Is Hidden Figures Science Fiction?

I’ve actually written a longer piece on this film, which is still unfinished and may be unrescuable because of far too many tangents (less obvious ones including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Hitchcock’s use of a toilet, and the nasty rightwing Christian ‘Focus on the Family’ group). In the meantime, this is an attempt to address the question I intended to address in the other piece but never actually reached. Somehow Ludwig Wittengstein* ended up in this one. Sorry, he gets everywhere.

Hidden Figures is a film based on the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA and follows their careers & lives during the period that the USA was attempting its first manned orbit of the Earth.

The film has already gained some awards and multiple nominations for other awards including three Oscar nominations. So naturally, with SFF award nominating season upon us, the question arises: is Hidden Figures a Science Fiction movie?

For the Hugo Awards, this is something of a non-problem. Hugo practice pushes questions of eligibility onto the members nominating, the rules for the category only require that dramatic presentations be related to science fiction and the 1996 nomination of Apollo 13 established that movies about the actual space race are fair game. In short Hidden Figures doesn’t have to be any more SFnal than Apollo 13. The category is also ‘dramatic’ presentation, not ‘fictional’ presentation.

Having said that, it’s still a discussion that is out and about – and I’m sure some of our Puppy related friends may get the grumps if it is a finalist on the grounds that the film isn’t SFF. And beyond the Puppies, people like to find their own positions on what is an isn’t SFF – a side effect of awards pushing eligibility onto voters is that people form their own views on what counts or doesn’t count (e.g. I’ve had my own views on Best Related Work for example).

So one solid objection to Hidden Figures being Science Fiction rests on the second word of that pairing. It isn’t fiction. If it isn’t fiction then it can hardly be Science Fiction. Defining SF is a fools game typically but it is clearly some kind of subset of fiction. Case closed. QED. The End. Still eligible for BDLF Hugo (‘dramatic’ and ‘related’) but it’s not SF…

But not so fast! Hidden Figures *IS* fiction. It is very, very closely connected to a real set of events and the three central characters (Katherine Goble, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) are real people, as is John Glenn – the first American in orbit. Yes, but the film is not a documentary, it isn’t even a dramatisation/reconstruction of events. It is faithful to the story of these three women but it isn’t factual in the sense that you can pick out a detail from the story and assume it happened as portrayed NOR do the filmmakers claim that you can. It is a fiction based on a true story but it is still a fiction.

In particular, the characters portrayed by Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst are fictional characters. They do not map to any one historical individual. Likewise, some events shown in the film either don’t map to actual events or do so ahistorically – for example, Mary Jackson becomes NASA’s first black female engineer in the course of the film during the early 1960s but in reality gained that status in 1958. These aren’t problems for the film because it isn’t intended to be some kind of authoritative source of truth – it is a fictional drama.

So, yes, it’s fictional but very closely related to reality – more closely than most stories. Now, that raises a different objection. One way we could attempt to define science fiction & fantasy would be to describe it as fiction that is LESS closely related to reality than normal fiction. If we adopted that approach then given the closer relation to reality (by virtue of being based on true events) of Hidden Figures we could conclude that it can’t be Science Fiction. I don’t have a strong answer to that but I don’t agree.

Instead, I’ll reject a single definition of science fiction. Experience shows no one definition works beyond the tautological ones (i.e. SF is what SF readers read or SF is what SF editors publish). Science Fiction is not defined by types of plot (e.g. unlike detective fiction or romance) or by setting (e.g. unlike Westerns) and even those other genres tend to spill out and subvert their own categorical boundaries.

People like intensional definitions of categories – that is definitions that capture parsimoniously the essence of what a category is, leading to simple rules that allow us to qualify or disqualify a thing based on the definition. This works OK if your subject is quadrilaterals in a Euclidean space but works very badly if the category is something like ‘game’. Ludwig Wittgenstein was not the first thinker to point out that some categories are best thought of as chains of family resemblances but his discussion of the example ‘game’ is the most notable.

The definition by extension is more useful to us when it comes to science fiction i.e. the listing of things that get covered by the term or perhaps the ostensive definition that proceeds by a non-exhaustive list of examples. Perhaps for any genre, the ostensive is the only approach, as new sub-genres push the boundaries ever outward.

So by extension what do we have with Hidden Figures?

  • Space travel
  • Heroic engineering
  • Science/mathematics as integral to plot
  • Story arcs around a science/technology problem

These aren’t common to ALL science fiction stories but they are common to stories recognised as science fiction and would be seen as intrusions into stories in other genres. Compare with 2015’s The Martian. OK, the spacecraft and setting make the film more obviously Science Fiction (it’s a bit in the future and shows spacecraft that we don’t actually have yet) but otherwise the film aims for realism while centring a human story around technological-scientific problems.

Counter-examples? Well, the 1965 film The Flight of the Phoenix is not widely regarded as science fiction but fits three of those four dot points quite well. I wouldn’t want the whole argument to rest on ‘space travel’ but in this case, maybe that’s the line. Alternatively, I wouldn’t have an issue with regarding The Flight of the Phoenix as being fringe SciFi – indeed it tackles far better the ethical dilemmas of survival in the face of ‘cold equations’ than SF stories that have attempted the same theme.

So, as far as I’m concerned: Hidden Figures is Science Fiction. Yes, that means that a similar argument could be made for The Imitation Game or A Beautiful Mind but I can see no problems with that. If Science Fiction were in some kind of danger of dilution by spreading taxonomically to far, the genre would be dead already.

*[Wittgenstein was an engineer and also loved Hollywood movies. I’m not saying he would have loved Hidden Figures but I bet he would.]

 

 

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21 comments

  1. greghullender

    The fictional elements in the movie are trivial, though. You could just as easily argue that any historical movie, however accurate, was still fiction because the actors portraying the characters weren’t really those people. This simply makes nonsense out of the terms “fiction” and “nonfiction.” From a linguists perspective, you’re trying to give the words meanings that the vast majority of other native speakers don’t give them.

    I do occasionally review short stories that, like “Hidden Figures,” take place in the past and involve people who’re engaged in some aspect of science and technology, but which have no speculative element to them. That is, these are fictional stories with some of the elements we expect from SF, except there’s nothing in them that extends our understanding of the universe. I label these as “mainstream” and I don’t given them review scores on the grounds they have no speculative content.

    This doesn’t mean they’re bad stories. In fact, they’re usually excellent stories–they had to be for the editors to compromise their principles and print them. But that doesn’t make them SFF.

    So, in my book, “Hidden Figures” fails on both grounds. Not only does it have no speculative element, it isn’t even fiction. As you say, the definition for the Hugos is so broad that it might end up on the ballot anyway, but, if so, I think that will reflect badly on the awards. I would certainly vote it below No Award if it comes to that.

    By all accounts, it is an excellent film, and I look forward to watching it. But there is no reasonable argument for it being SFF. The award should go to a real SFF film, and there are plenty to chose from.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      //The fictional elements in the movie are trivial, though. You could just as easily argue that any historical movie, however accurate, was still fiction because the actors portraying the characters weren’t really those people.//

      I think I’d overtly say that most historical films are fictional. It would be very difficult to do one that was a drama with a coherent story that wasn’t heavily dosed with fiction.

      Frost/Nixon I guess is an exception in that the vast bulk of it is verbatim and yet think about it – it clearly isn’t the same thing as the actual broadcast interviews. So even here there is a fictional element.

      Less verbatim historical films do add fiction – they have to. Reality isn’t packaged as stories.

      //I don’t given them review scores on the grounds they have no speculative content.//

      Fair point – that’s akin to what I was saying about the distance from reality. Speculative fiction should contain some element that adds fictional qualities to something other than characters or normal events? It’s a fair position but its not one I feel works for actually describing how SFF works.

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  2. JJ

    greghullender: So, in my book, “Hidden Figures” fails on both grounds. Not only does it have no speculative element, it isn’t even fiction.

    If the Hugo Dramatic Presentation Long Form category description in the WSFS Constitution specified that only fiction is eligible, I’d agree that might be a problem.

    But the category is not limited to fiction. If you want to No Award Hidden Figures in that regard, it’s certainly your prerogative — but that seems like a very pedantic, petulant stance to me. 😐

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    • greghullender

      Only if you believe other people aren’t entitled to have opinions different from yours. My opinion is that the story isn’t SFF. I have stated my reasons for believing that. They’re very good reasons.

      The fact that the wording of the rule would appear to allow someone to nominate “To Kill a Mockingbird” leaves me cold. What it really means is that the rules leave it up to the members to define SFF. I have done so.

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      • Andrew M

        No, the rule explicitly allows material that is not SFF: ‘science fiction, fantasy or related subjects. Moreover, this was the result of a conscious decision to change the rules so as to clarify that stuff like Apollo 13 was eligible. I agree that the film isn’t SFF. That doesn’t affect its eligibility.

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      • JJ

        greghullender: My opinion is that the story isn’t SFF. I have stated my reasons for believing that. They’re very good reasons. The fact that the wording of the rule would appear to allow someone to nominate “To Kill a Mockingbird” leaves me cold.

        You’ve missed my point. I agree with you that Hidden Figures is not really science fiction.

        My point is that the category does not require nominees to be fiction. It does require them to be somehow related to science fiction works. Since many SF works are about space travel, that is a related subject.

        I am mystified as to how you can claim that To Kill a Mockingbird could be considered as being “about a related subject”. The logical contortions required for that must be amazing.

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      • greghullender

        As we learned from the Puppies, something can be within the letter of the rules and yet still be bad. I think it’s bad for the Hugo to go to a film with no speculative content, and I think it’s unfair to judge SFF films against mainstream or historical ones. The reason it’s unfair is that those films are much easier to make. Fewer special effects, and no challenges of having to explain how the speculative bit works. (No infodumps.)

        “Hidden Figures” probably is better than any of the authentic SFF films that will be nominated this year, but it’s not a fair contest.

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      • greghullender

        As for arguments to include “To Kill a Mockingbird” as “related,” you could simply say that for most of the novel, Jem and Scout think there’s a real monster living in the Radley house. Or go the “If you were a Dinosaur” route and point to any of Scout’s childish flights of imagination. Or go for 100% sophistry and argue that there’s an imaginary mockingbird. Or even argue that the story takes place in Alabama and that’s where the Marshall Space Flight Center is located.

        Those are terrible arguments, but they’re no worse than the ones being used to try to argue that “Hidden Figures” is SFF-related.

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  3. Cora

    “Apollo 13” is the clearest precedent here, but “An Adventure in Space and Time”, the BBC’s docu-drama about the making of Doctor Who in the 1960s, and the actual moon landing were also nominated (and in the case of the moon landing won) in the best dramatic presentation category. Therefore, “Hidden Figures” absolutely belongs in the Best Dramatic Presentation category, should Hugo voters choose to nominate it.

    Is it science fiction? Well, it is a fictionalised historical bio-pic about people doing science, which IMO places it into the same category as “The Imitation Game”, “A Beautiful Mind”, “The Social Network” or “The Theory of Everything” as well as historical contenders like “The Story of Louis Pasteur” or “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet”. This sort of film tends to do very well at the Oscars (all examples I listed above were either nominated or won) and usually not so well at the Hugos with the exception of “Apollo 13”. What sets “Hidden Figures” apart from the many biopics listed above is that this time around, the people doing science are not white dudes played by the biggest white male stars of their respective age, but three women of colour. That alone makes it remarkable and by all accounts a wonderful movie, but it doesn’t make it SF.

    I think it was Damon Knight who tested his definition of science fiction and found an edge case, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis, that would be SF under his criteria, but would not normally be considered science fiction.

    However, the best dramatic presentation category explicitly states that a nominated work should be about science fiction, fantasy or related subjects, so a historical drama about the space race or a docudrama about the making of Doctor Who absolutely qualify.

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    • Cora

      BTW, I placed “An Adventure in Space and Time” above “No Award” (and above at least one actual Doctor Who episode) and will place “Hidden Figures” above “No Award”, too, should it get nominated. I wasn’t a Hugo voter, when Apollo 13 was nominated, and not even born, when the moon landing won.

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    • greghullender

      I would have voted Apollo 13 under No Award as well, and for the same reasons. However, as the rules are written, you’re absolutely entitled to your own interpretation. It’ll be interesting to see what people do.

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  4. voidampersand

    The book Hidden Figures is even better than the movie. I still really appreciate the movie, but then, after reading the book, I could see how many facts were changed to compress the story and make it more dramatic. The movie does its best to give justice to the women computers, to their families and community, and to the civil rights struggle, but the full story is richer and even more impressive.

    I hope everyone who is interested in the movie reads the book. It is very well-researched. The author, Margot Lee Skinner, grew up in the community. Her father was a senior research scientist at Langley, her mother was an English professor. She interviewed basically everyone who was still alive, along with their friends and families and co-workers. She dug deep into the NASA archives. It’s a great inside view of what it was like to work at NACA and then NASA. It is also packed with a wealth of detail about life in African-American communities during the Depression and World War II, in the segregated South. The central women in the story are amazing overachievers, but they also had excellent teachers, supportive parents and husbands, and strong networks of friends and cousins and sorority sisters. It is a fascinating history that deserves to be better known. Fortunately, Margot Lee Skinner’s writing is as good as her research. The prose is lively and engaging. I really enjoyed it.

    I plan to nominate Hidden Figures, the movie, for Best Dramatic Presentation. If “related” means the same thing that it does for Best Dramatic Presentation, then I think Hidden Figures, the book, qualifies for Best Related Work, and I am planning to nominate it in that category.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JJ

      voidampersand, thanks for the comments on the book and movie. I’m on the waitlist for the book at my library, and am looking forward to reading it, as movies based on true stories inevitably end up cutting out large chunks of the book.

      That’s a good point about the book being eligible for Related Work, since it was published in 2016. I’ve seen a number of people say that they’re going to nominate Chuck Tingle’s website and tweets for Related Work, which I think is a crying shame. While I appreciate as much as anyone the epic trolling job he did on the Puppies and think he’s awesome , when there are works such as
      Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E. Butler
      Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Alfred Bester
      Geek Feminist Revolution
      Bandersnatch
      Gleick’s Time Travel
      Speculative Blackness
      The Merril Theory of Lit’ry Criticism (collection of Judith Merril’s non-fiction writing)
      Zino-Amaro’s Traveler of Worlds
      Critical Explorations’ Michael Moorcock
      Roberts’ History of Science Fiction
      I think it would be a damn shame to use a Hugo Finalist slot on a transitory work which is amusing now, but will have no meaning 10 years from now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • voidampersand

        Thanks. Chuck Tingle is awesome and I just might get one of his t-shirts, but people who are thinking of nominating his stuff for Best Related Work just aren’t aware of the really good serious stuff that was published last year.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Mark

        I’ve yet to see or read Hidden Figures but Rise of the Rocket Girls by Nathalia Holt covers similar ground and is on my BRW longlist.

        I can understand the impulse re Chuck Tingle, but last year I made an effort to nominate books or substantive blog series in BRW rather than single posts, and I’ll be doing the same this year.
        I think there’s a danger of nominating things like “Chuck Tingle Trolls” as a statement of support rather than a judgement of the work. If someone says they read all his tweets and loved them then fair enough I suppose.

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      • Andrew M

        It seems to me the best category for Tingle would actually be Fan Writer, which typically does go to a person who has done something significant this year, reasonably enough if it’s not going to keep going to the same person, and so has of its very nature a kind of ephemerality. No one seems to have thought of that, though.

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