Science fiction has been able to grab the attention of many humans; although usually consumed as more visual appealing and stylized films and television series, it is safe to say that the genre has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment.
Being entertained is one thing, but can a genre go beyond that and help us envision totally different futures?
The things we consume, whether that is popular culture or fast food – what our society values have consequences for the future. At face value it doesn’t seem very interesting maybe; we usually assume that is naturally how things have progressed. However, everything we know of our modern day culture has been developed through an on-going historical process.
In the Middle Ages for example, the Church championing Christianity was the dominant force that dictated what people would be participating in as a culture. During the Crusades the obsession with hunting witches permeated every corner of Europe, producing a body of knowledge that shrouded literature. Literature that was so certain about the presence of magic and witches like Demomania, Compendium Maleficarum and Malleus Maleficarum, which described the proper torture techniques to extract a confession from a suspected “witch”, were all used to justify the brutal violence inflicted against non-conformers.
The point is that culture is a feedback loop which cannot be isolated from a society that produced it and a society is also influenced by cultural production.
To stress this, John Fiske, media scholar, writes that “the way we make sense of a realistic text is through the same broad ideological frame as the way we make sense of our social experience or rather, the way we are made sense of by the discourses of our culture.”
Science fiction has also influenced science in the real world. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was influenced by the knowledge she knew about scientists’ vague dreams about human anatomy, which could have inspired or deterred those who upheld the science that created Frankenstein.
Arthur C. Clarke as a fiction and non-fiction writer was able to popularze the idea of space travel, giving scientists a prototype to imagine. Although it is hard to pinpoint where the theory originated, it is important to note that space travel has become a normalized convention within science fiction, as well as in the real world, although there is still a gap between what is possible in the books and in reality.
Le Guin has written that “All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life – science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”
Orwell’s 1984, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale and Le Guin’s The Telling are less described as futuristic fictions and more of social commentaries these days, giving readers an opportunity to consider the probable future that book burning has contributed to. The control of knowledge has become a trope in most science fiction writing, which has also become a real fear, or vice versa.
In the 1960s and ‘70s the radical feminist separatist movement were producing literature which explored the solutions to gender through utopias without men. Science fiction was the obvious genre to dream up such a world by needing to explain how it is possible to reproduce a species without men.
Could there be a connection of the failure of the separatist movement and science fiction’s ability to expose the weaknesses in such a political program? Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is one novel that weaves a complex story of sexual equality and utopianism by writing about past cultures that were at odds with each other.
The Wanderground, the Female Man, the Eye of the Heron and other titles were able to create different narratives of futures that were able to help imagine why separatism could have been a good “idea”, but would likely create a world that reinforced the same problems such as hierarchy, domination and violence based on the biological essentializing of gender.
Trans-humanist thinking has also had a similar feedback loop with cultural production. Trans-humanism has been a cultural and intellectual movement towards technological improvements to the human body. Artificial intelligence has not only been an intriguing literary device, but it is being created in the real world. Countless sci-fi stories have attempted to depict a future where technology is our saving grace. This isn’t too far off from our current western cultural practices – plastic surgery fixes, augmented reality, genetically modified food, animals and cloning all suggest that science has become our new god as we blindly worship progress.
Science fiction in the written form can bring possibilities to the table of what we could become as humans on our current path – immortal through scientific achievement. Trans-humanist science has overshadowed those with more heroic goals of fixing what is currently wrong with human society – feeding the world with healthy food, sustainable transportation and curing diseases. Science fiction writers have been able to speak freely about cautionary tales of science going terribly wrong. There are countless stories where artificial intelligence fails to meet utopian standards – I, Robot, Brave New World, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the latter inspiring the film Blade Runner), just to name a few that make us think twice if we actually want to live in a world where we have mechanical slaves, genetically altered lives and mood altering machines.
Challenging assumptions about the world as we know it is one reason why we cannot disregard critical cultural production, especially science fiction, which gives us vivid details of the shape of things to come.
From cyborgs to colonizing other planets, science fiction writers create a diversity of ways to imagine the future.
Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn talk about the “cognitive estrangement” that occurs when something in the fictive world is dissonant with the reader’s experienced world. Similar to cognitive dissonance, it creates anxiety between two competing beliefs, values, and ideas when there is a gap between expectations and reality. An example of this is someone’s knowledge of the environmental damage, health risks and suffering involved with consuming animal products, yet they continue to do so, often creating feelings of frustration, hunger, dread, guilt, anger, embarrassment or anxiety
While I am no literary scholar, I thought it was useful to consider a large difference between science fiction and fantasy genres and how they help us cognitively think differently about the world we live in. While the two are compatible and most fans of Star Trek can easily love Lord of the Rings, the ability for science fiction to envision solutions to problems in our world is perhaps more probable, due to the genre logically explaining how to get there scientifically.
Fredric Jameson in Archaeologies of the Future discusses Utopian texts, writing that “the most reliable political test lies not in any judgment on the individual work in question so much as in its capacity to generate new ones.” This may be true of dystopic visions of the future as well.
Sunka Simon in Women as Biocontrol: Rereading Donna Haraway through German Science Fiction writes that in the climate in Germany during the cold war created anxieties where young people did not feel part of the left or right politically and philosophically. They began to write science fiction which reflected a dystopic reality most people were expecting to happen at any time.
Not much has changed in terms of the dystopic genre, where literature like World War Z, the Hunger Games and Sector 9 have all become blockbuster hits; but their political consciousness has a rather dull edge.
To sharpen that edge, there are important theoretical approaches to understanding science fiction. Not to scare you off, but theoretical thinking is pretty essential our daily lives. It’s a way to generalize the world we experience, relating a new situation to an old one to see patterns and predict things that will likely happen next. Ultimately, theory helps us understand the way things work.
In literary criticism, critical theory is compatible. Critical theory is interdisciplinary in nature, seeking to uncover pathways towards liberation from domination and oppression. So, there are people writing about science fiction through a critical lens, and writers who are incorporating critical theories into their stories, providing a growing body of knowledge in scholarship and fiction.
Science fiction read as post-colonial also imagines futures that go beyond the pervasive scientific world-view, and how we negotiate identities after imperialism.
Novels like A Door into Ocean create a complex narrative that goes beyond simple equal-rights feminism and separatism. In Reading Science Fiction, Jane Donawerth, writes that the author of A Door into Ocean, Slonczewski, “imagines the human ability to adapt to new circumstances, as the solution.”
Donawerth goes on to say that women writing science fiction have been able to imagine worlds where gender is complicated beyond dominance and submission.
Feminist cultural production is also more complicated than just thinking about women being equal to men. Liberal feminism has invaded most mainstream cultural production, creating stories that define liberation as women entering CEO positions, rather than seeking a deeper analysis of what liberation means. Science fiction can also fall into this trap, but for the most part, it seems that science fiction writers are maybe better at exploring theoretical problems because the writing is so diverse, similar to feminism.
Science fiction that can be read as feminist has also stressed the importance in scholarship and in narrative about the diversity of voices that allow the reader to approach their own conclusions.
So, can a genre go beyond entertaining and help us imagine totally different futures? Sure, why not? It is up to us with what we consume, but the better theoretical blueprint we have; the better it is to navigate the unpaved road. Writers who use openness allow readers to come to their own conclusions about the stories, and it’s up to the readers whether they put down the book and do something amazing.