Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Subgenres in Gravity

Recently I ran across a review of the excellent movie Gravity in which the reviewer announced that the movie was not actually science fiction. In his own words:
Gravity features no aliens, no interstellar space travel, no time travel, and it doesn’t take place in the future. In fact, given that it involves a space shuttle as its method of travel into space, it would seem to be set in a past. (
Another similar review goes like this:
Gravity is not a science fiction film. […]There is no great speculation about future technologies. No aliens arrive to inconvenience Ms Bullock. Yes, it takes place in space. But so did Apollo 13. Was that science fiction? (
My first impulse is to nitpick the rationale that each critic bases their decision on, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader even though I find it particularly galling that for some reason both writers seem to believe that science fiction can only exist if there are aliens involved (Gattaca? The Truman Show?). Instead, I’d like to introduce a subgenre of science fiction to these critics.

Gravity uses today’s science and technology as the core to its plot, which may be what is throwing off these reviewers, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t science fiction. Science fiction can generally be divided into two general spheres, “hard science fiction” and “soft”. Allen Steele describes hard science fiction as “the form of imaginative literature that uses either established or carefully extrapolated science as its backbone”; science fiction that doesn’t have this foundation is generally termed “soft”. Unfortunately, 99% of science fiction film is soft, with barely a glance at the fundaments of physics as they strive for better and greater special effects and costumes and make-up. As a result, in the popular imagination, science fiction is identified by those elements—big-ass spaceships firing on things, weird aliens, impressive technology with lots of lights. But in the history of written science fiction, hard stories are a healthy minority with a long rich history, and writing it requires something of a specialist’s touch. Writing hard science fiction requires two difficult skills—an understanding of scientific principles and their applications in reality and the ability to communicate those principles and applications in an entertaining way (Arthur C. Clarke is considered one of the masters of hard science fiction). Unfortunately, neither attribute is very applicable to cinema, where the audience generally has a short attention span and wants to be wowed rather than lectured to. Part of the power of Gravity is that it succeeds despite the potential pitfalls of its choice of genre.

Gravity also taps into a smaller subgenre of science fiction storytelling that is not often used in cinema, that of the “problem story”. In a problem story, the protagonist or protagonists are faced with some sort of crisis in exotic circumstances that can only come from the science fiction genre—an astronaut crashes into the lunar surface and has to figure out a way to communicate with his base, for example. The roots of this kind of story are clearly related to science fiction’s own roots in the adventure story: similar stories have been written in the western and action genres where cowboys run out of water crossing a desert or an expedition member gets cut off from his party in the deep Amazon. It could be argued that because other genres have similar kinds of stories, perhaps the problem story belongs in its own classification outside of genre silos. That isn’t an unreasonable idea, but the individual stories differ by the problems that are being solved, which in turn are based almost solely on the setting of the story. And if we presume that the setting is a good bit of what determines the genre, then we have to take genre into account. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone faces the problem she faces exactly because she is travelling in space. And in turn, those problems are directly related to established science.

One of the most widely beloved science fiction short stories of the pulp era is Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, a problem story of the first rank (I have actually found it online at  In the story, Godwin establishes a very precise set of circumstances: a colony is suffering from a deadly plague and a messenger ship races to it with the cure. The ship itself is stripped to the bare essentials in order to maximize its speed, and every bit of weight has been calculated to ensure that only the exact amount of fuel needed to land on the planet is onboard. The cold equation is that acceleration is dependent on mass, one that we have yet to figure out how to work around. But after the situation has been laid out to the reader, Godwin throws a wrench into the works—the pilot discovers a stowaway, a young girl who thought it would be a simple way to visit her brother on the planet, unaware of the crisis the ship and its pilot are trying to avert. With the girl’s extra weight, the pilot is faced with either a doomed attempt to land or perpetual orbits around the planet, never able to get down safely. What will the protagonist do—how will he deal with the hard science of physics and its remorseless effects on his mission? The solution is what sets “The Cold Equations” above most of its peers. At the time of its release, in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1954, I don’t think anyone solved the problem nearly the way that Godwin chose to.

No, Gravity doesn’t have aliens or time travel. What it does have, however, is a solid foundation in the traditions of science fiction. And as I watched Gravity, the knowledge that a much-beloved area of science fiction that doesn’t get much attention was getting a spotlight made it that much more enjoyable.

1 comment:

  1. you seem a good writer. i see you are a professional writer. I'm quite fond of the film Ladyhawke and the original 'The Day the Earth Stood Still' also. I will question you about the film 'Prometheus'. I would claim the message of the film is subliminal. Only our unconscious mind is supposed to understand it. The human-aliens do have reasons behind their action. They want to kill us/destroy earth because they are afraid of us. There is quite an emphasis on this in the film. Specifically the lines, 'Doesn't everyone want to kill their parents'? and also the lady telling her aging father 'just die'. this cannot be a coincidence, being this film is about us meeting our parents, so to speak. No doubt the film-makers were successful in their subliminal messaging (there are many reasons in this world we have to be afraid), but i would agree with you, the film itself wasn't that good. I've posted this comment a second time, having first posted it in response to a comment you made around 2010. Would be more likely you will see this one . . .