Home > Geek rants > Is Star Wars Science Fiction?

Is Star Wars Science Fiction?

It’s a common opinion amongst geeks: Star Wars is fantasy, not science fiction. It’s the sort of statement that appeals to pedants and prescriptivists alike (and geeks are usually both); furthermore, it allows for a convenient defence against claims that the science in Star Wars is poor or non-existent.

I’m not unsympathetic to that point of view. At heart, George Lucas has crafted a modern myth, and mythology relies on metaphor and poetic imagery, not rational explanations and plausible events. If science fiction must necessarily be plausible from a scientific perspective, Star Wars is out the window.

However, if science fiction must necessarily not contradict contemporary scientific understanding, what else gets crossed off the list? Try Star Trek, the Alien films and most other popular entertainment with a technological setting, at least on TV and film. Even Contact, a film based on a book by Carl Sagan, implies that radio waves travel much, much slower than the speed of light. Or what about Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902, widely considered to be the first science fiction film… and yet we have the classic “man in the moon” as part of the visuals—preposterous even 100 years ago.

What does this mean? Are we going to reduce science fiction cinema to a handful of films? Or should we accept that maybe the genre is broader than us geeks will admit?

I’d like to suggest that what differentiates science fiction from fantasy is that the former includes speculative (pseudo-)science and/or technology as a key part of its setting or plot.

It’s not about whether or not something could happen, given contemporary scientific understanding. It’s about whether or not the characters believe they’re operating within a universe where science works—where scientific research is taking place, even off-screen—no matter how fantastic their world may be.

You’ve got robots and computers? You’ve got science. You’ve got spaceships and laser guns? You’ve got science. Somewhere, someone in this universe is applying scientific principles to develop hyperdrives and Death Stars and portable iron lungs. I don’t care if the technology couldn’t possibly exist in the real world—in the fictional world being portrayed, it is possible.

The 1980 film Flash Gordon is a good illustration of this idea. It’s a remake of the 1930s serial which was itself based on a comic strip intended to compete with Buck Rogers, all of which inherit the tropes of pulp science fiction of the era. By 1980, nothing from these stories was remotely plausible—this was 11 years after we’d visited the moon, don’t forget—and so “bad science” abounds to the point of campy self-parody. However, the catalyst for the adventure is Dr. Zarkov, a scientist in the best they-laughed-at-Einstein-too mould, who kidnaps Flash and takes him to the planet Mongo in a homemade rocketship. And that’s what makes Flash Gordon a science fiction film: the universe that Flash inhabits allows scientists to conduct scientific research and, furthermore, to derive technology from their discoveries.

By the same token, in Star Wars you have all sorts of gadgets that are technology-driven: lightsabers, holograms, proton torpedoes, carbon freezing, speeder bikes and even clones. No attempt is made to explain any of this (except maybe in the expanded universe), but it’s clear that there is some in-universe scientific explanation for all these things, even if we aren’t privy to it. In other words, magic isn’t involved—the Force may be considered magic, but it’s a fantasy element in a science fiction setting.

So am I right about this? Or have I sold-out and become an anti-contrarian? Post your comments below…

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  1. April 12, 2011 at 9:13 am

    The labeling suffers from hangovers of the early era of science fiction when the “science” was the driving plot line of the story. I remember the queasiness of the old guard when story lines became more relationship driven, in the era when you could still count female science fiction writers on one hand. It was a clear though unspoken dividing line: science fiction was for boys and fantasy was for girls. Science fiction was for T’s and fantasy was for F’s. Science fiction was SERIOUS and fantasy was.. pfft. The erosion of the science from being the key element of science fiction was seen as dilution.

    To label now based on how much science-y stuff is in the story and visuals doesn’t work. To label now based on how much relationship, religion, philosophy is in the story doesn’t work. New labels get invented such as Urban Fantasy to try and label accurately. People still claim some labels are superior to others (the Golden Age of science fiction would be pleased). Sisko walks with the prophets and people cry “fantasy!” Midichlorians are measurable by instruments and people cry “science fiction!” People who eschew Hollywood spit out “space opera” to dismiss both.

    I’ve got my opinion of where the labels should fall but my opinion, like yours, says more about my likes and prejudices than it does about the stories we’re talking of. I’m happy to agree with everyone, yes it’s science fiction, fantasy, space opera.. grand tales taking place in a world more colorful than our everyday lives.

  2. April 12, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I think the real question is, what does the average person mean by “science fiction”. In my opinion, they mean anything that includes sci-fi tropes: spaceships, aliens, robots, etc.

    Ask a random person on the street if Star Wars or Star Trek are science fiction and you’ll get a big “Yes!” from most people. Lost in Space, which was obviously The Swiss Family Robinson in space (and became increasingly camp over its run), is certainly science fiction to most people.

    The unspoken assumption by those of the Old Guard is that science fiction is intellectual fare for the scientifically literate. It’s really the old hipster whinge that “It used to be cool before it went mainstream!”

    Again, I’m not unsympathetic to this POV, since it’s attempting to draw an intrinsic distinction between genres rather than simply relying on public consensus. But Star Wars and Star Trek are clearly decendants of classic science fiction, even if they’ve diluted the original intentions of the genre. A Princess of Mars is clearly the ancestor to Star Wars, and yet no one could sensibly argue that Burroughs was not writing science fiction.

    • Reason
      July 1, 2012 at 8:24 am

      “Average” people aren’t qualified to have an opinion on what constitutes science fiction because “average” people aren’t qualified to have an opinion about what constitutes science. At least not in this redneck country.

      • teacake
        July 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm

        By “average” I assume you mean muggles?

  3. April 12, 2011 at 9:50 am

    I find the question itself to be tedious. If another Harry Potter book comes out in which aliens visit Hogwarts does it flip into sci-fi? One thing I’ve noticed though, it’s the sci-fi brigade that gets its knickers in knots over dilution and not labeling inferior stories with “their” label.

    “Don’t take my coolness away from me!! It’s not for muggles you know!!”

    • April 12, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Exactly.

      However, labels are necessary, if only for marketing purposes.

  4. April 13, 2011 at 12:24 am

    I think the distinction is more nuanced than your making out. The reason that Star Wars isn’t considered science fiction isn’t that the science isn’t believable, it’s that the science isn’t part of the story. The science is just the setting, the background, the atmosphere. In science fiction, you don’t need believable science, what you need is believable events. A recent trend in science fiction circles is to instead use the term “speculative fiction” because there, it’s ultimately asking “what would happen if…?”, “what would it be like if…?”. So with that, you’ve got something very different. The reason that Star Wars is not considered sci-fi is at it’s heart, there are no such questions in the story. You can twist it to make it sound like there are, “What if the force existed” etc, but the truth is that the centre of the story is the action, the characters etc. Where as in Star Trek, the story is much more speculative. What if we had robots that were becoming more human? What if there were omnipotent beings? What if there were people who functioned without emotion? etc. These are ultimately the differences. The stories of Star Trek are more often genuine speculative stories. The same is not true in star wars.

    • April 13, 2011 at 8:08 am

      I would ask, “What of the Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serials?” There, too, you have nominal speculation (e.g. “What if an intergalactic despot was hellbent on using Earth as his plaything”), but really, the emphasis is on adventure, romance, etc.

      I do, however, like the “speculative fiction” idea, which I’ve heard before. However, the problem with dismissing elements as “setting” only is that it ignores how important setting is to genre. For example, the John Carter books may be classed as “planetary romances”—the fact that the adventures take place on another planet, where the planet itself is almost a character, is a distinguishing feature of the text. The same is true for Avatar, say.

      I would argue that the technological setting of Star Wars, while not essential to its story, is essential to its character.

      • April 13, 2011 at 9:40 am

        There is then a distinction which a friend of mine once told me about between SF and Sci-fi. SF is the intelectual stuff, the real “what ifs” IE “What if a robot could think like us?” “What if we could travel in time” etc where as Sci-fi is the more Heroisim & fun times that happenes to be set in space.

  5. April 13, 2011 at 5:46 am

    The problem is that whenever we see something happen in space, we label is science fiction, which is unfair in the least. I still believe in the difference between sci fi and fantasy not because there is a clear line between the two, but because there are some elements from each that they inherited from the genres’ history. Fantasy should have mythology and an otherworldly construct. Sci fi on the other hand should be an expansion beyond the world we are in now, based on science of which the validity could be hard or soft.

    • April 13, 2011 at 8:11 am

      Would Star Wars, then, be science fiction/fantasy?

  6. April 13, 2011 at 9:01 am

    The term “speculative fiction” has been around since the 70’s, it’s not recent.

    • April 13, 2011 at 9:10 am

      I’d also argue that it’s an overlapping category with science fiction and not identical to it.

  7. April 13, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Early in it’s usage it was being promoted as a replacement for the term science fiction which was seen as having been degraded by the abbreviation “sci-fi”. Yes it’s true, a long time ago and far far away people thought abbreviations were degradations and made stuff look bad. I remember letters and editorials railing against the use of “sci-fi” to describe novels, the genre wanted to be taken seriously in the public eye and the abbreviation was seen as a step backwards.

    • April 13, 2011 at 9:22 am

      Yeah, I know.

      But seriously, is a Harry Turtledove alternate history tale in the same genre as “I, Robot”? They’re both speculative.

  8. April 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

    Michael, I think we’re on the same wavelength, to a degree. You’re saying that, perhaps, sci-fi and SF aren’t the same thing necessarily; I’d agree, except that I’m using different words.

    In other words, Star Wars may not be speculative fiction (“SF”), but it is science fiction (“sci-fi”).

  9. June 18, 2012 at 1:43 am

    The problem is the the mash up that is called science fiction today has gotten REALLY DUMB and now attracts people who would not have paid attention to most “science fiction” before 1977. In that year the 10 year-olds who went to the movies did not care what was or was not science fiction. Star Wars had space ships so it was science fiction.

    In actual fact the producers, who were somewhat older, told TIME magazine that it was not science fiction. They called it Space Fantasy. Since all science fiction does not take place in outer space a better name would probably be TECHNO-FANTASY. The style of the story is fantasy but it also involves technology. Because so much of this stuff is written today I think we need to distinguish them so readers know what they are buying ahead of time. But I believe the readers of techno-fantasy will regard the term as second class compared to science fiction but then they complain about literature that demands scientific rigor. The Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is BORING even though Arthur C. Clarke said that future colonists should read it. But those people would argue the Clarke’s Childhood’s End is not science fiction either. LOL

  10. July 11, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Science Fiction includes one of two things, science/technology/ideas, and/or is meant to reflect society of today and take it out of context in order to better understand and analyse it. Star Wars is basically a script form of A Hero with a Thousand Faces. In other words it is an archetypal mythic journey, due to the nature of the setting and the way Lucas has played it out, it plays out as a fantasy space opera. Having aliens in a film does not make it a science fiction, nor does it being set in space. It could easily become a science fiction being set in space, but not necessarily. One of the best Science Fiction films of all time is Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It is nearly all shot in the countryside of the former soviet union, and has no special effects at all. It philosophises in a similar way to Tarkovsky’s Solyaris does.

  11. Guusebumps
    September 25, 2012 at 4:46 am

    Science fiction are fictions that center around science and the questions that surrounds it. it is not important what the science is and it doesn’t have to be a plausible science. Even psychic power or magic could become science if treated as one. But the the story itself should revolve around the science.

    The problem with Star Wars is that the story is not around science, The science is not an important aspect in it. Star Wars is more about martial arts, the force, and all, than it is about science. Think about a Hong Kong kung fu movie. Change the swords with light sabers, change the location to space, change the horses, carriages, etc to speeder bikes, and space fighters, space ships, there you got Star Wars.

    But in Star Trek, many of the stories revolved around science. I do not say that all Star Trek episodes and movies are science fiction. Sometimes they are not. But, many of Star Trek stories revolved around science.

    This is what makes Star Trek a science fiction series and Star Wars is only Hong Kong kung fu movie played in space.

  12. Mark
    May 10, 2014 at 11:58 am

    So if science exists in the story that makes the story science fiction? That might be the stupidest definition of the genre ever.

  1. July 31, 2015 at 8:03 pm

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