What is Sci-Fi?

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Science Fiction is probably the most widely recommended genre in our Slack Streaming-TV-Film chat, but it turns out that, within the team, there’s a mixed understanding of what actually defines a sci-fi story.

Does sci-fi require aliens?

Broadly, science fiction is speculative fiction that deals with imaginative and futuristic concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life. But does it need aliens in it? Apparently not. That’s the conclusion we came to after a long discussion about some of our favourite movies and what genre they fell into.

If we agree that one of the defining characteristics of sci-fi is its incorporation of technology and scientific concepts that are not currently possible in the real world, then Back to the Future is definitely sci-fi, although some of the ‘sci-fi haters’ in the studio confessed to loving it.

Often sci-fi explores the potential consequences of these technical advancements, on society and the individual. That’s obvious in a movie like Avatar, which deals with the ethical implications around the ability to transfer human consciousness into another host to create a new being. But could it also be an underlying theme in BTTF when Marty’s ‘present’ future is under threat because of the changes he’s making in the past to the time/space continuum?


“You may think you don’t like sci-fi but I bet if you start to name a few of your favourite films, some of them fit into a sci-fi sub-genre.”

Is a parallel universe always sci-fi?

Another defining aspect of sci-fi is its focus on exploration and discovery. Whether it’s exploring the vast reaches of outer space or delving into the mysterious inner workings of the human mind, sci-fi is often concerned with pushing the boundaries of what is currently known and understood. This can include stories about first contact with alien lifeforms, the colonisation of other planets, or the discovery of parallel universes.

The Alien and Predator series fit easily into this concept, but when we start to think about parallel universes, Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series could easily sit here too. And what about something like Sliding Doors, whose plot relies on a parallel universe? That, we decided, is not sci-fi, but rather the writer’s plot device for presenting an alternate life.

The many sub-genres of sci-fi

Arrann argues that while many films are not strictly sci-fi movies, they do have sci-fi elements. “Sci-fi is a massive genre but it’s made of lots of sub-genres. Super-hero movies are one sub-genre; fantasy is another. There’s apocalyptic sci-fi, dystopian futures, parallel worlds. You may think you don’t like sci-fi but I bet if you start to name a few of your favourite films, some of them fit into a sci-fi sub-genre.”

The relationship between humans and technology, and how the two interact and shape each other is another common theme of sci-fi. It got us thinking about stories that explore the consequences of artificial intelligence, the impact of virtual reality on human society, or the effects of genetic engineering. It also deals with themes of social commentary and political criticism, using futuristic settings and technology as a means to comment on contemporary issues such as war, totalitarianism, and environmental disaster.

That started another debate amongst the team about The Handmaid’s Tale, which certainly has elements of the above. Arrann argues that it’s 100 percent sci-fi, but James remains unconvinced. “No, in my opinion, there has to be some aliens, space or (it’s in the name) science involved to be classed as sci-fi. And as of Season 4 of The Handmaid’s Tale, I haven’t seen any of this!”

And the best sci-fi film of all time is…

As for everyone’s favourite sci-fi movie, Aliens came out top with votes from Arrann, Richard and Dan P (who also chose the Fifth Element as his joint top choice). The rest of the votes were split: Dan B went for a classic – the original Bladerunner. Surprisingly, Hayley was the only one to go for Star Wars. James chose Super8, Wolfy voted for Back to the Future and Lucy went with Interstellar. Julie abstained from voting – even after Arrann’s persuasive argument and our lengthy team discussion in the pub, she refuses to be pigeon-holed by genre.

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