John Scalzi recently tackled the question of whether or not Quentin Tarantino’s WWII epic Inglourious Basterds qualifies for science fiction. Unfortunately, I should mention at this point that the rest of this post contains mild spoilers about the movie. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it (also, it was my favorite movie of 2009).
In any case, the entire argument hinges around the SF sub-genre of alternate history. In such stories, authors will change some aspect of history in order to explore some sort of narrative idea. This type of story takes all sorts of forms, such as Phillp K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, where Dick speculates about what would have happened if the Axis powers won WWII. There are tons of other examples. I’ve never read one of his books, but I know Harry Turtledove has made something of a career out of similar alternate history stories. Often, the alternate history comes about due to some form of time travel (such as The End of Eternity) or speculation about the many worlds theory of parallel universes (such as Anathem).
A more recent example of the genre is Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Set in the present day, that book’s alternate timeline starts that during WW II, when a temporary settlement for Jewish refugees was established in Alaska. Chabon uses the premise to explore Jewish social and cultural issues, but never really uses “science” to explain his settings (i.e. there’s no time travel or mention of parallel universes, etc…) This is a particularly relevant example because it really does skirt the boundaries of several genres (the book reads more like a noir detective story than a SF tale), yet it’s generally considered part of the SF canon. We’ll revisit this book later in this post.
Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that at a certain point in the movie, Tarantino diverges significantly from history. As Scalzi points out, the movie is still very much a WWII movie, but by the end, it’s just not quite the same WWII as what’s in the history books.
In his post, Scalzi outlines 4 arguments against the interpretation that Basterds is SF. However, I don’t find them entirely convincing:
1. It wasn’t marketed as science fiction
From a practical point of view, neither writer-director Quentin Tarantino nor The Weinstein Company made any attempt to play up its speculative elements, and indeed probably hoped to keep them under wraps until the last possible moment.
While true from a factual standpoint, I don’t find this argument at all convincing. It wasn’t marketed as SF because the SF elements were meant to be a surprise. Marketing it as an alternate history would be akin to marketing The Sixth Sense as a movie in which Bruce Willis plays a ghost. It’s also worth noting that the marketing for a movie isn’t always entirely accurate. This is especially true when it comes to cross-genre pieces like Basterds. By necessity, marketing simplifies a given movie to it’s basest, most salable features. Indeed, the marketing campaign for Basterds focused almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s motley crew of Nazi-hunters and their action packed exploits, yet those characters are not really the focus of the film and indeed, several of the main characters are barely mentioned. So no, it’s not surprising that the marketing didn’t focus on the SF aspects of the story. That doesn’t necessarily make it less of a SF story.
2. The science fictional aspects of the movie are not necessarily essential to it
To be sure, without the alternate history aspect it becomes a somewhat different movie in the end. But the fact is that the majority of the movie’s themes, characters and narrative are developed without engaging in or resorting to the alternate historical aspects …
On this point, I wholeheartedly disagree. Scalzi does admit that changing the SF aspects would make it a different movie, but what he doesn’t note is that the movie would be drastically inferior in that case. Without the ending (which is where the SF elements really kick in), the movie might still work, but it wouldn’t work nearly as well as it did. That ending is necessary to the success of the movie. It’s also worth noting that the movie does start with some premises that could be considered SF. For instance, take the trailer for the movie in which Brad Pitt gives a speech to his men on their upcoming mission. This scene ostensibly takes place before the D-Day invasion of Germany and it assumes a lot of things. For instance, it’s revealed that all the members of the squad are Jewish. As present day audiences, we know what this means (and Tarantino is certainly counting on that), but in reality, while the Allies knew of Nazi antisemitism in a general sense, the specifics of the Holocaust were not known until after the invasion when various concentration camps and mass graves were discovered. Now, I’m not going to call this science fiction, but it’s clear that Tarantino is counting on audience knowledge of the Holocaust during this scene, and he uses that knowledge to his advantage. This is something that will come up again later in this post.
3. It’s kinda more like fantasy than scifi anyway
This is certainly a fair point, but at the same time, a lot of what we consider SF could also be termed “Fantasy”. You could probably make a compelling argument that Star Wars is more fantasy than SF. Perhaps this is why SF and fantasy seem to get lumped together in bookstores and whatnot. There is certainly a fantasy element to Basterds though, but I’m just not sure if it outweighs the SF elements.
4. If Inglourious Basterds is science fiction, so are most historical movies
Most historical epics are about as alternate in their history as Inglourious Basterds is. For example, take Gladiator — the most recent historical epic to win the Best Picture Oscar
Another fair point and probably the most compelling among Scalzi’s arguments, though I think some important distinctions need to be made here. Movies like Gladiator and Braveheart just contain bad history. For the most part, the people who made those movies were altering history to make for more entertaining narratives, and they knew they could get away with it because 99.9% of the audience doesn’t know or care about the real history involved (and in all fairness, such tactics work – both are very good movies).
With Inglourious Basterds, something different is happening. Scalzi even mentiones that “Tarantino’s messing with history we actually still remember.” And that’s important because Tarantino is attempting something subversive. Unlike Gladiator and Braveheart, Basterds actually relies on the audience’s knowledge of history. This is a movie that wouldn’t work nearly as well if you didn’t know anything about WWII. In terms of information theory, Tarantino is making masterful use of exformation whereas movies like Gladiator change history with the confidence that the audience won’t notice or care. In short, changing history is the whole point of Basterds, whereas it’s just used to spice up the narrative in Gladiator and Braveheart.
In a very real sense, the primary theme of Basterds is the transformative power of cinema. To achieve this goal, Tarantino employs several techniques. One is the direct role of cinema in the plot. A British film critic and a German actress team up with the Basterds to accomplish a specific goal. At several points, discussions of classic German cinema become integral to the plot. Old nitrate filmstock becomes a key plot element. The final showdown occurs in a movie theater that’s run by our heroine. And so on. There’s obvious symbolism at work there. But let’s return to the idea of exformation, as it’s an interesting topic (and one I’ve mentioned before). In short, exformation refers to communication that is dependent on a shared body of knowledge between the parties involved. Wikipedia has a great anecdotal example:
In 1862 the author Victor Hugo wrote to his publisher asking how his most recent book, Les Misérables, was getting on. Hugo just wrote “?” in his message, to which his publisher replied “!”, to indicate it was selling well. This exchange of messages would have no meaning to a third party because the shared context is unique to those taking part in it. The amount of information (a single character) was extremely small, and yet because of exformation a meaning is clearly conveyed.
In the case of Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino uses exformation masterfully. He knows what the audience knows about WWII and he plays on that. At first, he does so with small things, like the all-Jewish Basterds team (which, at first glance, plays like a Braveheart-style historical inaccuracy, but upon further reflection once the film is over, you can see that Tarnatino is really foreshadowing his subversion of history). A movie like Braveheart diminishes in value when you learn more about the true historical basis for the story. I’m sure there are plenty of historians who get incredibly frustrated when watching a movie like that. But Inglourious Basterds only grows stronger, even as you learn more about the historical basis for that film. For instance, the film does not require you to know all about prewar German cinema, but it certainly could be enhanced by such knowledge.
Take the aforementioned symbolic components, add in Tarantino’s use of exformation to manipulate audiences, and then look at how the ending cements the whole film (this is another strike against Scalzi’s second point). It’s not just that Tarantino doesn’t follow history in his movie, it’s that he explodes history. He’s making an audacious and subversive statement about the power of cinema, and he knows he can go over the top with it because we already know about WWII (not because he thinks he can get away with a few historical inaccuracies).
However, it is interesting to note how history often plays a role in science fiction literature. Indeed, for a while, it seemed like a lot of science fiction authors were leaving behind their SF roots in favor of historical fiction. For example, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, both known for their dystopic cyberpunk work, went out on a limb and published The Difference Engine. Similarly, Kaedrin favorite Neal Stephenson went from his popular futuristic stories in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, the semi-historical WWII/present day thriller Cryptonomicon. He then dove even further into the past with the massive Baroque Cycle, a series of books that took place in late 17th, early 18th centuries. It did concern itself with the emergence of modern science and featured notable scientists and organizations like the Royal Society. In an interview with Salon, Stephenson speculated about whether or not the Baroque Cycle was SF:
I always make it clear that I consider myself a science fiction writer. Even the “Baroque Cycle” fits under the broader vision of what science fiction is about.
And what’s that?
Fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.
And he also mentions SF’s relationship with history:
There was a review of “Cryptonomicon” with a line in it that struck me as interesting. The guy said, “This is a book for geeks and the history buffs that they turn into.” I’m turning into one.
Of course, he does note that this fits under a “broader vision” of science fiction, but at the same time, there’s more to it than just the subject matter and ideas. Science fiction authors approach the world in a certain way, and that sort of thing tends to come through in their writing, even if what they’re writing is not science fiction in the strictest sense. So while The Baroque Cycle is primarily a historical series, it’s got some science in it and it reads enough like science fiction that SF fans can appreciate it without any issue.
But the difference between Tarantino and Stephenson is that Stephenson fully acknowledges his SF roots, while Tarantino has not. This is why I previously brought up Michael Chabon’s novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. Like Tarantino, Chabon is not known primarily for science fiction work. Yet he produced this exceptional alternate history novel that ended up winning the Hugo award for best novel. There are a lot of other similarities between Chabon’s book and Tarantino’s movie. Both are set in an alternate universe, but neither really explores the speculative aspects of their situations. Chabon’s novel probably comes closer to doing so and does not rely on the alternate history as a surprise or shock in the way that Basterds does. Both the novel and the movie are cross-genre stories (the novel using elements of noir and the detective story; the movie using war movie tropes). I don’t remember any marketing around The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but I remember being surprised that it won the best novel Hugo (this was before I had read the book and known about its alternate history premise), so I’m guessing that neither movie really calls itself SF.
Then again, the Hugo website does note:
Science Fiction? Fantasy? Horror?
While the World Science Fiction Society sponsors the Hugos, they are not limited to sf. Works of fantasy or horror are eligible if the members of the Worldcon think they are eligible.
And so we finally arrive at the classic classification problem. What is science fiction anyway? It turns out that according to the Hugos, it’s whatever they say is SF. Going by Stephenson’s broader definition, it makes sense that a book like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union could win a Hugo, as it certainly contains its fair share of interesting ideas. Similarly, I think that Inglourious Basterds could easily be considered SF. It contains interesting ideas and is reliant on relatively sophisticated information theory concepts like exformation.
Observant readers may notice that the Kaedrin Movie Awards contains a category for best SF or Horror film, and that Inglourious Basterds was absent from the nominations in that category. So it seemed that back then, I didn’t consider it SF enough to nominate. And now? I think it certainly could (and it would have won). But I think what it really comes down to is the Hugo test: Do most people consider it SF? And that’s where I think my argument that it is SF falters. I think most people do not think of it as a SF movie. This may stem from the nature of the plot, which makes it hard to market the movie as SF (and to Scalzi’s point there, blatant categorizations like SF exist for marketing purposes in the first place). Tarantino isn’t generally associated with the SF world and isn’t calling the movie SF either, which also tends to diminish my argument. But after thinking about it, I still like to think of it as SF. It may not be like any other alternate history story, but just because it’s wholly unique in that respect doesn’t make it less of a SF movie.