I remember standing in the ICT office at school once, discussing the new Star Wars movie, when someone walked in and said "you guys are such geeks". I looked at her and said "you realise that's not an insult to us? I teach Science for a living and these guys are ICT wizards; geek is absolutely the correct word!" Zing! But it's defintely interesting that Sci-fi fans are often STEM-minded people too. Why is that?
First, we have to accept that fiction itself (let alone Science fiction) is a very weird thing. I mean, why do we like hearing stories which are fake? It would make sense for humans to be invested in hearing true stories, but why do we get so excited by events we know never took place?
Every evening before bed, I sit down and read. I read plenty of non-fiction, but I also read novels and short stories. I spend hours doing it and have so many fiction books I overspilled my shelves years ago. I'm also a movie nut. Every weekend I go to the cinema and see whatever the new release happens to be.
But what a strange thing to be interested in. I spend large amounts of time and money reading/watching stories which are - no other way of putting it - lies. Rather than being angry at a storyteller for trying to decieve me, I welcome the experience of made-up tales. I'll even criticise a film if the actors aren't convincing...if they've failed to lie to me. If I see through their performance and remember they're not really their character, I'm annoyed because it reminds me it's just Nicholas Cage I'm watching, rather than his character.
Sometimes we even prefer fictional stories to reality. The highest grossing films are never documentaries and the bestselling books are always novels rather than non-fiction. We talk about what happened on Doctor Who more than we talk about what's happening in the UN, we cry at movies when something emotional happens to a character who never existed, and we write blogs listing our favourite fictional Scientists.
There are scads of essays by literary theorists on why humans enjoy fiction and how good stories are told. There's also a bunch of nonsense about how the mind works and how all stories follow the same structure (looking in your direction Joseph Campbell). I'm not going to argue my own views on why storytelling matters, or why I think these literary theorists are wrong. Instead, I'm going to focus on my all-time favourite genre: Science fiction.
But isn't that even crazier?! I'm a man who's dedicated his life to promoting real Science, and I absolutely love movies which lie about it. Why do I love movies in which the main characters can shoot lasers from their hands, travel in teleporting police-boxes and go to war with alien races? After all, my ultimate passion is getting people Scientifically educated...
What exactly is Sci-fi?
There's a word for all of those geeky genres they stack next to each other in Waterstones: speculative fiction. This encompasses things like horror, fantasy, sci-fi, alternate realities, steampunk etc. etc. All fiction is made-up, but speculative fiction refers to stories which are so far away from reality, you'd immediately know it wasn't true if you heard it.
If I told you the story of Girl on the Train for example, I could easily convince you it was true. It has murder, adultery, depression and alcoholism in it - they're things which are known to happen in the real world. But if I told you the story of Conan the Barbarian, you'd immediately recognise it wasn't true. Magic doesn't exist...as far as you muggles know.
I've met people who consider Sci-fi to mean "things which take place in the future". But that immediately removes something like Back to the Future, which takes place in the past. Or what about something like Independence Day which is about alien invasion in the present day? Or even Independence Day Two which is about what happens to a franchise if it's been left for decades and the director returns and fails utterly, utterly, to capture the fun of the original.
I want to avoid giving the horrendous answer of "I know it when I see it" so here's my approximate definition of Sci-fi which I think covers 95% of cases: Sci-fi is a genre in which Scientific laws match those of the real world, but Scientific knowledge does not.
What I mean is that Sci-fi takes place in a reality where there are unbreakable Scientific principles which the story must obey, and they are the same as our Universe's - but there are also fictional Scientific ideas as well e.g. discoveries which haven't been made, technologies which aren't invented etc. etc.
Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, once said he preferred writing fantasy to Sci-fi because in fantasy there are no rules; you can bend the world to fit your story. In Sci-fi you have to follow Scientific law.
For Harry Potter, magic is a real thing and it can be used to achieve anything JK Rowling wants it to. Need your characters to fly? Magic. Need your characters to turn into other people? Magic. Invisibility cloaks? Magic. This isn't a criticism by the way, I've got nothing against the fantasy genre, but in fantasy you can have anything happen and justify it by saying "magic did it". In Science-fiction, if you want anything to happen, you have to give a plausible justification.
Optimus Prime is a sentient robot (not yet known with current knowledge) but his evolution is explained in terms of cybernetic advancement (permitted by the laws of Science). He can travel from one planet to another via a spaceship, but he couldn't just wave a wand and delete Megan Fox from existence (as much as we might want him to). For him to cast a spell would break the rules of the Transformers Universe, because they're the same rules as our universe.
Sci-fi isn't set in the real world but it's set in a real world that could be ours. Laser guns and light-speed ships aren't things which exist, but they might one day. Fantasy tells stories of the non-real and impossible. Sci-fi tells stories of the non-real but possible.
What about Batman?
There are some grey areas to my classification system because genres of fiction, like species of living creature, don't always fit neat categories. The obvious example is good ol' Batman. Batman is set, more or less, in the real world. He has no superpowers and doesn't use magic, he's just an ordinary guy who has a lot of tech and time on his hands.
Occasionally, Batman stories veer into Sci-fi territory (or even fantasy) but the majority of Batman's adventures could, theoretically, happen in today's world. It would be possible for someone to dress up as a bat and go round fighting crime. In fact someone already has. Look up "The Bromley Batman" - I promise that news story will brighten your day.
There are other franchises which blur the boundaries. In Warcraft for example, there is magic, but the magic is given a set of rules and structures which mimic Science. It's a parallel Universe that has underlying laws, they're just different to the laws of our world. Or take The X-Files which sometimes covered stories of aliens (plausible), but sometimes stories of ghosts (debateable) or werewolves (nonsense).
Even our beloved Star Wars is set in a mostly Sci-fi world, but includes The Force, which is basically magic...
There was a time (and by that I mean, all of history up until the late 1980s) when speculative fiction, and Sci-fi in particular, was sneered at by those in proper literary circles. Science fiction was often associated with cheapness and popular writing - because heaven forbid anything popular be considered worthwhile. I've read plenty of essays from the early 20th Century, most of them hitting peak venom in the 1960s and 1970s, condemming Sci-fi as a childish genre, even accusing it of making people stupid (Quite the opposite is true incidentally, as many Scientists originally got interested in the subject from childhood Sci-fi).
In an attempt to quel this snobbishness, Isaac Asimov suggested we divide the genre into two categories. Sci-fi was the cheap thrills stuff - quickly written, predictable, sensational stories with 2D characters and terrible Science, and then there was "Science fiction" - carefully written, literary works with carefully drawn characters and well-researched ideas. For a time, this disctintion was necessary but nowadays people are less uptight about it.
Today Sci-fi and Science Fiction are synonymous, we just recognise that some Sci-fi is good quality and some is not, the same with any genre of fiction. Thanks to novelists like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, Neal Stephenson, Eric Brown, Richard Paul Russo, Kevin J. Anderson, Aldous Huxley, C.S. Lewis, Dan Simmons, Alan Moore and Phillip K. Dick, literary circles are finally starting to recognise that some Science fiction is the work of truly talented writers creating masterful works of fiction...it just happens to feature laser-swords.
Besides, the very first work of Science fiction (Frankenstein as far as I'm concerned) is a masterpiece and a deserved classic. Yes, Sci-fi has its cheap rubbish, but so does the well-respected genre of emotional human drama...I mean have you ever tried to read anything by Nicholas Sparks?
So what's the big deal?
I can't speak for every Scientist but I can definitely explain why Sci-fi is important to me. It's because Sci-fi, more than any other genre, asks the question "what if?" Sci-fi imagines worlds different to our own, but not so different as to be out of reach. Sci-fi is about possibilities and it's this optimism I'm enamoured with. Sci-fi offers us something more tantalising than fantasy fiction...something which might just be possible one day.
As a Scientist I'm always interested in finding out how the Universe works but that's not all there is to it. Scientists also want to know what is possible. If you put our knowledge of nuclear physics to good use, for example, we get power stations, use it for aggression and we get the cold war. Science is a powerful instrument in our species' evolution and I think it's healthy for us to speculate about the possibilities - good and evil.
I don't know why fiction as a whole is important to us, but I doubt anybody does. Perhaps it's because we like to connect with people so much that even fictional people will do. Perhaps it's because we want to invest in people's lives without the stress and worry of "real-life drama" - you can put a book down when you're not in the mood. Or maybe it's just that we all want to go on adventures and experience the world, so we allow ourselves to do so through imaginary stories.
Whatever it is about fiction that appeals to us, Sci-fi plays on another important human desire: the desire to ask questions. We want to find out about the strange edges of human knowledge, to find out what the world is like and how we could make it different. We like to imagine different worlds because it helps us put our own world in perspective. And that's why I love Sci-fi. Not because it allows me to escape reality, but because it puts me fully in touch with it.
Also, spaceships and robots.
Lightsaber geeks: Wired
Voldemort and doctor: Gawker
Jetpack: Tom Gauld
I love science, let me tell you why.