Is this Science Fiction?

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Ask your average man (or woman) on the street, “What is science fiction?” and they’ll usually reply by citing works of science fiction they are familiar with, such as “Star Wars”, “Star Trek” and “Avatar.”

Just kidding. Usually, they’ll just look at you strangely then walk on, trying their best not to make eye contact. “What sort of person stops a total stranger on the street and asks that?!?” they wonder, as they scurry on about their business.

Most people don’t really care about the question. They are familiar with the term “science fiction” and even enjoy some the movies and TV shows mentioned above. If you were to ask them if there is a difference between “science fiction” and “fantasy” many—maybe most—of them wouldn’t have an opinion. “Perhaps,” they mayhaps reply, “’Science fiction’ involves space ships and aliens and an increasingly chubby William Shatner while ‘fantasy’ would be elves and unicorns and angry little dwarves like that lead singer for AC/DC.”

Most people, though, don’t really spend a lot of time contemplating the topic. They watch movies and TV shows that would fit into either category and occasionally read a book from the genre but their main criteria for the whole discussion is, “Do I enjoy this work?”

And then there are the hard-core freaks. You have them everywhere—the people who can discern the difference between a country song and a western song and will start a fight with anyone who can’t; those individuals who become irritated with anyone who confuses Dadaism with impressionism; or those people who claim that—even blind-folded—they can tell the difference between the fried apple pie and the fish filet at a fast food restaurant and scorn those who can’t.

In the world of science fiction and fantasy they manifest themselves as angry little internet trolls who want a hard line drawn not just between science fiction and fantasy, but between science fiction and hard science fiction, between hard science fiction and speculative hard science fiction, between speculative futuristic science fiction and … you get the idea.

I once got into a long, protracted (yes, I know those words mean almost the same thing but just one of them didn’t fully convey what I’m going for here) argument with a “fan of science fiction.” In my defense, he started it. It began by asking myself and several other people (I think he was writing an article for some web site), “What, in your opinion, is the best science fiction show ever on TV?” Now, notice, he did ask for my opinion, implying that there were no empirically right or wrong answers.

The answer I gave him was, “Quincy, M.E.” You’d think I’d just substituted Preparation H for his toothpaste. He wrote me several long letters about how “science fiction” clearly meant shows with futuristic, speculative or fantastic elements. I wrote back that, no, if the term itself means anything it means fiction based in science. “Quincy” was a fictional show with scientific underpinnings, ergo, it was science fiction (and, according to a cousin of mine who is a forensics specialist, Quincy was far more scientific than the current crop of “CSI” shows even if we never did learn his first name).

In other words, science fiction means something different to the hardcore fan of science fiction than it does to the casual fan: it means that words mean nothing. No, seriously, it means that “science fiction” should be put in the category of “things we don’t discuss” like religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.

For the record, my novel “First Time: the Legend of Garison Fitch” is “time travel/fantasy” and only “science fiction” if that either a] helps me to sell it or b] torques off that guy from three paragraphs ago.