Living in Science Fiction

Is the movie Gravity science fiction? This was the discussion a friend of mine and I were having while talking about science fiction and fantasy winning Oscars — Gravity got Best Director, but is it really science fiction?

Wikipedia, IMDb, and such call it science fiction, given that it’s, well, in space. That’s usually the threshold for science fiction.

But something in space is hardly imaginative anymore. An astronaut who just returned from spending an entire year in space. SpaceX launches rockets on the regular. Of course, there is the room for an outlandish situation; Moon was grounded, but had mining on the moon, countless others have aliens. Gravity, though, is about someone being stranded in space because of a freak debris field. For all intents and purposes, the setting of Gravity is as much science fiction as Apollo 13. That is to say, it’s not, it’s really not.

Gravity is, in many ways, a more modern Castaway. In both stories relatively unqualified people are, due to an event beyond human control, stranded in the middle of nowhere by themselves that then prove the resilience of the human spirit by making their way back to civilization. Granted, Gravity takes place over a far shorter period of time, but that’s kinda due to the fact that it takes place in modern reality where people can’t breathe in space.

In other words, labelling Gravity science-fiction is a product of an outdated standard that something in space is automatically considered science-fiction. That’s something that makes science-fiction so weird as a genre: what’s scifi might not always be scifi. We don’t consider the first episode of Sherlock science-fiction, even though its heavy use of smartphones would definitely qualify it as some sort of techno-thriller were it produced in the eighties. Same with Gravity; it isn’t science-fiction today, but to, say, the sixties it’d be what The Martian is to us today.

Science-fiction, at least the sort inhabited by movies like Moon, The Martian and Ex Machina (more fantastical fare like Star Wars and Star Trek are another matter entirely), are rooted in having some bit of futuristic technology. Moon’s got lunar mining, The Maritian’s got a Mars base, Ex Machina incredibly advanced AI. But if we were to develop any of those technologies the fiction part of the science would be closer to the events surrounding them. If we were to develop both rogue AI and hover cars, the biggest incongruity in Blade Runner would be that Atari was supposed to still be a major brand.

I think that’s one reason why I’ve always loved science-fiction — there’s this air to it of asking what if. What if there was something new that would change the world. It takes what you know and twists it to be something, well, more. It’s a dreamer’s genre. What if you could live on a submarine deep beneath the sea? What if we made contact with aliens? What if there were giant monsters trying to kill us and so we made giant mecha to fight back? What if we could carry phones out of the house and in our pockets?

So is Gravity science-fiction? If it is, it’s still a good movie, but it’s pretty low-grade science-fiction.Yes, it fully utilizes the genre’s capability for telling parables, but it doesn’t really do anything with the almighty What If. Not to mention it’s something that, given the right circumstances, could happen tonight. I realize I’m going back on what I said some time ago in another blog post (the one I just linked to), but no, I don’t really think Gravity should count as science-fiction.

‘cuz we’ve already got people in space doing space things on space stations.

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