Why Science Fiction Matters

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Star Trek
In the past two years, we’ve watched all the Star Trek series (on Netflix) from start to finish, and all the ST movies (on DVD). We just started watching the Battlestar Galactica series on Blu-Ray this past week (which we had seen some years back, but with long gaps between seasons). Both of us love scifi.

Although the first ST series was often more space opera than scifi (as the Star Wars series has been), it matured quickly into some complex, adult-oriented storytelling in the subsequent series (a sad failing of the first several Star Wars films was their failure to mature). BSG is even more mature, and thus more compelling. 

If wisdom comes with age, then Star Trek—the series that’s taught us diplomacy, morality, and workplace ethics since 1966—has to be up there with Kant and Nietzsche by now.

So begins “Why Star Trek Matters,” a 2016 article in Popular Mechanics, by Tom Chiarella. Or rather, a paen to Star Trek. I would say the same of science fiction generally: it matters, deeply, and across cultures and generations, and affects a wider cultural range than other literature. It matters in all its forms: written, visual, gaming, and audio.  But I also admit to a soft spot when it comes to Star Trek.

Science fiction — and the ill-defined, but closely-related speculative fiction — is a prism through which we can shine the light of modern issues and events to see how they play out in other situations and conditions, from the near to the distant future, here or on other worlds. In his book, The Future of the Mind (pp 55 and 57), Michio Kaku says,

The highest level of consciousness, which is associated primarily with Homo Sapiens, is Level III consciousness, in which we take our model of the world and then run simulations into the future… Self-awareness is creating a model of the world and simulating the future in which you appear.

Sounds like a pretty good description of science fiction, too. Wikipedia adds, “It has been called the “literature of ideas”, and often explores the potential consequences of scientific, social, and technological innovations.”

I’ve been a scifi reader for more than 60 years.  I distinctly remember standing in my backyard with my father one October night in 1957 and seeing a tiny dot of light move across the sky. It was the first satellite: Sputnik, and right then and there, I wanted to go into space. My first encounter with scifi literature, as I recall it, came soon after in the form of Tom Swift Jr. books. My parents started buying these books as birthday and Christmas gifts when I was seven. I loved those stories and collected the first 18 or 20 of them.

When I was ten, my mother suffered a stroke and went into hospital for much of the next two years. During that time, when I got out of school, I went to the local branch of the public library (Bendale, and it’s still there), only  a few blocks from my home. I would wait there until my father got home from work. During that wait, I read. A lot. I quickly went through what was age-appropriate for me in the small children’s section and turned to the books for young adults, which included a few science fiction (and fewer fantasy) novels. I don’t recall much of them although I read them all, but I can remember reading some by Andre Norton.

(The lines between fantasy and scifi are often blurred. I read both, but tended to prefer scifi. As Arthur C. Clark wrote in Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible,”…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Harry Potter fans take note.)

Back then, there wasn’t the same sort of literary machinery to produce young adult titles as there is today (no Harry Potter!). The selection of books considered age-appropriate, especially in the scifi category, even for older teens, was limited. It didn’t take me long to graduate into the adult book section and find the treasure trove of science fiction there. Ray Bradbury, A.E. van Vogt, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ben Bova, Frank Herbert, and many more. I consumed them. I’ve been reading scifi ever since, often with the same sense of amazement and wonder I had when I first began reading it. I remember reading Frank Herbert’s stunning novel, Dune, when it came out in 1965 (I’ve read it three times since).

These stories were not just promises of a future, but for a young boy faced with a troubled and unsure present, they were an escape vehicle. After my mother returned home I continued to read science fiction as one of my primary literary interests (I also discovered and read the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs; a delightful mix of scifi and fantasy).

At the same time, I watched what little scifi there was on TV. I remember Men Into Space, Flash Gordon, and The Twilight Zone in the 1950s. In the ’60s came The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Fantastic Voyage, and, of course, Star Trek. None of them were as good as any book, but I still watched them. I also watched every scifi movie that got shown on TV or at the local theatre. I especially recall The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, The Thing, This Island Earth, Them, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Day of the Triffids, Godzilla, and many others, quite a few of which I have on DVD or Blu-Ray even today (I love watching them, but Susan prefers newer content).

Star Trek, although it came later in the ’60s and only lasted three seasons, held a special attraction and fascination. It had memorable characters, it gave important roles to women and non-whites, it had humour and banter, it asked questions, it had aliens and alien cultures, and it suggested we had a hopeful future. They may not hold up well viewed today, but then they had a special magic about them. What that first ST series did was prove that a scifi-based series could appeal to a wider audience than just fans of the genre.

When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out in 1968, I watched it six or seven times in the theatre, awed by its matter-of-fact portrayal of space flight. When the first moon landing happened a year later, I truly believed I would travel to a moon colony in my lifetime and would see the start of a colony on Mars.  But in 1972, the program to send humans to explore space was shut down. Even our closest neighbour, the Moon, was ignored. My disappointment continues even today.

“Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Battlestar Galactica

Jump ahead sixty years and here I am reading through The Fifty Year Mission by Edward Gross and Mark Altman (Subtitled, The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek, in two massive volumes: The First 25 Years, and The Next 25 Years: From The Next Generation to J. J. Abrams) plus their equally large book, So Say We All: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Battlestar Galactica. And in doing so, I was reminded both of my introduction to scifi six decades ago, and my own reaction to Star Trek, BSG and other TV series and movies since.

This reading is a bit of a departure from my normal fare since I seldom read about the making of or behind-the-scenes of anything on TV, or bios of their cast. But Star Trek is different because it was the seminal series that moved scifi into the mainstream, and it was part of my growing up. I have avidly followed each subsequent series and movie that sprang from the original (although to be fair, movies I and V of the original were fairly thin).

I read Shatner’s Star Trek Memories and Nimoy’s two autobiographies, I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock (after he gave in to the inevitable). The Gross and Altman books are even more detailled albeit somewhat rambling, with interviews and comments from cast, crew, writers, producers, fans, directors, and so on, but not always connected with editorial notes to explain the context. They are not so much a linear history as they are an appreciation and explanation of the shows and the processes that helped create them and their many episodes. They remind me of those special feature interviews you get on the DVDs, with spoilers.

I enjoy reading these books, but sometimes they’re just too personal and picayune for me. I’d rather read more about how the ships were designed, how the FTL drive works, about the transporter, why there are no phasers in BSG, and what sort of brain a Cylon has. More technical geeky stuff for me, please. But what I’m trying to get from them is how these series – ST and BSG – influenced and affected popular culture, politics, science, and literature.

BSG was not the direct descendant of ST, although it certainly owes its existence to the pioneering series. ST in all its forms had some formulaic guidelines including cast structures and mission focus. BSG was created by people familiar with or experienced in creating ST episodes, but wanting to develop an adult-oriented series that rivalled The Sopranos in telling powerful personal stories, but within a scifi universe.

Science fiction lets us stretch our imaginations. It lets us write ourselves into an infinite number of futures.  Fantasy does that, too, but often outside the constraints of physics and biology (i.e. magic and dragons). Neither, of course, is predictive (although some dystopian fiction may be called a prediction) but scifi is special because it asks “what if?” It asks us to contemplate a future in which humans are faced with alternate types of culture, law, behaviour, travel, interaction, other life forms, technology, biology,  planets, cities, and even sex, and then it wrestles with how that might come about, and how we, as a species, deal with it. or all of these things at once.

In a 2014 Vox article titled, Why science fiction matters, the writers say,

To change the world, students have to believe that change is possible in the first place. Science fiction gives them a tangible vision of that change, for better and for worse, and invites them to use their imaginations to read themselves into the story.

Bestseller author, Yuval Noah Harari, commented in Episode 325 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast that,

“Today science fiction is the most important artistic genre. It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.”

But as in any genre, the best stories are always about the people. From the earliest days of storytelling — the Gilgamesh epic — to today’s bestsellers, we empathize with the characters, not their tools, not their technology, not their dress or class. Authors put their characters into holes and we watch them dig themselves out. Thus has it always been with storytelling, be in on clay tablets, papyrus, paper, the silver screen, or the LED TV.  Empathy depends on the people, not the hardware.

Science fiction is a workshop in philosophy. How do we relate to sentience in a machine? Do aliens have souls? Is telepathy ethical? Is it ethical to rebel against your planetary overlord if they behave improperly? Would you sacrifice a ship full of civilians in a war to save a dozen more? Do alien-human hybrids deserve citizenship? Is sex with aliens a taboo akin to bestiality? Are our sacred texts and scriptures applicable in a galaxy where multiple species have their own? Are our gods relevant in a galactic federation? Can we colonize other planets ethically? Or engage in a just war against species with lesser technology?

“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”
“Why, what did she tell you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Scifi doesn’t give clear answers, no blueprints to the future. Instead, it offers the author’s exploration of the questions, but always leaving us to decide for ourselves if it is the right path. And to put ourselves into the story to explore how we would respond, to weigh our own ethics and morality. All literature and all storytelling in every medium does this of course, but scifi lets us fly outside the bonds of today, to expand our vision of the future while we do it.

Me, I’m happier to wrestle mentally with the ethics and morality of clones in a spaceship, to debate the relationship of a non-human species in a trade war, or to ponder how to ethically violate ST’s prime directive as I am to worry about myself as Sidney Carton in a tumbrel on the way to the guillotine.

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