What if we could run endless simulations of where our world is heading to figure out what pitfalls to avoid? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?
Turns out, we do have such simulations. Science Fiction.
Okay, sure, some of these “simulations” are pretty out there and may seem a bit ludicrous. No denying that. And yet, the philosophical questions being wrestled with inside so many sci-fi stories do present us with the opportunity to carefully contemplate where we might be heading as a species and society. In fact, many sci-fi stories offer up a chance to wrestle with current questions without triggering automatic responses born out of our innate biases and inherent feelings already tied to current controversial topics. A lot of dystopian fiction is born out of current questions we might have now (for example, The Hunger Games was born out of Susanne Collins’ observations of what it felt like to flip through TV channels from coverage of the Iraq war to reality TV shows and how much both viewing options seemed driven by entertainment and created to bring in advertising revenue).
Now that’s not to say that sci-fi can’t be abused and used to propagate ideas that are problematic or even destructive. I've written in the past about how problematic the movie Passengers turned out to be. It’s just that science fiction offers us the chance to explore these ideas in the safe realm of fiction. We are free to find the merits and flaws of the worldview and perspective presented within these fictional stories. We’re invited to, in fact.
Within sci-fi, we get to ask some pretty big questions around what it means to be a human being in the first place (Blade Runner, Bicentennial Man). We get to ask who is the outsider (Gattaca, District 9). We get to speculate about what it might mean to encounter alien beings (Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke and everything from Alien to E.T.). But more to the point, we get to better understand ourselves as we explore these stories.
How do these stories help us get to know ourselves?
Who do we identify with? How do the concepts within the story make us feel? Do we consider the world the story takes place in a better or worse place than our world? Why? All of these things are value judgments we’re making that reveal an awful lot about how we see ourselves and our world, what we value, fear, and hope for. I’ve written about how stories help us better understand ourselves in the past. You can check out that post here.
Science fiction gives us the opportunity to think about where we are and where we are headed. These may not be literal predictions. Heavens knows Jules Verne didn't predict the future accurately. But the point of science fiction is not an accurate prediction. Science fiction speculates on a deeper level about the ethical, social, and spiritual evolution we are undergoing as a species.
Why is science fiction important to our present and future? It's in the genre’s name. Sci-fi is increasingly relevant to us because humanity's acquisition and application of scientific knowledge are at the very heart of true sci-fi. And the rate of our scientific development is increasing faster than we seem prepared to handle all the potential implications. With this realization in mind, are we paying attention to the ways science fiction has been and continues to simulate our future ethical standards and political pitfalls?
What stories have you found most challenging and most compelling as you look at the world we are becoming? Comment below. I love learning from fellow sci-fi fans.