Thursday, March 24, 2016

In Which the Washington Post Proves That "Futurist" Is a Title Without Meaning

A friend on Facebook asked me what I thought of this article in the Washington Post. The thesis of the article was that Disney's commitment to Star Wars franchising, after building its empire on fantasy properties like Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid, showed how science fiction was "eating the world."

I'm afraid my response was...a tad negative:

I think the author, despite his title as "futurist," doesn't know what science fiction is, doesn't know what fantasy is, doesn't understand the distinction between science fiction and space opera, and doesn't understand the dynamics driving the increase in female participation in fan culture.

So, not much wiggle room there. But let me expand a little. 

A lot of people out there think that anything with starships and laser guns is science fiction, and that fantasy is either fairy tale princesses, Gandalf, or Harry Potter. Mr. Basulto is clearly one of these people. They're all wrong.

Science fiction - the real stuff, "hard" or "soft" - isn't about technology. It's about our reaction to technology. Specifically, to changes in technology. And to new scientific discoveries. And to changes in our universe. In short, science fiction is about our reaction to the new. The classic formulation of science fiction is "What if?" What if workers were replaced by mechanical men (Karl Çapek's RUR)? What if we had an electricity generating station that was so powerful we were economically dependent on it, but so dangerous that it could destroy us at any time (Robert Heinlein's Blowups Happen)? What if human beings who lived on a world with six suns finally saw darkness (Isaac Asimov's Nightfall)? How would we react? What would happen next?

"But wait!" I hear you cry, "What about Star Wars? That's science fiction! Where's the 'what if' there?" Well, hold on to your hat, fanboy. Star Wars isn't science fiction. Don't get me wrong; I like Star Wars (well, Star Wars IV, V and parts of VI, anyway). But it isn't science fiction. It is a future without extrapolation; it is technology without scientific rationale. We don't call this science fiction; we call it space opera.

Space opera is a fine thing. I loves it. But it is a subgenre in which technology is made to serve the storytelling functions of some other genre trope.

Space opera can be fantasy. What is a light saber but a magic sword?
Space opera can be naval warfare - consider Federation and Romulan starships playing destroyer vs. submarine in ST:TOS "The Balance of Terror."
Space opera can be superhero tales - sagas where the heroes"evolved" humans. Slan. The Rowan. 

But space opera doesn't question technology or science; it uses them in place of something else. And personalities and ways of life remain unchanged, or hark back to an earlier time and place.

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