What Do People Think Science Fiction Is?

Republibot 3.0
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What is Science Fiction? Oh, sure, we all know it when we see it, more or less, but what *is* it? How would you define it? Like planets and continents, It’s a vast and slippery beast without a solid definition. Well, ok, Planets have a definition now, but it’s a stupid and disingenuous one, and there’s still not a solidly agreed-upon definition for continents or subcontinents. That’s just not good enough for earthy young snobs like ourselves, now is it? If you can define it, you own it on some basic mental level.

We’ve spent a fair amount of time here on Republibot trying to define exactly what SF is ( http://www.republibot.com/content/roundtable-discussion-1-so-what-scienc... ) and what it isn’t, and what it’s job - if any - is. Towards the end of 2009, I was flabbergasted by some of the things a couple total strangers were telling me about what is and isn’t SF. They seemed rational enough, college educated, good jobs, but they had no freakin’ clue. It was like asking a polar bear for information about basketball - there was just no frame of reference. They seemed to believe it was the job of the genre to accurately predict the future, and things that didn’t do so could be discounted out of hand. Thus, for instance, “War of the Worlds” was now rubbish because the Martians never invaded.


I assumed these were just passing nitwits, but then I met a friend of a friend who claimed to really like SF, but had no idea what it is. Then another. Then another who felt that it was basically a modern version of astrology, and hence evil.

Wow and wower still.

Just for the hell of it, I decided to run a survey of people I know who were likely to answer surveys, just to see what the common opinions were. It’s not at all scientific, just a way of getting a general idea of the consensus, if any.

I kept it really simple: just five questions

1)What is Science Fiction? I don't want an essay, just give me the shortest sensible definition of what *you personally* think it means, what you think of when the term comes up. I want your definition, so don't look it up in a dictionary or whatever.

2) Is "Lost" a Science Fiction show? Yes or no? Please include a *short* explanation as to why you think it is or isn't. If you haven't actually seen the show, that doesn't matter, you can give me your impression from hearing other people talk about it and/or commercials.

3)What is "Doctor Who" all about? Just give a *short* explanation of what you think the show's premise is. Again, if you haven't actually seen it, that doesn't matter, I want to know what you *think* the show is about from secondhand comments. Again, don't cheat and look it up, I want your own opinion.

4) Name five science fiction movies or TV shows that don't have "Star" in the title, and aren't members of the major SF Franchises. (By which I mean Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, and Dr. Who aren't elligiable.) If you can't think of five off the top of your head, just list as many as you can think of.

5) What's the last Science Fiction book you've read? If you've never read one, just say that.

This was intended as a quick-and-dirty litmus, and here’s my reasoning: Question one is pretty self-explanatory. Question two is about the most popular American SF show at the present, so if people deny that it’s SF, they haven’t got a clue. Question three is about the most popular, longest running SF show in history (31 seasons and counting, 762 episodes. No, that’s not a typo: 762 episodes!). Given all that, if someone is even remotely interested in SF, they’ll have heard of it and sought it out. They may not like it (It’s a very uneven, frequently boring show through most of its run), but they’ll at least know what it is. Likewise, if they’ve never heard of it, odds are they’re just not all that into SF. Question four is just general knowledge: If you can only name Trek/Wars, again, you’re probably not all that into the genre. Question five is basically to let us know if they’re into the deep stuff or the shallow stuff. Again, if it’s a Star Wars/Star Trek title, odds are they’re really not into the more challenging stuff.

I sent out 44 questionnaires via email, I got twenty-four responses, which is actually better than I’d hoped. I also asked the same questions on a couple websites other than our own, but upon reflection I’ve decided not to use those results since…well, you know how things go on forums. Hard to keep people on topic.


1)What is Science Fiction?

- Seven people were completely unable to define it
- Fifteen people were able to define it.
- Two people gave answers that were too coy to really fit into either category, though one person’s one-word answer - “Oxymoron” - did make me laugh pretty hard.

Of the people who were able to define it, I only feel like seven of them really nailed it down, and interestingly three of them were ones who don’t particularly like SF. They’re relative outsiders, but they were able to nail it down much more succinctly than most of us geeks. The remaining definitions were, I felt, rather vague and mushy. They were the sorts of answers I could understand, but if you used them as an explanation to someone who’d never heard of SF before, they really wouldn’t know what you were talking about based on that definition. Interestingly a lot of people put a lot of strictures in their definitions - “SF is about the future,” or “SF is only about space” or “SF is an attempt to predict the future.” I had no idea such misconceptions were so widespread, but there we are. Clearly, Republibot has a whole lot more work to do, I guess.

2) Is "Lost" a Science Fiction show?

- Fourteen people said “Yes” (The correct answer, by the way)
- Seven people said “No,” which is, of course, wrong.
- Three people were unable to give a coherent answer to the question.

Interestingly, of the seven who said “No,” three were people who’d never seen the show. Of the fourteen people who said “Yes,” one of them was a person who’d never seen the show. I’m not sure how to tabulate that, though. Obviously, it means that four out of every sixteen people I surveyed don’t know SF when they’re staring right at it, but there’s something else going on here as well, though I’m not sure what. Maybe just that people who don’t watch shows are more likely to shoot their mouths of unintelligently about them than people who do? I dunno.

3)What is "Doctor Who" all about?

- Eight people were able to concisely explain what Dr. Who was all about.
- Nine people were not able to, but four of them were able to make reasonably close (But still wrong) guesses.
- Seven people answered the question in a fashion that was in one way or another unintelligible. In one case, the person simply didn’t read the question carefully, and ended up giving me an answer that was in no way related. In the other six cases, the readers elected to give answers that were too coy to really be tabulated. Based on other conversations, or details related in the answers I was given, four of these “Coy” folk have definitely seen the show, and the one person who didn’t read the question has definitely seen it. Two of the other “Coy” answers are from people I strongly suspect have seen it.

What this means demographically - and remember, this is not a scientific survey - is that out of every thirteen people who watch Doctor Who, five of them will be insufferable pains in the ass.

4) Name five science fiction movies or TV shows that don't have "Star" in the title, and aren't members of the major SF Franchises.

Of the twenty-four people who answered this one, thirteen people listed the requisite five shows, and four people were unable to list that many. One could legitimately only think of two, one misidentified the CSI franchise as “Science Fiction,” and one *could* have named five, but he was being an insufferable pain in the ass. (And yes, he’s one of the Insufferable Whovians from question 3), and another one misidentified a fantasy show as an SF one. Five people listed more than five movies, two did ten, one did nineteen. I had to discount a few fantasy shows that were listed, of course, so the numbers above reflect the results - after - I made those deletions.

Neither here nor there, but interestingly:

- The Fifth Element turned up five times
- Blade Runner turned up four times, as did Firefly, Space: 1999, and V
- Planet of the Apes turned up three times, as did Babylon 5
- Buck Rogers, turned up twice, as did 12 Monkeys, The Matrix, Tron (Which is kind of similar to The Matrix, when you think about it), Silent Running, Soylent Green, 2001, The Outer Limits, and The Time Machine,

5) What's the last Science Fiction book you've read?

- Sixteen people could tell me the last book they’re read. Interestingly, three of them said they read these books a quarter century or more ago, so not avid fans of the genre, and one read a Star Wars book. But only one! That’s encouraging, right?
- Five people simply didn’t read SF
- Three people couldn’t give me a coherent answer (Neither of them were Whovians), and one listed a book that I’m not sure about.

And there you have it. It’s a non-scientific survey, and I don’t really know how to apply the results.
As with everything I do, it’s basically useless, but kind of interesting just the same.