When Does Sci Fi Stop Being Sci Fi?

The question in the Ask Jeff Anything video below got me to thinking about Star Trek. Actually, just about anything can make you think about Star Trek these days, which,as we’ll see if you stick with me on this amazing wild ride, is kind of my point. But now I’ve digressed. And I’ll have to spend some rhetorical gas winding my way back to my point.

Start Trek was brought up as an example of bad time travel in the AJA piece, and I was tempted to call foul on that – not because Star Trek has ever done time travel well – because I am not sure that it has – but because Star Trek has so fully and completely permeated the popular culture at this point, I’m not sure it still qualifies as science fiction. Part of SF’s appeal (and goal) is to astound – to present the reader with concepts and images they’d never encountered before, or at least in an innovative and unexpected way. Star Trek, a victim of its own success, no longer qualifies in any way: Everyone knows the Trek universe, whether you like it or not. You might disdain the show and the show’s fans, but you damn well know the phrase live long and prosper and have spent some time in your life wishing that at least one of these technologies was real: a) Holodeck; b) Replicator; c) Transporter.

Don’t deny it. Denying it just makes me want to trace your IP address and mail you monkeys. Horrible, angry monkeys:

Horrible, horrible monkeys

Courtesy of BoingBoing.net

Once your ideas have taken on the kind of cultural weight Star Trek has, they’re just part of daily life. Sure, the underlying concepts are still SFnal. but as a whole no one can separate the concepts from the whole mess that is Star Trek, from Bill Shatner to trekkies to the 2009 reboot, to Kirk screaming “Khaaaaannnnnn!!” at the sky to Picard ordering Earl Grey to Spock telling you something is illogical, our brains go quiet and dull at the mention of Star Trek, and nothing else gets through. Using Star Trek as an example in a discussion about science fiction writing is useless, because nothing you say about it registers as science fiction any more.

That’s actually a testament to the success and power of the story, of course. I’m not slagging Star Trek, though its handling of time travel has always been … sketchy. As is its concept of worldwide cultural development, but that’s a whole other subject. Give it a few more decades, and Star Trek will be right up there with the frickin’ bible as far as texts that everyone is familiar with.

Of course, it’s a double-sided blade: On the one hand, when arguing a subject you want references that people will recognize immediately, right? The broader the better. Star Trek qualifies there. On the other hand, people will likely not even realize you’re making a point about science fiction when you invoke Shatner and company. The tropes and details of Star Trek are just part of everyday life now, Sci Fi or not.

Then again, what do I know. I never even watched Star Trek: Enterprise.


  1. Ender

    Couldn’t disagree more. Well written though, and funny.

    Sci-Fi is just that, book with science fiction elements. Some of the appeal of some science fiction is the newness of the ideas, but it’s hardly a ‘defining characteristic’ otherwise when I re-read any of the sci fi books I’ve read in the past they’re no longer SF, as they’re no longer new!

    “On the other hand, people will likely not even realize you’re making a point about science fiction when you invoke Shatner and company”

    This doesn’t ring true to me at all. Who, among the millions who’ve heard of Star Trek are not aware that it’s Sci-Fi? Certainly none of these people who you’re referring to will have the rare belief that something is not SF if it is not new to them, so will most likely easily understand that you are talking about sci fi.

    Hell, the problem’s the other way round. When you say “Sci Fi” people often automatically assume that you mean ‘Warp Speed’, rubber-forehead aliens, lasers and spaceships, when there’s so much more available in sci fi than just that.

  2. jsomers (Post author)

    Hey Ender: I like your last point very much; you’re right, there is a large subset of folks who hear “Sci Fi” and think “Spock”, no matter what else you say or do. Thanks for the dissent!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.