The Relevance of Science Fiction

Courtesy of NASA

Ever since I was young and watched my first episode of Star Trek: Enterprise I’ve been fascinated by science fiction and the stories that can be told in this genre. Since then, I have watched many other science fiction shows, and I have read a good amount of science fiction novels. I feel this genre is often misunderstood as a literary genre and not always taken seriously or fully appreciated. While I understand it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, I think the beauty of science fiction is that there are so many layers and ideas inside of these stories that can make us reflect on whatever issue or aspect of society we care about.

While by definition speculative, and often considered as futuristic, science fiction has a long and rich history. Arguably the first work can be dated all the way back to the 2ndcentury AD when Hellenized Syrian satirist Lucian wrote A True Story. This novel contained themes that are still explored today in the genre, such as travel to outer space and alien life forms. Some stories from The Arabian Nights also include elements that could be considered science fiction. However, science fiction really took off with the dawn of the Age of Reason and the emergence of modern science. Isaac Asimov, famous for his Three Laws of Robotics, considers Johannes Kepler’s novel Somniumto be the first real science fiction story.

Following the “rise of the novel” (Watt) in the 18thcentury, the 19thcentury saw works written that are today still considered to be classic works of science fiction. Some prominent examples are Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and some of the stories by Edgar Allan Poe. However, the most famous science fiction writer of that time, maybe of all time, is H.G. Wells. Some of his most famous works are The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. His novels contain themes like an alien invasion, time travel, and biological engineering—all themes that are still explored in modern science fiction.

Perhaps more interesting is why science fiction has not yet failed to hold our attention, even though new technologies are nowadays sometimes so advanced that we’d think them to be straight out of a science fiction novel. One possible answer is that science fiction is always presenting possible change. Isaac Asimov put it as follows:

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be… Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today – but the core of science fiction, its essence… has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.

‘My Own View’ in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1978)

Asimov believes that science fiction can present solutions to (future) problems by imagining possible change. I think there is truth to this: science fiction writers have at times been eerily accurate in their predictions of the future. And while futuristic technologies or alternative societies often play crucial roles, at its core science fiction is always about big ideas. By providing a different framework for the story, it has the ability to recontextualize issues that are fundamental to our understanding of society and what it is to be human.

One famous novel that did precisely this is Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which was the literary source of Blade Runner). It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, complete with androids that can visually pass as humans. ‘World War Terminus’ has ruined the world’s atmosphere, leading to mass off-planet migration to preserve the human race. The protagonist of the story is on earth working as a bounty hunter who “retires” escaped androids. While the plot knows many other intricacies that would be too long to summarize here, the point I want to make about Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?is that as the plot unfolds, the protagonist comes to realize that not much separates humans from the super-advanced androids: the justification for killing them, namely that androids don’t have any empathy or emotion the same way humans do, unravels as the story progresses. At the core is the question of what it means to be human when faced with a mirror image of yourself: reminiscent of the Lacanian idea of the mirror stage, the novel can be argued to reflect on the uncertainty of the human condition in an ever-changing world. From there, it’s a short leap to a social argument: when faced with someone who we intellectually perceive to be different from us but who mirrors our humanity, how do we react?

Another example of science fiction’s alternative framework providing a space to reflect on big ideas is in the late Iain M. Banks’ series of novels (appropriately) named ‘The Culture Novels.’ These novels all center on a period in the history of a post-scarcity anarchic society called ‘The Culture.’ AI has advanced to an extreme degree, and the Culture itself is mostly a society existing in peace and harmony. I see the Culture as a success story in the excessive use of advanced artificial intelligence: artificial “minds” and humans are coexisting harmoniously. These novels thus offer a reflection on the ethics of artificial intelligence.

To me, both Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the Culture novels represent ways in which science fiction can, as Asimov believes, hypothesize on changes in human society and how to anticipate them. But even more than that, these works represent an out-of-the-box framework through which fundamental cultural, social and individual issues can be viewed. The most explicit aspect about science fiction is that there are no limits: anything that can be conceived of is fair game. I think that some of the problems society faces can only be solved by some serious out of the box thinking, and I think science fiction exists precisely in the space where big ideas live.

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Noémie Grandbois studied Political Science and English Language & Literature in Amsterdam.  She is particularly interested in literary theory.  She spends a lot of time reading and has a soft spot for science fiction and epic fantasy.  She writes in her free time and enjoys kicking a football around a couple of times a week.

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