David Brin Poses The Question: What Is Science Fiction?
One of our primary areas of interest here at GFR is, obviously, science fiction. But just what is science fiction? Ask ten sci-fi fans and you’ll probably get ten different answers. I’ve suggested before that science fiction is fundamentally a literature of hope, because even if the future it envisions is a terrible one, its still suggests that our species will at least have a future. And as long as we haven’t driven ourselves to extinction, that means we can still make better choices and evolve and perhaps save ourselves from that impending doom. In the video above, writer David Brin presents an excellent breakdown of science fiction’s nature and evolution, and he touches on the concept I just explained. As he puts it, science fiction is about the notion that “children can learn from the mistakes of their parents.”
Now, just because science fiction offers the possibility that our species will correct the course and achieve greater than the generations before it, that doesn’t mean they always “will.” Dystopian sci-fi imagines countless ways our bad decisions might lead to horrible outcomes. But when the future being imagined is nightmarish, the story can serve as what Brin calls a “self-preventing prophecy.” That would include books or films such as Dr. Strangelove, 1984, or Soylent Green. They posit worst-case scenarios in hopes that describing them will frighten us, and serve to help avoid those outcomes. In our modern world of NSA surveillance and Homeland Security, Orwell’s “Big Brother” is more relevant than ever, and name-checked on damn near a daily basis. Who knows how much Strangelove or On the Beach might have put a scare into a generation, and thus, even if only to a small degree, helped us steer away from the path of nuclear apocalypse?
I also love Brin’s observation that pretty much every political group will cite Orwell’s 1984 to suit their own beliefs; it’s just a matter of which group or faction they think is standing in for Big Brother.
Brin’s video also addresses two of the biggest fictional universes of our time — Star Wars and Star Trek — to help further explore his thesis. While Trek is clearly science fiction, he insists Star Wars is fantasy. (I’d say it fits more properly under the label of space opera, but that’s just me.) Brin argues that Star Wars, with its larger-than-life characters and simplistic morality, is more of a successor to ancient mythology and legends, occupying a space alongside comic books, where Superman or Captain America occupy much the the same role as Hercules and Odysseus once did). Star Trek, however, is very much about the human, using the trappings of where we’re going to examine where we are. As Bring puts it, Star Trek, as with all great science fiction, asks the question, “How are we being different?”
The video is an intriguing watch, and a quick one as well at a mere 12 minutes or so.
Of course, science fiction’s predictive nature encompasses more than just notions of how humanity will change in the centuries to come. It also explores how technology and society will change. Star Trek has been a key influence in this regard, with the show’s communicators inspiring modern cell phones, and medical technology continually inching toward the capabilities of Trek’s handy-dandy tricorders. Hell, NASA’s even working on building warp drives and impulse engines!
Of course, we get the future wrong almost as often as we get it right. Here’s a charming video compiling various predictions from the 1920s and ‘30s about what the future would look like. Now I want a suspension bridge apartment…