Media Genres and Problems of Definition
Media genres are notoriously difficult to define. They are constantly evolving. We shouldn’t understand media genres as fixed rule books. Media genres are better understood as continuing cultural ‘games’ or ‘conversations’. Genres as ‘cultural categories’: they act as a space for the expression and consideration of cultural values and concerns (which are continually in flux). (Jason Mittell, 2004, Genre and Television: from Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture, London: Routledge).
‘Science fiction is less a genre – than an ongoing discussion’. (Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, 2003, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, Cambridge’. Cambridge University Press, p1).
Science fiction is often defined by space travel, time travel, parallel worlds, the question of ‘what if’, alien encounters, alien invasion, artificial intelligence, robots, Utopian/Dystopian futures.
Science Fiction: Some Common Characteristics
Intertextuality – self conscious reference to pre-existing science fiction texts, styles, codes and conventions.
Hybridity – the merging of science fiction themes with other familiar ‘signifying systems’ e.g. science fiction and horror.
Enigma – Posing big questions (that are often left unanswered).
Diegetic Scale and Plausibility – constructing vast narrative landscapes that are simultaneously fantastical and logical/plausible (‘this isn’t our reality but it still makes sense’).
Science Fiction: Mythic Function
Myths are stories that offer us ways of interpreting and understanding life and the world around us:
Logos (logical accounts) – offering meaning through observable evidence and logic.
Mythos (mythical accounts) – offering meaning beyond logic and accuracy: through symbols, metaphors and rituals which reflect the beliefs and values at a particular time.
Post-War Hollywood Science Fiction Trends: Alien/’Other’ as Invading Enemy
1950’s Hollywood offered a long list of films depicting aliens as hostile, invading enemies: largely the era of flying saucers and repulsive, bug eyed monsters from outer space. The context of the two world wars and the ongoing cold war means that the intense fear of the ‘alien’ makes sense. These films were useful propaganda too: the formidable alien force is ultimately thwarted by human endurance and ‘all American’ values.
However, a downside of this very binary, good vs evil structure means that difference equals danger an this is not very progressive when we think of women and black and gay people.
Star Trek: A Myth of Human Progress or Human Arrogance?
Star Trek first aired on NBC in the US in 1966 with limited success. It has since become one of the most popular science fiction franchises of all time. It is set in the 23rd century, depicting a human utopia in which Earth’s nations have joined forces to explore the stars and to extend a message of peace to other planets.
The show had progressive ideals: it saw the first black actress in a major role on US TV and (the much debated) first interracial kiss on US TV in 1968. Although, the undertones of the ‘civilising missions’ shows imperialist/colonist values in that ‘the white man’s way is best’.
Science Fiction Blurs the Binaries: the ‘Other’ as a Mirror on the Self
Science fiction tends to encourage empathy with the ‘other’ and to recognise ourselves in them. A film about ‘artificial intelligence’ often explores the human condition and mortality – what it means to be human (to live, to feel, to love and to die).
Science Fiction as Myth: A Summary
Science fiction can be more than just escapist entertainment. It offers us myths/stories that allow us to reflect upon the human condition and human society. These myths often reflect the ideas and values of the day. These myths have historically privileged the western, white, male, heterosexual perspective and to a large extent continue to do so.
These myths continue to evolve as our society evolves.