I think this is common-sensical. After all, science fiction is supposed to be concerned with the natural world, not the supernatural one. That’s the primary difference between fantasy and science fiction. But what if the supernatural I’m referring to is Christianity?
Last semester, I took an undergraduate class (an experience, let me tell you) in science fiction, taught by the inestimable Olivia Burgess. She showed us the movie The Book of Eli in the unit we did on post-apocalyptic fiction. I raised the question, after we had watched it, as to the appropriateness of the film, since, while it is indeed post-apocalyptic and dystopian, it is not actually science fiction. I was asked why. “Well, it admits the literal existence of the supernatural, doesn’t it?” I said. “It assumes that Christianity, and a God who exists outside the natural laws of the universe, is real. Actually real, and not just a figment of Eli’s imagination. Those are supernatural, the end.” It’s perhaps right, as some of them argued, that we’re not supposed to believe that the Christianity part is true in a real, actual sense, and that Eli is not lead by God, but by his vision and determination. Which, okay, I can buy that. However, some people got super offended that I suggest their religion was supernatural and thus couldn’t be considered real in a fictional narrative and still be considered science fiction.
I’m not a big fan of genre-policing. Most genre-policing is unproductive at best and obnoxious and problematic at worst. Genres, after all, are not fixed entities with clear boundaries and logical definitions. They are fuzzy, sometimes indeterminable, and multiple sets of definitions, set by no one in particular, and they can fluctuate, mingle, and sometimes disappear altogether. And that their primary function is to police, and not describe, is clear in even a short and shallow survey of contemporary genres. In our particular cultural moment, for example, nonfiction is considered more authentic than fiction (witness the brouhaha that occurred when James Frey admitted to Oprah that his A Million Little Pieces was semi-fictional); literature is a label used to mean “of value;” romance and chick lit are genre labels that translate into silly, middle-aged, and love-obsessed female readers, and are labels that anyone who wants to be considered a “real writer” will usually try to avoid; and science fiction is obviously ghettoized in ways most of us are familiar with. Certainly all genre labels are descriptive, but that is not their main function. Their main function is to determine what is “good” or “worthwhile” literature, and to police those boundaries. If genre labels were designed primarily to describe a type of literature, Pride & Prejudice would be shelved with the romances and chick lit.
That being said, we have these labels, and while we should not treat them as unquestionable and fixed, they can be useful in something besides policing. So when I say The Book of Eli is fantasy, and not science fiction, I am not trying to make a value judgment. As a science fiction scholar, I know full well the dangers of ghettoizing certain genres, and I am a fantasy fan too. I don’t think one is better than the other, and I actually think that hierarchy is mostly rooted in bullshit sexism. So. I do have a fuzzy definition of science fiction, and I’ll give it here, but it’s not perfect, and there will, of course, be exceptions. Science fiction usually has most or all of these characteristics:
1. It is about science or the practice of science.
2. It stays within the bounds of material reality/natural laws or it is concerned with appearing within the bounds of material reality/natural laws. This means that if it tries to explain its reality within the confines of our own natural world, even if this is technobabble or lampshading (á la Doctor Who’s “magic door” in The Girl in the Fireplace), then it could be science fiction. I don’t agree with definitions that say science fiction must be possible in the real world or according to contemporary science, because that is a ridiculously limiting definition, and would exclude science fiction like Star Trek, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine and most of his short stories, Doctor Who (actually, pretty much any modern science fiction that uses time travel), Armageddon, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, and Red Dwarf. What these narratives have in common is not that they are scientifically feasible, but that they are concerned with material reality, and explain their realities as the same as ours. The extent, of course, to which they are concerned will vary.
3. It forces the reader to leave the familiar world of here-and-now. This is the characteristic that is most often absent, but I think, when it appears, it is extraordinarily important. When this characteristic is present, it becomes imperative that the narrative adhere to the second, because this means it can make the familiar unfamiliar, which can function in a number of ways. By making characteristics of our culture, for example, disappear (like gender or race), science fiction can denaturalize those concepts within our reality. By painting a utopia (like Star Trek), it can make that utopia seem not so out of our reach. It can take a negative human behavior, and completely exaggerate or transform it; District 9 portrays how racism dehumanizes people, in a really stark and literal (and thus unfamiliar) way. Without existing within our own reality, however, that literal dehumanization loses some of its power.
4. It is concerned with the material nature of humanity or human society.*
Fantasy only usually has the last two characteristics, and often not even the last one. Fantasy is more concerned with human myth than the human condition in material terms. So the main difference is that fantasy tends to allow the reality of the supernatural and science fiction tends to deny it. Which means that if a narrative allows for the reality of supernatural beliefs, like god(s), demons, ghosts, magic, whatever, then it is most likely not science fiction. And Christianity (or any other religion with supernatural beliefs) does not get a pass just because many people believe it to be actually true. All that means is that many people believe in the reality of the supernatural, not that those supernatural beliefs are in fact natural.
There are ways that science fiction can allow the reality of Christianity, but it has to alter it. If it explains God as an alien being with different physical limits than us (like the Q in Star Trek), then that can count as science fiction. If it claims that angels and ghosts are actually some technobabble psychic force or the result of multiple dimensions, then it can count as science fiction. But Christian myths include the supernatural; God is not limited by natural laws, and he can make a virgin have a baby, stop the Earth’s rotation, or have a son who can turn water into wine or break the law of conservation (all those fishes). He can make, in The Book of Eli, a blind man see, and not with medicine or science. He does it with supernatural power.
So why am I harping on this? After all, I don’t think genre-policing is awesome, and I seem to be doing a bit of it here. I think it’s important because of the reaction I received in explaining this, not because it really matters whether The Book of Eli is classified as science fiction or fantasy. The defensiveness of my classmates came from a place where fantasy was worth less, and they didn’t want their religion to be placed in that category. For them, fantasy is fake and science fiction is real. Hell, even our negative connotations of the word “myth” make it clear: if it isn’t about the material world, it doesn’t fucking matter. It’s escapism, it’s unimportant, it’s childish. And even as an atheist, I think this is a real problem. Myth (and not just religious myth) is incredibly important to humans. But in a world in which science and technology are so prominent in both our understanding of ourselves as humans and the simple way we function in our everyday lives, we seem to distrust myth. We think that if myth describes the real world, it’s misleading or a lie, and if it doesn’t describe the real world, it’s next to useless.
I worry that this is a trend that will lead to us distrusting narrative (and fiction) altogether. But even if it isn’t, myth is not useless. Myth can help us experience awe about the universe, allow us to place ourselves in the context of the universe, or facilitate our contact with the divine (whether that be the actual supernatural, if you believe in it, or the divine nature of humanity). Myth is symbolic, allowing us to shape narratives more easily to fit our lives and understandings of the world. Myth is not something that lies to us, or tells untruths. It simply doesn’t concern itself with the material world as much as realistic fiction or science fiction. That doesn’t make it not real.
Of course, I don’t believe in any religious myths, and many of them I think are wrong-headed or outdated in their moral lessons. But the drive to take myths and make them important in our lives? I think most people have that, even if they distrust it. The problem becomes when you use that myth to oppress other people or just be a general dickhead. We should only accept myths that make us better humans. Myth should inspire us to greater acts of humanity, not to killing doctors who provide abortions.
Fantasy shouldn’t have a negative connotation, and neither should myth. Just because something is impossible doesn’t make it not real. That’s why so many people read and love Harry Potter and Tolkien. It’s not about what’s possible or impossible, it’s about what speaks to us as human beings. And there’s nothing wrong with calling that myth or fantasy, because those things are just as important as narratives as fiction or science fiction.
By the way, don’t watch The Book of Eli. It’s pretty much terrible.
*You’ll notice I don’t have anything about technology in this definition, and that is for a reason. While most people’s conceptions of science fiction have a big focus on technology, I find that focus problematic. This kind of definition is invested in the idea that old technologies are not technologies that matter (in the sense that we no longer think of them as technologies) or count in science fiction. But it is wrong to suggest that books, pens, printing presses, chairs, cars, scissors, alarm clocks, DVD players, electric lights, laundry detergent, airplanes, ad nauseum are not technologies that significantly shape the human condition in the western world.