Alien contact, artificial intelligence, ground-breaking technologies, intergalactic empires, the salvation of humanity, or its destruction: these are the tenets of the vast and multi-faceted genre that is science fiction. Beginning with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the early 19th century, science fiction has challenged the notions of humanity’s progress, purpose, and morality in an attempt to understand our future. Defining what exactly science fiction is would warrant an investigation unto itself, but for now here is a straightforward definition I am content with.
“Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.”- Isaac Asimov
My personal engagement with the science fiction genre has undergone an enormous change in the last year. I have always been a big fan of science fiction media, but previously found myself in a deep funk of dissatisfying content, so shifted my attention elsewhere. This love-hate relationship with sci-fi continued for many years until I hit gold in the form of Extra Credits’ Extra Sci-Fi youtube series. I diligently follow their videos, which details the history and development of science fiction as a genre, in concise and engaging episodes. This, alongside recommendations from friends, has guided me towards better understanding and appreciating the genre, and showing me what to read and where I should start. Since then it has been off to the proverbial races, having devoured some 20 novels in the past year, with many more on the horizon.
“..science fiction is something that could happen – but usually you wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though often you only wish that it could.” – Arthur C. Clarke
All fiction presents varying distortions of reality. What separates sci-fi from conventional fiction is a focus on the implications of those differences to reality. What would happen if technology could prolong our lives indefinitely, or alien life was discovered in our solar system? These altered realities represent logical or illogical hopes and fears we have for our own future. The aim of good science fiction is to extrapolate these ideas and give them a more tangible form. These concepts can seem quite removed and bizarre in isolation, but manifested within a rich and captivating world, full of interesting and relatable characters, and explored within a riveting plot, these ideas becomes much more relatable and engaging.
An underlying focus on real world science is another important aspect of science fiction as a genre. Though not all science fiction strictly adheres to conventional science, outlining and defining the parameters of what is possible within the realms of the novel is important. A certain amount of disbelief must be suspended in almost all science fiction, but that is imperceptible in well written pieces. To use one of my favourite novels of the last year as an example, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion takes place seven centuries in the future and features dazzling technologies, such as farcaster portals that allow instantaneous travel light years away, imposing and highly deadly weaponry, organically developed androids, and the next step in the evolution of artificial intelligence. At first I was a little put off by the more fantastical aspects of the novel, but quickly became absorbed in the extremely engaging world. I didn’t question how a Hawking Drive worked or the logistics of a ships internal gravity field because it wasn’t something I was being asked to question and was not the focus of the book. Little exposition was needed to explain the technologies because they simply existed within the world seamlessly, playing a supporting role to the plot and main concepts in the novel. Though set within a vast and surreal universe, a heavy focus on the real world remains, which quite literally pulls us back to Earth. I will certainly be returning to Hyperion at a later date because it is far too good not to discuss.
“How inappropriate to call this planet “Earth,” when it is clearly “Ocean.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“Science is magic that works.”- Kurt Vonnegut
Returning to this notion of real world science heavily impacting science fiction, it is interesting to know that the reverse has often times been true. The bold and unbound ideas of authors (many of whom had experience within scientific fields themselves) have given inspiration to countless budding scientists and researchers, and paved the way for concepts and technologies never before thought possible. Arthur C. Clarke (author of Childhoods End and 2001: A Space Odyssey) first proposed some groundbreaking theories on satellites 20 years prior to their real world invention. In honour of his contributions to the field, the satellite orbit which he first proposed is named the Clarke Orbit. Isaac Asimov (author of Foundation and I: Robot) quite literally wrote the book on robotics and created the framework for research within robotics and artificial intelligence. His famous Three Laws of Robotics are somewhat removed from contemporary robots and A.I, but do still impact modern discussions of ethics within artificial intelligence. William Gibson’s seminal work of cyberpunk fiction Neuromancer conceived the idea of the World Wide Web, or Cyberspace. “A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation…” This concept, first published in 1984 eerily prophesises our modern engagement with the internet. Nearly every facet of our life is mediated via a connection with a broader web of information, both privately and commercially. Though the theoretical environment of cyberspace is not able to be navigated in the same way as in Neuromancer, advances in virtual reality technology make this notion all the more plausible.
“Science Fiction has never really aimed to tell us when we might reach other planets, or develop new technologies, or meet aliens. SF speculates about why we might want to do these things, and how their consequences might affect our lives and our planet.” – John Clute
This deeply rooted connection to reality underpins the themes and tone of most every science fiction novel. Despite how outlandish or removed from reality any story may seem, they are born of real world concepts, both in substance and in style. To give just a few examples, early works of science fiction from H.G Wells or Jules Verne blend romantic literary traditions with the impact of newly developing technologies to provide commentary on how industrialisation and modernity may influence humanity. ‘Golden Age Science Fiction’ such as the works of Clarke, Heinlein, Bester and Asimov reflect the prosperity and optimism of the 1940s-50s. This period also heralded a shift in literary style from simplistic and comic-bookesque novels, to serious and esteemed works of fiction. WW2 was over, and the exploration of space and beyond was a question of when, not if. The stars were within our grasp and there seemed no limit to how far technology could project man into the future. As a response to this positivism, the focus of science fiction media shifted towards the disparity between the future humanity hoped for and the future projected from the 1960s,70s and 80s. Technology had not benefited civilization as desired, and had even degraded our sense of humanity and quality of life. Pollution, overpopulation, hyper-capitalism, and fears of technology spiralling beyond our control inspired the aforementioned William Gibson, among many others. He presented a world where life is cheap, violent, and heavily altered by technology, with a focus on existence within an artificial reality. This blurring of the virtual world and reality remains a prominent theme in more contemporary science fiction media. The fictional concepts of true artificial intelligence and immersive, indistinguishable virtual realities have become more real than ever. Is this a result of independent scientific progression, or the fulfilment of our own fictional prophecies?
Understanding the influences upon science fiction media is also important in gauging its shortcomings. The genre at large is dominated by white, male, middle-upper-class, westernised authors, so is at times limiting in scope with regards to civilization at large. Subtle or overt misogyny and an underrepresentation of minorities are also present at times. This is due in part to outdated social norms of the respective time, but also due to the readership of the genre, which has also been largely that of white, western men. These limitations do not rule out the genre entirely, but should be reflected upon within this context. Once again, we see the cultural and political changes of civilization reflected within science fiction media. Female authors such as Ursala K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler hold esteemed positions within the genre and break this somewhat archaic mould of authors, providing a more balanced representation of women and minorities within science fiction.
Another common criticism of the genre is a poor characterisation, even within highly regarded works. This is perhaps more true for earlier Sci-fi, and ties in with my previous criticism. The vast majority of protagonists are white males with the corresponding goals and motivations of a typical white male of the 1930s-40s. The man saves the day in manly style and gets the reward of the space woman he deserves. This is an inescapable criticism, so I personally take the validity of such pieces of fiction with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it is important to understand these origins when considering the history and evolution of the genre. However, the generalisation of poor characterisation within science fiction can be attributed to the underlying focus of the novels in question. Take Asimov’s Foundation series as an example: the characters within can seem simplistic and somewhat of a cardboard cut-out. This is because the focus of the series is much less about the actions of individuals than chronicling the rise and fall of a galactic empire spanning thousands of years. So naturally, individuals become a little insignificant within such a broad concept.
The simplistic nature of some characters within science fiction is in fact a strength at times. Having a very ordinary and relatable character within extraordinary circumstances makes a concept all the more profound. The plausibility of space travel or the notion of highly advanced technologies seems all the more likely when we can see parts of ourselves within such circumstances. Take Gully Foyle from Alfred Bester’s acclaimed The Stars my Destination: he is an extremely simple and ordinary man pushed beyond all limits in his quest for vengeance. Though dangerous, immoral and out of control, his motivations are simple, but very much human, despite the far flung futuristic setting. It is precisely because Gully represents the nobody and the everyman that his story is all the more profound. No matter how advanced civilization may seem, the potential held within the willpower and determination of man will transcend time and space.
Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. …Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don’t know what they’re talking about.” – Ray Bradbury
Returning to Isaac Asimov, i would like to touch on another important idea he conceived in his Foundation series, which has had an immense impact upon the history and future of the genre. His fictional concept of ‘psycho history’ combines sociology, history, and mathematics as a way to predict the broads strokes of the future for very large groups of people. With a great enough understanding of human history, social structures and probabilities, humanity can identify and forecast the future of civilization, and therefore manipulate it. Though the example given within Foundation is in regards to a vast galactic empire, the notion of psychohistory is still deeply profound and applicable to our own reality. No divining or prophesying is needed to predict and change the future, only an objective self awareness of mankind and history, and the correct application of intelligence and resources, both of which are within our real world means. I believe most every science fiction piece encapsulates this idea to an extent. The past and present of any authors time are distilled into a projection of the future, as a warning for things to come, to highlight and comment upon contemporary issues, or as an embodiment of aspirations for mankind. Though the work of some authors may appear dated and bound to the past, the worth of such ideas is not diminished by that fact. All are incorporated into the history and evolution of the genre, as with human civilization. How and why Clarke, Heinlein, Wells and Dick wrote about the future within their respective times is integral in understanding how we define our own notions of the present and future.
Finally, I would like to finish on the notions of humanism and higher meaning within science fiction. At its core, sci-fi is a challenge to classic concepts of purpose and meaning in life. Man is in control of his own destiny, for better or worse. This may seem a troubling thought to some, but to me it is one filled with hope. Dangers in the future certainly do exist, but the overwhelming feeling I take from science fiction is that humanity will prevail. Despite the odds against the survival of humanity and our unimaginable insignificance in the face of the universe, we still prosper and strive for greatness. Armed only with our intelligence, ingenuity and tenacity, we face the mysteries of the future alone. The existence of a purpose or meaning to life outside of our universe is also a sobering yet exciting one. What are the implications of unravelling the secrets of the universe? This question nobody can answer, though I can say for sure that no matter the outcome it will not deny the worth of humanity.