| Science Fiction Film
Cambridge University Press, 2001
Introduction: The World of the Science Fiction Film
W henever students of film approach the science fiction genre, it appears they immediately find themselves facing a kind of paradox, one akin to the problematic logic built into the form's combinatory designation – that is, as science and fiction, as fact and fabrication. For a genre that would seem to be almost self-evidently itself tends to slip away, to evade its own evidence or facticity. It is, after all, particularly as its literary practitioners would argue, manifestly about science and scientific possibility – even probability. In fact, it commonly proposes the sort of “what if” game in which scientists are typically engaged as they set about designing experiments and conducting their research: extrapolating from the known in order to explain the unknown. Thus, the writer and legendary pulp editor John W. Campbell Jr. instructed that science fiction should be “an effort to predict the future on the basis of known facts, culled largely from presentday laboratories. ” 1 Yet that prescription, which went far to shape the developing literature of science fiction in the United States, hardly accounts for the full appeal of the form – an appeal that some would pass off as due to its adolescent character, others would trace to its archetypal elements, and still others would explain as fundamental to its speculative nature, its expression of common human curiosity. It is an appeal, in any case, that has, over time, lured some of Western culture's most important fictionalists (Edgar Allan Poe, Jack London, H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Walker Percy) to try their hands at its subject matter. Especially in its cinematic form, however, science fiction often seems to appeal precisely because it lends itself to the greatest imaginative capacities of the film medium: to its ability, through what we very broadly term “special effects, ” to give shape and being to the imagination. It is a form, then, that often seems quite difficult to pin down satisfactorily.
Efforts at defining the literary form have often begun by wrestling precisely with this sense of difficulty. A self-professed “outsider's guide-book” to the world of science fiction, David Hartwell's Age of Wonders suggests that science fiction is “so diverse” in its forms and subjects that it defies any simple definition. Rather, Hartwell argues that “science fiction has been an umbrella under which any kind of estrangement from reality is welcome” and indeed entirely suited to the genre with its emphasis on “wonder, ” 2 so he sets about describing the genre by focusing on its audience, on the diverse community and interests of science fiction readers. An overview of science fiction aimed at those already familiar with the form, Edward James's Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, from the start announces that it is “an attempt to define science fiction, ” yet one which recognizes that “a proper definition can be achieved only by understanding what authors are trying to do or have tried to do” throughout the form's existence. It thus charts a historical path, looking at “how definitions of sf [science fiction] changed as sf itself changed, ” and how “the development of sf as a literary category is bound up with attempts to define it and with attempts by writers to live up to those definitions. ” 3 In marked contrast, Darko Suvin in Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, a theoretical work aimed mainly at a scholarly audience, assumes that science fiction is a readily recognizable form, “a full-fledged literary genre” having “its own repertory of functions, conventions, and devices, ” all of which are fairly well known. Still, even as he begins laying out his own Brechtian-inspired and rather elegant definition of the form as a “literature of cognitive estrangement, ” that is, a form intent on defamiliarizing reality through various generic strategies in order to reflect on it more effectively, Suvin eventually begins to pare away types of text that do not fit into his scheme, particularly various versions of fantasy and some utopian writing. 4 In assuming a sort of fundamental coherence, he thus immediately begins to qualify what he is trying to define, limiting his scheme to “the genre as it is here conceived” 5 as a way around a definitional dilemma.
That same sense of difficulty extends, and perhaps even more visibly so, to our sense of what constitutes cinematic science fiction; for although the genre certainly sports an iconography that immediately asserts a kind of identity and one with which the average filmgoer is usually quite familiar – rockets, robots, futuristic cities, alien encounters, fantastic technology, scientists (mad or otherwise) – these icons or generic conventions have, within the critical establishment and, to a lesser degree, even in the popular mind, never quite satisfactorily served to bracket it off as a discrete form, something we might easily categorize and thus set about systematically studying. Invariably, for example, the form seems to bulk into the realm of horror, as is evidenced by such varied films as Frankenstein (1931) [ Fig. 1 ], Dr. Cyclops (1940), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and, more recently, the films in the Alien cycle (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), thanks to their emphasis on physical confrontation and threat that occur within a context marked by those trappings we associate with science fiction.