|Why society needs science fiction
Leaving the opera in the year 2000, by Albert Robida, 1882. Image credit: Albert Robida/Public domain.
1. What is science fiction?
Although there is no single accepted definition of science fiction, science fiction usually deals with worlds that differ from our own as the result of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, or different social systems. It then looks at the consequences of this change. Because of this broad definition, science fiction can be used to consider questions regarding science, politics, sociology, and the philosophy of the mind, as well as any questions about the future.
It is sometimes hard to distinguish science fiction from fantasy. This is because the definition of science has changed drastically over time, and as Arthur C. Clarke famously stated:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
One of the greatest astronomers of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler, had to invoke demons to explain how someone could travel to the Moon in his novel Somnium, and 18th century author Samuel Madden used angels to explain time travel from the year 1998.
2. A brief history of science fiction
Since there is no single accepted definition of science fiction, there is no way to say what constitutes the first science fiction story. Most religious texts and poems have elements that are also found in science fiction, especially those that describe the creation or destruction of the universe, and many Gods are associated with powers that science fiction has since utilised. Some ancient philosophical texts also have science fiction-like imagery, Plato's The Republic, for example, discusses realms that we cannot experience with our senses.
Throughout much of human history, society did not change rapidly enough for people to be able to envision a future that was different from their own. At the same time, many parts of the Earth remained unexplored, and this may be why many older science fiction novels were set in the present. Science fiction from this period is also more likely to address social rather than scientific problems, firstly because there was less science to utilise and secondly, because science fiction offered an ideal medium to make social comments that could not be published as fact.
The first novel to involve rocket powered space travel was written by author, and dualist, Cyrano de Bergerac in the mid-1600s, shortly after the Copernican revolution. In the 1700s, Voltaire discussed the Earth from the perspective of a super-advanced alien from another star system. In the 1800s, Mary Shelley warned of the dangers of science, Jules Verne depicted scientists as heroes, and H. G. Wells used science fiction to satirise society and make predictions about the future.
Wells' The World Set Free is perhaps the best example of prophetic science fiction. Published in 1914, Wells described a new type of bomb fuelled by nuclear reactions, he predicted it would be discovered in 1933, and first detonated in 1956. Physicist Leó Szilárd read the book and patented the idea. Szilárd was later directly responsible for the creation of the Manhattan Project, which led to nuclear bombs being dropped on Japan in 1945.
In first half of the 20th century, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell provided the first dystopian science fiction, inspired by the Russian Revolutions and two World Wars. In the last half of the century, science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, and Greg Egan explored the nature of reality and the human mind, through the creation of synthetic life and artificial realities.
Zombie apocalypses are currently popular in science fiction, and this might be because they represent the breakdown and rebuilding of society. This seems apt considering we are living in a time when people from all around the world are protesting against their governments. The gap between the rich and poor is higher than ever before, and we are undergoing a global recession.
There are numerous examples of books that have contributed to the history of science fiction, and these have been nicely summarised by artist Ward Shelley. Some of the best examples are given at the bottom of the article.
The History of Science Fiction (click to enlarge). Image credit: Ward Shelley/Copyrighted, used with permission.
3. Why science fiction is important
Science fiction is important for at least three reasons. Firstly, by considering worlds that are logically possible, science fiction can be used to explore our place in the universe and consider fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the mind. Books that explore these issues include Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott, Ubik by Philip K. Dick, and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke once described science fiction as "the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug".
Secondly, science fiction can inspire more people to become scientists. Edwin Hubble, who provided strong evidence for the big bang theory, and was the first person to prove that galaxies exist outside of the Milky Way, was inspired to become a scientist after reading Jules Verne novels. Astronomer, and science fiction author,Carl Sagan was influenced by Robert A. Heinlein, and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku enjoyed the television show Flash Gordon as a child.
Kaku stated that:
"years later, I began to realize that the two passions of my life - that is, physics and understanding the future are really the same thing - that if you understand the foundations of physics, you understand what is possible and you understand what could be just beyond the horizon".
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, science fiction is the only genre that depicts how society could function differently. This is the first step towards progress as it allows us to imagine the future we want, and consider ways to work towards it. It also makes us aware of futures we wish to avoid, and helps us prevent them.
Perhaps the most famous example of the positive effect of science fiction comes from the inclusion of a multiracial cast on the original Star Trek television series. When Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, was considering leaving the series, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to stay. King argued that her inclusion on Star Trek was important because, as a black woman, she helped represent a future people could aspire to, one where people were judged solely on the content of their character.
Shortly after, Nichols publically criticised NASA for only selecting white male astronauts, she was invited to NASA headquarters and asked to assist in convincing former applicants to reapply. This led to the selection of Sally Ride and Guion Bluford, who became NASA's first female and first black American astronauts respectively. NASA's first female black American astronaut, Mae Jemison, directly citied Star Trek as an influence, and later appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Mae Jemison. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.
In some ways, society has changed dramatically since Star Trek first aired in 1966, and many things that were once science fiction have already become reality: we have walked on the Moon, we have created clones, and synthetic life, and many people now have access to almost all human knowledge through a device that can fit in their pocket. Technology is progressing so fast that it is changing society, leading to unprecedented moral dilemmas and scientific challenges. This means that science fiction is more important now than ever.
As well as considering the effects of current and developing technologies, science fiction can help address long-term problems, such as global warming. It can help with the development of space exploration, and prepare us for problems we may not anticipate. One day, time travel, teleportation, or the genetic engineering of humansmay happen, we might communicate with aliens, invent simulated realities, or build intelligent robots, and we will be better prepared to deal with these, and other potential dilemmas, if we have already thought about them.
Scientist, and science fiction author, Isaac Asimov summarised the importance of science fiction in 1978, stating:
"It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be...Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.
Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence...has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all".
“Why Society Needs Science Fiction." http://www.thestargarden.co.uk. The Star Garden, 3 Apr. 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2016.