Monday, May 10, 2010

What Sci-Fi is NOT

One of the goals of this blog is to encapsulate the notion of this relatively new literary genre called science fiction. It is unique in that it was only made possible with the advent of the scientific age and only really began at the onset of the industrial revolution by a few pioneers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. It was during that time that man began to realize that scientific knowledge could be applied to better the human condition, and this caused such an upheaval in society over a relatively short time period that it is natural that it would engender a new class of literature.

There are many types of stories which, when adapted to film format, require lots of special effects. These often get categorized as science fiction. Being somewhat of a purist, I thought I would share my views on what types of literature, which are often labeled science fiction, are not and why. Each section contains some examples and a link to a definition in Wikipedia. There is much that can be added to this topic so comments are welcome.

Fantasy - Sometimes in book stores you'll see a section entitled "Sci Fi/Fantasy" due to their common affinity for creating new worlds for their settings. Although they are often grouped together, they are distinct story types. If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be magic. Any world in which a story is told must have laws that are consistently followed. In sci-fi, the reader must be convinced that those laws can exist in the real world. In fantasy, the laws are somewhat arbitrary. The genre is traditionally influenced by Norse mythology, which is the realm of elves, fairies, trolls, and goblins. J.R.R. Tolkein is, of course, the undisputed master of that world. But there are lots of fantasy stories that venture into wholly new worlds of their own. I recently re-watched a delightful such offering called Stardust. Another rather cool film series that plays like sci-fi but is really fantasy is the Russian Nightwatch / Daywatch series.

Mythology - While the Norse myths deal with supernatural beings which are part of nature, the Greek myths deal with supernatural beings which are separate from it. Stories of the Greco-Roman gods have been around since Homer, but found their way into Hollywood with films like Jason and the Argonauts. I'm not sure if the wonderful Sinbad series was based on Eastern myths or just created for Hollywood, but the recent re-make of Clash of the Titans shows these types of films still draw crowds even when they are done poorly.

Superheroes - Every superhero has a different origin story, and many are based on sci-fi like narratives. Superman came from another planet. Batman and Iron Man make heavy use of advanced technology. Most are altered in some pseudo-scientific manner which is, after all, not very relevant. The main point of the superhero narrative is not about the heroes' origins, but about his or her subsequent struggle to battle dark forces both internal and external. Every story has its protagonists, but science fiction is always about some larger context in which the rest of the story plays out. Some often misplaced examples are the afforementioned Superman and Robocop. I'd also put the Transformers series here.

Monster Films - I guess this genre began with Dracula and Frankenstein and has produced a steady stream of thriller films, including those in the "horror" category. Again, many monsters have sci-fi like origins like simply being from outer space (think War of the Worlds). In fact, one of my personal favorite set of old films as a kid, the Godzilla serials and other Japanese monster movies, is in this category. I suppose the focus of these films is the thrill of getting scared. Only a few sci-fi films have crossed into this territory and still lived to return as science fiction - like the original Alien movie. Examples of the ones that don't are films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The FlyThe Thing, Predator, and 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Disaster Films - This category is listed only because it also usually requires heavy special effects, but the story is about a catastrophic event and the situations that follow it, so it has no relation to sci-fi per se. A sub-category of this are Apocalyptic films where the disaster or other event affects the entire planet.

Psychological Thrillers - There are a lot of interesting films in this category and they involve protagonists who must battle forces that play with their minds. The mechanism by which this is accomplished is often some new technology which is why they can sometimes cross over into sci-fi, but many do not. A great example is the recent film Inception. Stephen King is also known for dabbling in this category.

Sci-Fi Spoofs - Certain films poke fun at the whole genre. Some examples that come to mind are Men in Black, Galaxy Quest, Mars Attacks, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, and of course, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (better in print than on screen). Although they are not science fiction themselves, it takes a real sci-fi fan to get the full nuance of the humor in them, and so they should be considered a worthy addendum to the category.

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