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.]