Saturday, March 11, 2006

Why Science Fiction?

The following is something I wrote for a class I took called "Themes in Science Fiction."
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The earliest stories of humanity were told in an attempt to understand the world around them. What is now considered our ancient mythologies were once religions; attempts to seek meaning in life and understanding in how the world works. I believe that science fiction and fantasy continues this tradition.

It is in science fiction and fantasy that we can convey our anxieties and fears about scientific progress, using our imaginations to probe the unthinkable. As Alan E. Nourse stated, science fiction is "[p]redominantly a speculative literature in which the reader is invited to ponder in some detail the effect that a given advance, change discovery , or technological breakthrough might have upon society as we know it and upon human beings as we know them.”

For example, what might happen if there was a nuclear war? What if the polar ice caps melted? What would we do if a killer virus devastated the population? Since humanity turns to technology to solve problems, it is only logical that we would write science fiction to speculate problems we might face, as well as how to fix them.

Science fiction is different from fantasy in that it tries to imagine the worlds that humanity might create by extrapolating and imagining the futures of existing research and technology. The difference between science fiction and fantasy is not necessary the story telling, but rather the methodology and the setting used to convey the themes.

I also like Harlan Ellison’s definition of science fiction:" Anything that deals in even the smallest extrapolative manner with the future of man and his societies, with the future of science and/or its effects on us, with fantasy as an interpretation of the realities with which we are forced to deal daily."

Often, when Olympic athletes are asked about the techniques they use to prepare for competition, they often talk about how they “imagine” themselves successfully, making that jump, achieving that pass, scoring that goal, etc. It turns out that this “mental preparation” helps contributes to the results of successful athletes. In a similar fashion, I think that is what science fiction is for society. It helps us ask questions about the future, mentally preparing us for the challenges that are to come.

However, as much as science fiction is used to explore the unthinkable, in creating new worlds, asking subversive and disturbing questions, I believe that part of the reason that it has such a bad reputation is that many science fiction writers focus on the ideas and the situations, sometimes to the detriment of plot, character, narration etc. (I can think of several “classic scifi books” that fit into this category). When academia teaches literature they focus on the techniques used to tell the story. A lot of times, I think this can be lacking in science fiction.

Regardless of how science fiction is perceived, I think it plays an essential part in helping our society plan for the future. Like others have said on the board, much of what was once science fiction is now science. Who would have thought that humanity could’ve gone to the moon? Or that we could “stop” light? Science fiction really is our future.

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