When Science Fiction Forgets the Future.

It’s much easier to add starships to contemporary society then portray what a future society that builds starships might really be like.

This is a blog about science fiction. But what is science fiction? To me:

Science Fiction is speculation about what can plausibly happen.

This element of plausibility is what that makes science fiction unique as a genera and separates it from fantasy. Unfortunately, if one actually expects that science fiction reflect a plausible future, the herd of science fiction works thins considerably. I don’t think many people actually notice this, or if they do, they may even think it is a good thing. I’ve heard it said many times that the best science fiction is actually about the present. In other words, science fiction is best used as a vessel to comment on present-day issues.

I couldn’t disagree more.

A preoccupation with the present prevents science fiction from being about the future. Instead of trying to create a plausible future, authors often drop conflicts, technology, and politics from today into a future setting so they can use them to drive their plot or hammer home a point.

In a popular SyFy show, for example, a major character dies of cancer.  On a starship. Now think about that for a second. Which is far more likely to come first? A cure for cancer or faster-than-light starships? The issue here is not the plausibility of the advanced technology depicted, but rather the implausible way that technology in other areas has inexplicably failed to advance. One can argue that technology doesn’t always progress in the way we expect, but that quickly becomes an excuse for lazy world-building in which technology doesn’t advance at all.

The same thing happens with social issues. Science fiction has the opportunity to consider society in new ways, but instead it often rehashes contemporary narratives. Some societal issues are enduring, yes, but every era has a different take on those universal issues, and sometimes even a formerly “universal” issue can disappear. Would we still care about racism, for example, in a world when people could change bodies like they change clothes? Would we still care about the environment when we no longer need the earth to survive? Those answers cannot be taken for granted.

Of course, imagining all facets of a future society is not an easy thing to do. It’s much easier to simply add starships to modern society then to think about what a future society that can build starships would actually look like. But this is no more than a lack of imagination. Or worse: a refusal of imagination. Backed up by the idea that science fiction should be about the present, authors tend to avoid writing about profound changes to society or suggesting that today’s problems may actually be solved. Instead, they take cues from currently popular ideas, and transplant them into the future.

This a lamentable failure. Science fiction should transcend the present. It can show us the universe from a new perspective. It can give us hindsight in advance. It can show us that today’s problems can be solved and can address the new, different issues that may take their place. Those issues will be just as important as the ones we face now.

The best science fiction is about the future. But that doesn’t mean that science fiction cannot have meaning for us today. Quite the opposite. By thinking about how things may change, we can discover what is permanent, what we can hold onto, and what doesn’t really matter in the end. By looking ahead, we can see what we could become. And as a result, see more clearly what we truly are.

 

Thanks for reading! What do you think? Come back soon for my discussion of Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

 

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