Outside of thoughtful, well-written non-fiction, I find science fiction to be the best literary genre out there. Perhaps this is because I have a pretty broad definition of sci-fi that is not limited to print versions of cheesy Syfy shows. But it’s also because I think that sci-fi as a genre offers unique insights in a way that most other fiction genres simply cannot hope to match.
First, because science fiction presents potential futures for humanity, it is an inherently aspirational literary category. We want to travel to the stars. We want to eradicate diseases and poverty. We want to keep improving. By describing captivating societies full of unbelievable technology, sci-fi sets the bar high and inspires us to keep striving to achieve all of the incredible things it promises. In an essay published in August, Dan Wang argues that optimism can almost be conceived of as a form of human capital. Specifically, he contends that “In addition to education levels, human capital models should consider factors like optimism, imagination, and hope for the future.” Frankly, I think he is largely correct: Absent the belief that improvement and growth are possible, why would anyone slave away learning skills and developing new technologies? And anecdotally, at least, it seems that sci-fi has played a non-trivial role in inspiring some of the great innovators of our time. For example, Elon Musk cites his reading of science fiction as a key variable shaping his outlook and career path. But I think sci-fi goes even further than convincing us that improvement and progress are possible; it actually tells where to look in order to improve and progress. Thomas S. Kuhn, the well-known philosopher of science, argued that scientific revolutions occur when one paradigm has been exhausted and a new one is needed to explain gaps in current understanding. Importantly, he contends that until this new paradigm is developed, every advancement is merely a marginal improvement constrained by the assumptions of the current paradigm. Kuhn’s theory does not directly transfer to sci-fi, but I think one can make a good case that the new technologies and social arrangments described in books like Malka Older’s Infomocracy and Peter F. Hamilton’s Commonwealth universe help create new “paradigms” of thinking about the different technological and political directions we can take as a species.
Of course, not all science fiction portrays a utopian vision of the future. Many of the greatest works of sci-fi have depicted dystopian futures full of suffering and privation. But, fundamentally, this pessimistic science fiction serves much the same purpose as its utopian, optimistic cousin. Namely, it highlights the risks and pitfalls that await us in our potential future, and it thus serves as a warning against complacency and the uncritical embrace of progress. In other words, if utopian sci-fi tells us what we should strive for, dystopian sci-fi alerts us to what we should seek to avoid. Both versions are aspirational, it’s just that we aspire toward one and against the other.
But beyond giving us goals to strive for, science fiction also helps us understand the present. Specifically, sci-fi permits readers to consider current issues from a more abstract and less politicized perspective. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War demonstrates this unique aspect of science fiction admirably. For those unfamiliar with the book, the basic plot concerns a group of elite UN soldiers sent to fight an alien race called the Taurans. To reach the enemy, however, the soldiers must travel at near light speed, causing them to experience extreme relativistic effects that leave them much younger than their friends and family back on Earth. By the end of the war, the protagonist, William Mandella, is centuries out of place: The new soldiers sent to his unit speak a barely recognizable language and are all homosexual. Eventually, humanity begins to clone itself, creating a kind of collectivist hive-mind known simply as Man. The increasing separation between those on the home front and those on the front lines is an enduring theme of the book, and it creates an existential crisis for Mandella, who must continue to fight for a society and species he can no longer even recognize. This book is clearly relevant to contemporary issues like PTSD and the civil-military divide, and many critics believe that it was specifically written to be a reflection on the experience of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. By bypassing the polarizing and contentious specifics of the actual Vietnam War, however, the book allowed a level of impartial reflection on the civilian-military divide that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. Of course, no fiction book is going to be entirely value-neutral or divorced from contemporary issues, but science fiction is frequently able to create just enough space to allow for a productive and disinterested reflection on the core issues that divide society today.
Finally, I think science fiction allows for a breakdown in the rigid divide between fields such as politics, sociology, and physics. The ability to dissolve academic boundaries is not unique to sci-fi, of course, but the kinds of questions raised in the genre are generally more macro-level and grand than those addressed in most other genres. Science fiction forces us to grapple with the impact of future technologies on society and political structures, and it tackles the impacts these evolutions in governance and technology will have on everyday people. In short, science fiction takes the big questions in fields throughout the academy and amalgamates them into a thought-provoking and novel narrative designed to raise issues that would otherwise have likely never been considered.
To borrow an excellent line from Ed Finn, Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, “‘Why’ is the engine that drives good science fiction, and good stories in general. The ability to project ourselves into future worlds is a powerful tool for asking why this world is the way it is and how we can make it better.” So as long as we hope to remain curious about our world and its future, we should continue to appreciate science fiction’s unique position within the broader fiction genre.