The purpose of this blog is to have a little fun. It is NOT to start arguments. I don't profess to be an expert on Sci-fi, nor do I aspire to become an expert. You are welcome to comment on any and all content you find here. If my opinion differs from yours, as far as I am concerned, it's all okay. I will never say that you are wrong because you disagree with me, and I expect the same from those that comment here. Also, my audience on the blog will include some young people. Please govern your language when posting comments.

Posts will hopefully be regular based on the movies I see, the television shows I watch, and the books I read as well as what ever strikes me as noteworthy.

Spoilers will appear here and are welcome.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Defining Sci-Fi: Is Star Wars Sci-Fi?

What is Sci-Fi, or what isn’t Sci-fi?  That is the question I have been pondering of late.

Quite a while back, while listening to an episode of the Scifi Diner Podcast, this question came up.  I cannot remember which episode it was, but I did respond to it with an e-mail in which I rendered my humble opinion that Star Wars was not pure science fiction, but rather I felt that it was more of a fantasy story set within the framework of a science fiction setting.  Neither can I remember exactly what the Diner’s hosts (Scott and Miles) response was at the time.

More recently, this subject has once again surfaced on the Diner and has once again started me thinking about what constitutes what is science fiction.  Are the Star Wars movies science fiction?  Are they fantasy?  Is Star Trek science fiction?  I think that just about anyone that has any knowledge of Trek would give you a resounding YES to that last question, including myself.  But I have been unsure about Star Wars.

One argument that I have heard numerous times that some use to eliminate Star Wars from the science fiction category is a quote from Han Solo in the very first Episode IV: A New Hope where he brags to Obi-Wan Kenobi that the Mellinium Falcon made the “Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs.”   In the realm of real science, a parsec is a measurement of distance, but Han is apparently using the term as a measurement of time.  This is a very weak argument to use as a vehicle to discredit Star Wars as legitimate science fiction.  If one is going to use a comparison of real science as a measuring stick to validate an entity, many science fiction franchises would have to be eliminated from the genre, including Star Trek.

For instance, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it is stated that V-Ger is over eighty-two astronomical units in diameter.  One astronomical unit (AU) is about ninety-three million miles, or the average distance from the Earth to the sun in our own solar system.  The orbit of the former planet Pluto is an average of seventy-nine AU from the sun.  Doing the simple math, one sees that V-Ger would comfortably eclipse our solar system beyond the distance of all of the largest objects it contains.  In the film, Starfleet doesn’t discover this object until it is just 54 hours away from the earth.  Scientists have recently discovered that the Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way are on a collision course and will encounter each other in about four-billion years.  With Star Trek set in the 23rd century, one would think that astronomers of the future would be able to detect a solar system sized object headed our way well before it reaches 54 hours from contacting the Earth.

There are many other examples of this type of made-up science in Trek.  For instance, the use of matter/energy transport requires examination.  In Lawrence Krauss’ book, The Physics of Star Trek, it is explained that the temperatures required to break apart atoms is so great that no one could possibly survive being vaporized in the use of a transporter.   There are actually many inconsistencies in Trek when compared to science including many various particles that do not exist in nature.  So eliminating Star Wars as being science fiction based on the misuse of a single word would, in the words of a well-respected sci-fi character, not be logical.  After all, one must keep in mind that one of the functional words in the name of our beloved genre is FICTION; this includes devices that are made up by people to tell stories.  To appreciate this, one must have the ability to suspend one’s disbelief for a small period of time.

So, while trying to come up with some litmus test to validate Star Wars as science fiction, I wondered, is there nothing that one might consider to be based on science in Star Wars.  And then I remembered the Force, that seemingly magical plot device that gives the Jedi and the Sith their incredible abilities.  Magic you say?  According to Star Wars lore, the strength of the Force is directly proportional to the amount of Midi-Chlorians that an individual has in their bodies.  Midi-Chlorians are said to be living microscopic organisms that everyone in the Star Wars universe has and are necessary to life.  The Jedi and Sith have learned how to tap into the interconnected nature of these organisms and thus, gain a special intuitive sense and heightened awareness of the goings on around them.  Microorganisms helping humans be more aware; certainly sounds like invented science to me.  There is even mention of a scientifically based test to determine the level of Midi-Chlorians that one possesses in their cells. 

While I pondered this question of what constitutes science fiction, I thought I would take advantage of my Facebook membership to get an idea of what others thought about this subject.  In essence, I asked anyone what their opinion was on what makes up the difference between sci-fi and sci-fantasy and I did receive a few responses.   Thanks to those who did respond including: Jamie Legates (my daughter), Benjamin Arrowood (my son), Jordan Westengaard (former student and FB friend), Mahlon White (friend of many years), Rick Tetrault (sci-fi podcaster), Kevin Bachelder (sci-fi podcaster), Wayne Henderson (podcaster on numerous subjects), Raul Ybarra (fellow blogger), Kevin Dilmore (author), and Michael Jan Friedman (author).  I also got an answer from Dayton Ward (author) when I asked him directly on his blog what genre he thought Star Wars fit into.  Here’s what I learned:

Kevin Bachelder: "I have very, very loose definitions myself. I don't bother to worry about whether it's hard scifi or a hybrid of scifi and fantasy. I consider almost all of it to be scifi in some form. Not a topic that I give much thought to."

Jamie Legates: "The line between science fiction and fantasy is the word SCIENCE. Monster movies don't qualify, Star Wars does. Syfy has it all wrong."

Benjamin Arrowood: "The force (loosely) has a scientific explanation, though, which is the root of sci-fi. I think the difference is actually based more on plot than content. Fantasy is about adventure. Science fiction is about discovery. The general feeling when you watch Star Wars is one of action, light sabers, and bad guys. The general feeling while watching Star Trek is intrigue, logic, contemplation and going where no one has gone before. One is simply more intelligent, and the other more exciting. That's why I've kind of felt that the new Star Trek is more science fantasy. The world it's based in has already been established, so they packed it with action, almost like not needing the character development it once needed."

Jordan Westengaard: "Usually magic draws the line, not often does a scifi have magic. The force could be what makes Star Wars a Sci-fantasy. Also fantasy usually won't have technology ...usually.”

Mahlon White: “For me the answer is magic. Sci-fi uses science and logic to tell a fantastic story. Fantasy relies on some mystic power to tell all or part of the story. Because of the "Force" I would categorize Star Wars as Sci-Fantasy."

Rick Tetrault: “The main difference, in my opinion, is plausibility. Star Trek is Science Fiction because, for the most part, it attempts to ground most of its technology in some form of plausible science. Star Wars, on the other hand, makes little to no attempt at plausibility, and merely makes whatever technology they need to tell the story. They are analogous, yet very different.”

Wayne Henderson: “I would say that Star Wars is somewhere between Science Fiction and Fantasy Adventure. I think Star Wars has quite a few Science Fiction elements to it. Whatever the categorization is, I love Star Wars.”

Raul Ybarra: "It was Arthur C. Clarke who said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I believe it was either his second or third law. The simple answer is that there isn't a simple answer. As I said in my response to the SciFi Diner, a purist would likely claim that the line is reached when you cannot trace the concept back to some aspect of legitimate scientific fact or theory. Personally, I think that definition is rather harsh. However that doesn't mean that I think all it needs to be SciFi is to happen in space or to include bug-eyed monsters.
I like to think of it this way, if the story can be *at least* loosely connected to science at the time of its writing, I'm willing to call it science fiction. Yes, you can do that with Star Wars, though those connections are extremely poor. That's why I did class it as SciFi. In fact, one of Lucas' worst mistakes, in my opinion happened when he tried to put *too* much science into the story. Tying the Force to Midi-chlorian was an unnecessary attempt to rationalize something that needed no explanation, in my opinion.
Another example worth thinking about... One of the classic horror stories of all time is Frankenstein. However, many people may not realize this, but Frankenstein is often regarded as the first science fiction novel. The doctor's attempts at reanimation are based on scientific speculation consistent for the time, in spite of their fantasy/horror elements in today's light.
Where I have to draw a line is with a lot of the superhero genre - especially the standard Marvel or DC universes. I'm sorry, but getting bitten by an irradiated spider to confer its abilities just doesn't meet that science threshold, even if it does happen in a lab. Another non-SciFi example? Well, just because a little green man (who also happens to be bug-eyed) is trying to get home builds an interstellar transmitter from an old record player, kite string and a Speak-N-Spell just doesn't reach the SciFi line for me. There's less science there than a typical MacGyver episode!
So, in a way, defining ScFi can be something of a moving target in that you have to take it in the context of its time. Yet, when you look at it in that light, it's not hard to recognize it when you see it.”
Kevin Dilmore

Kevin Dilmore: “I'd certainly consider Star Wars in the SF sub-genre of space opera. It has little to nothing to do with the social and ethical ramifications of advancing technology, which for me is a foundational point of a science-fiction story.”

Dayton Ward
Dayton Ward: "Star Wars isn’t hardcore SF, but rather space opera or space fantasy. IMHO, of course."

Michael Jan Friedman: "Science fiction is fiction based on science; it has to be consistent with what we know of the world. Fantasy has to be consistent only with itself. If you say that interstellar travel is based on science, then SW is science fiction. If you say the Force is based on science, then SW is science fiction. But to me, it's fantasy because it feels more like magic than advanced science."
Michael Jan Friedman

Again, thanks to all of you for your responses.

So what conclusions can be drawn?  What defines science fiction?  Is Star Wars science fiction?

As one can see when looking at the myriad of responses I received, it would seem that the answers to the above questions are unique to each individual  There is no real test to label what is or is not science fiction, within the confines that science, whether real or imagined, must be involved in some way.  I think that perhaps one has to think more in degrees of how hard or soft the science fiction is.  For instance, something like the Fringe television series is very dependent on science to advance the story being told, while at the same time, Star Wars is far less dependent on real science to move that story forward.  So Fringe would be hard sci-fi while Star Wars is soft sci-fi.  Star Trek would have to fall somewhere in between.  Maybe there needs to be a scale, say for instance on a scale of one through five, with five being hard, Fringe is a one, Star Wars is a Five, and Star Trek is a three-point-five.  This isn’t a scale of what one likes though, because as far as I am concerned, I love nearly all science fiction, and especially that which is based in space travel and exploration.

So, for me, science fiction has to have, first and foremost, a good story; second there has to be characters that I can care about, they have to be real to me; and finally there has to be either real or imagined science involved.  So, if you had asked me a month ago if Star Wars was sci-fi, I would have said no, but now, in light of my exploration, I will have to admit that my mind has been changed.

To listen to the Scifi Diner podcasts that sparked this post, go to Conversations Episode 74 and Conversations Episode 76.  Both of these are excellent episodes that include not only the subject of this blog post, but lots of other great conversations and comments.