The Last Sci-fi Blog: What Makes a Science Fiction Movie Sci-fi?

The Last Sci-fi Blog: What Makes a Science Fiction Movie Sci-fi?

Apr 11, 2013

While watching the trailer for The Purge before a recent screening of Evil Dead, I had a flashback to my college days. I was sitting in my History of Science Fiction Literature class (which was a thing and yes, it was great) and we had just finished The Winterberry, a short story written by Nicholas A. DiChario, and the class was engaged in a heated debate. The question at hand: was the story science fiction?

The Winterberry is told from the point of view of John F. Kennedy, who survived his assassination attempt but suffered severe and inoperable brain damage, causing his family to declare him dead and send him to live in isolation, where he struggles to put the pieces of his shattered life back together. It was meant to kick off a discussion about alternate-history stories, but we had hit a speed bump in our group conversation.

There was one guy in particular who passionately, obnoxiously adamant that it was not science fiction in any way. He argued that this story had no spaceships and no robots. That it didn't explore technology or its ramifications on mankind. That it was all fiction and no science. His argument was that science fiction is defined by how it actually deals with the "science" in its title and that The Winterberry, while a good story, was simply a fantastical drama.

I have the same reaction to that line of reasoning now: bulls**t.

Let's circle back to The Purge, which, in many ways, looks like just another home-invasion horror movie, complete with a group of blade-wielding slashers wearing creepy masks. However, take a look at the world it takes place in, which is set up rather well in the trailer. This isn't our world -- it's a utopia. A peaceful world where there is no crime, no war and people live in safety and comfort. But if there's one thing genre fiction has taught us, it's that utopias tend to have a few vital and horrible flaws. In this case, it's the law that makes all crime legal for one night, letting everyone get their aggression out on their fellow man before returning to the ranks of civilized society when the sun comes up.

It's a preposterous premise. Who first suggested this law? How did anyone decide it was a good idea? How did entire populations agree to it? It really doesn't make literal sense, but c'mon: who cares? I'll reserve judgment for The Purge once I've actually seen it, but the trailer, for all of its regular horror vibes, made me think less of The Strangers and more of Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. Both writers built their careers on short stories where they built (and frequently destroyed) entire worlds in 15 pages, worlds that are beyond imagination and exist solely to prove a point. For every Arthur C. Clarke (whose science fiction feels researched, real and plausible), you have another sci-fi creator who uses the genre as a way to tell allegories, to use the impossible to state obvious. I doubt that The Purge will have the weight of a Bradbury story (at the end of the day, it still looks like a pretty basic horror movie at its core), but I do think they're cut from the same cloth: they create a universe that will never exist in order to make a point that may have been silly or overwrought in a traditional genre.

So, to respond to that guy from college who didn't think The Winterberry was science fiction (and would probably deny up and down that there is any sci-fi in The Purge): to classify science fiction as a genre that's all about technology is narrow-minded and absurd. In this case, the "science" doesn't come from robots or spaceships, but from the bending and breaking of natural law, from the rewriting of time and the suggestion that, somewhere out there, there is a universe where JFK survived and people kill each other with no repercussions once a year.

There is no genre with more potential and more reach than science fiction. Let's not be so narrow.

Categories: Features, Sci-Fi
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