Preparing for the worst or hoping for the best?: Science-fiction in modern times
Max Shepherd discusses why science fiction might be the literary genre that is best equipped to deal with a world in crisis.
For over 200 years now, science-fiction (sci-fi) has played a central role in shaping how the public thinks about the possible futures that scientific advancements could bring. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) was one of the first popular works of fiction to speculate about what science could achieve, and whether these achievements would necessarily be a good thing. More than simply being one of the first, however, Frankenstein’s importance also stems from its demonstration that sci-fi can be more than just pulp fiction. In fact, the genre has produced some of the most imaginative and well written works of literature of modern times. As philosophical thought experiments, sci-fi novels are unrivalled in their scope of enquiry.
Sci-fi writers allow themselves to tackle issues that other genres cannot
By throwing off the shackles of contemporary scientific possibilities, sci-fi writers allow themselves to tackle issues that other genres cannot, or tackle well-trodden concepts from a new angle. In George Orwell’s 1984 – probably the most famous work of dystopian sci-fi – the theme of totalitarianism is explored in the context of technologically advanced mass surveillance and propaganda. Obviously inspired by the Soviet and Nazi regimes Orwell had witnessed rise to power, the author invites readers to consider what a future controlled by police states would look like and subsequently encourages readers to do everything in their power to make sure such a world never comes into being. Though totalitarianism was a stark reality when 1984 was released, the technology in the book certainly was not. In 1949, Orwell’s idea of the ‘Telescreen’ – a two-way television used by the state to watch and listen to citizens in their homes – seemed utterly fantastical. Yet, today we are living with the reality that our phones and computers are not only constantly monitoring, analysing and influencing our everyday lives, but can literally be turned into secret cameras and microphones by the state or tech-savvy criminals if they so wish. Without Orwell bringing issues like tech-facilitated mass surveillance into the public consciousness years before its arrival, who knows where we would be today in terms of critique and resistance.
But sci-fi has done more than prophesise about the future, it has on occasion actually influenced technological innovation. The most notorious example of this is H.G. Wells’ 1914 novel The World Set Free, in which scientists create massively destructive weapons called ‘atomic bombs’ that utilise radioactive material. The book was acknowledged as an inspiration for the discovery of the nuclear chain reaction by Leo Szilard, who later worked on the Manhattan project which resulted in the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Though a grim example, and undoubtedly not what Wells intended when he wrote the positively anti-war novel, The World Set Free illustrates the huge potential impact of the genre and also the key difference between Sci-fi and fantasy. Sci-fi deals in the improbable whilst fantasy exclusively deals in the impossible. Wells’ atomic bomb has already come to fruition but there are other sci-fi inventions that are still on the horizon. Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘HAL 9000’ supercomputer- who gains sentience at the great misfortune of the humans aboard its spaceship- seems a much closer prospect than it did in 1968 when 2001: A Space Odyssey was published. In pushing the laws of science to their absolute limit, sci-fi writers can create worlds that both ignite the imagination and give serious food for thought. Is the genetic modification of humans a good idea? What would a society without gender look like? What would first contact with aliens be like given humanity’s (or more specifically Europeans’) previous behaviour when encountering uncontacted indigenous groups?
The best sci-fi does not only hypothesise about the science and technology of the future but also its social impacts.
As alluded to in the questions above, the best sci-fi does not only hypothesise about the science and technology of the future but also its social impacts. The works of Ursula Le Guin are a particularly good example of this. Heavily influenced by cultural anthropology, feminism, and Taoism, her stories cover themes of race, gender, sexuality, and colonialism to name a few. Le Guin’s utopian novel The Dispossessed explores a world in which an anarcho-socialist colony settles on the moon of a planet dominated by capitalism. Rather than a classic utopia, the colony is shown to be imperfect and materially poor compared to the capitalist world below, yet ethically and morally it is far more advanced. The novel was credited with aiding the return of anarchism to the intellectual mainstream and transcended the sci-fi genre to gain universal literary acclaim.
Sci-fi – whether it is dystopian, utopian or somewhere in between – can give us glimpses of what could be. Providing us with some warning and maybe even the impetus to work towards a future we actually want. Current world events may seem to have a touch of the sci-fi about them, and indeed there have been many sci-fi novels relating to plagues and pandemics, including Mary Shelly’s The Last Man (1826). As you may gather from the title, the tale is rather bleak, and one hopes it does not turn out to be prophetic. Yet on some level it is somewhat comforting to know that whatever happens, there has probably been a sci-fi book written about it. In a world where perpetual change is being accelerated by ever improving technology, it is important to have people like sci-fi writers speculating about what might come next, because it is never as far away as you think.