Wednesday 27 May 2015

It's Not Just Robots! Why We Need Science Fiction

There seems to be a prevalent belief that if it contains robots, spaceships, or aliens, then it's science fiction, and that is all science fiction really is.

The truth is that science fiction need not have any of those things in it, and just because a book, film, or television show contains them it doesn't necessarily mean it's best placed in the science fiction genre.

Star Wars is possibly the best known and most divisive example of that; it's mostly fantasy, but with many science fiction elements which — funnily enough — all fall squarely into the robots, spaceships, and aliens category. The story itself combines two fantasy tropes: "The Hero's Journey" and "The War Between Good and Evil". Everything else is window dressing, and the actual story would probably suffer no ill effects if it were set in Middle Earth instead of a galaxy far, far away.

So how do we tell if something is science fiction, and what use is it anyway?

What is Science Fiction?

Science fiction is, at its heart, a journey into humanity. Its core principles can be summed up as the exploration of human thoughts and emotions as they might unfold in out-of-the-ordinary circumstances. Usually, those circumstances are depicted as events which have a naturalistic or scientifically explainable root cause, but which are considered to be normally outside the typical human experience.

This journey might manifest itself in different ways. We might be introduced to a character whose hubris unleashes a power beyond their control (Frankenstein, Forbidden Planet), and then follow their efforts to put the genie back inside the bottle. Or the tale might deal with the reactions of a population facing their mortality (2012, Independence Day, The Abyss). You might consider films like Battle Royale to be science fiction, because they address a "what if...?" scenario by exploring how technology and extreme social engineering impact on different groups of individuals. There are any number of possibilities, and shows like The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone have explored many of them in bite-sized pieces, as have anthologies of short stories from many a science fiction writer.

You'll notice that one of those examples includes robots and spaceships, and two of them include spaceships and aliens. But those elements are largely incidental — the examples need not have involved them in order to fall under the umbrella of science fiction.

Consider for example the novel The Death of Grass. In it, the author has the world's grass species (including many types of agricultural crops) falling prey to a devastating virus which spreads quickly across the world. The book is not about the virus or a fight against it with the weapons of science; it's about the actions and reactions of the characters in a world where food is about to become so scarce that people will eventually resort to eating each other.

In fact, the book might well have used adverse climate conditions to kill off our crops, instead of a virus, and it would still fall inside the realm of science fiction. Why? Because it would still be exploring human states by placing the characters in naturalistic circumstances which shift them out of their social, economic, psychological, emotional, and basic survival comfort zones.

A standard premise for beginning to pen a science fiction story is "what would happen if...?" But that premise is just a very basic template. To really produce something in the science fiction arena, the writer needs to get inside the guts of the story and start asking more questions:
  • What effects would this have on the world, and on the people in it?
  • How would most people react?
  • Will the characters react differently?
  • What moral issues or dilemmas would arise?
  • Could the solution be worse than the problem?

Questions like that are what start a story moving into true science fiction territory.

Why do we need it?

Simply put: because we are already on that journey, and to some degree we always have been and always will be.

Great science fiction writers of the past, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, not only predicted events and technologies which have come to pass, they also posed questions about the human condition which still have relevance today. They even asked questions in their fiction which have not yet been answered, but which we will probably have to face at some stage.

One of the advantages of us being able to read and write science fiction is this: it's a grand thought experiment. Although we desperately need it, we don't yet have any kind of infrastructure in place for making decisions as a species. But what we do have is a means of testing ideas and reactions within the greatest sample group known to exist: everyone.

Let's use technological examples to illustrate this idea. Concepts such as the mobile phone and the internet probably would have arisen eventually anyway (their sheer usefulness as utilities cannot be denied), but how much longer would it have taken without the impetus provided by science fiction? Of all the people who thought the flip-style communicators* seen in Star Trek were pretty neat, chances are a good number of them helped bring about the portable, personal communications device as a result of being exposed to the idea of what might be. Those people need not even have been designers or investors or CEOs — any product needs a market, so even the thought "I would definitely pay for that" can help bring something into the world.

The questions posed in science fiction can also prepare us for questions posed in the real world. Stories that deal with ideas like the unpredictable effects of wholesale human cloning will arm us with the caveats and insights we will need to know about when the technology first rears its head. We will already have some idea of the knock-on effects and moral conundrums ahead of time, and this will influence society directly. While it's true to say that real-world laws and conventions should not be based on fiction, it's also true to say that fiction can open doors within the mind to ethical and logistical solutions that would otherwise never have been considered.

Then of course there is the "stark warning" element. Films such as Gattaca play with the extreme social effects which might arise from a particular way of using technologies which are — in essence — already in existence. The cautionary tale is indeed a staple of science fiction, but the word "fiction" should never fool us into believing that the dangers therein cannot be real.

In short, science fiction is a guidebook to things to come. We are on an unending journey, as a civilisation and as a species, and we need to know what might be waiting for us on the road ahead.

* I realise the Star Trek people almost certainly didn't come up with this concept, but it's probably the earliest, most massively popular media which pushed the idea.

1 comment:

  1. The term "science fiction" has become corrupted as SF has become more popular. This is not to say that there has not always been bad science fiction. But what do readers care these days? Many get the science wrong in discussions about a book even though it is correct in the story. But good SF can make science more interesting than science teachers.

    Omnilingual (1957) by H. Beam Piper

    We may not need more SF stories. Just tell the kids about all of the good ones.