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Sci-Fi Circuit: The Purpose and Value of Science Fiction

Does sci-fi serve a purpose beyond that of entertainment or escapism? Why do we write, read, and love sci-fi?

Arthur Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) once said, "There's no real objection to escapism, in the right places... We all want to escape occasionally. But science fiction is often very far from escapism, in fact you might say that science fiction is escape into reality... It's a fiction which does concern itself with real issues: the origin of man; our future. In fact I can't think of any form of literature which is more concerned with real issues, reality."


Here are some thoughts on the important role sci-fi plays in our culture:

1. Sci-fi makes us think, wonder, and ask what if and why.

I recently watched the movie Contact with my 5-year-old son. The next day I was over the moon with delight at the myriad of questions he asked me. "Why didn't we see the aliens? Are they coming back? Is there going to be another movie where we get to see them? Why didn't anyone believe her except the people outside that big room?" I'm sure when he's older he'll have even more questions to ask about it, like, "Is that what it could really be like, to make first contact? Is it possible that other races are capable of such travel?"

Carl Sagan wrote the book Contact in an attempt to answer such questions, and in doing so, to my mind, provoked even more such questions in asking of them. And isn't that a beautiful thing?

2. Sci-fi allows us to ask hard questions about gender and racial equality and how we treat each other.

Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek said, "For me science fiction is a way of thinking, a way of logic that bypasses a lot of nonsense. It allows people to look directly at important subjects."

The beauty of sci-fi is that it allows us to stand outside the experience of our own culture and look back to face otherwise emotionally-charged and complex questions in a more neutral manner. When we can be separate enough -- by looking at how we might fictionally treat an alien race, for instance -- we see things with new eyes. District 9 is a powerful example of not only of what might happen if an alien race arrived that was in need of help (another "what if"), but also of our own bad treatment of other people we don't understand or relate to, just as we've done countless times in our own history. District 9 itself is a chilling examination of apartheid and oppression in South Africa.

Similarly, there are countless Star Trek episodes that ask moral questions, including issues of equality, sexism, and racism. The original Star Trek was groundbreaking in terms of women and people of non-white ethnicities playing valuable roles; it had a life-changing impact for me to see that as a young girl. And while we can reasonably discuss the many flaws of Star Trek then and now in this regard, I think we can agree that it has done much to change the landscape of expectations about gendered and racial roles.

3. Sci-fi looks ahead to the future and asks, is this where we want to end up?

So many dystopian visions are put forth in science fiction. And why? Because sci-fi writers are futurists; we look ahead to see where we are going if we continue along our current trajectory. And let's face it, it ain't pretty, folks. Sometimes I think sci-fi writers are our best hope for waking people up to the travesties we're wreaking on our own planet. The Day After Tomorrow, anyone?

Along these lines, there's a terrific book called The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi that looks at the possible future of agricultural disaster, the end of the oil age, bio-engineered viruses, and posits major social struggles over seed banks and energy sources. I Am Legend looks at a future where an attempt to save humankind from cancer results in its downfall.

As Isaac Asimov (I, Robot, Nightfall) said, “Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today, but the core of science fiction -- its essence -- has become crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all.”

4. Sci-fi is a powerful place to dream up and imagine new technology.

Didn't you want a hand-held communicator back in the days of early Star Trek? Flip phones were like a dream come true when they came onto the market. Hand-held computers and tricorders? I think of them whenever I hold my iPad in my hands. Self-propelled cars won't be too far off -- Google already has a prototype. So many technologies have been devised on the pages and screens of sci-fi -- inspiring scientists and inventors to "make it so." I've always been fond of Arthur C. Clarke's third law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." I love the idea that the things we think are so preposterous now, may well be possible in the not too distant future, simply because we've dreamed of it now.

So keep dreaming.

And remember the wisdom of Ray Bradbury (Farenheit 451) who said, “Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world, because it's the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. ...Science fiction is central to everything we've ever done, and people who make fun of science fiction writers don't know what they're talking about."

What would you add to this list? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

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