Is Lost a Science Fiction Show?

This post is based on several conversations I’ve had with people I work with who are fans of Lost. I thought it would make a good topic for the site.

Basically my thought is that Lost is a science fiction show masquerading as a drama. As I have mentioned to some of you before here in comments on the site, my favorite genre of fiction is science fiction. Now, science fiction (or SF, as most writers perfer to abbreviate it) is a pesky genre of fiction to pin down. The Literary Dictionary on defines it thus: “science fiction, a popular modern branch of prose fiction that explores the probable consequences of some improbable or impossible transformation of the basic conditions of human (or intelligent non‐human) existence. This transformation need not be brought about by a technological invention, but may involve some mutation of known biological or physical reality, e.g. time travel, extraterrestrial invasion, ecological catastrophe.” Wikipedia notes: “It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation). Exploring the consequences of such differences is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a “literature of ideas”.[1] Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possibilities.[2] The settings for science fiction are often contrary to known reality.”

Wikipedia goes on to note some of the possible settings for SF. Several of these fit Lost in my opinion. Again from Wikipedia: “A setting in the future, in alternative timelines, or in a historical past that contradicts known facts of history or the archaeological record…Stories that involve technology or scientific principles that contradict known laws of nature[4]
Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel or robots, or of new and different political or social systems (e.g., a dystopia, or a situation where organized society has collapsed)”

In Lost, particularly from Season 2 onwards, we have been treated to a research station whose original purpose was to study a large anamolous pocket of magnetism, another research station doing experiments in the manipulation of time, a frozen wheel connected to a pocket of exotic matter that moves the island through time and space, an alternate reality that appears to have been created by the interaction of the E/M pocket and a nuclear explosion, and an entity whose usual form is a menecing cloud of black smoke that has the ability to assume the appearance of dead people and a very bad disposition.

Now when you say science fiction to most people they usually think of something along the lines of Star Trek, Star Wars, or cheesy movies of the variety that were shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But SF does not need to contain space ships, laser death rays, aliens, or robots to be SF. Both Jules Vern and H.G. Wells are early writers in the genre and their stories basically take the known science and theories of the time and expand and speculate on them. One of Vern’s classic stories is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. In it we encounter Captain Nemo and his extraordinary submarine, the Nautilus. But Vern did not ‘invent’ the submarine; there were submarines in Vern’s time and he vastly expanded on the idea and speculated on what use humanity could put them to. In fact, the dimensions of the Nautilus that Vern gives closely match the usual dimensions of submarines in the U.S. Navy.

Wikipedia also gives several definitions of SF sub genres. One of these is “soft science fiction” which I believe Lost could best fit into. Here is the Wikipedia entry on soft SF:

Soft science fiction, or soft SF, like its complementary opposite hard science fiction, is a descriptive term that points to the role and nature of the science content in a science fiction story. The term first appeared in the late 1970s and early 1980s and indicated SF based not on engineering or the “hard” sciences (for example, physics, astronomy, or chemistry) but on the “soft” sciences, and especially the social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and so on).[1] Another sense is SF that is more concerned with character, society, or other speculative ideas and themes that are not centrally tied to scientific or engineering speculations[2]. A third sense is SF that is less rigorous in its application of scientific ideas, for example allowing faster-than-light space travel in a setting that otherwise follows more conservative standards.

Even though Lost is set on an island and we are treated to the extraordinary adventures of a group of characters and the effects of the island on their lives, Lost, I believe, is grounded in the SF genre, particularly with the time travel and alternate reality. The true genius of the writers and producers is that they have crafted a fantastic and compelling SF story and presented it in a way that people who would never normally watch a SF story are following one without even knowing that they are watching a SF story. But, then again, Lost is hard to pin down.

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Lungbarrow, Achalli Number516644 Sit down before fact like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconcieved notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. - T.H. Huxley

22 thoughts on “Is Lost a Science Fiction Show?

  1. I agree with you that it bacame a sci fi show when they went down the time travel road, but it really started in season 3 with Desmond and his flashes.

  2. Just commenting to say I’m glad you pointed out that it’s SOFT sci-fi.

    But, I agree with Mixen Dixon… it’s been pretty much understood since early on, I thought?

    I’m assuming you didn’t see it, but in one of the DVD bonus features, Lindelof and Abrams talk about how the show came about and how they didn’t want to do a melodramatic Gilligan’s Island– so they decided to give the Island its own “life” and “character”, making it more sci-fi-y.

    What makes JJ Abrams so popular is he recognizes how well you can merge sci-fi with regular drama, enough not to lose a standard audience (i.e. the Star Trek reboot).

  3. Mixon Dixon, Adayafar, one reason I did this post at this time is because of a essay by David Lavery about whether or not Lost is science fiction, although I did not use it for the post. He wrote it sometime during season 3 and he concluded that it was still too early to definately say it was SF based on several definitions he cited. He went on to say we would probably not be sure until the final episode. This essay is what prompted the discussion I had with people where I work. Some of these people didn’t agree that it is SF. I figured that since I didn’t recall seeing this question posed here it would make for an interesting debate.

    Adayafar, you are correct that I didn’t see that particular DVD extra. As I stated in my previous comment, I didn’t definitely decide it was SF until season 3 although there were some signs in previous seasons. By the way, I like your avatar.

    Thank you all for the comments. I appreciate them.

  4. Ah, I see Achalli… that’s pretty interesting that your coworkers see differently about Lost, mine seem to pretty much agree on the SF thing so I was a bit surprised to see that as a post topic.

    But you bring up a good point, I think sci-fi for some (esp hardcore fans) is a stricter genre and for others anything with an out-of-this-world (pun perhaps intended) theme can be sci-fi– hence the very wide definition you got on Wikipedia. I can’t truly and clearly recall that DVD extra I saw, but the creators just seemed like they wanted to have this amalgamation of natural science/animism, Eastern/Western thought, sci-fi/drama, and most of all mystery/adventure. So in this debate, we could all be wrong and right at the same time. 🙂

    I’ve heard Lost called a poor man’s science fiction show since it’s not on the same level as BSG or Star Trek, but hey, it works for me.

    And thanks for the avatar compliment– I got it from a Google image search, tried to leave the credit in there, but it’s probably too small to see. 🙂

  5. I agree with ADayAfar, and take it one step further that TPTB are like TV’s version of quentin tarantino how they mesh a lot of different genres, but to me, it almost seems like it is getting to be down right fantasy at the moment (and trust me I am an uber nerd). BTW, ADayAfar, have you started on The Golden Compass, yet?

  6. Most libraries I go to lump scifi and fantasy together and call the section SciFi. So people who aren’t really into either presume it’s all science fiction, when to people who are into one, the other or both know there are big differences within each genre. I am much more a fan of “hard” scifi than any other although I still read some stuff I would consider soft scifi and some fantasy, too. To me, if Lost doesn’t satisfactorily explan the time travel, smoke monster, Richards longevity etc. with some reasonable scientific parameters than I would call it soft or even fantasy. Flocke opening Bens’ shackle with a wave of his hand looked more like magic than anything else.
    I saw Artur C. Clarkes most famous quote somewhere yesterday ” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” and couldn’t help thinking we may hear this come out of someone’s mouth yet.

  7. ADayAfar, some of my coworkers are not to bright when it comes to Lost. I had to explain to them what was happening with Smokey taking on the form of Locke. They are the ones who didn’t regard Lost as being SF. They also think I am a uber genius when it comes to Lost and then I have to explain that’s note the case, it’s just because I’ve been exposed to similar ideas in other stories. When I questioned them it turns out that they admit they’re not into SF to begin with.

    You bring up BSG, are you talking about the original or the reimagined version. I would put Lost on the same level with the reimagined BSG in terms of characters. And have you seen Caprica? It’s every bit as good as the reimagined BSG.

  8. Cocoadol, I agree with you that it is veering into fantasy land at the moment. I have no problem with them mixing genres as long as it is done in a balanced way.

  9. Roland, I totally understand what you are saying about the sections in bookstores and libraries. I got really ticked off when Blockbuster merged the sci fi section with the action section.

    The business with the shackle just took the show into ridiculous territory for me. Although it gave me an idea for a possible post. Actually I’ve had this idea for awhile but because of that scene it may be posted here soon.

  10. I gotta say, i’m not much of a diehard sci-fi fan, and to me whats great about lost is that its still so difficult to pigeonhole it because its a combination of so many genres, sci-fi, horror, drama, adventure, action, fantasy/mythology etc.
    I love the way that not only is the genre style so diverse, but so is everything else on the show! Brilliant.

    I think David Lavery might be right, that it’ll still be uncertain (just like everything in the show) until the final episode, to me anyway. I was very sure and hoped that everything would have a logical scientific explanation, but the show just seems to be going down a more fantasy/mythology road this season so i don’t know anymore.

    And BTW Achalli, are you an MST3K fan?? I love that show and still watch it daily on this online MST stream thing, always cheers me up after a crappy day.
    I don’t know anyone in the UK whos ever seen it, and i’ve tried converting my mates and none of them find it funny, unbelievable!

  11. Its the writers own fault for creating many of our expectations by throwing in so many Sci-fi elements.

    From the moment we see the hatch in season one, everyone lit up. The Hydra station and the sonic fence, the archealogical elements (four toed statue and vestiges of Dharma) started establishing certain plausible if futuristic artifacts to explain the obvious mysteries (polar bears and smoke monster).

    All these things are valid and place Lost in the Science Fiction genre.

    The frustrating thing about the show is that they give us such tantalizing stuff to play with and then throw in a lot of mystical man-of-faith bull crap!

  12. Shepard’s Flocke, I am a huge MST3K fan. I didn’t realize anyone over in the UK has seen it. I also have friends that absolutely hated the show and yet they thought Beavis and Butthead was the greatest thing on TV. Anyways, I find it fascinating that it started out as a cheap cable access show on a small local television station. So, have you seen Manos, the Hands of Fate. That one became their benchmark for comparing all other movies. You should check out on the web. Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy’s (the voice of Tom Servo), and Bill Corbett (the voice of Crow in seasons 8-10) do MLS commentaries for movies that they sell. What you do is then rent whatever movie you bought the commentary for and sync it up. They’ve done a lot of recent releases.

  13. Andre7, I always got ticked of when they would start a thread and then we don’t get any follow up until a few seasons later. For example, introducing the statue at the end of season one and not seeing it again till season 5.

  14. Achalli,
    I love Manos!!

    I watched a documentary about the making of that film on Hulu recently, you should watch it if you haven’t, alot of the cast had miserable ends, the guy who played Torgo commited suicide a few months after the film was released.
    Funnily enough, he was known to get stoned constantly on set, explains alot!

    I was gonna mention Rifftrax, but i see you already know, have you heard the one they did for the Lost pilot episode?
    BTW, the original cast and creator (Joel Hodgson) have there own thing they’ve started ‘cinematic titanic’, where its still old b-movies and you can see the silhouettes at the bottom of the screen much like mst3k! Check some out.

    MST3k only started in the UK from like season 8 on sci-fi, i remember catching it one saturday afternoon and being like ‘woah, what the hell is this? This is hilarious!’, and then when i realised they had riffed a whole movie, i was blown away. i was always intriuged by how homemade and improvised it seemed, really brilliant, and along with the Simpsons shaped my sense of humour. I only found out there was a whole 7 seasons of stuff i hadn’t seen like 3 years ago, and have been watching them regularly ever since.
    Sorry to go off on a tangent, but funnily enough, other than lost, MST3k is the only other TV show where i’m a member of a forum about it. I’m such a geek.


  15. Great post Achalli…

    Of course its a science fiction show.
    Anyone can deny up until about the point where the island disappears and begins to travel through time. Up until then…many of the things that occur could be explained through other logic and even other fictitious devices…but not Lost…

    Although attacking other angles on an almost by episode basis, time travel is now what makes the show tick…without it, we lose the main plot at this point.

    I do think we will roam into the alchemy side, as dabsi has alluded to now. And I think that we will also get back to a more spiritual reasoning behind some things…but question if they are going to take it to a level of actually explaining spiritual type miracles through science…thats fun…

    Good post, and I LOVE your line…

    “The true genius of the writers and producers is that they have crafted a fantastic and compelling SF story and presented it in a way that people who would never normally watch a SF story are following one without even knowing that they are watching a SF story.”

    Funny…many did realize…and they abandoned ship at the mere thought…if those poor close-minded, one window people had any idea about what they were missing…

    Great post again Achalli…I know you love your sci fi, and Lost has given you a steady dose…

  16. Shepard’s Flocke, for the premier of Mania they could only afford one limo so they kept sending it around the block to bring the actors to the red carpet.

    I was lucky to see MST3K during it’s first run from season 3 onwards. If you haven’t, check out The Creeping Terror, Monster A Go Go, Teenage Crimewave, the Sinister Urge, and the Day the Earth Froze. Also, do a search on YouTube for MST3K KTMA. Those are the original episodes when it was just a local show.

  17. AES, Lost, like the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, shows how good SF can be. Both shows focus on the characters and the SF elements are just a given. Although BSG was obviously SF it did not act like a SF show. Both show are showing that a good SF story can be told without getting bogged down in technobabble.

  18. Locked, for myself Lost didn’t really settle into SF until Desmond started to time travel with his consciousness, but there were some hints before that.

  19. Good point Achalli…I think people are more apt to continue watching NOT having a clue as to what is happening, as opposed to being bombarded with science terms and flashing lights…

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