For me, science fiction—as a fiction genre—is speculative fiction about the possible.
By comparison, fantasy—which is science fiction’s close cousin—is speculative fiction about the impossible.
A proverbial fine line exists between the two genres, a line which often gets crossed. So often, in fact, that we see both genres lumped together under the SFF banner, or by the term speculative fiction, which I’ve already dropped on you twice in this post (three times, counting this sentence).
I’m okay with the genres being bundled this way, since I like both. A couple of my favorite science-fiction franchises in all media (which includes novels, comic books, animated features, video games, movies and television) are Star Trek and Star Wars. Spend a couple of seconds in my archive and this becomes apparent. Both are commonly marketed as “science fiction” even though they each include elements of fantasy.
In Star Wars, the omnipresent use of the Force is a version of magic, plain and simple. I know, George Lucas attempted to make the Force more science-based with midichlorians in the prequel trilogy, but come on, really?
Star Trek is guilty of the same sort of thing. We can pretend that faster-than-light space travel is possible (some of my fellow nerds will argue that this is so), but it’s not, according to the known laws of physics. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that warp stardrives, matter transporters and gravity plating are examples of technology we haven’t discovered yet in our reality. Trek still misses being hard science fiction by the introduction of the Q Continuum (or any of the myriad races of beings with god-like powers in the Trek universe) and the propensity for time travel stories.
Again, there is a vocal contingent who will argue that time travel is theoretically possible. I agree, but only into the future. I’m doing it right at this moment, and so are you.
I’m not trying to pick a fight here. I’m saying that the distinction between science fiction and fantasy doesn’t matter in the long run. For me, the attraction of speculative fiction has always been about escaping reality.
The word escapism has a negative connotation for many people. It implies that a person is so unhappy with their present circumstances, or else is in the throes of a deep depression, that they rely on other means to alter their state of consciousness. It suggests that people turn to fabricated realities for the same reasons they take drugs or consume alcohol.
As much as it pains me to admit it, there is a kernel of truth in this school of thought. But, I don’t think it means that a person who likes escapist activities is necessarily despondent or miserable in their lives.
My life is a good one, for instance. I’m happily married and financially comfortable. My health may not be as good as it once was, but it’s not as bad as it could be. If I’m suffering from anything, it’s an increasingly short attention span and a propensity to get bored if my brain isn’t constantly engaged in some activity.
Stories keep my mind occupied. Stories I’m experiencing, through the various media I mentioned earlier. Stories I create in my own writing. Stories that other people relate to me, in person.
I’m particularly drawn to science fiction and fantasy stories. Stories that transcend our reality and allow me to escape, for a time, into a different reality, where all manner of different things are possible. Stories that offer a few minutes or hours of escape.
I know this sounds self-centered, but I used to believe that everyone in the world felt the way I do. I’ve discovered this isn’t quite true. Certain people go through life, quite content, without much in the way of imagination or a need to lose themselves, even momentarily, in something that’s made up. Some of these people will proudly announce that they read only nonfiction—if they read at all—and have no patience for stories featuring spaceships, monsters, or magic.
Years ago, a decade or more, I worked with a guy named Chris who told me that he hated chocolate. Not that he was allergic to chocolate, or it caused him to break out in pimples. He wasn’t diabetic either. He would eat vanilla ice cream and cake and candy of the non-chocolate variety. He just hated the taste of chocolate.
My wife isn’t a huge fan of dark chocolate (my favorite), but loves all other kinds. We’ve been to Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, California, and to the M&M store in Times Square, New York City. We haven’t been to Hershey, Pennsylvania, yet, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. We like chocolate. It’s not something we consume frequently, and I wouldn’t necessarily admit to being a chocoholic, but we like chocolate.
To us, someone who doesn’t like chocolate is inherently weird.
I felt similarly when I discovered that not everyone liked stories about aliens and superheroes and shadow-dwelling monsters. Considering the popularity of this sort of entertainment, I’ve determined that there are a lot of like-minded people out there in the world these days. People willing to suspend their disbelief temporarily for the sake of entertainment.
People who also like the taste of chocolate, for the most part.
Which is not to say that people who don’t like speculative fiction (or chocolate, for that matter) are wrong. Just different from those of us who do. This invites trite comments such as it is our differences which make us stronger as a team or different strokes for different folks.
The current zeitgeist seems to favor the more imaginative forms of entertainment. The blockbuster movies and books are largely defined as speculative fiction, or have elements of the same.
Looking at an Indiewire.com list from 2017 of the twenty-five highest-grossing films of the 21st century, twenty-four are easily classified as speculative fiction, including the Disney cartoons. The twenty-fifth is The Passion of the Christ. I’ll leave its classification up to you.
A similar result is found when looking at the bestselling books of this century. J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephanie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, and George R. R. Martin dominate the list.
I’m currently watching Season 3 of Outlander, which has loads of factual information about Scotland, the Jacobites, and world history in general, but is constructed around the notion of mystical time travel through the use of standing stones (think Stonehenge). Most of the television series I’m watching at the moment are straight-up speculative fiction. Even dramas ostensibly based upon what we call the real world, such as The Blacklist or Mayans MC, aren’t realistic at all upon close examination. The Blacklist is largely a science-fiction spy thriller; Mayans MC is—for lack of a better term—urban fantasy.
While reality can be exciting at times, it also contains long stretches of boredom. Movies and books based on true events are edited to eliminate the boring parts as much as possible. The Crown is a perfect example of this, which I would also argue contains a bit of speculation to augment the facts. Turning a “true” story into a form of entertainment largely makes it a work of fiction as well.
Escapism, in its many forms, is not a recent phenomenon. There are reasons that Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert E. Howard, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and dozens of other dead writers are still being read by current audiences.
That’s it. No huge meaning-of-life stuff this morning. Just some random musings about the stuff I enjoy.
For some reason, I’m craving chocolate now. And a piña colada.