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Science Fiction vs. Science Fantasy


Last weekend, I was in the Chicago area as the guest of honor at Capricon, a science-fiction convention. While I was there I (naturally enough) sat on a panel about science-fiction films. During the question-and-answer period, one of the audience members brought up a complaint that I hear frequently whenever I’m on a panel about science-fiction movies — namely, that some films labeled “science fiction” aren’t really and should be labeled something else, that something else usually being “science fantasy.”

The reasoning is typically this: the phrase “science fiction” generally implies that whatever you’re seeing on the screen is at least in some way related to science, i.e., that there’s a rational reason things work the way they do and that actual physical laws and observable scientific principles apply or at least are bowed to with respect. But some films, despite spaceships or whatever, hardly nod to science at all and therefore don’t deserve the “science fiction” label. For the record, the films that are almost always used as an example of science fantasy are the Star Wars films, although other films may occasionally be offered: the Transformers films are excellent science-fantasy candidates, for example.

As this argument pops up often, I understand that people get worked up and feel fervent about it, but I personally have a number of problems with the science-fantasy argument with regards to films. 1. Simply to be completely nitpicky about the
titling, I say if you’re going to complain about science fantasy not
actually having science in it you should probably jettison the word
“science” and call it something like “space fantasy.”
Every time someone uses the phrase “science fantasy” in this manner, the
first thing that always pops into my brain is how they’re not actually
paying attention to the construction of the phrase. This is pedantic, I
know, but then the space-fantasy argument is inherently pedantic, so
there you are.

2. To engage in further nitpicking,
everything you can possibly label as “science fiction” is in fact just a
subset of a larger genre, which is correctly called “fantasy.” This is
because science fiction — along with supernatural horror, alternate
history, superhero lit, and the elves-and-orcs swashbuckling typically labeled “fantasy” — is fundamentally fantastic. Which is to say, it involves imaginative conceptualizing, does not restrain itself according what is currently known, and speculates about
the nature of worlds and conditions that do not exist in reality. It
may gall science-fiction fans to think of their genre as a subset of
fantasy, but it is, so calling a film “science fantasy” is in most ways
redundant.

3. While I personally groan when science-fiction films get the science wrong and applaud when they get it right (because it’s not that hard to get it right), I’m also aware that going to a movie to understand science is like going to a
movie to understand history: a really spectacularly bad idea. Movies are
about entertainment, and when filmmakers are confronted with a
choice between accuracy and entertainment it’s generally a
no-brainer (pun intended) which way they will go. Moreover, even if
filmmakers contended that their sketchy science is plausible, they’re
usually not going to stop a movie for explanatory scenes. Some
of us geek out about how lightsabers could work, but most people paying
money for a Star Wars film don’t want five minutes of Darth Vader and
Luke talking shop about the crystals in their sabers. They just want to
get to the part where body parts go flying.

4. All
science-fiction films play fast and loose with science to some extent —
it’s inherent in the phrase “science fiction” — so which science-fiction films qualify as science fantasy is a matter of personal choice and where one’s scientific tolerances lie. As an example, when the Star Wars films are dismissed as science fantasy, the Star Trek films are often held up as a counterexample of science fiction. If you
ask me, however, the last Star Trek film, with its absolutely appalling
representation of science, is more a work of science fantasy than,
say, The Phantom Menace, which tried
to give a rational explanation for the Force, i.e., those damned midi-chlorians.

5. What the science-fantasy argument is
really about is snobbery: “This film doesn’t sit well with me, and I want
to exclude it from the genre I love, so I’ll call it something else.”
This is ironic, as science-fiction fans complain that the gatekeepers of
cultural respectability do the same thing to them: “If it’s science
fiction, it can’t be good, and if it’s good it can’t be science
fiction.” Well, science fiction can be good, but sometimes it’s bad, whatever one’s personal definition is of “bad.”

Personally, I posit that science fiction comes in
all sorts of flavors, some of which will not be to my own personal
taste. When it isn’t, it’s still science fiction.

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