Supernatural vs. Sci-Fi: Fight!

Well, I didn’t get run out of town last night, so Norwesconers (that’s a word now) can find me at yet another panel tonight. This one’s on Supernatural versus science fiction, the epic struggle of our times:

More and more, the entertainment industry is producing television shows and films that are supernatural in nature, but are calling them science fiction. Are they really? Or is the industry “copping out” and trying to get around having to come up with legitimate science fiction shows? Why are the directors and writers skirting around the science issues instead of addressing them?

What do I think? Well, it’s complicated.

First off, I think we’d better define our terms. Science fiction occupies an incredibly broad range of stories in the popular imagination, particularly since it’s often as not grouped together with fantasy for reasons I’ve only grudgingly come to understand.  To me, science fiction at its core deals with how science affects people — on an individual, or political, or societal level.  I think it carries a unique importance in that sense because science and technology can affect us in profound and unexpected ways, and exploring those ideas can help us deal with them if they end up coming true.

Now, the supernatural is, by definition, something that exists beyond scientific understanding. But that isn’t as clear a distinction as you’d think: We have no idea what dark energy is, for instance, so you could argue it’s a supernatural force. The will of God, even. I couldn’t prove you wrong.  Of course that’s a useless argument from a scientific perspective, since it’s necessarily a dead end for any kind of inquiry.  But that doesn’t mean you couldn’t write a cool story about it.

You could reasonably define science fiction as the exploration of ideas that haven’t been disproven. And there’s quite a bit of the supernatural that falls within that category.

The problem with casting too wide a net with your genre description is that it becomes meaningless — the whole point of genres is to give people at least a vague idea of what kind of story they’re getting. But on the other hand, a genre can also get too locked in to its own conventions and fail to keep pace with the world outside it.

Back to the topic. I happen to think the prevalence of supernatural sci-fi stories owes to two things:

  1. Supernatural is big right now. (Not the show — although the fact that a show like Supernatural got six seasons is probably a case in point.)
  2. Science isn’t.

To some extent, we might blame the fact that most of the big scientific discoveries of the past few decades — quantum mechanics, dark matter, dark energy — are ideas that either don’t make intuitive sense or that even the experts don’t really understand.  Science can feel like an exercise in everything we thought we knew is wrong, and thanks to the unprecedented amount of information we have access to, it’s more public now than ever.

We might also be seeing is a sort of intellectual divorcing of science fiction from reality, and this idea that a sci-fi story must, by definition, be fantastical.  Most science fiction on TV isn’t called science fiction — they’re spy shows like Chuck, or mysteries like CSI or Bones, or even medical dramas like House.  But we don’t usually think of them as science fiction because the science in them feels too light, or mundane. In a sense, they’re not fantastical enough.

To my mind, there’s nothing inherently wrong with incorporating supernatural elements in science fiction. That doesn’t mean science fiction isn’t facing a threat, it’s the same one it always faces: When they do use science, keep it good, and relatable, and meaningful for the audience. There’s just no getting around that.

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