Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Science Fiction

(Note: For the few of you who have been following my blog, I apologize for the absence. Graduate school can be rough on the schedule sometimes. Thanks for coming back!)

 

Science fiction seems to be a dominant mode of expression in modern American culture. Eight of the twenty top-selling Xbox 360 games are science fiction titles. Four of the top twenty grossing films of all time are SF, and if we add the closely-allied genres of fantasy and super-hero films into that list, it balloons to thirteen. Either way you choose to look at it, the top-grossing movie ever, Avatar, is a SF film. In most brick-and-mortar bookstores, SF sells only slightly behind Romance as the dominant genre. Two of America’s most beloved franchise properties, Star Trek and Star Wars, are SF.*

But we also live in Science Fiction. In the ‘80s, I read Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at least once a year, and the idea of a technological device that had all of the knowledge of the universe in the palm of your hand seemed beyond imagining. Now, the only thing that separates an iPad from the Hitchhiker’s Guide is that the iPad doesn’t have the words “Don’t Panic” in large, friendly letters on its cover.**

These are only a few reasons why SF matters. And this is where my English Teacher instincts kick in. When we teach books, we should choose books that speak to our students. And I can think of no better way to reach (some) students than through SF.***

 

Reason #1: SF isn’t really about the future. I have argued this before, and I will keep arguing it. SF is usually not about predicting things, at least most of the time. Instead, Science Fiction is about the author’s understanding of the immediate historical moment, but set outside of the political and social arguments of the historical moment. It allows the author to make a statement about our cultural moment without polarizing the audience. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly wasn’t about the future: it was about the Nixon-era drug war, just as one example.

As a result, SF lets us discuss big ideas without worrying about our immediate cultural, political, or religious climate. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often cited as the first SF text. If it is (and I’m not 100% convinced), it wasn’t an attempt to predict a time when scientists could piece together a living being from dead body parts. It was a meditation on one of the great ideas of literature: does the creator “owe” anything to the creation? This allows us to discuss some of the most interesting ideas in the history of philosophical thought. It also allows us to consider issues of emerging importance: bio-ethics (genetically modified animals, plants, and possibly humans); artificial intelligence (what is humanity’s responsibility to any AI that emerges?); and relationships with the “other” (racial, social, sexual, etc.).

 

Reason #2: SF “expands the circle” of the human: This is an idea that I am taking from Professor Michael D. C. Drout’s audiobook lecture From Here to Infinity (and if I remember correctly, he borrowed the idea as well). SF allows us to see humanity in a variety of places. If we can see the humanity in C-3PO or in a rogue AI that simply wants to be given respect as a thinking being, then it should be much easier for us to see the humanity in the “others” who live right next to us. SF encourages us to see that all living beings have basic dignity. If we can learn to love a Klingon, why can’t we learn to love the person of another race or a different sexual orientation?

 

Reason #3: SF is the only genre that really deals with technology’s role in human life: In most forms of literature, technology is “just stuff.” Rarely does mainstream literature deal with technology in any significant way, except as a prop. Even when technology plays a role (the high-tech equipment in a techno-thriller, for example), it is either used as a neutral object (it is just there to help the characters) or it is a “gee whizz” technology. (“Look at how cool this is!”) As SF/Fantasy writer Marshall Maresca has pointed out to me several times, CSI frequently uses the “Enhance the picture!” technological nonsense (no one can do with images what they do in that show). But never once does anyone in a Tom Clancy novel or on CSI worry about how our society is being changed by those technologies.

But our society does change every time a new technology takes hold. We are not the same culture now that we were before recorded music, before television, before antibiotics, or before the internet. Technology changes us deeply and fundamentally. Romance fiction doesn’t explore that. Neither does the (inappropriately-named) Techno-Thriller genre. Only SF really deals with that. Look at any novel by Asimov, Gibson, Clarke, Dick, etc. They explore how technologies change what it means to be human, or what it means to live in the cultures we live in. Asimov’s robots ask us what it means to be alive. Clarke’s fiction asks us what it means to be human when death is abolished. Gibson asks what it means to live in a world where all of history is compressed into a single, constantly changing technological “present.” Dick asks what it means to be an individual in a society where memories can be altered, pasts can be erased, and civilizations can be created almost out of thin air.

I once had a professor who argued, as many literature professors do, that the value of literature is that it asks us to put ourselves into the place of another, and to contemplate that other’s “humanity.” But technology is one of the things that makes us who and what we are, every moment. To contemplate the humanity of the “other” and NOT consider technology’s role in the other’s life is to get an incomplete picture of humanity. SF is the only genre to completely consider that important piece of humanity: what we build goes a long way to making us what we are.

 

This list could go on much longer. SF is important because it is fun to read (or watch). SF is important because it makes money. There are many more reasons. But these are, I think, the most important—and the most-often taken for granted. But what about you? Do you have reasons that you think I should have included?

 

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

*I actually don’t think that Star Wars is SF, but rather mythic fantasy with SF window-dressing. But the fact that it takes on SF characteristics still supports my argument.

**Of course, many of the cooler fans have put “Don’t Panic” stickers on their iPads or Kindle Fires. I have done neither, because I own neither. Yet. If someone wants to send me one, I’d be perfectly happy with that….

***No two students are alike, and your mileage may vary. Personally, I’ve only ever had two students who have revolted at the idea of SF, and both of those students were fundamentalist Christians who found SF to be incompatible with their belief systems.

Advertisements

Science fiction is often thought of as being a “predictive” or prophetic genre. H.G. Wells is hailed as a prophet for the many predictions he made, and Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century is remarkably accurate in some of its predictions. Gibson’s Neuromancer is seen by some as being a prophetic imagining of the Internet, and when 2001 came and went, 2001: A Space Odyssey was retroactively criticized by some for failing to be accurate. A common trope among stand-up comics is, “It’s the 21st Century… where’s my flying car?”

Both the lionizing of Gibson, Verne, and Wells as visionaries and the criticism of our lack of airborne automobiles is inappropriate. It is not only unfair, but these investigations of SF miss the point. SF is often not about predicting the future. It is instead about understanding the present moment, and doing so in such a way that allows us to step outside of politics and social restrictions. Neuromancer, for example, was less about predicting the future than it was exploring the changes that technology was bringing to the historical moment in which it was written. The book engages a very mid-1980s concern with the rise of Japan as an economic power, for example: Neuromancer opens on an expatriate community in Japan, and explores the fractured multiculturalism of the global economy. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly was less about predicting a future drug that would cause split personalities to emerge than it was examining the emerging rhetoric of a “drug war” and the impact that was having on society; those issues were very pressing to a post-Nixon, “War On Drugs” America. And Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is very rooted in immediate, real-world concerns about peak oil and the dead dinosaur energy economy as well as the emergence of bioterrorism, private armies, and economic warfare in a way that creates a neocolonial atmosphere.

In fact, I would argue that the “predictive power” of SF is, at best, a happy accident. And at its worst, the heavy-handed attempt at prophecy is an annoying distraction from the story being told. If I want prophecy, I will read Ray Kurzweil, Peter Newman, or Peter Schwartz. It isn’t that SF writers should be forbidden from trying to predict events. But rather, we as the audience must understand that SF writers are presenting a vision. It might play out, and it might not, but in many cases that predictive vision is not relevant to the story that they are telling us! Because authors are located in their historical moment, they cannot help but comment in some way upon their immediate historical context. And it is that comment that is more important. Gibson’s work was concerned with the intersections consumerism, technology, and everyday culture; Dick’s work was concerned with identity, surveillance, and freedom; Heinlein’s work was concerned with how advances in technology make new cultural modes of organization necessary. For all of them, discussion of “the future” was always meant to cast our thoughts back to the present. They were prophets not in the predictive sense, but in the sense it occurs in the Abrahamic religious traditions. In that sense, a “prophet” is a person who carries a message for people to listen to. It might be a warning of future events, but it might be a message that is meant to guide people here-and-now.

Prophets are in a dangerous line of work. Authors write the stories that speak to people, and prophets often fail to speak to people. When prophets are wrong, we call them fools and cast them aside. When prophets are right a few times too many, we start to get suspicious. No one listens to Cassandra, and professional writers want an audience. SF authors aren’t in the business of making predictions as much as they are capturing the ever-present “now” in ways that guide us toward the future while simultaneously illuminating our current condition. But they are on the very leading edge of that “now,” and they are pulling the rest of us along with them. If SF is prophetic, it is so in the sense that life as it is right now is not how it could be. SF authors are not predicting the future; they are reminding us that the present is not living up to the promises of the past.