How real science fiction helps humanity

Star Trek: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”

I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction since childhood. My path to it was a little unusual. I loved science books, especially Isaac Asimov’s sparkling nonfiction. When I ran out of that, I found out Asimov wrote (science) fiction books. That turned me on Clarke, Heinlein, Pohl, Dick, and the rest of those hard science fiction writers.

Only nerds and geeks liked science fiction in the sixties and seventies. The rest of the world was into westerns, melodramas, and psychedelia. We were happy in our little ghetto and loved to get together with other fans. And then a funny thing happened.

Science fiction went mainstream and became “sci-fi.”

Now science fiction — or things masquerading as science fiction — have virtually taken over media, video, and cinema. It feel weird when everyone else is suddenly interested in what you spent your life loving in a little clique.

What is “real” science fiction

What makes something science fiction? Blasters and starships and technobabble?


Science fiction — or as some would call it, speculative fiction — extrapolates today’s technology to create a future world in which things are different, then explores how human beings cope in a world like that. The extrapolation of today’s technology might include genetic manipulation, quantum computing, nuclear-propelled rockets, bionic enhancements, virtual reality, telepresence, crypto, 3-D printing, digital simulations, and so on ad infinitum. And of course, it also includes less optimistic tech extrapolations like insect-sized spy drones, social media disinformation campaigns, terrorists with suitcase-sized nukes, engineered bioweapons, runaway global warming, and any number of other scary developments.

The acid test is how many “magical” technologies we need to believe in. Quantum computing isn’t magical. Faster-than-light travel is. Phased energy weapons aren’t magical. Aliens that shoot lightning bolts from their eyes are.

Looking at my definition, some of what people now think of as science fiction doesn’t quality, and some of what isn’t usually called sci-fi does.

Take sixties and seventies cult science fiction. “Star Trek” is science fiction, because it explores the extrapolation of ideas that exist, such as wormholes, telepathy, doomday machines, androids, and simulations. (Yes, they invented faster-than-light travel and teleportation, but most of it is extrapolation.) “Star Wars,” on the other hand, does not fit my definition. “Star Wars” is a fantasy epic, no different from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. The technology is just part of the setting. Would it really be any different if C3PO was a talking ostrich and the light sabers were actual swords?

“Lost in Space?” Ha! Don’t get me started.

And looking at “Star Trek” in its current incarnation — especially extensions like “Picard” and “Discovery” — it has very much lapsed into personality driven pseudoscientific Star Wars-style epics. It may be fun, but it’s a lot less science-fictional than it used to be.

By my definition, 1984 and Brave New World and Frankenstein are science fiction. (It’s ironic that once literature becomes “classic,” of course it transcends genre and people no longer think of it as science fiction.) But Dune is more of an epic like “Star Wars.”

All those superhero movies are not really science fiction. A flying Superman or an Aquaman that can breathe underwater are not really extensions of current technology. “Black Panther” may be fun, but it’s not really about vibranium, it’s about culture and superheroics.

Among the best modern science fiction adaptations are shows like “The 3 Body Problem” (try it, it’s awesome), “The Expanse,” “Devs,” and the highly imaginative “Black Mirror.” These are shows that follow humans as they attempt (and sometimes fail) to navigate novel and surprising futures. I also like that they show flawed scientists and engineers as something other than just the heroes trying to save civilization.

Why science fiction matters

Science fiction asks big questions about humanity that we should be asking ourselves.

“The 3 Body Problem” asks how humanity would react to far superior aliens on their way to eventually conquer is. Would we pull together or tear ourselves apart? Good question.

“Black Mirror” asks if social media could distort us into caricatures of ourselves and twist the value of humanity away from genuine human interactions? Really good question.

The awesome “Star Trek” episode “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield” asks if racism is really based on a completely made-up and arbitrary biases, and if so, could it cause a whole planet to destroy itself? Hmm.

These are the kind of questions that attracted me to science fiction in the first place. And now that it is mainstream, there are huge budgets and lots of appetite for science fiction.

I have no problem with the future-focused fantasy epics. They’re fun. But real science fiction helps us understand the world we may actually be heading towards. That’s not just fun, but actually useful.

Disagree? Let’s talk about it.

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One Comment

  1. Agreed: Early Star Trek episodes made huge headway in exploring the possible future track of humanity. I watched that show avidly when it first aired, and have continued to be interested in it through its several iterations – TV shows and films – except for “Deep Space Nine.” That one didn’t appeal to me, for still unknown reasons. At first, I thought it was because it takes place on a space station and thereby was somewhat static. But I liked “Babylon 5,” which also takes place on a space station. Who knows?

    I have rarely read science fiction. I think I have avoided it because, with my affinity to mechanics, I believed it would suck me in entirely and I have wanted or needed to engage my interests in more than one field or genre.