Star wars, science fiction and sloppy reasoning

One thing I can’t stand is sloppy reasoning but unfortunately there is a lot of sloppy reasoning around the web.  An example of this is given by Dion of It’s All Geek to Me when he is attempting to define science fiction.

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.

Dion is here defending Star Wars as science fiction, which is actually funny since Mr Lucas himself has stated that Star Wars is not science fiction. And Lucas even went so far as stating that he got his inspiration from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with the Thousand Faces.

Anyway Dion appears to believe that a story counts as science fiction if it includes some science, regardless of how improbable or unlike such “science” might be. More importantly Dion appears to contradict his earlier definition of science fiction in the very same post:

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 interesting to note that Dion explicitly includes pseudoscience in this definition. More importantly is the phrase key part but as pointed out by Mike Fenton, one can easily leave out the sciency parts of Star Wars while the main story remains petty much intact. Either Dion has no idea what the meaning is of the term key or he is using sloppy reasoning.

My impression is that Dion honestly believes that spicing up a story with sciency elements, you will get science fiction. Anyway he applies a very broad understanding of science as he accepts pretty much anything as science in fiction as it is presented as science, regardless of how implausible such “science” is.

Dion’s understanding of science fiction is problematic in many ways. For instance it is virtually impossible to write a story set in the contemporary industrialized world, where more people have access to internet than to clean water, which does not includes smartphones, internet or computers. In fact modern society is full with science and technology, but it would be outlandish to declare all stories set in present day world as science fiction.

I could, for instance, write a story about a hijacking on an airplane (which is definitely technology). Would this counts as science fiction in Dion’s opinion? After all technology is part of the setting, isn’t it?

Secondly Dion’s acceptance of improbable science in science fiction further blurs between science fiction and fantasy. In the Harry Potter series magic is used in much the same way we use science and technology in our world. In fact we see wizards study magic in a similar fashion we are doing science, wizards are doing experiments and have their academic journals like Transfiguration Today (a pun on Physics Today?).

In fantasy magic is often accepted as a factual part of their world. And science is the systematic study of the facts of life and technology is the practical application of science. In this way we can consider magic as “science” whether it is studied at Hogwarts or practiced by the Aes Sedai in The Wheel of Time.

So if Dion really does not care if the technology could not possibly exist in the real world, he has a hard time to point out why Harry Potter and Wheel of Time are fantasy and not science fiction. But I have little hope he will be able to draw a clear line as in the comments on his post he writes:

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.

This is basically the old ad populum fallacy. I do not think the average person should be taken as the criterion of classifying anything to a certain genre. Most people are not used to literary criticism and have little thought about the criterions of different literary genres.

Further more we should wonder why the average person considers Star Wars as science fiction. I think the reason is simple, because they are told that Star Wars is science fiction. We know that public opinion can be manipulated, otherwise billions wouldn’t be invested in marketing each year.

In my opinion writers of science fiction should try to use science that is at least plausible given the current understanding of science. Discredited scientific theories should be avoided. And just inserting robots, aliens or lasers is not enough to make story science fiction.

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12 responses

  1. Am reading Solaris. Written in 1961, its almost comical in its sci fi elements. There are books, pens and notes pads, tape recorders, and radio stations where the transistors need time to heat up. It’s still hard science fiction, though, because of the story.

    1. SF is, of course, very subject to “aging” as science (and technology) is ever changing. A problem not encountered by fantasy which is often set in imaginary world. Nevertheless, I tend to consider works as SF if it was SF at the time it was produced. And I still read Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and other SF writers from the fifties.

      1. Precisely. Solaris is great, a wonderful story, and you just have to read-through the dated bits.

      2. Polish author, Stanisław Lem

  2. Solaris is a terrific book. There are two good movie versions of it too. A 1972 Soviet version, a superb film, and a 2002 film by Steven Soderbergh, not as good as the original, but still pretty enjoyable, starring George Clooney. These still have elements of the fantastical in them, but I wouldn’t classify them as fantasy as I would Star Wars. I love Star Wars, but it’s a space opera and Lucas made no secret what so ever about that. He made a western in space, according to him. To not know this, and to claim Star Wars as hard science fiction, is to know nothing of Star Wars or hard science fiction. No debate on this in the geek communities I frequent. Star Wars is wonderful fun, but it’s Lord of the Rings in space, not Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey. $Amen$

    1. >>and Lucas made no secret what so ever about that. He made a western in space, according to him.

      One would think this would settle this…

      >>and Lucas made no secret what so ever about that. He made a western in space, according to him.

      Just googling, you’ll find Lucas statement within a minute

      >> is to know nothing of Star Wars or hard science fiction

      People are misinformed and tend to think aliens/robots/space equals science fiction. No surprise science fiction has a bad name, most people don’t know what they are talking about.

      1. I find that to be true of far too many things. Like you said, it’s SO easy to simply Google stuff and get answers in seconds, yet so few people do that. Some people just love the sound of their own yammering so much they want nothing to interfere with it. I’ve a friend like this. He’ll go on and on about some “fact” he’s certain he’s right about when in fact he’s not. And, all it would take for him to see this would be a 2 second Google search on his phone. Ego. The bane of the species.

  3. Hi there. I wrote that post four years ago, so I’m not going to vigorously defend it. But I will perhaps discuss where I was coming from.

    Firstly, my bread and butter is science. By day I do research in computational biology. I’m not really sympathetic to pseudo-science in day-to-day life, and I understand perfectly well what science actually is.

    But let’s look at the history here. Star Wars is most indebted to the planetary romances of the pulp era. Indeed, had Lucas successfully secured the rights to Flash Gordon, we wouldn’t even have Star Wars.

    So is Flash Gordon science fiction? It’s not hard science fiction, but it absolutely is a planetary romance. Can we really argue that planetary romances are not soft science fiction?

    1. Thanks for your comment.

      >>I’m not really sympathetic to pseudo-science in day-to-day life,

      I am glad to hear this. But why accepting “pseudo-science” in science fiction? Should science fiction not promote public interest in real science?

      >>Can we really argue that planetary romances are not soft science fiction?

      Yes, we can. Unfortunately I belong to those who consider planetary romances as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction not even as “soft” science fiction.

      Soft science fiction, in my opinion and that of many other, focuses on social developments and explores the future of society. As such soft sf has little to do with planetary romances.

      And as I have said, setting a story at another planet or in space more generally, does not make a story science fiction.

      That said, I am not implying that planetary romances or Star Wars in particular are bad. They can be good fiction, but they are not sf.

      I wish you a good day.

      1. 1. I don’t really think that fiction should necessarily have an agenda to “promote” anything. Indeed, didactic fiction is usually pretty bad.

        I am very much for the promotion of scientific literacy, and a stirring, emotionally gripping story that does this is pretty powerful. But there are many paths to this destination. In my experience, *any* captivating story that features science and/or technology, no matter how outlandish, will drive people to look into the wonders of real science.

        I was inspired by Star Wars, TRON, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, H.G. Wells and so forth. Carl Sagan was inspired by the John Carter of Mars books. Just because these stories incorporate elements of the fantastic doesn’t mean they lead people to fuzzy thinking in the real world. Indeed, I think they show that the fruits of the Enlightenment can still be imbued with mythic qualities. The two can co-exist.

        2. That’s one definition. But here’s another definition, per science fiction author Poul Anderson:

        “In my opinion, two streams run through science fiction. The first traces back to Jules Verne. It is ‘the idea as hero’. His tales are mainly concerned with the concept—a submarine, a journey to the center of the planet, and so on. The second derives from H.G. Wells. His own ideas were brilliant, but he didn’t care how implausible they might be, an invisible man or a time machine or whatever. He concentrated on the characters, their emotions and interactions. Today, we usually speak of these two streams as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction.”

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