What Is The Purpose of Science Fiction Stories?

April 8, 2016 in Hieroglyph

Amazing_stories_193205 (1)Science fiction, perhaps more than any other modern genre of fiction, is often written with a social purpose or a goal. That purpose is rarely to explicitly predict the future—though they’re frequently touted, the predictive powers of science fiction are mediocre at best. In hindsight, it’s easy to pick out the novels and stories of the last century with elements that came true, but these works are few and far between compared to the plethora of “predictions” that fizzled. (Science fiction sometimes guides technological development, rather than predicting it—for example, some developers of Google Earth have credited Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash as an inspiration.) Science fiction writers themselves often bemoan the futility of trying to predict the future in their more metafictional works—see, for instance, Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress, a surrealist satire about drugs, war, and how perception shapes reality. Instead, science fiction is written to caution against the horrors of endless war (e.g., The Forever War), or to glorify human ingenuity (e.g., The Martian), or to explore the ramifications of a radically different political system (e.g., The Dispossessed, 1984).

Science fiction is also read with a purpose. Its readers seek to accomplish something, though our motives might be more elusive than those of the authors. Why do we read science fiction? The immediate answer for some is escapism: to enter into fantastic worlds that are more exciting than mundane reality. But that’s a simplistic answer that fails to explain why we’re drawn to science fiction, which, while speculative, often nods to realism and presents a thoughtful perspective on the future – frequently one that’s informed by scientific and technological reality. The draw of science fiction is more nuanced than a desire to escape the mundane.

Reading science fiction enables us to reflect on the ways people interact with each other, with technology, with our environment. A good science fiction work posits one vision for the future, among countless possibilities, that is built on a foundation of realism. In creating a link between the present and the future, science fiction invites us to consider the complex ways our choices and interactions contribute to generating the future. The collective and individual decisions we make every day—the careers we choose, the ideas we propagate, the ways we educate each other—lead us into the future. Science fiction gives us a venue to consider the futures that we want, and those we don’t, and how our actions contribute to one or the other.

Amazing_stories_193604Growing up, I immersed myself in science fiction, from the epic space sagas of Arthur C. Clarke to the twisted dystopian nightmares of Philip K. Dick. Science fiction opened up an endless array of possibilities and gave me a sense of agency in choosing which ones I hoped would materialize—and perhaps help nudge into being. The genre informed my decision to pursue a career in science and engineering, to very purposefully work toward the futures that I think are best and brightest.

Today, as a graduate student, much of the work I do involves the minutiae of science—the many hours of long work that hide behind every advance in the way we understand the world, no matter how small. But by reading science fiction, I place my work into a broader context and remind myself of why I think it’s important to work on the things I do: striving to make energy cheap, clean, and accessible, and developing systems for using it as efficiently as possible. Although I’m older, more practical, and probably more cynical, I’m just as inspired by science fiction now as I was when I first left the Earth with Bradbury and Asimov. 

Hieroglyph, in pursuing group storytelling and  interaction involving an exchange of ideas among readers, writers, scientists, and artists, gives us a tool for societal or collective reflection. Futures can be proposed, modified, refined, and discussed in an open, accessible community conversation. That certainly doesn’t mean that any one future discussed in the Hieroglyph collective imagination will come to pass. Nor does it necessarily mean we should all work together towards some particular future (such a call to collective action rings hollow to me). Truthfully, I doubt you could ever get a large enough portion of the population to agree that one course of action, one foreseeable future, is the best, to really ensure that it comes to pass. And the world is a large and diverse place—the notion that there can only be one ubiquitous “future” for everyone is laughable. But we should certainly use science fiction as a means to imagine what sorts of futures are possible, and which are desirable, and each act in our own way to help usher the best futures into reality.

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Zach Berkson is an engineer, researcher, and writer, who graduated from ASU’s chemical engineering program in 2013 and is now a PhD student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on engineering nanostructured materials for new applications in energy technology, including solid-state lighting, pollutant emission reduction, and solar-energy utilization. He is interested in finding ways to further technological development while maintaining a commitment to the environment and social equity in the face of a rapidly changing world.

1 response to What Is The Purpose of Science Fiction Stories?

  1. In my case, while I write futuristic novels, I do not believe in predicting the future. Instead, what I do is to show a variety of forms of governance, including one I invented myself, and explore some strengths and weaknesses of them, the weaknesses being exploited by the “bad” characters. I also try to explain a little science, and illustrate logical thinking. Much of the bad parts of the stories are to suggest things we might drift into, but really shouldn’t. A sort of warning, maybe.

    All of this is, of course, backdrop to what I hope are interesting stories. The idea is to tell a story, and hopefully leave the reader with something to think about and while I guess I am biased, I think that is what science fiction should do: entertain, but leave a subconscious message.

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