The True Power of Science Fiction
Science fiction as a genre is often sneered at by literary types as time-wasting pop-culture trash. In this article I will explain what science fiction means to me, and why it is not at all a frivolous genre.
The Human Condition
The best use of science fiction is when it allows us a peek at humanity in ways that other genres cannot. By posing outlandish ‘what ifs’, we can explore human nature from new angles. In fiction, we often see stories of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Science-fiction really allows us to go to town with the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ part.
What if you met a duplicate of yourself? What if you discovered you were not human, but a robot? What if you were thrown into another dimension, a time loop, an alternate history, or a simulation? These kinds of stories prompt us to think about how we would react in those situations, giving us a tool to better understand ourselves.
To people who are not a fan of the genre, these premises may seem silly and nonsensical, but the premise is not the point. The science-fiction premise is merely the extraordinary catalyst for probing the human spirit in ways that real life cannot. Scientists often perform experiments where they put test subjects in situations beyond what would be found in nature, in order to see how systems react to extremes. Science-fiction is a laboratory for the human condition.
In a similar way, the genre allows us to explore social issues from a clinical viewpoint, without the baggage of our everyday biases. Aliens let us to look at racism and other forms of bigotry, zombies can be an allegory of sexually transmitted diseases, and robots let us reexamine slavery from a fresh perspective. We can explore the issue objectively, taking on things like euthanasia, addiction, disease, prejudice, political extremes, mental illness, civil rights, sexuality, and transgenderism, all safely removed from an earthly context, without knee-jerk emotional responses clouding our judgement.
Imagine writing a book about racial tensions in 60s America. It can be done, it has been done, by great authors. The problem is that people will bring their own perspective and their own prejudices to it. A real racist probably won’t even pick it up after reading the blurb, so even if the message is about how racism is illogical and harmful, the people who actually need to hear that message won’t get it.
However, science-fiction can remove such issues from their real-world setting, and put them in jars to be studied by everyone. And the people viewing them won’t even realise what they are looking at until it has percolated through the subconscious.
A classic example of this comes from an episode of Star Trek, called “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” It has a species where people are born with one side of the bodies jet black and the other purest white. Their entire society is divided by which way round the black/white halves are. They have an oppressed race and an oppressor race. But which is which? Captain Kirk and crew cannot understand the prejudice and hate over something so arbitrary and trivial, just as an outside observer would be flummoxed by our own species’ prejudice over nothing more than skin tone.
It’s a pretty unsubtle message, a product of its time, but the point stands. Within the genre of science-fiction, writers can put social issues under the microscope and study them in sterile conditions. You simply can’t do that without speculative fiction.
Through the genre, we can also really explore abstract philosophical and ethical questions in a way that we can really connect with.
Can computers ever be conscious? Is terrorism ever justified? Is euthanasia sometimes the rational/compassionate option? At what point should our most sacred laws be suspended? Are a single person’s rights more important than the rights of many? What if we were all nothing but brains in jars?
It’s entirely possible to sit in our armchairs, gazing at our navels and ponder these issues, but science fiction allows us to put them into stories where we can really explore them in a grounded way.
Of course, many of these questions can be explored in other genres, but with science-fiction we can tailor an ethical dilema perfectly in ways that can’t be seen elsewhere.
For example, Minority Report asks a mind-boggling question: if we could see the future, would it be ethical to punish the perpetrators of crimes they never actually commit? They would have committed them had we not interfered, but due to our interference they never actually get to commit them. It puts the concept of guilt into a kind of Schrödinger’s Box, where the defendants are in some kind of uncollapsed state of being both guilty and not guilty at the same time. It may seem like a nonsense thought experiment to some, but it can help to solidify our thoughts on the topic and make them more robust, and it often has surprising real-world applications.
With science fiction, we can already begin to discuss important ideas that will not seem important until the future. For example, what will we do when we can build robots with genuine consciousness? How will we decide whether they are conscious or not? How will our legal systems have to change to accommodate freedoms of artificial intelligence? What kind of opposition and prejudice might they face in society? Even though AI is nowhere near complex enough for that to be an issue today, through science-fiction we can already begin debating and exploring such issues.
This is true for other fields too. How shall we prepare for first contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life? What kind of government and economy should we have when people start colonising other planets, other star systems? What are the political, scientific, entertainment, economic, religious, and moral ramifications of bringing back extinct species through genetic engineering?
We can explore the issues from the comfort of a good book and a soft chair. Also, it’s not uncommon for science-fiction to predict scientific discoveries or inspire new technologies. It can be a scratchpad for scientists and engineers to sketch out promising ideas that may invoke ‘eureka’ moments in their readers.
Exploration of the Unknown
Personally, this is my main reason for loving science-fiction. I really want to have my mind blown and feel genuine awe. I want to see amazing new vistas, and discover mind-boggling new concepts. I want to see gob-smacking new technologies, novel organisms, dazzling worlds, and confusing paradoxes. And I want to see how humans, not too dissimilar to myself, react to such experiences.
Certuries ago, the world was much more of a mystery. Explorers provoked real awe in the population. Outside one’s own parochial existance, people didn’t have a clue what might be living in the fartherst corners of the world. On every map, “‘ere be dragons” was a warning against stepping beyond the known, but now we know dragons don’t exist.
We may not know absolutely everything about our world — there are always a new species of butterfly or bat being discovered every year — but we do have a pretty comprehensive understanding of life as it is now, and how it was in past eras. There’s very little real exploration to be done. There are no fantastical creatures left to discover on our humble planet.
Science-fiction lets us all be explorers. We may have a grasp on what’s down here, but up there is still a huge mystery. While there won’t be literal dragons, its feasible that somewhere in the vastness of the universe, awe-inspiring behemoths slumber under golden skies, and gigantic helium-filled gas-whales softly graze on flying plantkon.
I’m an explorer at heart, and I can explore strange new worlds from the saftey of my imagination.
And finally, science-fiction can also just be for fun. A jolly good romp. To tell a tale of generic heroism and adventure, with pew-pew lasers and snarky robot companions. Can’t we just have a bit of harmless escapism from our boring 9 to 5 jobs?
Children’s fiction in the past used to always include a moral. It was specifically a teaching tool to explaining why children should not steal, tell lies, or bully others. But then in the 19th Century there came a period of utter nonsense, with the likes of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, that made children’s fiction “fun” for fun’s sake.
And so it is with science-fiction too. It’s allowed to just be fun. There is nothing wrong with space battles and sexy aliens for the sake of adventure and thrills. Not every story has to be deep and meaningful and lyrical.
Contrary to a widespread belief, there is no reason science-fiction stories can’t be great literature. They are not mutually exclusive. There’s no law that says such stories can’t have lyrical prose, convoluted plot, emotional resonance, explorations of the human condition, etc. There are no limitations on the genre except that it must have a premise based on extrapolations of science. That’s all.
I am sure some people have been thinking, “fantasy is a genre that can do that too.” Sure. Fantasy and science-fiction are two sides of the same coin. The difference is that science-fiction is more grounded in reality. It is speculative stories that might be true, based on extrapolation of known science. Fantasy is stuff that we know isn’t true. There is an awful lot of overlap.
Science-fiction is an incredible genre that allows for a wide variety of explorations of the human condition that can’t be found in other genres. That makes it extremely useful, and profoundly important.