In past columns, I've discussed the poor public image of science fiction literature. For some reason, it's OK for people to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to watch Jedi fighting Sith Lords on a movie screen but—yikes!—don't get caught reading a Star Wars book on the bus! OK, perhaps that's not as true today as it used to be years ago, but there is a stigma associated with science fiction by casual mainstream readers. Science fiction is not considered to be "serious" literature, they say. It's only escapist entertainment that kids read, the thinking goes.
Those are silly notions, of course. Literary snobs would do well to consider adding science fiction books into their reading diet. (I even showed them how.) Science fiction is just another type of literature and is just as powerful as any other form of literature. In fact, science fiction is uniquely positioned to do things that other forms of literature cannot. Simply put: science fiction matters.
The Purpose of Science Fiction
Why does science fiction matter? To answer that, it helps to understand what science fiction achieves.
Project Hieroglyph, a group dedicated to envisioning through collaboration how technology can positively affect humankind, recently published an essay that asks What Is the Purpose of Science Fiction Stories? It discusses why writers create science fiction and why readers consume it. The author of the piece, PhD engineering student Zak Berkson, has an impressively firm grasp on the power that science fiction singularly has over forms of literature. It's a worthwhile read and I encourage you to go read the piece.
Berkson is quick to note that science fiction is not about predicting the future. I couldn't agree more. Science fiction is more about examining the present by removing us from it so that we look back upon it as outsiders. At the same time, science fiction inspires others to create those futures. Contrary to popular belief, science fiction isn't prediction; it's inspiration.
Berkson also notes that readers come to science fiction for different reasons. Escapist entertainment is one. A more rewarding reason is that science fiction allows us to examine how technology affects society. It shows us how, for better or worse, society might progress down the road to enlightenment or towards an ugly demise. It steers us towards a better future and warns us away from a dark future.
The Power of Science Fiction
When was the last time a mainstream novel asked you to consider the rights of an artificial human like the protagonist of Debra Driza's MILA 2.0 series? Or think about the effects of shared consciousness, like author Steve Toutonghi does in his recent novel Join? Or contemplate how society and economies would change if water itself was a scarce resource, like Paolo Bacigalupi does in The Water Knife? Science fiction asks us to do those things and more.
The value of science fiction lies within the speculative nature of it. Many science fiction stories ask a "What if?" question. They ask us to imagine a world different from our own, most often separated from our present day by time and/or technology. They ask us to imagine a world where, say, teleportation is possible.
In his book The Resurrected Man, Sean Williams asks readers to envision that world. It's superficially a near-future murder mystery, but becomes science fiction through its ubiquitous use of matter transportation devices. The transportation devices are able to digitally "record" a person, transmit them, and receive them at the destination. Travel thus becomes instantaneous, destroying the travel industry as we know it, but heralding in a brand new age of getting from here to there.
It's a simple premise on the surface, but some more thought reveals complexities that are fun to think about. For example, if a person can be recorded, they can be copied, and copied multiple times. Do those people have rights? Are they even people? Is it legal or ethical to kill a copy? Do I own copies of myself or are they independent people? Would the definition of life change? Do I own that digital data recorded? Is it a violation of privacy for someone else to have it? Or worse, to use it to recreate copies of me? How would the laws change to accommodate this new technology?
Here's another example. One of the stories in Ken Liu's new collection The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories is titled "The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary." It's about a scientist who invents a machine that allows people to witness the past. However, it can only be witnessed once. The scientist uses it to send people back to witness the atrocities of WWII. This notion of "consumable history" also raises several interesting questions. Who owns the events of a given historical event given that geo-political boundaries change over time? Are they state-owned events at all? Are they instead personal artifacts belonging to the people who lived them or their descendants? Or do they belong to humanity as a whole?
Do you see? The seemingly simple ideas of matter transportation or "time witnessing"—great sf story fodder, to be sure—also serve as a springboard for many thought-provoking ideas that would affect how we live as a society. They force us to question our current values and examine the ramifications of technology on those ideals. By doing so, we can become better, we can prepare, we can evolve. No other form of literature can do that. That is the unique power of science fiction. And that is why science fiction matters.