Do Superheroes Belong in the Science Fiction Genre?

This must be the least important question ever to face mankind, but if you’ve got a friend like Dave, it’s a matter of life and death, especially after he’s on his second glass of Trumer Pilsner. With a mouth recently cleared of Triscuits and smoked Gouda, he’s taken a victory sip of his beer as he has just shushed the rest of the table with his defense of Star Wars as science fantasy and not science

Dave is a splitter, as in either a lumper or a splitter. Dave believes in narrowly defined categories and
( ) clear lines of demarcation in both the biological sciences and in his film and fiction genres.

Dave was also drinking my beers and eating my cheese (he brought the crackers) and being a bit smug.


So I asked him quite innocently, “What about superheroes? They’re clearly part of the science fiction genre.”

Surprisingly, Dave didn’t begin frothing at the mouth but only offered a “hmmm.” At this point of the evening the rest of the table had split off to play Zombie Dice, leaving just me and Dave. Honey, if you’re reading this, why did you abandon me?

But Dave still isn’t speaking so I press the point.

Superhero fiction as presented in comic books, television, film, and novels covers all the bases of traditional science fiction. It includes advancement in technologies, the future, time travel, space travel, other worlds, aliens, alternate histories, etc. and chronicles these developments and their effects on humans and human society.

Sure, superhero fiction shoves plenty more into the blender like magic and often ventures into handwavy silliness (I’m looking at you, Mr. Mxyzptlk), but if you believe science fiction as a genre is a big tent with room for many including space fantasy like star wars, superheroes have a place there, too.

“You’re not going to start banging the speculative fiction drum again, are you?” Dave asks. “Why not shove everything into one supergenre and be done with it?”

Time for a side step. Never mind the fact that horror, fantasy, and science fiction often overlap and spec fiction is a perfectly good descriptor.

The others playing their dice game are banging the dice cup on the table extra loud at this point.

But take Red Son as an example, Dave. Not only are you telling a superhero story, but you’re asking a science fiction staple question: What would have happened in history if?

In Red Son’s case, what if Superman had landed in Ukraine and not Kansas? It’s one of the best Superman stories. The story changes the structure of the cold war as we read about a Soviet Superman vs an American Lex Luther trying to develop his own superhumans in an exciting twist of the arms race. If you ignore some of the fan-servicing subplots and strategic stock character placement (Jimmy Olsen: CIA Agent?) the tale sticks to tracking how both world powers develop with this single change.

Dave counters. “What about Zatana? Shazam? Raven? Doctor Fate? All magic based. Not in my science fiction, thanks.”

What have you got against the DC Universe, Dave?

“Okay, then. Thor and Doctor Strange, off the top of my head. Now you’re being pedantic. Leave superhero fiction in its own category.”

No. Back to Red Son. It distills down to an alien visitor steering the direction of human society, both in the Soviet Union and the United States. The epilogue (no spoilers) takes such an interesting tangent all as a result of the alien visitor’s visit. You could write a blurb describing the story that leaves out Superman and sell it as a sci-fi novel.

Dave’s not convinced but that’s okay. Zombie dice goes back on the shelf and out comes Pandemic. This is a board game that makes you work together to win. Dave and I are on the same side, at least for the next hour.

(Mr. Mxyzptlk image and Red Son Cover Art property of DC Comics.)

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