What Does Science Fiction Mean?
When most people think of science fiction, the image that comes to mind is probably one of star trek, space ships and perhaps some otherworldly creatures. To be fair, we have been manipulated by the media into connecting these images with the term ‘science-fiction’, and so it is hardly surprising that so many people choose to align the images with the phraseology. However, there is so much more to this topic, how can anyone submit a realm millions of times bigger than our own planet into such a small pocket of understanding? If there is so much space out there, it, therefore, follows that there must be much more to understand about it all than just space ships. Surely so many authors, so many filmmakers, poets, artists, creative people of all areas would not have chosen science fiction as their main topic if there was nothing more to it than these few images. It follows that if we actually make the conscious choice to look a little more closely at some of the pieces of work that have been formed around this core topic, which we may actually find more than there appears to be on the surface. Unquestionably, there are more facets to a piece of work set on earth than just motor cars that run on fuel, so it seems a little shallow and narrow-minded to retire science fiction to a box with a ‘space ship’ label on it without searching a little deeper and imagining a little more vividly.
Over the next few pages, we are going to attempt to look at several facets which can clearly be find and should be considered within a selection of science fiction based works, whether by film or by book. Perhaps we can also look at how there are complex issues within these areas, just as complex issues can be found, and are frequently looked at with works that are not of the science fiction realm. Why indeed, does science fiction have such a stigma surrounding it? And what can we do to break through this barrier and appeal to larger audiences? We can show that there is in fact a wealth of complexity to be discovered in this area, just as much undeniably, if not more issues, than can be found in a piece of work set on this planet, surrounding just one eco-system.
Let us begin with one of the best-loved and commercially successful films of the last few years, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. Now, many people would not consider this to be of the science fiction genre, but what, in fact, does ‘science-fiction’ mean? There are thousands of opinions on this, and whilst researching this topic, I have found a constant surprise at some of them, which I have included below, just to help reinforce the idea that science fiction does not automatically mean space and aliens.
‘Science fiction is the search for definition of man and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science).’
‘Science Fiction is that class of prose narrative treating of a situation that could not arise in the world we know, but which is hypothesized based on some innovation in science or technology, or pseudo-technology, whether human or extra-terrestrial in origin.’
‘Science Fiction is literature about the future, telling stories of the marvels we hope to see–or for our descendants to see–tomorrow, in the next century, or in the limitless duration of time.’
It is particularly interesting that even in this small selection of quotes whilst searching for a definition of the phrase ‘science-fiction’ there is variation between them, but not one singly mention of a space ship. There is much more about science fiction representing a search in to the future as for what things are to come and searching into the unknown, trying to discover and move forward as the human race. It is, therefore, in a diluted form that The Sixth Sense fits very well into the genre. The film is indeed focused around a topic of which there is permanent and affluent speculation but as yet no strict proof. And that topic is, of course, the paranormal and how the paranormal interacts with the living.
The film is particularly clever in the way that we are shown, as the audience, not simply a scare tactic film about ghosts, but a touching and moving rendition of the grief associated with death, being left behind, and loneliness. Malcom Crowe, the protagonist of the film, without even knowing it himself for the majority, shows us the perils of not being able to let go of something and illustrates an idea of what can happen when and if the dead stay on earth. But it is through Anna Crowe, his wife that we get the full force of grief which death can bring. This is touching because there are few people who have had no experience with the loss of a loved one or watching the grief of a friend who has lost a loved one. It is in this clever way that Shyamalan allows his audience to identify with the film and its topic, and take the idea of the afterlife seriously, without turning it into a satire, or a horror film, which so many films in this genre fall prey to.
What is fascinating here is that the preface of the film is in no way extraterrestrial, the origin is human, whether living or dead. Shyamalan is a master at this genre, having produced several films along these lines, Unbreakable and especially Signs which does in fact more blatantly address the science fiction context with the arrival of aliens on earth. However, as with The Sixth Sense he does not get carried away with absurd special effects and ridiculous plot lines, he holds true to the idea that whilst this is something that has not yet been proven to exist, it is in fact a possibility. His films expertly show not just ghosts or aliens, but how their proven presence would actually affect the human race, and those of us living on earth. Shyamalan illustrates, as Amis says, ‘a situation which could arise’ and is not totally unfeasible, but rather than focusing on that and using it as a shock tactic to draw an audience, he takes a rather more sensitive approach and explores how its discovery would affect those already living here, or in Crowe’s case, those left behind after someone has moved on. His films are moving and creative, sensitive and emotional, whilst still exploring and skirting on the issue and complexities of other types and forms of living, definitely, therefore, fitting into the science fiction genre, whilst not obeying the stereotype in any way at all.