Dennis O’Neil: What Is Science-Fiction?

Hannes Bok

We saw a science-fiction movie a few days ago. And you shrug: so what? Is there a multiplex in the land of the free that isn’t showing science-fiction? Especially if you count superheroes as SF?

There are a couple of answers to that question. Let us discuss.

When SF first began to creep onto the nation’s newsstands, and much less frequently into its bookstores, it was pretty easy to identify. It dealt with science, technology, distant worlds, extraterrestrials and, with few exceptions, the future. The heroes tended to be stalwart, competent, practical. Scientists, or maybe military guys. The odd engineer or two. The women were…there. Plots turned on the kind of stuff stalwart, competent and practical gentlemen might find themselves involved in. Endings were generally optimistic. (We might encounter evil aliens out there between the stars, we noble humans, and they might give us a lot of grief, but in the end we kicked their ass, or whatever passed for an ass on tentacled monsters.) Fine prose was not much of a concern. Plot and plain vanilla storytelling – those were foremost. The literati scoffed. If it’s good, the canard went, it isn’t science-fiction.

Then came the changes, as young and very smart writers who valued literary niceties and had spent some time in science classes began to explore the genre. They experimented and expanded SF’s parameters, but one rule of their predecessors remained pretty much inviolate: Writers weren’t allowed to contradict was known about the real world. They could extrapolate and, in effect, guess about where new technologies and scientific discoveries would take us, but they couldn’t just make this kind of stuff up.

By this criterion there hasn’t been much so-called “hard science-fiction” on screens for years. (We might rationalize the mini-miracles in, say, Star Wars, and your correspondent might not be above such activity, but explanations aren’t included in the script.)

As for comic books… the editor-god of the field, Stan Lee, once told me that readers will believe what we give them because we give it to them. In other words, they want to be entertained, not educated. No harm in that.

But twice recently, as a matter of fact, I have experienced hard SF in my local multiplex. Last year there was Gravity and though some eminent scientists complained that plot events couldn’t have happened as they were depicted, by and large the movie stuck to what is. Great flick, too. And that SF movie we saw a few days ago: It’s called The Martian and like Gravity it begins with a scientific blooper, one that the film makers were apparently aware of from the git-go and were willing to ignore for the sake of storytelling. Like Gravity, The Martian delivers plenty of entertainment while sticking pretty closely to those pesky facts.

I doubt that anyone would refuse to call The Martian science-fiction, despite the relative lack of glitz and spectacle. So yes: it’s SF.

All those other movies, the superheroes and all that play fast and loose with those facts?. Are they not SF? Maybe that should wait till next week.