Science in Sci-Fi film


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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24 Responses

  1. I read an excellent essay by Philip K. Dick on this topic called “Who Is an SF Writer?” which I cannot find in electronic form. I did find this excerpt from another Dick essay, “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”, however, which is germane to the trenchant criticism here of the bizarre binary classificationism that seems to plague science fiction criticism:

    “So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes that *do* fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe–and I am dead serious when I say this– do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things.”Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      For me, as far as categorizing SF, there’s always been the problem of stories about dystopian futures. On the surface, they don’t seem to involve or be wholly centered around a particular technology or strong scientism. For these I think of The Giver, 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

      And yet the desire to have SF include them as their own (as oppose to relegating them to general fiction section) seems to point toward the things that underlie technology and science: humankind’s unending need to explore and shape its reality. Because of progressivism’s strong links to life made better through technology and expanding scientific knowledge, the fact that dystopias directly challenge progress (humankind’s inevitable ascent), they also directly demonstrate science/technology’s failures to inevitably lift up and better humanity. Ergo, SF.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        Quite right. I think this is also why it is sometimes called “speculative” as opposed to “science” fiction. There is a bit of hope and a bit of power-skepticism in much of science fiction.

        In the Accidental Time Machine (Haldeman) he explores various futures. There’s the one without science (for the populace at least) wherein the entire East Coast of the United States is a totalitarian theocracy. There’s the future Los Angeles (essentially all of the West) where everyone lives such a good life, they have a super computer running the joint and degrees in shopping and other inanities. And then the far, far distant future, where some other time traveler has brought a virus which has wiped out most of the world’s population.

        So I think it can be at once pro-science and very concerned both with power and overreach – and accidents, for that matter.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          I just read that one. (Note to self: catch up with the Haldeman you’ve missed.) The Future LA is also a parody of Anarcho-Libertopia, with all transactions between people being barter-based high-tech auctions, up to the point of “Come over for lunch, and we’ll work out what you owe me for the food.”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Because of progressivism’s strong links to life made better through technology and expanding scientific knowledge, the fact that dystopias directly challenge progress (humankind’s inevitable ascent), they also directly demonstrate science/technology’s failures to inevitably lift up and better humanity

        I find Philip K Dick to write the best dystopias for this very reason.

        I’m thinking of, in no particular order, Blade Runner and Screamers and Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly.

        You can see what the creators in these worlds were going for. You can see that they had pretty good intentions as these things go. It’s the unintended (and yet perfectly logical) consequences that are screwing up everything.Report

        • My senior year in college, I took a very interesting course on popular fiction, about bridging the gaps between the western, the detective story, and science fiction. My professor insisted that the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Blade Runner) could be fairly interpreted as a utopia, but I could never really wrap my mind around that one.Report

        • Avatar JosephFM says:

          …you mean, you’re thinking of the ones that were made into movies? (Also, by Screamers I assume you mean “Second Variety”?)
          My favorite PKD dystopia is actually the one in Flow My Tears The Policeman Said.

          …okay I’m done.
          *goes back in fanboy hole*Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          My favorite artistic accomplishment by PKD is the Valis trilogy, in which he describes the actual, straight-up world — and it turns out looking like one of his dystopias. Very unsettling, and I think of it often.Report

    • Avatar JosephFM says:

      I’ve cited that passage before on this site. It’s one of my favorite quotes ever, and that essay (which was, IIRC, originally a speech) would probably go on a list of the most influential things I’ve ever read as far as my thinking.Report

  2. Avatar Kyle Cupp says:

    A professor of mine grouped science fiction and fantasy under the category of “speculative fiction,” which I tend to do as well. I wouldn’t call space operas like Star Wars speculative in a deep philosophical sense, but often they’re reworking old and new myths and therefore have a speculative aspect to them. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that the use of categories like science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction is an imperfect way of organizing stories.Report

  3. Avatar JosephFM says:

    Anyone here familiar with TV Tropes? Cause this is basically what that place is all about.

    It’s under revision currently, but the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness seems especially revelant – especially since the issue that prompted the revision was with these kind of categories.Report

  4. Avatar North says:

    I liked the article but for the gratuitous swipe at nuclear power towards the end. Maybe his segment of the left has written off such technology but a lot of the rest of us haven’t.Report

  5. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    To those who are wondering “Why
    isn’t ‘S-F’ the same as ‘sci-fi’?”
    Well, you see, there’s a fine line
    between Robert Heinlein
    and ‘Son of the Two-Headed Fly’.Report

  6. To postulate a universe where the absence of one person would change the course of all of human history would be the most sophisticated of science fiction. It would explore the uncertainty principle in the life of a single individual. That would make It’s a Wonderful Life one of the deepest sci-fi films ever.
    Likewise, to fictionalize science seems more fantasy. The idea of a transporter or a monolith buried somewhere in the solar system seems nothing about science and more about story.
    I guess where I’m going is similar to one aspect of the post — what really is the question?Report