Surviving a Science Fictional Year

Hush Comics would like to introduce new writer J.H. Montgomery to the team.  He comes to us with a new writing series analyzing and reviewing science fiction movies from all eras.  This post is used with permission from the original posting found here.


 

What is science fiction? Anyone with any familiarity with the world of literature will find definitions elusive and fluid: it’s difficult to pin anything, definitively, into any category, and the categories swish over content like wine in the bottom of a glass. Unlike something more definitive like biology or physics herself (though, if you pay attention, physics gets a routine swish-around), the definitions aren’t grounded in something hard and objective. It’s not like classifying a rose in which we can go into nature and pluck a science fiction from a bush and contemplate the boundaries of it like we can with that rose. Instead, it’s much more like a software program being run on the cloud of our shared perceptions, and in that way, not only do our considerations of what make it that thing change, but the thing itself changes. Which means that there isn’t a set definition of the thing I seek to write about. This is also excluding the numerous definitions of constantly spawning subgenres (space opera, cyperpunk, biopunk, steampunk, psychedelic, military, paranoid, and so on).

There are many definitions, the most forgiving of which is, “A story or narrative containing science fictional elements,” which I think is called begging the question in logic classes. Or there’s Robert Heinlein’s five part definition. I think it was Einstein that said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Which is problematic: if Heinlein, one of the most prolific and respected sci-fi authors, can’t simply articulate it, then who can? Which seems to align with the fact that there isn’t a simple or succinct definition anywhere, which must mean that no one really understands it. John Campbell Jr. described science fiction as, “… an honest effort at prophetic extrapolation from the known must be made,” which is pretty good, but a little mechanical. Theodore Sturgeon (Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite, and perhaps one of the unsung heroes of sci-fi as literature) said, “A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem, and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content,” which is less mechanical and includes the ingredients of the emotional heft required of any story that wishes to leave its mark. But then instantaneously the problem then becomes, “What about sci-fi stories that take place on alien worlds divorced of any ‘human’ element?” Or if the human is so unrecognizable as human that it’s more easily described as alien. Image’s Prophet series comes to mind as one of the most recent examples.

I can’t remember who said this, or where I read it (I want to say Ray Bradbury, but I cannot verify that), but when writing a paper for my capstone writing class, I encountered a definition that science fiction is the form of literature that extrapolates humanity to inhumane proportions in order to be able to better understand humanity. In order to study a small problem, you sometimes need a large lens.

I like these definitions and where they point. Triangulating, the definitions point to something transcendent or transhuman, which seems to be the ultimate goal of science anyway: overcoming those limitations that make us specifically human. And more recently, within the last two hundred years, our understanding of the human animal (and all animals except those that be dead) is that he’s a transitional form. As a species, we haven’t arrived at our ultimate shape, but we are simply the proto-form of the as-yet formed. Perhaps science fiction is the first science of literature to recognize this idea; it then takes it upon itself to probe both the tops and bottoms, comforts and fears, potential goods and potential evils of transcendence. So, for a more inclusive and exhaustive definition – one that doesn’t require me to add caveats nor invalidates the subgenres yet includes all that interests me – I propose the following:

“Science fiction is a genre which uses current knowledge to speculate about unknown knowledge in an inherently transcendent fashion that seeks to either better define or overcome humanness.”

This definition matches what I feel when I watch the best science fiction: the giddy thrill of new ideas, or the taut anxiety of fresh horror. It also helps to explain why some things that Blockbuster or Barnes and Noble might qualify as science fiction will be suspiciously absent from my list.

What list? Well, for the next year, I plan to watch one science fiction movie a day. Originally the plan was to watch and write about each, but the fear then became that each entry would simply become a summary of the movie with a thumbs up or thumbs down, and that’s something you can get from Rotten Tomatoes. Instead, I want to write about movies in batches: batches of series (for example, The Matrix) or themes (far future, or coexisting with the alien). This will better allow for comparisons and contextualization, which I think is more worthwhile than simple review.

But I do have weaknesses. First up is that I only have roughly 230 movies on my list. To that end, as you read, feel free to make suggestions which I will add (if I don’t have them already) or explain why it can’t be added as the definition mandates.

Another weakness is the cold war and the roughly 18 septillion B movies it spawned. I know that if I wanted to do sci-fi of the 40s and 50s, I would instantly have 365 movies. The problem is that you can only handle the, “Oh no! Aliens! Quick, shoot them in the face! I’m so glad we shot them in the face! Let’s be glad we’re nothing like them/be careful of our similarities with them/be perpetually afraid they might return!” story so much before it becomes white noise. It’s an infantile theme from an infantile time. Yet, I recognize I will have to include at least some if I’m to reach my 365(ish) goal.

The last weakness is the letter of the law versus the intent. The letter of the law is, “A movie a day, write about them in groups,” but the intent is, “sustained and thoughtful writing over the course of an entire year about a specific topic.” To that end, there are several days I plan on taking off (my anniversary, my daughter’s first birthday), but I fear laziness, especially in the face of such a daunting task. I might need some of you to egg my house from time to time.

This should be fun, and I invite participation. It’s why the Good Lord Kabbalah Monster saw fit that blogs have comment sections. I might not always respond or interact, but I will do my best to do both and will, at the very least, read. So please: tell me why I’m wrong or what I overlooked, or what movie I’m forgetting. I’ll post at the end of each batch what’s coming next so that you can tell me what should be included.

This project is, itself, a project of transcendence: through it I will be learning as much about the limits of my own conceptions of what constitutes humanity as well as the boundaries of story.

Stay tuned.

cover art by William Blake (yeah, that William Blake)

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