    But that’s not all you call it. You say a movie becomes “bad” Science Fiction based simply on “lack of rational causality”).

    Therefore “Empire Strikes Back” is bad Science Fiction. Even if one could argue “hey, I’m not saying it’s a bad movie–just bad in its use of science”, you have to understand how some, ahem, fanboys, might not like “bad” being tacked on to the description of what is generally considered a rather good movie.

    I’m just saying…if by definition, “Empire Strikes Back” is always going to be considered a “bad” example of the genre, then it either belongs in another genre, or a sub-class of the genre that describes it without calling it “bad”.

  40. First, I think John’s right about Star Wars.

    Second, LeGuin’s Hainish novels are definitely science fiction, and pretty hard science fiction at that. The Ansible, which I believe she invented, follows the concepts of quantum entanglement, about which we are learning more and more. And, in spite of the rule that “information cannot be passed through entanglement”, non-locality is becoming more and more important in physics. The only time she really betrays Relativity is with her FTL weapons.

    If you haven’t read Rocannon’s World, The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed, you have missed some of the most powerful science fiction ever written.

    Obviously, the Earthsea novels are pure fantasy (and allegory).

  41. Another Andrew:

    “How can any argument that SW is anything but bad science fiction have died when Lucas invented midichlorians?”

    Quite obviously because it signaled Lucas’ intent that everything in the Star Wars universe have a rational basis, including the mystic force known as The Force. That he didn’t introduce them until Phantom is neither here nor there; the framing of the entire universe is meant to be rational rather than magical.

    I certainly don’t think Lucas did a good job of the framing, but if you want to argue that it’s really fantasy, don’t take it up with me, take it up with Lucas. He’s the one that’s pretty definitively declared his universe as science fictional.

    Daniel B:

    “But that’s not all you call it.”

    So what? If I bite into an apple and it’s bad, I’ll call it a bad apple. It doesn’t make it any less of an apple, it just means it’s an apple I have no desire to eat any more.

  42. Well Delaney has, when he embarks to do so, been fairly plausible with his non-fantasy world building w/ regard to science and realism.

  43. “So what? If I bite into an apple and it’s bad, I’ll call it a bad apple. It doesn’t make it any less of an apple, it just means it’s an apple I have no desire to eat any more.”

    And if I bite into a good mango, I don’t call it a bad apple, because, well, that would be silly. It doesn’t belong to that category even though it shares some characteristics of an apple (general shape, coloring, fruit-ness). But it has no hope of ever being what you would call a “good apple” so I don’t call it that. It would throw the whole taxonomy off.

    Too subtle an analogy?

  44. 1. I remember the Saberhagen book, Empire of the East – borrowed several ideas from it for my D&D campaign in high school.
    2. You know, I thought that the concept of “hard” science fiction was exactly to differentiate…between science fiction (good OR bad) that tried to be scientifically correct, and s.f. (good OR bad) that did not make that effort but was fun to read anyway.
    3. Star Wars is NOT fantasy. sorry. It’s science fiction and has always been so.

  45. Daniel B:

    “And if I bite into a good mango, I don’t call it a bad apple”

    Well, see. But you haven’t bitten into a good mango, have you. It goes something like this:

    George Lucas: Look, I’ve brought you an apple.

    Daniel B: (bites into it) Wow, what a great mango!

    George Lucas: Er, no. It’s an apple.

    Me: And it sucks!

    Just because you want it to be a mango doesn’t make it a mango.

  46. John…Lucas’ invention of midichlorions (I don’t GAF how he spells the stupid name of the stupid things) was a STUPID attempt to turn Star Wars into science fiction, when it worked just fine as Space Opera a la Buck Rogers.

    Yes, I mean I reject episodes 1-3 (which are PURE TRASH as far as I’m concerned) as canon, and think we should make our judgements based solely on the “good” episodes (in quotes because Lucas writes dialogue like someone who’s never heard a human speak, but I like them anyway). By that standard, they’re Space Opera, which is a kind of Fantasy with (physically impossible) spaceships. And ray guns, not lasers. And Swords Of Light (aka light sabers), which have no resemblance to any science-fictional weapon.

    Yeah, if you put in the the Stupid Chapters (with their teenage elected queens and…oh, don’t get me started), it’s just bad science fiction. Ignore them (my personal preference) and it’s pretty OK space opera.

  47. Scalzi: “George Lucas: Look, I’ve brought you an apple.
    Daniel B: (bites into it) Wow, what a great mango!
    George Lucas: Er, no. It’s an apple.

    >>> Me: And it sucks!”

    Ah–but, see, you switched characters there at the end and grabbed my part.

    Had I been speaking that last line, it actually would have gone:

    Daniel B: And what a tasty example of an Apple-Mango that is!

  48. Other than The Force, is there any reason to classify Star Wars as fantasy? I mean, you have spaceships, aliens, laser guns, laser swords, robots, computers, all sorts of SF related stuff (‘trappings’, if you will). At most, you could call it a SF-fantasy hybrid, but come on; it’s SF!

  49. I was very clear when I ditched school to stand in line in Westwood for Episode IV that I was going to see a Science Fiction movie. I was very clear when the setting was explained as a “galaxy far, far away” that I was actually going to see a Science Fiction movie. And when that Star Destroyer came on the screen, filling it and showing the size and scope of the thing, firing lasers and not worrying about aerodynamics in outer space, I was positive that I was in fact actually seeing a Science Fiction movie.

    The sense of awe and wonder engendered by that first scene created a lot of goodwill in my heart for Mr. Lucas, a large credit balance he kept drawing down over the rest of the movie. He had enough left over to get me past the Ewoks, it was that much to start with. He finally got into a negative balance by the time of Episode I.

    Now he owes me big time.

    But midiChlorians or not, lasers or phasers or phased plasma guns aside, I have always been quite clear that I was looking at some Science Fiction on that screen there.

    Oh, and Larry Niven knows how to mix SF and fantasy just fine, at least until the magic goes away.

  50. I’ve considered SW to be fantasy in tone, rather than literally — it has the trappings of fantasy, with a quest and a wizard and magical-seeming powers.

  51. I’m with the Space Opera camp. I remember when the original movie came out that it was marketed as an homage to the classic space opera serials (hence, “Episode IV”) and was *supposed* to be kinda campy and free-and-easy with the science. As an homage to classic space opera, it’s wonderful. However, then he tried to get respectable on us, trotting out Campbell and expanding a story that didn’t need expanding. It’s his later efforts as revisionism which tried to pull it out of space opera (the new space opera was still a while off which would pull the term into respectability) and into “science fiction” that left a bad taste in my mouth.

  52. In reference to an earlier remark that SW is a western with a patina of Sci-Fi, I’m afraid not. It’s a samurai flick with a patina of Sci-Fi. Specifically (the) Hidden Fortress. I can’t remember if the is part of its title, thus the parentheses. If you get the chance to see it you’ll get what I’m talking about. That said I have to agree with the Scalzinator it is Sci-Fi, just not particularly well thought out Sci-Fi. However when it came out it I watched six times in a row that day. It is still in the top ten Sci-Fi movies of all time. Of course I’m ignoring eps. I-III as being still too painful to discuss.

  53. I accept your argument that Bad Sci Fi doesn’t become fantasy, it remains SciFi with a large side helping of Bad.

    However I’m going to have to say Star Wars is more “the exception that proves the rule”. It uses all the tropes of fantasy, structures itself like fantasy, and basically if it didn’t have robots and space ships it would be a fantasy. Change the word “planet” into “kingdom” and a half dozen other transpositions and you are set.

    If you take the 1970’s BSG (which I liked as a kid, but it was bad SciFi, or at the very least the science was just as bad as Star War’s) and try the same trick you won’t get a fantasy.

  54. J Osborne:

    “basically if it didn’t have robots and space ships it would be a fantasy.”

    But that’s a bit like saying that if The Sound of Music didn’t have songs and dance numbers it would be a drama. George Lucas put the robots and space ships in there for a reason, you know: Because he wanted it to be a science fiction story.

  55. How about that all fiction is fantasy of a sort?

    It seems those that lament “genre ghettos” are the ones who all too easily enjoy reinforcing them.


  56. Isn’t the politically correct term for all of it these days, “speculative fiction?”

    I’ve understood such an umbrella term to cover everything from Asimov to Tolkien to Lee (Stan, that is.) Even “alternate history” stuff that has no magic or spaceships at all.

    Basically, anything that isn’t grounded in current or historical reality as we know it is “speculative” and thus under the same proud geek flag, yes?

  57. I can live with ‘bad science fiction but good movie’, at least as far as ep. IV-VI. Space opera also works fine. We do not discuss ep. I-III.

  58. Calling Star Wars all one thing or another is a bit of an error, I think.

    Certainly, some percentage of Star Wars is clearly science fiction. And that percentage is poor science fiction indeed. But it’s also an action movie, a space opera, and a popcorn flick.

    I’m not defending the science, and I agree that Lucas tried to make it more science-fictiony in Episode I. It’s just that we’re focusing on the genre it fails in.

    To put it another way, I agree 100% with you. I just don’t think that necessarily makes it a bad movie. :)

  59. My opinion of Star Wars as science-fiction versus fantasy has nothing whatsoever to do with quality. Let us lay aside the prequel movies and a certain bit of ill-conceived retroactive explanation and look at the substance of episodes IV, V, and VI – still three of my favorite movies.

    Star Wars is essentially a fantasy story with science-fiction window dressing. It’s a story of prophesized destiny and mystical orders, of swords and sorcery and a young man inheriting secrets passed down through the ages to fulfill his destiny and vanquish evil, accompanied by a rogue with a conscience and a princess of an exterminated people.

    Claiming it can’t possibly be fantasy – and claiming the only reason it gets referred to as fantasy is to try to ghettoize it because its science doesn’t measure up – is ignoring the traditions and tropes, and the underlying soul of the story, that the fantasy genre brought to the table.

    On the other hand, it’s got spaceships and energy weapons and robots, so it has to be science fiction and science fiction alone, right?

  60. Fantasy as ghetto? Whoa.

    I suppose there is some of that running around. After all, fantasy is often seen as romantic and “pretty” and magical and therefore feminine, whereas SF is seen as logical and metal and machinery and therefore masculine.

    So of course some men who aren’t 100% confident in the size of their equipment are going to assume that fantasy is inherently weak and thus inferior.

    (Or: Some guys have this idea that Mad Max is inherently more badass than Legolas, despite the fact that said poncy elf would lay Mad Max on his back in half a second.)

    This leads to two things:
    -Men who love a certain fantasy-esque bit of SF bristling at the questioning of its masculinity.
    -Men who sense certain fantasy-esque tropes in a certain bit of SF and deride it by calling such things out.

    None of this, of course, has anything to do with the inherent quality of a given story. Crappy dialogue, pointless plot and uninteresting characters make for a crappy story no matter if it’s about swords or lasers or superpowers.

  61. Also, to expand on my previous post, I don’t really think Space Fantasy is something invented specifically as a genre to contain Star Wars. And for that matter, I’m pretty sure I recall reading more than a few books that could be argued to fall into that same genre. Some of them even predate Star Wars.

  62. I think we all need to take the advice of the great Adam Savage: “I reject your reality and substitute my own”.

  63. Tal @ 73:
    Isn’t the politically correct term for all of it these days, “speculative fiction?”

    I don’t know about ‘politically correct’, but it can potentially hose down a definitional slap-fight whose vehemence is in direct inverse proportion to its utility or interest to anyone except the direct participants. (Not talking about this thread, but I’ve seen others that get that way in minutes.)

  64. mensley @#66: The whole “Episode 4” thing, IIRC, was retconned in as well — when Star Wars came out in 1977, there was not “Episode”, no “New Hope”, it was just good ol’ Star Wars.

  65. Our Esteemed Hugo-Winning Host writes:

    “That he didn’t introduce [midi-Chlorians] until Phantom is neither here nor there; the framing of the entire universe is meant to be rational rather than magical. ”

    Or, at least Lucas meant it that way when he made _The Phantom Menace_. Lucas’ claims notwithstanding, I’m not at all convinced that he had the whole saga worked out in his head when he made _Star Wars_ in 1977. (There was no “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” subtitle in the original release.) It seems much more likely to me, having seen the early movies and some of the early interviews, that he was making a lot of it up as he went along.

    Taken by themselves, _Star Wars_ and its immediate successors seem to be easily understood to include a mix of science and magic. Nothing wrong with that. The movies released in 1999 and later provide a different interpretation, of course, but they don’t necessarily force you to read the older movies in the same light as the newer ones.

    To take an analogy from literature, Huckleberry Finn is one of the most enduring characters in American literature, and folks who read him now generally think of him in the light of Mark Twain’s _Tom Sawyer_ and _Huckleberry Finn_. A decade after these books came out, when Twain was in difficult financial straits, he publshed two quick sequels featuring the same character, _Tom Sawyer Abroad_ and _Tom Sawyer, Detective_. They’re largely forgotten now, and few if any commentators insist that you have to interpret Huckleberry Finn through the constraints of those lesser sequels. (Actually, in this case some critics even preferred to forget about the last few chapters of _Huckleberry Finn_ itself, never mind the sequels.)

  66. Just to throw a flaming bit of pitch into this:

    Does the presence of religion, deities or some other sort of higher power automatically turn a piece of SF into fantasy?

    (Why yes, I *am* still annoyed with the purist seizures engendered by the final episode of BSG.)

  67. Star Wars has always occupied for me that place between SF and fantasy.

    We hereby claim Star Wars as space opera, and then turn around and say that everything Star Wars did well, Firefly did better, and without as many flawed design principles. I mean, Han Solo, ‘great,’ Mal Reynolds, ‘bad’ (in the Latin).

    And by ‘bad,’ I mean, very great. GreatER.

  68. To reiterate your point, to justify the world-building failures of Star Wars by calling it any kind of fantasy is to really insult those who write *good* fantasies. Tolkien’s world-building was as self-consistent and logical as anything that the hardest of hard-SF writers ever developed.

  69. John Mark Ockerbloom @83:

    …I’m not at all convinced that he had the whole saga worked out in his head when he made _Star Wars_ in 1977. (There was no “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” subtitle in the original release.) It seems much more likely to me, having seen the early movies and some of the early interviews, that he was making a lot of it up as he went along.

    I know that as a youngster HUGE into the original Star Wars, I was aware as early as 1978-ish that there were meant to be nine movies in three trilogies, that Darth Vader sustained his injuries in a fight with Obi Wan on the edge of a volcano, and that the Emperor was named Palpatine. The “Episode IV” was left off originally, no doubt, because the studio had little confidence it would hit. So I’m sure the rough outline of the backstory was there all along, sans details of course, whether short and furry or tall and floppy-eared.

  70. Tal wrote:
    Just to throw a flaming bit of pitch into this:

    Does the presence of religion, deities or some other sort of higher power automatically turn a piece of SF into fantasy?

    Oh, shit — do we really have to get the Dune fans into this as well. :)

  71. It’s fantasy.

    Look, if I have a fantasy with a generally Sumerian tech level, it’s fantasy, right? If I do it with a generally Roman tech level, still fantasy, right? Okay, now I give it a Middle Ages tech level. Hey, still fantasy! How about Renaissance? Thirty Years’ War? Napoleonic Wars? Industrial Revolution? Modern (like Harry Potter)? Still fantasy.

    Okay. You know what? It remains fantasy even if the background tech is pushed to “futuristic” levels, whether we’re talking Shadowrun or Star Wars. Fantasy is still fantasy whatever the tech level is, because in a fantasy, the technology is just costuming.

    So, no, the spaceships and lasers don’t actually prove Star Wars is science fiction.

    And declaring that the ability to use magic is a function of the wielder’s cellular-level biology doesn’t suddenly transform the magic into a biology-based science fiction, any more than making it dependent on the position of the planets makes it astronomy-based science fiction. So no, midichlorians don’t prove what you want them to prove, either.

    An Arthurian romance set in the year 595 AD, where people are adhering to social customs and wearing armor wasn’t invented until nine hundred years later is full of historical fail. You can say it’s nonsense, historically-speaking. But you’ve failed as an analyst and a critic if you say it’s “bad historical fiction”. Responding to people who say that it isn’t historical fiction at all with the observation that “the failure mode of historical fiction is bad historical fiction” doesn’t vindicate your initial error.

    Star Wars is lousy, scientifically. But it still isn’t bad science fiction, because it wasn’t ever science fiction.

  72. Those of you saying that “Star Wars” is Space Opera, not Science Fiction…

    Space Opera -is- science fiction. Dune is a space opera. It doesn’t make it not science fiction.

  73. It is really bad science fiction. I have often felt that way about Star Trek. Of course as a kid I thought it was the greatest science fiction story of all time.

  74. 1. Jeff 87 and John 83: Find on the web the various drafts of the Star Wars script starting with the first random scribblings. By diving into the process, it becomes clear that Lucas was making it up as he went along. First it was about sibling rivalry between then Luke character and his brothers, then it was about magic crystals, then there’s Obi Wan leading the wookee army; then there’s the one where Han Solo is a giant lizard and stole the Falcon by faking a radiation leak. Interestingly, having the evil general really be Luke’s father was never in anything until the final Empire script. Judge for yourself whether there were ever complete outlines for nine or twelve or whatever movies.

    2. I found it fascinating to make my way through the 900-page doorstop The Space Opera Renaissance (I am sure there are many equivalent collections). Particularly they detail the path of “space opera” from bad schlock stories (but in space!) to exciting high quality SF, and what was good in the schlock to begin with (the name Leigh Brackett turns this conversation into a circle).

  75. John, this is where I find it handy to point at one of Damon Knight’s definitions: SF appeals to the authority of science as justification for its inventions. Which is not the same thing as actually being scientific. It’s more about being science- (and engineering-)like. Flanges and blinking lights show us that this box is a machine and not a magical tool or the Lemarchand Configuration, and so on. I find that it clarifies things, and makes it easier to back up the “not fantasy, bad sf” charge.

  76. I gave up on this argument a couple of years ago and just defer to those smarter than I. The chain bookstores.

    In what section is it located? Messers Barnes and Noble placed Star Wars and Star Trek in the Science Fiction/Fantasy. Senor Borders set it there, likewise.

    Maybe it is time for a more precise title. I would suggest we follow a well known cable channel and call it “SYFY.”

    But we’d get sued.

  77. 1) If you want to see how good fiction blurring the lines between SF and F looks like, you can’t go wrong with Zelazny. De gustibus etc., but putting SW in the same category as that feels *wrong* to me.

    2) If you want to have a “special” category for SW and related works, and insist in keeping it separate from SF (which seems pointless to me), why don’t you try Pulp Fiction? (ducks)

  78. “But that’s a bit like saying that if The Sound of Music didn’t have songs and dance numbers it would be a drama. George Lucas put the robots and space ships in there for a reason, you know: Because he wanted it to be a science fiction story.”

    Not really. If I took Foundation and threw in some castles and horses it is still Sci Fi (and also a copyright infringement).

    C. J. Cherryh’s SciFi stories read very differently from her fantasy stories. It isn’t the presence or absence of rockets that determine it.

    Granted that isn’t the same for all authors and stories. My memory fails me at the moment, but “The Ship Who Sang” and “Dragonriders of Pern” are two of her works. Some of her SciFi reads like it could be fantasy (and I’m not talking about the Pern books which were written to kind of be both).

    But I will buy that Lucas wanted Star Wars to be SciFi, but he also wanted JarJar to be an interesting character. The author gets a strong say in what the story is, but in the end the readers actually interpret it :-)

  79. I think it mostly goes back to the whole, “But my peanut-butter in the Reeses Pieces genre is MUCH better than your stinking chocolate” arguments. So anything “good” is one, and anything “bad” is the other.

    And yeah, if you’re going to say “Star Wars is fantasy because of the Force,” well then buckaroo, that makes “Dune” fantasy as well (and then I’ll have to make comparisons between “sensawonder” and “religious ecstasy”). Or do I need to remind everybody of powers of the Bene Gesserit (in the “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” tone of Voice) or the magical-mushroom drug of Spice?

  80. *blank stare of horror*

    Okay… so in defiance of the (pretty factual) statement “Star Wars is science fiction, but the science really sucks” the response is “No! It’s fantasy! If you’re going to call it a bad example of something, WE’LL REDEFINE WHAT IT ITS!”

    Man. Have any of you lot ever considered a job in government, or maybe legislature? You’d make out like bandits.

    Heckuva job on your Swords and Sworcery there, George. Heckuva job.

  81. John Scalzi@53:

    Quite obviously because it signaled Lucas’ intent that everything in the Star Wars universe have a rational basis, including the mystic force known as The Force. That he didn’t introduce them until Phantom is neither here nor there; the framing of the entire universe is meant to be rational rather than magical.

    The extent to which an author’s intention determines the meaning of a work is a vexed question, but I’ve never heard it suggested that an intention formed after the work was created does so. Now, you may argue that this was a manifestation of an intention he had all along, but this is far from clear. Certainly, he always had a plan, going beyond the first film or the first trilogy, but it wasn’t always the same plan.

    In any case, even if that was his intention when he made the first film, he failed to manifest it clearly. So even if it is in a deep sense not-fantasy, it wasn’t unreasonable of people to treat it as fantasy; they weren’t doing so just because the science fiction elements don’t work; they were doing so because it has massive unexplained fantasy tropes in it. (The science in Doctor Who doesn’t make sense either, but that’s defintiely science fiction.)

    Steven E@89:

    I totally accept your argument that it’s fantasy, but why does that make it not-science-fiction? You are tremendously limiting science fiction if you limit it to stories about science; any work with a science-based futurisitic setting is genreally accepted as science fiction. Within that setting it can be lots of other thigns as well – romance, for instance, or detective fiction. So why not fantasy?

  82. Another Andrew:

    “Now, you may argue that this was a manifestation of an intention he had all along, but this is far from clear.”

    Really, no: It’s obvious this is science fiction right from the beginning. The opening scene of Star Wars featuring two space ships blasting each other with laser beams above a desert planet was your first hint, followed immediately by the appearance of robots. This sort of revisionism of intent is belied from the first frames of the series.

    As others have noted, really the only major fantasy element was The Force, so labeling it as fantasy was largely tendentious to begin. When Lucas hauled in the Midi-Chlorians, he was simply confirming (and baldly restating) what was already obvious: This is science fiction, not fantasy.

  83. J Osborne @96:

    For the record “The Ship Who Sang” and the “Pern” novels are the works of Anne McCafferey. I’m not at all familiar with Cherryh’s work but I own virtually all of McCafferey’s.

    I’m not sure that McCafferey would be a good example for showing the difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy though. Her Pern novels have become SF by the end of the third book in the series, “The White Dragon.” In fact, I think the only fantasy she’s written are her Acorna books but that just happens to be the only series of hers that I haven’t read/own.

    Sorry for the derail. I actually have no passionate opinion one way or the other on the Star Wars issue. Carry on!

  84. There is no such thing as science fiction that is not fantasy. Such a thing, a science-based fiction set in the real world, is usually called a “techno thriller”. Once the world ceases to be the real world – ie, magic exists, technology not currently invented is used, gods walk the world, ghosts exist, there’s The Force, telepaths, etc – you are dealing with fantasy.

    I’m not sure I’d say SW was “bad science-fiction” but I would say SW is bad-science fiction. Or, rather, soft science-fiction.

  85. Aside: The first time I ever heard (or used) the phrase “Science Fantasy” was in regards to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series. That would be pre-Star Wars – when Darkover – Landfall was released (1972? 1973? — somewhere in there) and McCaffrey’s early dragonriders work (68-71) where in the “science fiction” was cleverly disguised and obscured in the plot, but you still knew the current crop of characters were descended form people not originally from the planets the stories took place on.

  86. OK, the “author’s intent vs public perception” controversy: check. The invocation of of Clarke’s Lew: check. The descent into micro-categorizing of genres: check. Weighing in by other mighty SF names: check.

    Ah, the Star Wars design post: the thread that keeps on giving… and giving… and giving…

  87. I enjoyed the hell out of the article.

    As a Trekkie, I can’t wait to see what you have to say about “Star Trek”. There are those that feel Trek is the best representation of “science” on television and decry the bad science–i.e. the McGuffin, Red Matter, and black holes–in the new movie. But when it’s pointed out that Trek has had wonky science from the get-go, they get their nacelles in a warp core breech.

    Unfortunately, black holes have functioned in the other Treks (read: VOYAGER) much in the same way they do in the new movie.

    Now I’m not the best when it comes to this science stuff. I admit it. But I accept and embrace that Trek has bad science even though the production staff (read: Probert, Sternbach, Okuda, Drexler) tried their best to inject as much real science and verisimilitude to the franchise.

    Besides it’s all in good fun. Scalzi, I say to you, “Bring it!”

    P.S. I hope you also take on “Babylon 5”. That’s another favorite of mine and I’d like to read your take on that series as well.

  88. Our Esteemed Hugo-Missing Host writes:

    “As others have noted, really the only major fantasy element was The Force, so labeling it as fantasy was largely tendentious to begin [with].”

    Labeling it as *only* fantasy (and not SF), sure. But the original Star Wars trilogy clearly had important features of both genres. One can’t just hand-wave the Force away as an incidental element in those movies. It surrounds them and penetrates them. It binds the trilogy together.

    And the way it’s presented, from the opening of _Star Wars_ right through the close of _Return of the Jedi_, is essentially mystical, and not scientific, both in the things it does and in the way people talk about it and relate to it. (That includes the Jedi characters he brings back in the prequels, who there take a rather different approach to the Force.)

    Lucas may have changed his mind about the Force after the original trilogy was in the can (as he did about a number of other things, Han and Greedo being one of the more infamous examples). But if he did, that doesn’t require the _Star Wars_ audience to re-interpret something already published, unless they want to. They have the same option as they have with, say, _Tom Sawyer, Detective_ (or, for that matter, the Star Wars Holiday Special).

  89. Well, no, the Force isn’t the only fantasy element. The “A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” is sort of an up-front tipoff that this isn’t exactly an SF movie you’re watching, notwithstanding the obvious SF trappings. It was pretty clear to me even as long ago as my teenage years, well before the prequels sort of damaged everything, that a movie about a boy getting a magic sword from a wizard and storming the castle to save the princess from the black knight was fantasy as much as anything, even if he stormed the castle in a spaceship and used a raygun.

    I suppose the real labelling question goes to whether a genre is its trappings or its substance, or both. Do wormholes and the late appearance of a laser-blasting spaceship make Time Bandits a science-fiction film after all, for instance? I’m actually pretty willing to split the difference, myself–I have no problem agreeing with calling Alien an SF film while agreeing with whoever it was (might have been Stephen King) who called it a haunted house film set in space. I prefer to refer to Star Wars as fantasy because I think the essential elements are fantasy elements, but I have no quibble with it being stacked with the SF films or being called science fiction: Star Wars’ SF trappings are pretty extensive, and I don’t think there’s any argument that Lucas frequently lunged in SF’s direction or took stabs at making a sort of SF film.

    Of course, he took stabs at giving the movies Western elements, Samurai elements, WWII Air Ace Adventure elements, Vietnam Allegory elements–what Star Wars mostly is, is it’s a mash-up.

    I dunno, call it what you want. I’m sticking with the fantasy label not because it’s a failure default position or because the science undeniably sucks, but because I think the chief elements in the mashup are stolen from Arthurian Romance. Your mileage obviously varies. Might depend on whether you pay more attention in, say, Phantom Menace to the BS about midichlorians or the bit where the two knights take on the evil ninja over a pit’o’doom. Phantom Menace is a godawful movie (I recently re-watched it on DVD, have searched my feelings and know it to be true, will refrain from self-pimping the blog entry I wrote about it), but I know which of those two things–half-assed mitichondria ripoff or awesome knight-on-ninja action–I’ll try to hold in my heart.

    Oh, and the piece on bad design was pretty funny, by the way.

  90. PS

    And yes, John, I know you’ve addressed the “trappings vs. essence” thing before. It just seems to me to be the real heart of this discussion, too.

  91. I believe the original term is “space opera”. Everyone knows that opera doesn’t have to make sense. The songs just have to sound good. Space opera has usually been the branch of SF with the lowest level of world-building, so who cares?

    While Lucas may not have advanced the state of the art in SF (or space opera) world-building, he certainly isn’t at the bottom of the heap by any means. Seems more like he recreated a cinematic version of some old SF pulp magazine story, warts and all.

    People always get their shorts in a knot when someone points out the flaws in something they love. For a lot of people, if someone outside their marriage starts picking at their spouse’s flaws, they’ll get enraged. Same effect here.

    None of the flaws JS pointed out rise to the level of “your boyfriend is a drug-dealing axe-murderer and you must be completely crazy-stupid to love him”. So there’s nothing here that invalidates the fan-bois (and grrls) love for SW to the extent of denigrating their intelligence. So there’s mostly just a lot of air from the deflating egos that got pricked by minor criticisms.

    JS: congratulations on creating such a large internet souffle out of such a simple premise.

  92. John Scalzi@101.
    Really, no: It’s obvious this is science fiction right from the beginning. The opening scene of Star Wars featuring two space ships blasting each other with laser beams above a desert planet was your first hint, followed immediately by the appearance of robots

    Yes, but I’m not saying it’s not science fiction. I’m saying that it’s not (as far as anyone could conclude from the first trilogy) meant to have a completely rational explanation. I don’t see why the presence of spaceships and robots should make any difference to that. Why shouldn’t there be a world which contains spaceships and robots, but is governed by a mysterious Force which does not proceed according to scientific principles?

    If we’re trying to assign works to genres for marketing purposes – what shelf to put books on, and the like – we have to make dichotomous decisions. But if we’re just doing it for purposes of criticism and comparison, isn’t it obvious that lots of works belong to more than one genre? And why shouldn’t there be some that belong to bith science fiction and fantasy?

  93. “McCafferey would be a good example for showing the difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy though”

    Nope, that was me saying sometimes it is pretty mixed.

    (and it was utterly unclear in my previous writings: I’m not saying Star Wars is Fantasy because I don’t like it, I _love_ it, and I love me some SciFi while I merely like fantasy…but Star Wars is a great big fantasy flavored cake with fantasy icing, and some SciFi candles on top. Don’t care, I love it anyway; now the science in Star Trek is just as bad, but it ain’t Fantasy…)

    Of corse after reflecting on it over night, maybe my choice of what is fantasy and what isn’t says more about me then anything about the movie. Otherwise I would argue just as strongly that Aliens II isn’t SciFi but a War Movie (that happens to have some spaceships and Aliens). Aliens I is a horror movie set in space. Aliens III doesn’t seem to have any strong theme in it, so it is just plain bad SciFi. Maybe I should view Star Trek as “political commentary set in space” too for consistency, but I just see it as SciFi a bit short on the actual Science, but still very enjoyable.

    Maybe I should have taken more film classes in collage. Or fewer.

  94. John Mark Ockerbloom @108 wrote: They have the same option as they have with, say, _Tom Sawyer, Detective_ (or, for that matter, the St*r W*rs H*l*d*y Sp*c**l).

    Please feel free in future to never place those two titles within the same sentence. EVER.

    I appreciate your use of parentheses to soften the blow, but they’re about as effective as a toilet-paper condom.

  95. Errrr, ERB was ‘science fantasy’. C.L. Moore as well, etc. Star Wars is science fantasy in every respect, along the lines of Flash Gordon. What we call ‘Science Fantasy’ predates golden age ‘hard’ science fiction by a century or so. At least. Though I wager that the bulk of the words written in the ‘genre’ are SW spinoff books!

  96. Um . . . sorry. Beg to differ with Our Esteemed Host.

    Speaking with, I should say, a certain amount of authority on the subject, I have to tell you that he’s just, well, wrong.

    Look: saying that the Force is the only fantasy element in Star Wars makes exactly as much sense as saying “Magic is the only fantasy element in The Once and Future King.”

    There is no science in STAR WARS. There is plenty of fantasy. Trust me: As a guy who had to try and find some sort of remotely plausible explanation of why people and objects on a spaceship IN ORBIT fall onto the CEILING AS THE SHIP ROTATES ALONG ITS LONGITUDINAL AXIS, I can testify that Star Wars has nothing to do with science. (Anyone who doesn’t know why this opens an enormous plausibility gap is probably reading the wrong blog).

    By the way, when I mentioned the above issue to a certain Power Close To the Throne (“Dammit! Gravity just doesn’t work that way!”) I was told (to paraphrase) “Exactly. George loves that shit.”

    My personal fanboyish concern with internal consistency was regarded by the Powers That Be with a sort of tolerant amusement.

    So here it is: the Falcon “made the Kessel Run in under twelve parsecs” is not a dumbass substitution of a unit of distance for a unit of time (and, btw, that particular unit of distance is strongly Earth-dependent — yes, it is, and if you don’t believe me, look it up). That particular line is a signal to the audience to ignore everything that looks like science. If you try to make it make sense, you’ll only hurt your brain, and you certainly won’t enhance your film-viewing pleasure.

    The confusion comes in when you assume that internal tropes are the measure of genre: i.e., if it’s got spaceships and robots, it’s Science Fiction. The problem with that stance is that the spaceships, in Star Wars, are actually Mystic Chariots that reach their destination Exactly As Fast As the Plot Requires. A lightsaber is a magic sword. A robot is a fussy elf, or a loyal talking dog.

    When the main theme of the story is a mystic journey toward Atonement with the Father (or Higher Self, or whateverthehell), it’s fantasy. When the main theme of the story is an attempt to control the external world/universe/plane of existence/whatever through creative use of technology, that’s science fiction. IF the story is about Learning the Truth, it’s a detective story; if it’s about Getting the Bad Guys, it’s a cop story (which is actually an extension of the western, but whatever).

    You follow?

    So I’m kinda long-windedly echoing the point of J Osborne, above.

    Once you start looking at genre this way, everything makes a lot more sense. Defining genre by matching a list of internal tropes is, indeed, useful for marketing. And not for much else.

    Thank you for your time and attention. I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog.

  97. Oh, and by the way . . .

    I forgot to mention that nothing in the Star Wars Is Fantasy business in any way invalidates Mr. Scalzi’s points in the original argument — in fact, it only emphasizes his point.

    As I lately wrote to him:

    “In SF (real SF), you can get away with a certain clunkiness and such as an unavoidable side effect of the physical laws of the universe, the low-balling of contractor bids and general human incompetence; in a fantasy, there’s no excuse for failing to exhibit the Rule of Cool.”

    Just so you know.

  98. I think I’ve read most, if not all, of the posts in this thread and I can’t find any one that discusses the use of extrapolation. (Sorry if I missed yours.)

    Though I lack the authority of MWStover, I still believe I have a somewhat informed opinion, so let me venture it. Science Fiction involves the extrapolation of one or more aspects of reality (generally science fact), whereas fantasy does not. The Force can be seen as science extrapolation if one posits ESP/telekinesis … same as when John Campbell published Telzy Amberdon stories in Astounding magazine.

    Fantasy doesn’t try to link to our reality. There is no extrapolation element. That’s why it’s fantasy.

    Agreeing with Mr. Scalzi, internal consistency doesn’t define the genre, it defines the quality of the storytelling.

  99. I think the discussion on Lucas’ intentions in making a science fiction or fantasy film, especially when comparing the earlier and later films, misses the point – because the big change in Lucas’ approach over the years in my opinion, was not in terms of what genre he’s working on but in terms of what reaction he’s trying to get out of his audience.
    In “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back”, I don’t think that Lucas ever wanted to make the audience forget that they are watching a movie (and I became even more convinced of that when I recently watched the films again, in their original, rather than “special” editions) – on the contrary, he wanted to make them very much aware of the fact that they are watching archetypes rather than real people, to make them recognize the different references to classic and not-so-classic cinema pieces, to remind them that they are watching a bigger-than-life epic that couldn’t possibly happen in the real world. It helped that Lucas took himself far less seriously back then, which made his films far more entertaining. Sure, you can start breaking the set-pieces apart and pointing out how they just don’t work – but you could do the same with “The Wizard of Oz” (the movie), “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” and “Forbidden Planet” – to name a few of Lucas’ influences. When he first approached “Star Wars”, I believe Lucas wanted to achieve a similar effect to that of these films: a sense of wonder that comes not from the feeling that it all happens in a solid world that makes perfect sense, but rather from every new attraction that appears on the screen.
    Starting with “Return of the Jedi”, I think, Lucas changed direction – now, he decided to show that the world he created makes sense too. He needed this – because, even before the prequels’ trilogy, he needed some kind of a basis solid enough to keep the franchise alive; something that would glue together the novels, comics, games, toys, etc. And so, when we finally came to the prequels’ trilogy – and even before that, with the special editions – Lucas changed direction: now he wants us to stop thinking of his films as films, to believe that it’s all real and that it all makes sense. And this is the point where starting to take things apart and point out why they don’t make sense becomes justified.

    BTW – For all those unaware of it, I’ll take this opportunity to link to Kristen Brennan’s excellent “Star Wars Origins” website, a deep study into Lucas’ influences.

  100. Is Isaac Asimov’s classic short story Nightfall science fiction, or fantasy?

    As many have noted over the years, stellar dynamics really don’t permit the world of Nightfall to exist – and the planet’s inhabitants should have been able to see a few of the brighter stars. What, this world never had wells? No astronomer ever tried screening out the light of the suns and seeing what else might be there? It’s silly.

    The science in the story really doesn’t make sense. But the story isn’t about that. It’s about Revelation. It’s about taking the characters’ understanding of the world and shattering it open – in a way that’s safe and not-threatening to the readers, a way that doesn’t damage them, yet permits them to vicariously feel the wonder and horror of confronting something the characters couldn’t comprehend.

    H.P. Lovecraft? Science fiction, or fantasy? Similar deal there.

  101. Those who don’t think Star Wars is science fiction are dead wrong. The relationship between humans and there technology is a key aesthetic theme to the movie.

    Star Trek was cute with everyone on their shiny clean experimental ship, but that is not how most people experience technology. It is integrated into their lives, and they take it for granted. It gets old and breaks down. What will we do when we have flying cars? We will get into them and drive to the nearest town and go to a bar. Robots will one day do all sorts of things to save us time, which is good because we will be spending all that extra time fixing the robots.

    Do intelligent robots have rights? No one thought it weird to smack restraining bolts onto them to turn them into slaves. But remember C3PO lost in the desert, staring at the skeleton and pondering his own “mortality.” How is he less than a human?

    I won’t claim that these are integral to the story or that they are probed particularly deeply, but Star Wars definitely does address issues that are central to science fiction.

  102. Lovecraft?



    Yes: he was no scientist — but he did his level best to keep his stories consistent with what he knew of the science of the day, just in the interest of verisimilitude.

    He was never tracing a mystic journey to self-understanding; the journeys of understanding (ending in nihilistic contemplation of humanity’s insignificance in a hostile universe) in Lovecraft come about (usually) as the perfectly SFnal attempt to control an unruly reality through the use of Shit Man Was Not Meant to Know.

    It’s one thing for Prince Knucklemuck of Castle Spitdizzy to discover that Daylight Happiness is All an Illusion Above an Infinite Abyss. It’s entirely another when this conclusion is reached by Dr. Hard-Headed Anthropologist of Providence, RI.

    Just my opinion.

  103. @Ryan T. Riddle: The difference between the science in the new Trek movie and the old movies and tv series is that the new Star Trek movie got the science *we know NOW* wrong, which by definition makes it bad writing and bad science fiction (look at the author’s Armageddon legacy and ask why should anyone be surprised). The older incarnations very, very rarely made that error . They’re guilty of other, to my mind, much lesser evils, the main one being writing tech gobbledygook. That’s poor writing AND an efficient time saving technique when time is of the essence ( and the gobbledygook doesn’t usually kill my suspension of disbelief). (In John’s classification, it would be writing maybe 1/2 a question deep) Seldom is the tech gobblydygook just WRONG, either in the sense of getting known science wrong or the extrapolated science of the shows. I can live with that as long as I can rationally fill in the blanks in my head. On that same topic, I hardly noticed the bad science in the original 3 Star Trek movies (I was getting a Ph.D. in Astronomy when they were first released). FTL shouldn’t bother anyone who really likes SF whether or not they know it’s probably always going to be impossible. Sure, the ray guns aren’t lasers and aren’t anything plausible. That doesn’t bother me as much as the fact that they just aren’t very good as weapons (not nearly as good as old fashion slug throwers). They’re just the only thing Lukas knew….. Light sabers? They’re just stolen from Larry Niven (single atom swords enclosed in stasis field, forget the name) and gussied up to be prettier and more obvious.
    Gotta agree with John that Star Trek IS science fiction but disagree that it’s BAD science fiction (it’s just pretty classic SF of the Space Opera genre). Though there is an incredible lot to criticize (Xopher and Nick from the OC hit my main ones already). I think of the first 3 released as just SF with a religion that WORKS. The last three released? Sentient beings clearly should ignore those.
    I have been amused by statements I’ve seen recently from the original cast about how they hated and ridiculed Lucas’s dialogue while filming. Lucas clearly has gotten even worse with age.

  104. @melendwyr Given the very non-linear way in which stellar luminosities scale with mass, it’s actually quite easy to create a realistic Nightfall system (Asimov’s original would NOT work though, as at least one of the stars was in an orbit similar to Saturn’s). Oh, the “make the sky dark by looking up from the bottom of a well” idea is an old wives’ tale. Close one eye and look thru a paper towel roll and the scattered light in the daylight sky is still as bright (or just look thru any telescope such as the great new Galileoscope!).

  105. Lightsabers are not variable swords (the Niven device). If they are truly derivative of anything other than, say, Excalibur, my best bet would be Spinrad’s snipguns.

  106. I’m confused. Everyone here is talking about “bad” sci-fi as any story where the science is poorly conceived. I thought this is what the sub-categories of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi were devised for. Everything I’ve ever read about sci-fi criticism says this: if the accuracy (or at least plausibility) of the science, technology, and scientific methods presented are integral to the story, you’re looking at “hard” sci-fi. If the tech and science are there to establish setting, to provide “wow factor”, or to just make the plot work, the story is “soft” sci-fi. Under these definitions, Star Wars would be an archetypal example of soft sci-fi.
    Hard and soft aren’t intended to be value judgments on the quality of the sci-fi, just descriptors. You can have well written soft sci-fi, and poorly written hard sci-fi. Nor are they intended to be discreet categories. Star Trek can lean soft (TNG’s “Best of Both Worlds”) or hard (TNG’s “All Good Things…”).
    Preferences between the two are absolutely about taste. I enjoy both. My wife loves soft sci-fi, but not hard. I have a friend who loves hard sci-fi, but literally sneers at soft.
    This thread keeps referring to Star Wars as “bad” sci-fi (and therefore “badly written”), based on the implausibility of the science and tech. I think that’s unfair. Certainly the first two films are well written stories, even if the technology is ridiculous.
    I don’t buy an argument that “bad” and “soft” are equivalent terms. Bad implies poor quality, which is why soft was devised in the first place.

  107. I would like exrapolate Dr Rocketscience’s suggestion regarding the difference between “hard” and “soft” science fiction just a step further.

    If the science and technology is crucial to the story and has a basis in accurate or plausible science. It is Hard Science Fiction.

    If the science and technology is window dressing and bears little relation to actual science, it is Soft Science Fiction.

    If the science and technology is embarassingly and obviously inaccurate, and the story could just as easily taken place in space, a castle in Middle Earth, OR the Wild West, it should fall into a third category.

    I move we agree to call it Flaccid Science Fiction.

    That could include Star Wars, Dr Who, and almost everything by Michael Crichton.

  108. MWStover @ 125 —

    “Castle Spitdizzy”??

    I initially read that as “Castle Spindizzy” and was ready to discuss the mystic journeys of James Blish. It would have been epic, really.

  109. I loved Raz Greenberg’s point, especially since I was planning to make a similar one, just not as eloquently. I stood in line to see Star Wars, before it became Episode IV, on the first day. (No, I was not at Woodstock ) I left loving it but feeling that every scene had been an homage to a similar scene in a different movie. I think Lucas would have used any available genre, but that sf gave him more flexibility. It could have been a Western and done the same thing.

    SW was good because it evoked icons and images that were both familiar and strange. The science was just a by-product. Remember when the Millennium Falcon wouldn’t go into hyperdrive and almost “caught” a couple of time before sputtering to a stop? That was an inside joke to old car lovers.


  110. I can see your point, but still argue with it. Star Wars is structurally fantasy in SF drag. It’s the One True Prince Finding His Destiny trope mingled with the Good Wizard vs Bad Wizard trope mingled with The Universe Is Conscious Meaning Science Hasn’t Got A Chance Against Faith trope. Add to this all the third-hand Sinbad crap, the Jason & the Argonauts as Oedipus crap, and the virtual inability of anyone anywhere to ever hit anything with a blaster crap but a swordsman will win every time crap…

    It’s fantasy. We even have a castle in the air that must be stormed.

  111. John writes:—“Meh. “Space Fantasy” or “Science Fantasy” is a phrase that got coined in the wake of Star Wars as an attempt to cordon it off from the rest of the science fiction genre, if memory serves.”

    No, it existed as a label from at least the Fifties for certain “flavors” of fiction of the Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter variety. No magic, per se, but elements of heroic or so-called high fantasy mingled liberally with sometimes post-holocaust landscapes or alien worlds or…well, Jack Vance’s oeuvre is almost entirely regarded as science fantasy and has been so regarded since at least the Dying Earth stories.

  112. Sorry but is sort of thing drives me nuts. “I don’t like science fiction.” “You like Star Wars” “Oh, that’s not Science Fiction”

    I’ll admit I never cared for Star Wars. I don’t worry about justifying it because I view it as old fashioned Space Opera. If you don’t know what that is, think of it like this- destroying the evil empire by driving a black hole into their nearby sun. Once your brain stops twitching, you realize that sometimes you just have to accept it as a means to an end. I never thought Space Opera was terribly good SF- but it was never meant to be. The science is notable for being terrible, but used primarily to carry the story and the characters. I never liked Star Wars- but I love the things done with it- the fan films, the toys the ideas. Yah, the light saber handguard is a point, but have you ever read the wikipedia page on lightsaber combat? It’s really fascinating. Star Wars was a combination ripoff/homage to the old cheesy cliffhanger serials (If you think there’s no connection between The Shadow clouding mens minds and the Old Jedi Mindtrick [the fact that this is the actual name still cracks me up] then you are very mistaken). I’ve just made a bracket inside a parenthesis which tells me that my comment is getting too long. It upsets me that I’ve been crapped on all my life for loving SF, but when I point out popular SF like X-men, Superman, Star Wars and so on people say “Oh, that’s not SF, it’s fantasy/comics/diet cola/blankityblank”

    Anyone else wonder why Star Wars is argued to be fantasy but Star Trek isn’t? I’m not doing the one better than the other argument, I’m just saying nobody ever says “I love Star Trek! But that’s not really Science Fiction”

  113. “Anyone else wonder why Star Wars is argued to be fantasy but Star Trek isn’t? I’m not doing the one better than the other argument, I’m just saying nobody ever says “I love Star Trek! But that’s not really Science Fiction””

    Star Trek may frequently have laughable science (I think the old show had reasonable science, but in a way because they tried less hard to make it sound ‘sciency’, they just made some advanced technology and told the actors to pretend it is all normal stuff). Star Wars also has pretty laughable science (again more so the recent movies).

    Star Wars then tells a fantasy story (young prince finds his hidden destiny and storms the castle) with the science fiction toolbox.

    Star Trek discovers alien civilizations each week which oddly reflect various aspects of the current world, and then tells stories about them. Not really a fantasy story.

    I happen to think Star Wars is more fantasy then SciFi, or at the very least equal parts. I also happen to like them both (well not the recent Star Wars movies, but I loved the first 3 enough to be a bit forgiving).

    “Sorry but is sort of thing drives me nuts. “I don’t like science fiction.” “You like Star Wars” “Oh, that’s not Science Fiction””

    Well maybe what they like about Star Wars is the story line, in which case The Princess Bride is a better pick for their next movie rental then the (I wish) upcoming movie adaption of Old Man’s War (hey, it has lots of action scenes!).

    Or maybe they just don’t think they like SciFi because most of the SciFi they have been exposed to puts a poorly constructed world front and center along with unrealistic reactions from the inhabitants of the world (like they find the tech that had to have existed their whole fictional life new, novel, and confusing).

    It is also possible that they actually don’t like SciFi (or most of it). My wife doesn’t like gangster movies. I’m not fond of horror movies. So I figure some poor souls out there actually don’t enjoy SciFi.

  114. Orson Scott Card made an observation that I thought was interesting:

    You can tell science fiction from fantasy by looking at the book cover*. If it has trees, it is fantasy; if it has rivets, it is science fiction.

    * or movie poster, I suppose.

    Star Wars is science fiction. Wicked bad Saturday morning cartoon science fiction–but still science fiction.

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