This is a placeholder for something I really don’t have the time to pursue right now.
If you argue, as I have done, that the nature of science fiction can best be understood in terms of family resemblances, when we identify something as science fiction because it resembles something else we have already called science fiction, then popular vote awards can be interesting studies. They provide a snapshot of what is broadly identified as science fiction at any one moment. They can also provide a glimpse of the edge, the disputed territory.
For some reason the Hugo dramatic presentation category, or as it is now called, dramatic presentation, long form, is a particularly interesting case study in this respect. Right from the start the shortlisted works have been an extraordinarily wide-ranging melange of sf, fantasy, horror, non-fiction (Carl Sagan’s Cosmos was shortlisted in 1981), satire, comedy, postmodernism (Being John Malkovich in 2000) and on and on. Even so, I always considered the shortlisting of Apollo 13 in 1996 something of an anomaly.
But now there is a pretty much identical anomaly in the shortlisting of Hidden Figures.
Before I go any further, I must insist that both Apollo 13 and Hidden Figures are excellent films. Nothing I say here should be construed as a criticism of the films, I am only interested in trying to puzzle out their place on the respective Hugo shortlists.
Both films are historical dramas based on real events. Like all dramas there are moments when events are elided, when one character represents several real historical figures, or when a character is a fictional construct meant to represent the norms of the period or to fill in a gap in the historical record. Such invention is common to all historical fiction. Were such invention enough to identify the films as science fiction, then we would have to call every work of fiction science fiction. And while there is a certain interest in such a position, it wouldn’t really be very helpful to anyone; and since sf fans and critics have always been particularly keen on marking their territory, I don’t really think it would be a welcome position within the sf community.
So what is it that does make the films science fiction? Or at least: what is it that makes the films worthy of a science fiction award?
Ah, of course, they both have rockets, they both have space. Isn’t that the archetypal sf setting? Don’t they therefore have family resemblances to everything we recognise as science fiction?
But this is, in neither case, our future in space. It is our past; it is that very brief period in the 1960s when America looked upward and outward. Whatever our space ambitions nowadays, that sense of necessity, of inevitability, of excitement, that sense in John F. Kennedy’s famous words, that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills” – all of that is missing. Indeed, Apollo 13 captures the moment it ended, (and, not entirely coincidentally, I’m sure, Hidden Figures captured the moment it began, including incorporating part of Kennedy’s speech at Rice Stadium). For Apollo 13, the film represented America rising to and overcoming a technological challenge that was all neatly encompassed within one dramatic incident. For Hidden Figures, the challenges of space were a dramatic exemplar for the challenges of racial prejudice that was the film’s core subject. Both films are about a specific time, and in both cases it is important that that time is in the past. Indeed, the most recent events covered in either film, Apollo 13, are getting on for 50 years ago. I would lay odds that a significant percentage of the voters who put both these films on the Hugo ballot were not yet born at the time of the events shown.
And yet, both films are considered, by a not inconsiderable number of core science fiction fans, to be worthy of a science fiction award.
I wonder whether what this means is that, within the science fiction world at least, we can only think in terms of our future in space, not our past in space. Any film that takes us into space is automatically about the future, even if it is set in the past. Is that so? Why? That is the thought I want to muse upon, the thought that prompted this placeholder post.