I recently saw, as did I suspect about 175% of all of sf fans, the Alfonso Cuarón film Gravity, a story about astronauts on the International Space Station dealing with a catastrophic accident. It’s a riveting piece of filmmaking, simultaneously epic and claustrophobic, graceful and harrowing and beautiful in small things and large.
A few days later, Jonathan Strahan said on Twitter <bit.ly/NYRSFGravityTweet>, “Interested that there is a question over whether Cuarón’s Gravity is sf.” On its face, I find this question predecided—the makers of Gravity did their best to make everything in the film not merely possible (the hallmark of a certain flavor of sf) but actual. There’s no thing in Gravity that is a novum, nothing (absent some scientific errors) that couldn’t happen today, or yesterday, to the actual crew of the actual ISS. In this sense, calling Gravity a “science fiction” film makes no more sense than calling The Pelican Brief “alternate history” on the basis that no one has actually assassinated a Supreme Court justice.
But it was a comment that I knew was coming, given that in 1996 the Hugo Award voters nominated the docudrama Apollo 13 for Best Dramatic Presentation. And I don’t think Jonathan was wrong to make it, especially when he followed up with “When did astronauts in orbit stop being SF?” My answer then—“When they became actual?”—struck me as somewhat weak tea, and I went away to puzzle on it some more.
Back in July 2006, NYRSF published my article “Capes, Types, and Prototypes” <maroney.org/kevin/CapesAndPrototypes.doc>, which was a survey of five approaches to genre. I called them “essentialist” (based on an element common to all parts of the genre); “characteristic” (based on a set of common elements that show up again and again in the genre); “thematic” (based in the types of themes and approaches of the works of the genre); “historical” (identifying a genre by the community of creators and audience of the genre); and “prototypical” (locating works within a genre by their degree of similarity to landmark works of the genre). I thought then and now all of these approaches have their strengths.
By several of these approaches, Gravity is clearly within the genre. It’s unmistakable that the movie appeals to science fiction fans and draws upon familiar sf elements. (Paul Kincaid’s recent review in Strange Horizons <www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2013/10/parabolas_of_sc.shtml> of Attebery and Hollinger’s Parabolas of Science Fiction referred to “the standard sf toolbox, those elements, strands, tropes, icons, or devices that barely need to be explained in an sf story because they have been absorbed by an sf reader almost by osmosis.” Every single piece of Gravity is an instantly recognizable tool from that box.) Cuarón used parts of every sf movie of space exploration since From the Earth to the Moon—notably the use of special cinematic tricks to convey the alien environment of space. The direct ancestors of Gravity are Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” and Heinlein’s films Destination: Moon and Project Moonbase, except bathed in 60 years of actual experience with actual spaceflight and, not incidentally, actual female astronauts.
(There’s a free paper topic there, comparing Donna Martell’s Colonel Briteis in Project Moonbase with Sandra Bullock’s Doctor Stone. Dig in!)
So where does this leave me? Unsurprisingly, nowhere definite! Whether something “is” or “is not” “science fiction” is the type of semantic argument that revolves around what portions of a meaning you choose to emphasize. When I think of “science fiction,” I’m looking at the parts of the toolbox that point to the future, but fundamentally that’s not better or worse than looking at the present that the future has become.
Mainly, wow, Gravity is an astonishing film. Its rockets run on pure sf fuel and will rip right though the brain of anyone who has ever looked up in the sky and said, “That’s where we’re going next.” See it.
—Kevin J. Maroney and the editors