What is Science Fiction?

“You should do Star Wars!”

If I had a nickel. So I’ve written a guide.

Star Wars is science fiction if you count science fiction as everything with aliens in it. However, if we’re going to be academic about it, Star Wars is what’s called a Space Opera.

A Space Opera is a Western set in space. They go into the wild and have rollicking adventures full of drama and daring rescues/escapes. Other popular Space Operas include Firefly, the comic book Saga, or any novel where the book can be summed up by, “And they rescued the X and brought justice to the Y.”

This is why science fiction nerds get so heated when people mistake Star Wars and Star Trek. It’s the same as if someone accuses the local Little League team of being the same as the Major Leagues. Which is not to say that Star Wars or Space Operas in general are somehow less than Major League science fiction- have you seen how pumped parents get at Little League games? It’s to say that baseball in the Major Leagues changes as a game and is much more complicated than the ball a nephew plays.

Star Trek is true science fiction, because it is a thought experiment. What if there was a society where the punishment for every crime was death? What if there was an enemy that didn’t seek to destroy you, but assimilate you? It explores ethics and ideas in a much more critical way than Space Operas. Starship Troopers, the novel, is science fiction because it’s a thought experiment of a libertarian patriot in space. The Forever War is the thought experiment of a veteran from the war Robert Heinlein never served in. They are completely 180 degrees different from one another, but they are both science fiction.

Star Trek cannot be summed up by, “And they rescued X and brought justice to Y.” It’s more complicated than that. Usually, by rescuing X they violated some dogma and had an ethical dilemma over how they should bring justice to Y, and when they finally leave the planet it’s ambiguous as to whether justice was brought to Y at all.

And that is why I’ll never analyze politics through the lens of A New Hope. I like A New Hope. But it’s not science fiction.