What Makes Science Fiction Popular?

Yet another major detour from the top fifty science fiction films of all time, as I ponder the question:  Why science fiction?  Why watch it and read it?  What’s the big deal?  Is there even a big deal?

Well, to answer the third question first…yes, it is a big deal.  Science fiction is big money these days.  While written SF takes a back seat to other kinds of fiction in terms of market dominance, the highest grossing film of all time is Avatar, definitely science fiction.  Of course, that’s using figures unadjusted for inflation (here’s one at Wikipedia, and another for US grosses at Movieweb).

Somehow an inflation-adjusted list is more satisfying, and you can find a good one at Box Office Mojo (right here).  The list is fascinating in its own right, and you can quibble over things like the effect of re-releases and the DVD market, but right now we’re concerned with science fiction, so I’m just going to note that there are a stunning seven science fiction titles in the top twenty grossing films:  Star Wars at #2, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial at #4, The Empire Strikes Back at #12, Avatar at #14, Return of the Jedi at #15, Jurassic Park at #18, and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace at #20.

One of the things that the list demonstrates is the incredible popularity of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon in its own right.  But since it is science fiction—unless you’re one of those people who favor a restrictive definition of science fiction, and consider the films science fantasy or something like it, which I am not—it is illustrative of the place science fiction occupies in our culture.

Star Wars obviously started something;  it’s the first of the films in terms of release date, and it’s also the second highest grossing film of all time—it also single-handedly revived the space opera subgenre.  That’s saying something.  Three of the other science fiction films in the top twenty are quite literally the progeny of Star Wars, and the remaining three films—E.T., Avatar and Jurassic Park—probably owe a great deal to Star Wars (though it would be unfair to say that without Star Wars these films would not exist).

Each of the seven films is a visual spectacle.  Star Wars revolutionized the special effects aspect of American filmmaking; Jurassic Park is something of a landmark in computer generated imagery, and Avatar may be the pinnacle of CGI to date.  Only E.T. lacks the sheer unadulterated visual punch of the others, and it replaces it with iconic, wondrous imagery tailor-made for children.

All of the films are a little light on science and exposition.  The Star Wars films, as a group, feature faster-than-light travel, alien life forms, the Force, futuristic weaponry, and sentient robots, just to name a few aspects of Star Wars technology and science.  Jurassic Park depends on genetic engineering techniques to drive the plot, and Avatar talks about unobtainium, the use of genetically engineered avatars linked to human operators, and space travel.  Finally, E.T. features a sentient (and kindly) alien life form who possesses psionic powers.

This is fascinating stuff from a scientific perspective—but none of the films go to any great lengths (or in some cases any lengths at all) to explain the science.  In Star Wars hyperspace might as well be magic for all the explanation we get, and a small boy (young Anniken Skywalker, of course) is capable of building an advanced artificial intelligence into his sentient droids (R2-D2 and C3P0), but no one bothers to explain how he does it.  Ditto E.T.’s powers, which seem to be magic but are explained as natural to his species.  Avatar, which I have not yet seen, features a scientifically implausible material and no real explanation of the telepresence and genetic engineering involved—though the space travel appears to accept relativity.

Its certainly true that all of the science fiction films on the list are heavy on the action and adventure.  Star Wars is a non-stop action film with light comic touches, and two other two members of the trilogy are equally action-oriented;  all three feature extraordinary visual settings and a great deal of adventure along with the clash of good and evil.  Avatar and Jurassic Park are nearly classic adventure films, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial is a wonderful children’s take on the adventure film.

As I looked at the SF films on the list, I was prepared to make the argument that the films are escapist films of the first order without any important ideas in them.  But then I looked a little closer and realized that they aren’t purely escapist films.  Instead, the films touch on issues like tyranny and democracy, and how one can become the other; the nature and value of friendship; exploitation, greed and fairness; good and evil; and temptation and redemption—just to name a few.

In other words, these films explore the human condition.  I think that’s part of what made them popular.  You don’t really need science fiction to talk about things like this, but they do take on a whole new life in science fiction settings with great potential for action and adventure and wonder, and you simply cannot ignore the visuals these films bring to the table.

So what about written SF?  I was more than a little surprised at finding so few examples of science fiction in the lists of the best selling books of all time.  First I looked at Wikipedia’s list of the best-selling books of all time.  Then I took a look at the list of best-selling authors of all time.  And don’t ask me where they get their numbers from; I couldn’t find any corroborating sources on the internet (though the lists actually square with my instincts, after a little thought).

Boy, was I surprised.  There’s not much SF on the list, though fantasy makes a fairly strong showing.  Some of that may be because science fiction, as a genre, has only about a hundred years of history, but still…  In the single-volume category, there’s only George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four; Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; and Frank Herbert’s Dune (we can quibble over titles like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and H. Ryder Haggard’s She, but they really don’t present science so much as highly imaginative speculation without a scientific framework).  If you include series of books lumped together, you also get Star Wars, which has over two hundred titles, and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (which is really seven books, four of them published some thirty or so years after the original three, and not counting the second trilogy penned by David Brin, Gregory Benford and Gregg Bear).

The best-selling authors list is even worse.  Unless you count Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, Robin Cook or Edgar Rice Burroughs—all authors whose work includes but is not limited to science fiction—there are no science fiction authors on the list at all.

Now, the absolute best-selling books of all time is a pretty rarified list, and perhaps it should come as no surprise that there’s little SF on the list—it’s a popular genre, but things like romance and fantasy always outsell it, and it’s also a young genre.  On the other hand…I really expected to see more SF show up, and I think what this list demonstrates is that while SF is popular in the movies, it’s not as popular in novels and books.

The written SF which does show up on the list really doesn’t have much in common.  Nineteen Eighty-Four is an incredibly bleak, depressing novel of totalitarianism run wild;  Hitchhiker’s Guide is something of a spoof of SF, and definitely a comedy; and Dune is a highly complex novel joining aspects of a political thriller in a feudal setting, semi-mystical philosophical musings about human potential, and an alien ecology.  We’ve already mentioned Star Wars, and the novels were spawned by the movies.  Asimov’s Foundation books deal with a far-future empire which falls into decadence and savagery and is the science fiction equivalent of the climb back to civilization after the fall of Rome.  Only the Foundation novels celebrate science and technology; in Nineteen Eighty-Four technology is a tool of oppression, as it is in Dune.  The Guide is too busy poking fun at humanity’s foibles to celebrate science and technology…

The only thing the novels have in common are good stories and, once again, an exploration of the human condition—though the written variety seems to focus on societies instead of individuals.

When I started this blog entry, I really expected to be able to talk about all the wonderful things science fiction does that no other form of literature and film can do, specifically an exploration of the philosophical and legal, as well as practical, implications of advances in technology.  At least in the movies, science fiction seems to serve as an excuse for stunning visuals, which is probably a good thing since that makes for good movies.  In popular writing, science fiction also tends to emphasize the “cool” factor.

I think ultimately the most popular science fiction looks back to the thing that humans find most interesting:  human beings.  What makes these films and books fun and popular isn’t the science fiction:  it’s the good stories and, in the case of the movies, the spectacular special effects.  At the end of the day, I suppose I’m satisfied with that.


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