When Science Asks, “What If?”

Featured Blogger / by Claire L. Evans /

The visions of tomorrow inspire the actions we take today. Science fiction is as much a reflection of society's deep fascination with science as it is an agent of change for its future course.

In 1984, William Gibson coined a word—“cyberspace”—and used it in a science fiction novel. At the time, few people had a concept of what such a term could mean. And yet, thanks to Gibson’s use of it, especially in his epochal cyberpunk book Neuromancer, “cyberspace” gradually gained enough cultural credence to become the de facto name for the emerging World Wide Web.

Today we unthinkingly use the word to refer to an everyday experience that didn’t even exist when Neuromancer was penned—but one which is arguably similar to Gibson’s vision of a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators.” Of course, it’s unclear whether Gibson primed the pump for the widespread acceptance of advanced communications technologies, or if he merely pointed out the tip of an iceberg ready to emerge from the waters of a high-tech subculture.

What is clear is that science fiction plays an essential role in the dissemination and popularization of science’s most nascent and speculative concepts. In the 1980s, when we were introduced to a fictional “cyberspace,” we digested the idea to the point of banality, and in the process unwittingly prepared ourselves for massive cultural and technological change.

Does our collective dreaming, our technolust, and our romance for the stars shape the way we understand future scientific advances? More importantly, can it change the future?

In a word, yes.

Ever since the 19th-century scientific dreams of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, science fiction has been a future-changing medium. Although its role is not necessarily to be prophetic, it often fulfills its own predictions in surprising ways. We literally live in a science-fictional world. Ideas that seemed like ludicrous fantasies in sci-fi’s “golden age” of the 1950s have long since become reality: geosynchronous communications satellites, famously dreamed up by Arthur C. Clarke; Karel Capek’s “robots,” first concocted in 1920; or cloning and neuro-enhancing pharmaceuticals, the subject of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World from 1931.

It may even be that the romances presented by sci-fi authors—such as Clarke’s and Kapek’s inventions and the techno-dystopias of 1980s cyberpunk—mellowed the sting of cultural change. Those stories turned the unloved margins of scientific research and the Gordian complexity of computer engineering into things that can be more easily understood, related to, or even romanticized. They have allowed us to dream about new realities, and to feel invested in science even if (and when) we don’t understand it. By seeing a version of the future worked out in the incubator of sci-fi, we can begin to appreciate the myriad possibilities of science—as well as explore the potential negatives of its unintended consequences.

Courtesy of Claire L. Evans

Sci-fi narratives articulate our current global concerns in convincing—and often dramatic—ways. Although hyperbolic, recent blockbusters WALL-E and Avatar wrestle with the very real issues of sustainability, scarcity, and ecosystem collapse, as did the landmark novel Ecotopia a generation previous. Brave New World (and the H.G. Wells story that inspired it, Men Like Gods) along with countless other sci-fi plots, attempts to reconcile the vast promise of science—cognitive enhancement, gene therapy, artificial intelligence—with important ethical and social considerations inherent in their potential. Stitched into the fantasy worlds of almost all good science fiction are reflective threads that mirror and confront some of the greatest challenges of our time. Such considerations signal a movement toward increased responsibility, especially among the youngest generations, for thinking critically about the future. As the critic Robert Scholes wrote, “to live well in the present, to live decently and humanely, we must see into the future.”

Imagining our future changes our perspective. As such, science fiction has long provided its writers remarkable leverage for political and social commentary. Some craft it more incisively than others—the bulk of 1950s Western sci-fi could be summed up with the statement, “the aliens are Russians.” And yet, throughout its short history, science fiction has touched on practically every major sociopolitical theme throughout world history. When the writers of classic Star Trek episodes created conflicts between the polyester-suited crew of the Enterprise and a rotating cast of alien life, the subtext was immediate: race relations, Cold-War fears, and American imperialism. What kind of long-term effect this had on the political consciousness of its watchers is difficult to judge, but such engagement with complicated social issues is not a rarity in the genre; it’s the norm.

The best art takes our fears, hopes, and anxieties and frames them in a form that provides long-lasting meaning and value. Critics largely ignore these qualities in sci-fi, disregarding it as “genre” fiction in the domain of Harlequin romances and “true crime” novels. While many people love science fiction, as the pedigrees of some of the top-grossing movies of all time attest, much fewer consider it to be a potential vessel for long-lasting value.

The problem is that many negative misconceptions about sci-fi are at least partly true. It is a form that traditionally privileges story over style. A great deal of science fiction is schlocky, impenetrable, or innocuous. All of this is true—and yet totally irrelevant. As the writer and critic Damon Knight once noted, “if science fantasy has to date failed to produce much great literature, don’t blame the writers who have worked in the field; blame those who, out of snobbery, haven’t.” 

And after that blame has been passed, look again. In sci-fi, ideas often take precedence over form, which can be a great advantage. It is, after all, a literature of ideas—wild ideas that infect the world with wonder, speculation, and the shock of estrangement. On my sagging bookshelf of paperbacks, I have androids, floating ecosystems in space, secret drugs, tyrannical computers, and body-snatchers. I have one million years of the future, sentient clouds, and talking newts. I have entire experimental worlds, rich with notions that are as independent from the mainstream lexicon as they are unencumbered by its literary norms.

We can’t overestimate the merits of science fiction—nor its ability to affect the world. Isaac Asimov observed that, “science-fiction writers and readers didn’t put a man on the Moon all by themselves, but they created a climate in which the goal of putting a man on the Moon became acceptable.” Are we to assume that writers will not continue to create such climates? What will the next “cyberspace” be, or the next Moon landing, and who will invent it? Science-fiction writers in the year 2050 will be imagining the year 3000, and beyond, and so on. It’s a living, breathing tradition that informs the very world it critiques, inventing new myths, words, and realities just as we catch up to its old ones. Our greatest science-fiction writers feed the future with speculation as we move towards it, and we are all better off for considering what they have to say.

Originally published January 18, 2010

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