The Possibilities of Science Fiction

One commenter on yesterday’s post noted that science fiction “can also be used as a formidable stock of thought experiments, with profound philosophical implication.”  I have hardly read any science fiction (I am currently working on Lewis’ Space Trilogy) yet I have no doubt this is the case.  Another commenter made note of Ray Bradbury.  Kurt Vonnegut and Aldous Huxley also come to mind as well as Jules Vernes and H. G. Wells as early practitioners.  It seems to me that Mary Shelley deserves recognition at least as a forerunner.  I’m sure those familiar with the field can fill out the list quite a bit.

Hannah Arendt, writing in the mid-twentieth century, appears to be one of the few intellectuals of the time to have recognized the value of science fiction.  Writing in The Human Condition she notes that the “respectable newspapers” were only just then catching up on implications of science which,

up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires).

Perhaps someone can correct me on this, but it seems the most profound science fiction also tends to be of the dystopian variety.

3 thoughts on “The Possibilities of Science Fiction

  1. Frank Herbert’s DUNE is, I think, quite prolific. The most prevalent themes in Herbert’s book are of ecology, religion and imperialism. In fact, it could be argued that Herbert’s planet of Arakis and its native Fremen (which are strikingly similar to Beduin) predicts today’s neo-colonialism in the pursuit of crude oil on foreign, and usually Muslim, soil.

    Robert Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS is also quite prolific. In fact, I’ve heard it said that Heinlein’s description of cell theory gave rise to modern theories and practices of how cell units operate. Indeed, it is hard to read Heinlein’s description of the most logical practice of cell theory and not immediately think of the struggle our government is currently having with seeking out terrorist cell operatives.

    Both Herbert and Heinlein are considered two of the patriarchs of Science Fiction literature and published their respective aforementioned works at the same time (around 1965 I believe). If you don’t read anything else in Sci-Fi literature, I highly recommend those two books.

    As a side note and comment to your previous post, it is my experience with Science Fiction literature that it is much better at “predicting” the future than film. I attribute this to the simple fact that the writers of Sci-Fi literary genre (as opposed to pop-culture literature in the genre) are very well read on the subjects of their given work. Herbert was as much of a master of ecology (as much as a non-scientist could be) and the implications of imperialism as he was an imaginative writer. Heinlein pretty much single-handedly created one of the most complete descriptions of cell-theory, which at the time is likely to have had no audience, except for those in high defense and government offices.

    As for the question of dystopian vs. utopian futures in Sci-Fi, I would have to agree that dystopian futures are the most prevalent and successful. There is nary a sci-fi world that envisions a utopia. In fact, the most literary of sci-fi films, BLADE RUNNER (which took a lot of q’s from Isaac Asimov, I believe) was set in such a future.

    1. You just established yourself as the resident Science Fiction expert!

      Your observations on the quality of the literature being proportional to the depth of the author’s knowledge seems completely plausible.

      And lastly, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit I’ve not yet seen Blade Runner. I say “yet,” because it is on the list of films I need to watch.

      Thanks for imparting your wisdom on this topic!

      1. Well, I will do my best to live up to that accolade…although I’m sure it’s not true.

        One more thing, though. It is likely that the only utopian vision of the future that was ever successful was Roddenberry’s Star Trek. And, when we consider the time in which the original show aired, in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, such optimism was being proliferated amidst much of the popular images of the future during that time period. That is to say that I think the power of Science Fiction as a literary phenomena is its uncanny ability to reflect much of the current mood of the culture, especially with regards to how we view ourselves and our . This is the reason Blade Runner was so ground breaking – it colored the lens by which we looked at the future and progress with a tint of grey, rather than one of a sunny countryside where man has united under a common banner and taken to the stars.

        I’ve never read much Asimov, to my shame, but I have to think that he, along with most other sci-fi writers of the day, understood sci-fi literature and film as a means to explore the cautionary tales and inevitabilities of technocratic societies. The ask the difficult questions of the outworkings of progress and explore universes where those realities exist and have resulted in one end or another.

        Anyway, I won’t fill up your comments secion any longer. I think I may have to write a post on this. My blog has been feeling neglected as of late.

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