The Cultural Gutter

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Even When They’re Wrong, They’re Right

James Schellenberg
Posted February 17, 2004

What is science fiction good for? One answer: to speculate on what the future might be like. But I would argue that the game of science fiction is only sometimes about predicting the future. Sure it’s fun to invent flying cars and moonbases, but as even these two examples show, the predictive track record of the genre is notoriously bad. The real year 2001 had relatively little spaceflight but rather astonishing advances like the Internet that even Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke didn’t imagine when they made their little movie nearly 40 years ago. In another famous example, Ray Bradbury’s book-burning society of Fahrenheit 451 has not yet come to exist (fingers crossed).

It’s Bradbury’s book, as a failure of prediction, which precisely illustrates why I think that science fiction is so important.


The main question of the genre has always been: how will we live as human beings? Fahrenheit 451 uses a what-if scenario, book-burning, to make us examine key issues about society, the price of freedom, and so forth. If we become complacent about intellectual liberty, we already know some of the psychological consequences, having been warned by Bradbury. Cautionary tales such as Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, and The Handmaid’s Tale have become well-known because of the force of their warnings, but they don’t need to come true to remain worth reading. It has been, after all, 20 years since the date Orwell forecasted for Big Brother, and we need the adjective “Orwellian” more than ever.

I would also argue that science fiction gets power from its entertainment value. A well-written story can grab our sympathies and make us forget everything else and return us to our life with a changed perspective. A superior story can take a serious issue and be memorable and informative and fun all at once. And the best works in the genre tend not to give definitive answers to these issues, but rather focus on dramatizing them. Some of the most essential questions frequently addressed in the genre:

•What does it mean to be human? A basic question, but one that gets more pertinent every day. Should we be cloning humans? Does an artificial intelligence have the same rights as us? How are our relationships affected by control over emotions and biology? Will corporate research into genetics lead to loss of freedom with regard to our bodies?

•What is the nature of reality? Another basic question. Can we trust our senses? If the computing power exists to create a seamless virtual reality, how would we distinguish it from real life? What do dreams mean?

•How should we deal with new technology? This question is perhaps not so interesting and is often dealt with by-the-by when sf stories talk about the first two questions. Will machines take over the world? Not likely, but it makes for an easy scare.

By addressing these questions, science fiction is a survival manual for the future. Not by way of exact prediction of what’s to come, but more by way of a constant examination and re-examination of this side and that side of an issue. What’s more, it’s fun to read!

Of course, not every sf book will live up to these lofty ideals. And different authors prefer to write a different mix of the profound and the entertaining. My reviews will try to measure how a particular book lives up to the possibilities of the genre and whether the author’s apparent goals have been fulfilled. All of my reviews will be based on the idea that science fiction is worth reading and evaluating.

Comments

3 Responses to “Even When They’re Wrong, They’re Right”

  1. Martha
    February 20th, 2004 @ 12:36 am

    The use value of sf, or any literature, is a big question.
    SF is also valuable because it comments on, and shows us the present, with some modifications to displace us and make us look at things anew. One sees the differences in the created worlds, before the similarities between scenarios depicted and our own lives. Aren’t they wrestling with the same existential issues that we do? (As Mr. Schellenberg pointed out). Why do so many aliens have two legs, two arms, a head with two eyes? Why would we assume life would evolve elsewhere as it has here, unless we are really wanting to talk about, and to know about, us?
    That future, and our present, even our past, get all mixed together. Don’t we already have the burning of books, the (shadows of) religiously-inspired, government control of woman and reproduction, and the oversight of Big Brother?
    SF is a space where new ways of thinking about now can be explored.

  2. Lt. Mike Raspberry
    February 20th, 2004 @ 4:26 pm

    I think we would be remiss if we didn’t also highlight the scientific aspect of SF. The genre at its best acts as a narrative laboratory where theoretical models (theories) are introduced and tested. True, Orwell and Bradbury never owned lab coats or wore pocket protectors (though their fans might), but they certainly conducted experiments. Like any good working scientist they began by asking themselves the enduring question – What if? What if books were banned? What if Big Brother always watched? Not only that but they theorized and wrote about potential outcomes. Readers meanwhile, acting as peer review, sat in judgment of these newly created possible worlds. Does that seem far-fetched? Could that ever happen? As it turns out the truly worthwhile SF writers in my mind are, not surprisingly, also those whose theories are most plausible given the evidence. Like our best physics, the best science fiction not only describes the present but also most accurately predicts the future. That has to be a good thing!! Now if we can only get the National Research Council of Canada to fund more Sci-Fi writers.

  3. sundre
    February 23rd, 2004 @ 12:21 pm

    Speculative fiction is multifunctional literature. It has so many worlds to work with. This one, the universe it’s in, and the universe next door, just to start with. And at its best, it is literature.
    Good fiction engages the reader. It stimulates, it thrills, it irritates, amuses, or delights. But great literature changes the reader. Science fiction challenges its audience. It asks questions, and demands answers and action. Prepare. Prevent. Make it happen. The future is only a moment away.
    I think it’s the promise of possibility that I find so seductive.

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