Mark Twain famously said: “First get your facts straight, then distort them at your leisure.” Every science fiction reader since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein famously said: “Get off my lawn, you’re not doing science fiction right!”
Science Fiction: An Exercise In Accuracy
Mary Shelley created the science fiction genre in 1818 when she wrote her famous novel, Frankenstein. A 288-word masterpiece of gothic fiction about the dangers of scientific obsession, it told the dark story of Victor Frankenstein and the monster he created.
People these days, they like to point out that Frankenstein and the monster were two different people. When we say “Frankenstein”, most people tend to think about the big, square shape of Boris Karloff, the monster from the Universal Frankenstein movies.
Only Frankenstein was actually the other guy. Not the monster – the boring scientist who created him. Everybody thinks “giant green guy” when they hear that name, but it’s not him, it’s the doctor! Ask your best literature major friend, they’ll tell you: everybody else is getting it wrong.
This kind of stubborn devotion to detail makes a lot of sense – the genre’s called “science” fiction. Science is a study that requires a lot of precision. Any deviation from that and the whole process falls apart.
We expect the same kind of attention to detail from our literature.
Too Much Of A Science Thing?
Maybe this is fair. Maybe it’s (as my mom would say), “just a little bit much, really now”. The reason we read the word “Frankenstein” and think of the monster and not the man can be because of a couple of things. Firstly, the book is really about the monster, not the doctor, so to name it “Frankenstein” is sort of like if the movie Toy Story had been called “Andy”.
The subtitle also has something to do with it. The book’s full name is “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”. Prometheus is a figure from Greek mythology who stole fire from the gods to give it to mankind. He was punished, severely for his actions. This is a lot like Dr. Frankenstein and was clearly Shelley’s inspiration for this subtitle. But he was also someone who suffered as the lowly creation of the gods he angered. He took fire from someone bigger and more powerful than he was. This is, in its own way, a lot like Frankenstein’s monster, making the subtitle a little ambiguous.
Does Science Fiction Need Science To Be Science Fiction?
So maybe there is a certain amount of interpretation in any piece of literature, science fiction or epic fantasy. And do we need that element to make good science fiction? Neil deGrasse Tyson, as the memes have it, would probably say yes. But we’ve had plenty of great science fiction that had more to do with the imagination of the writers behind it than the science we’d need to be able to hold it together.
A Scanner Darkly is marvelous science fiction but makes up all of its most interesting elements based on what it needs for the story. Back to the Future is time travel so full of holes, it’s more like t-me-rav-l. Rick and Morty is fun science fiction that bases almost none of its storytelling on accurate science, rather than a bunch of choice pop culture references (however accurate). Star Wars is one of the most beloved science fiction franchises in the world, and it’s got as much to do with science as Jolly Ranchers have to do with actual ranching or being jolly.
All of this is science fiction. Almost none of it is very good science.
So, then, what is science fiction in the hearts and minds of the people reading it? It’s not science. Or at least, not good science. It’s not accurate like science is. So what is it to us?
Maybe it’s the lack of science in it. Or maybe we see something of ourselves in that, running around all day on our daily routines, grocery shopping, paying bills, and getting by. Maybe we yearn for accuracy and science and testing and discovery because we don’t get any of that being “just regular people”.
Science Fiction: In Conclusion
Maybe we just like good storytelling. Maybe there’s no better story out there than science.
Whatever the truth is, there’s no getting away from the raw electrical appeal of good science fiction. All we need is a good scientist, and a monster to write home about.