Science fiction comes in all sorts of varieties. You've got your hard science fiction, which has its foundation in actual science. While the technology in these stories tends to be more advanced than our own, it's not necessarily outside the realm of what we believe will one day be possible. On the other end of the spectrum is the wildly fantastical tale that sees us traveling through time and warping space at the push of a button. Most science fiction stories seem to take place between the extremes.
There's plenty of room for all of these stories. "Star Trek" fans will argue that the franchise they love at least attempts to justify the space-bending technology with scientific data. Meanwhile, many "Star Wars" fans are happy to avoid explanations of how their beloved fictional universe works, making "Star Wars" more of a fantasy tale with magic swords than true science fiction.
But what is it about science fiction that draws us to it, even when the story is filled with macho heroes and impossible toys? We'll take a look at 10 things that keep us hooked on sci-fi. Oh, and just a word of warning: There may be some spoilers ahead but they're all for books or movies that have been out for years.
10: Those Wonderful Toys
What is science fiction without all the gizmos, doodads and thingamajigs? Some sci-fi gadgets have become reality, such as the handheld devices capable of displaying thousands of books and newspapers that Arthur C. Clarke predicted in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Clark called them newspads — we might call it a tablet or eBook reader today.
One staple in science fiction is the ray gun. The ray gun can take many forms. It might be made of brass and shoot hard projectiles in a steampunk tale. It can be a bulky, rounded, retro-futuristic device like the guns in "Flash Gordon." Or it might have multiple settings like the phasers in "Star Trek." Or it could be a prop made out of British plumbing supplies like the blasters in the "Star Wars" series. Whatever form it takes, you can be sure there are going to be kids — of all ages — who want one.
Another great gizmo in sci-fi is the time machine. Over the years, authors have been creative with time-traveling devices. They range from the Doctor's TARDIS in "Doctor Who," which is in the shape of a British police call box, to the flux capacitor-carrying DeLorean in "Back to the Future." Then there's Bill and Ted's phone booth and the time-traveling chair (with real turning disk action) in H.G. Wells's masterpiece "The Time Machine."
9: Fastest Hunk of Junk in the Galaxy
Vehicles in science fiction stories often rise above being mere transportation devices and become actual characters within a story. During the early screenings of "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock," you could hear audiences cry out in shock and dismay when Kirk and crew initiated the self-destruct sequence for the Enterprise. In "Flight of the Navigator," the spaceship was literally a character — one with the voice of Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens.
And in science fiction, we finally get our flying cars and jetpacks. Movies like "Blade Runner," "The Fifth Element" and "Back to the Future" tease us with cars that cruise through the atmosphere. Meanwhile, films like "The Rocketeer" and the "Star Wars" movies show characters flying around with personal jetpacks as if there's nothing to it.
Whether it's Serenity from "Firefly" or the Executor Star Destroyer from "Return of the Jedi," there's a science-fiction vehicle out there guaranteed to be your dream machine.
8: Smart Devices That Make Your Phone Look Dumb
We've made great strides in the field of artificial intelligence. Some futurists believe we will one day reach a point in which one generation of computers will design the next, more advanced generation. This trend will continue and the time between generations will decrease until we reach a state of constant evolution. Our entire world will change — humans themselves may change. They call this concept the singularity. But we're not there yet!
Right now, even Watson, IBM's famed computer that defeated two former Jeopardy! champions in an exhibition game, is slow on the uptake compared to the amazing computers in science fiction. And the computers run the range from benevolent machines to dangerous adversaries.
Take the HAL 9000, the computer aboard the space station in "2001." When HAL begins to malfunction, the crew decides to shut down the computer before there's a serious accident. But HAL knows of the plan and takes action, attempting to kill all the crew so that the computer can continue its programmed mission. HAL isn't necessarily evil — it's just trying to follow its protocol. By its logic, the crew is an obstacle that must be overcome.
In Douglas Adams's "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, a computer called Deep Thought has the toughest job in the universe. It has to produce the answer to life, the universe and everything. After thousands of years, the computer gives the answer: 42. The trick is, it doesn't know the question. So Deep Thought designs an even more advanced computer, which turns out to be the Earth.
7: Robots, Androids and Electric Sheep
Famed science fiction author Isaac Asimov created the idea of the laws of robotics. Robots can't hurt a human or allow one to be hurt through inaction. Robots must obey commands from humans unless the command violates the first law. Finally, robots must protect themselves unless it conflicts with the first or second law.
Science fiction provides us dozens of robots. Some are funny and others are terrifying. There's C3P0 and R2D2 from "Star Wars," who provide comic relief. There are the replicants in "Blade Runner" — robots on the run who only wish to live. There's the little boy android in "A.I." who wishes he were real. And there's Robot from "Lost in Space" which alerted the young protagonist of harm by flailing its arms and shouting "Danger, Will Robinson, danger!"
A common theme in science fiction stories with robots is the conflict between a robot's programmed logic and emotions. By creating a character that is incapable of experiencing — or even understanding — emotions, the author can show how irrational and passionate human beings tend to be.
6: There Are Klingons on the Starboard Bow!
No discussion about science fiction could be complete without a discussion about aliens. Like robots, aliens can perform many different duties in science fiction stories. They may be terrifying, such as the creatures in the "Alien" films. Or they might serve as a general antagonist, such as the invading alien forces in films like "Independence Day" and "Mars Attacks!" Or perhaps they're terrible in a different way, like the infamous Ro-Man from "Robot Monster." The film's low budget meant the crew had to cut corners — the title character was played by an actor in a gorilla suit with a cartoonish astronaut helmet as the head.
And there's no shortage of lovable aliens in science fiction. The title character in "E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial" is a wrinkled, squat alien who befriends a young, human boy. The relationship between the two characters becomes the heart of the film and brought tears to the eyes of millions of film fans. Then there's the somewhat goofy alien in "Starman," played by Jeff Bridges. He's a metaphorical fish out of water, attempting to blend in with a society that he doesn't truly understand.
You'll find the theme of aliens attempting to evade detection while learning more about humans in hundreds of science fiction stories. More often than not, the aliens find human foibles and quirks to be perplexing. The television series "3rd Rock From The Sun" stretched this premise into six seasons of stories.
5: Second Star to the Right
Science fiction gives us a chance to visit strange places. It might be a past that never really existed, a future that could be just around the corner or the other end of the universe.
Even shows set in space could have radically different takes on the setting. The television series "Firefly" takes place within another solar system in which the core planets have a strict government but outlying moons and planets are more like the United States frontier in the 1800s. "Battlestar Galactica" focused on a fleet of ships with a human crew that tries to evade the robotic Cylons while searching for a new home.
Alien worlds can be exotic. The moon Pandora in the film "Avatar" supported a wide range of exotic life forms. It also had an abundance of unobtanium, the superconducting material that the humans in the film were seeking. In the "Star Wars" universe, planets seem to have a dominant climate. Tattooine is a desert planet with two suns, Hoth is covered in snow and ice, and the moon of Endor is one giant forest.
The worlds in science fiction stories suggest that humans are not only imaginative, they have a serious case of itchy feet.
4: The Bad Guys Are Really Bad
Real life is complicated. Good and evil are abstract concepts and it's not easy to apply them to real, living people. Humans are a bit more complicated than being a good guy or a bad guy. But science fiction isn't the real world and the genre gives writers the opportunity to create the villains we love to hate.
George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" had Big Brother, a character who never actually makes an appearance in the book but whose influence is everywhere. Big Brother is the despotic leader in "Nineteen Eighty-Four." His policies include invasive cameras that monitor citizens as they go throughout the day and passing draconian laws restricting basic freedoms. It's possible — or even likely — that there is no actual Big Brother at all. But that doesn't reduce his reach into the lives of everyone in the novel.
In "Star Wars: A New Hope," Darth Vader wastes no time in showing us how bad he is. Mere moments after setting foot on a rebel ship, he chokes an officer to death using the Force. Later, he oversees the brutal interrogation of Princess Leia. Eventually, Darth Vader has a change of heart and achieves redemption. But until that dramatic moment in "Return of the Jedi," he remains an imposing villain.
3: The Future's So Bright
Optimistic authors have written science fiction stories that paint a bright picture of the future. In these tales, the characters live in a world in which technology is both pervasive and helpful. More importantly, the characters use technology in positive ways. They may encounter obstacles — stories would be boring if there were no problems to solve or challenges to overcome — but in general the tone is upbeat.
"Star Trek" is a good example of this type of science fiction. The original television series was about a crew of explorers, most of whom were from Earth, traveling through the universe. The opening titles for the show explained the ship's mission. "To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before."
While the crew of the starship Enterprise encountered aggressive and sometimes violent aliens on a fairly frequent schedule, the overall tone of the show was one of curiosity and optimism. The Enterprise wasn't meant to be a warship — it was meant to gather information. The show's creator, Gene Roddenberry, found the philosophy appealing and insisted that the show reflect it.
2: It Can Always Be Worse
Not every sci-fi story takes place in an ideal world or invokes a sense of optimism. There are plenty of stories that take a much darker view of the universe.
A popular theme in science fiction tales is the dystopian society. This is a world in which something has gone very wrong. It may be that an oppressive government has taken control, making the characters' lives a misery. Just pick up a copy of "Nineteen Eighty-Four," "Fahrenheit 451," "Brave New World" or even films like "Brazil," "The Matrix" or "Star Wars" to see an example. Or the story may be set in a world in which society has broken down and anarchy is in its place. Tales like this include "The Road," "Mad Max" and to a lesser extent "A Clockwork Orange."
Stories like these often serve as a warning. They may comment on how certain aspects of modern life could contribute to a future none of us want to see happen. The worlds in these stories are dark and sometimes the hero of the story struggles against the world itself rather than a specific adversary. These stories may not have a happy ending — but sometimes that's the point.
1: The Best of the Best
Science fiction lets writers create a world in which characters can rise to the occasion and perform great acts. Not every sci-fi story features a character who exemplifies bravery, honesty or some other virtuous trait. But many do feature characters who act heroically or make enormous sacrifices for the benefit of others. These tales reinforce our admiration of people who possess or demonstrate these traits.
There are thousands of examples of characters acting selflessly in science fiction. Spock sacrificing his own life to save his fellow crew members in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" is a good example. Han Solo swooping in at the last second to give Luke Skywalker a chance to destroy the Death Star in "Star Wars: A New Hope" is another one.
The worlds in these stories may be far removed from reality. But the idea that a person can act like a real hero and put others over him or herself is something very real. You might think sci-fi is cheesy but celebrating heroism and self-sacrifice is something humans have done since the invention of writing.
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