Science-fiction has a bad reputation. It's not (all) about pimply-faced basement-dwellers who war with each other online and at conventions about which spacecraft from which series could destroy all the others one-on-one (it's the Super Star Destroyer from "Return of the Jedi", by the way *grins*). Sci-fi has its fingers in a lot of pies.
In the old days (and I mean really old, like Henry Kuttner old), it was called "speculative fiction"; meaning, more than just regular made-up stuff, the type of fiction that asked "what if the world worked differently than it does?" That's why you'll see science-fiction and fantasy on the same shelves together; because they both deal with worlds that operate differently than ours does. The classic sci-fi series "Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" explored any number of possible avenues for "alternate reality"; but speculative fiction has far deeper roots than television.
The original science-fiction novel is "Frankenstein" by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. There have been other, earlier stories of magic, monsters, demons, ghosts, and gods; but while other mythological creatures and characters endure because of cultural forces, "Frankenstein" from its inception was accepted as a work of fiction (and art) and has endured as such for almost two centuries, spawning any number of sequels, spin-offs, spoofs, and adaptations.
In its wake came a host of sci-fi/fantasy novels, including "Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" by Jules Verne, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, and of course, Bram Stoker's "Dracula". These and other novels have fueled our imagination at almost every level, appealing to everything from our childlike sense of wonder to our appetite for adventure to our deepest fears and desires. Parables like Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" force us to look inward to see who we really are. It's a bit of introspection that every great author inspires, but that sci-fi authors can address in unique ways.
They also have greater width for conceiving and creating adventure stories. "The Lord of the Rings", widely considered the greatest modern epic, is fantastical at every level, even to the point of taking place on another world, another earth. The same is true of "The Chronicles of Narnia" and just about every major epic fantasy to follow. More recently, popular series like "Harry Potter" have blended fantastical worlds with our own.
Television, of course, has always had its space operas. When James Kirk captained the Enterprise on "Star Trek", his mission was "to seek out new life and new civilizations". The human race has always sought the next horizon, whether it was across the ocean, from sea to shining sea, or among the stars themselves. I love a good biopic on Christopher Columbus as much as the next blogger, but to see the same voyage wrapped in a good space battle? Who can resist that?
Science-fiction is a pretty subtle, pretty savvy poker player. It holds adventure, drama, comedy, horror, and romance in its hand; but it bluffs you with a geeky exterior, a loser persona that wears rumpled t-shirts and glasses held together with superglue. It learned from the best; classical masters like Ray Bradbury and Orson Welles, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Philip K. Dick, as well as a few modern ones like Joss Whedon and James Cameron. It'll slow-play you with a splashy galaxy quest, and then sneak in with piratical precision. Go ahead; take another look at your favorite flicks, your newest novel. Any appearances by aliens, or traveling through time? Some magic with your mayhem, or a bit of technology out of place? Yes, it may be funny or pulse-pounding, romantic or very scary; but it's more than just plain old fiction.
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