Although many have found science fiction fascinating for decades now, largely thanks to major hits like Star Wars and Star Trek, new additions to films and video games help to continually increase the popularity of the genre. Movies that we may not initially think of as science fiction, such as superhero movies, unwittingly introduce people into the fandom. When we think of science fiction, the first images that come to mind are probably spaceships and humans flying through an endless field of stars. But what actually is science fiction?
Science fiction doesn’t have an ‘spotless’ clean cut definition, though there are many traits that history and experts can agree upon. Overall, it is a genre that seeks to answer the big question, “What if?” The “What if?” scenarios usually involve change sparked by scientific discoveries, technological innovations, natural events, time travel, parallel dimensions or shifts in society. Plots often involve the impact of science upon society or individuals.
In the process of exploring this impact, the genre often involves a lot of commentary on human nature and different societies at large. This exploration is often philosophical and political in nature.
New Science Fiction Movies off to new Topics
The customary tropes of science fiction include prophetic warnings, utopian aspirations, elaborate descriptions of entirely imaginary worlds, gigantic disasters, strange voyages, and political problems. The genre uses these tropes to serve a similar purpose as the scientific method: an approach to understanding the universe. With science fiction, we can explore dangerous societal changes through thought experiments, bringing the scenarios to life with intricate characters and mythology.
The actual term “science fiction” was popularized, if not invented, in the 1920s by the American publisher Hugo Gernsback. The prestigious Hugo Awards, given annually to top innovative science fiction writers, artists and directors, are named after him. In 1926, Gernsback commented on the works of authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells by saying that they contained “a charming romance mixed with sci fi arguments and great visions… Everything or a state provided today in the science can be a reality one day.
Many trace the beginning of science fiction back to 1818 when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein. Some even refer to Shelley as the “mother of science fiction.” The story is decidedly science fiction, as the idea of reanimating a corpse is impossible today, but imbued with an air of scientific reason that makes readers wonder if one day it will be possible. This sort of possibility is essentially the spirit of science fiction.
The genre really took shape in the early 20th century, particularly in the United States, where it first catered to a younger audience. Following World War II, science fiction spread throughout the world from its American center, its popularity encouraged by constant scientific advancements, from the development of nuclear energy and atomic bombs to the beginning of space travel and the moon landing.
Popular science fiction films of the 1950s and 1960s such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and Forbidden Planet (1956) captured the imagination of worldwide audiences. Around this same time, the American trio of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury enjoyed unmatched popularity with their short stories and novels.
In 1959, Heinlein described science fiction as “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” His most recognizable novel is Starship Troops, which became a 1997 film.
Traditional science fiction reached popularity on film and television in the late 1960s and early ’70s with the American science fiction television series Star Trek, and later more serious and grave science fiction stories like Fahrenheit 451 (1966) and Stanley Kubrick’s critically acclaimed 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This popularity was followed by the blockbuster movies Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). At this point, U.S. box-office receipts for science fiction, fantasy, and horror films increased from 5 percent in 1971 to nearly 50 percent by 1982.
Science fiction continues to be popular today, in both film and print. This can be seen with recent popular Sci Fi movies such as Interstellar (2014), The Martian (2015), and Jurassic World (2015).
Most recently, cultural theorist, literary critic and author of Locating Science Fiction Andrew Milner described science fiction in 2012 as, “a selective tradition, continuously reinvented in the present, through which the boundaries of the genre are continuously policed, challenged and disrupted, and the cultural identity of the SF community continuously established, preserved and transformed. It is thus essentially and necessarily a site of contestation.” This idea shows an acceptance that the genre will continue to be reinvented and defined over and over again as time goes on.
This definition closely resembles writer John W. Campbell’s infamous summation of the genre: “Science fiction is what I say it is”