Great literature is storytelling that explores the human condition, that addresses how people experience and relate to the world. Science and technology have radically changed this view over the centuries. We know through observation and experimentation that our memories are unreliable, that we fabricate events in our past without realizing it. Biology and behavioral studies tell us that other animals have experiences similar to our own (crows show the ability to imagine the future to solve puzzles; elephants and chimpanzees appear to mourn their dead). As a civilization, we have the power of altering vast, complex systems as we unintentionally manipulate the climate and ecosystems. Nuclear weapons give us the concept of an existential threat. We not only possess the power to wipe out a people, but all people.
These revelations should make us think differently about what it means to be human than was thought just a few centuries ago. The realm of storytelling that uses these insights is known as science fiction. While stories forecasting the future can be found going back hundreds of years, it is within the past 100 years that the concept of a science fiction genre has manifested, and it’s a history rich in the exploration of humanity.
Contrasts are helpful for distinguishing what something is. To be human is to be different from the other animals living on the planet. Yet studies of other species tell us that we are not the only creatures possessing awareness. This knowledge should humble us and make us step outside of ourselves. There are other ways of viewing the world than our own: male, female, black, white, Hispanic, neurotypical, autistic, human, whale, bird.
Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey posits what contact with non human minds means for us as a species. Science fiction usually employs a sense of wonder at reality, the same wonder actual scientific exploration engenders. This emotion Clarke projects onto other beings:
“Those who had begun that experiment, so long ago, had not been men — or even remotely human. But they were flesh and blood, and when they looked out across the deeps of space, they had felt awe, and wonder, and loneliness.”
The astronauts of the book and film interact with a mind of human creation in the form of the conscious computer HAL 9000. By the end of the film, protagonist Dave Bowman encounters an alien race responsible for encouraging human evolution and in a way creating us. “And because, in all the Galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere.” The story is not only a meditation on the nature of other minds, but on the incredible existence of mind itself in an otherwise dead, blind universe.
In At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft spends tens of thousands of words establishing a fear of ancient monsters awakened by explorers in Antarctica. The Other is ugly and dangerous and threatening. But once the narrator reaches the ruins of the alien city, he realizes what the creatures have been experiencing the entire story. They awakened in a world radically different from the tropical paradise they last knew and have found their beautiful civilization destroyed. Fear gives way to empathy. “Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn – whatever they had been, they were men!”
“Silently and Very Fast” by Catherynne M. Valente is the story of an artificial intelligence named Elefsis becoming conscious and forming an identity. Not human, but still aware. Valente doesn’t draw humanity as something special that the machine wishes to be (as the message of the last Terminator movie declared, waxing poetic on the value of “heart”). Rather, she explores the nature of what it means to be conscious and shows that minds other than human are possible. Mythology and folk tales intertwine throughout the piece, highlighting the importance of storytelling in creating a sense of identity.
In Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, replicants are artificial humans born as adults and engineered to perform dangerous labor in outer space. To prevent them from becoming a threat to people, they are designed to die after a few years. A group of replicants escapes and seek out the scientist responsible for their creation. “I want more life, Father,” the replicant Roy declares upon meeting the man who designed him. Our own mortality is brought into focus following characters that face short, cruel lives. “It’s too bad she won’t live,” Edward James Olmos’s character says about a replicant the audience has come to sympathize with, “but then again, who does?”
He speaks about Rachael, a replicant implanted with fake memories so that she remembers a childhood she never had and therefore believes she is human. Harrison Ford’s character Deckard is a Blade Runner, a police officer tasked with hunting and killing (“retiring” is the film’s euphemism) the artificial people. In the end, however, we learn that Deckard himself is a replicant given false memories so that no humans have to be put in danger hunting the escapees. This should make us stop and think how much our identity and sense of self depends on our perception of having lived through a past and remembering it. While the technology of Blade Runner is imaginary, in the real world, misguided psychiatrists have given people false memories of childhood Satanic abuse and alien abductions, transforming their lives for the worse. Accident victims face the opposite issue, losing their memories and having their personalities altered. What does it mean to be an individual when the mind is malleable?
Moving from the individual to the many, we enter the field of sociology, which attempts to understand how societies are structured and large groups of people behave towards one another. Again, science fiction takes knowledge we have gained through study of the world and examines its implications.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness presents a civilization of androgynous people that take on the male or female sex once a month to reproduce, and anyone can become either sex. This imaginary world allows her to explore the nature of gender roles and reproduction through story whereas a sociologist would address the same ideas in a research study or essay.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler features a California in the 2020’s that has been hit by a trio of disasters: economic collapse, climate change induced drought, and lack of fuel in a post oil world. These pressures have turned the state into a third world nation filled with mass poverty, racial conflict, and violence as people struggle to hang onto what little civilization is left. Watching a society collapse provides an excellent way of seeing what it takes to hold one together. The main characters of the story have their local community destroyed and face constant threats of violence from other people made desperate by a world lacking resources. In the end, they are able to overcome fear of the Other by banding together with fellow refugees and forming a new community.
We see these themes again and again in Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Collins’s The Hunger Games. Knowing how civilization and social institutions can fail or be warped allows us to understand how they work. In this way science fiction is a very hopeful art form in that it either shows us how we can make the world a better place or how we can make it worse as a caution not to.
A story that portrays an actual failed state, refugee crisis, or totalitarian government is ultimately historical, portraying what has come before, even if events are fictionalized. Science fiction merely takes the fictionalizing one step further. As surveillance technology becomes more and more prevalent in our contemporary world, it is Orwell’s writing and other grim visions that are frequently referenced as warnings of what not to become. Ray Bradbury, author of the book burning dystopia Fahrenheit 451, is credited as saying, “I don’t try to predict the future. I try to prevent it.”
As I walked along Charles St. towards the Baltimore Book Festival the other week, I overheard an elderly woman tell her friend, “I just use my Navi to find it. It’s portable, I can carry it.” I’m assuming “navi” is short for navigation and she was talking about a GPS device. But that name sounds like something from a science fiction story. We live in a civilization shaped by science and technology. Some things are obvious like smart phones and robotic planes fighting wars, but there is also the technology we take for granted. The spread of utilities into communities worldwide, such electricity, water, and sewage, has raised standards of living and lowered mortality rates. Automobiles and the highway system have transformed American culture. The food we eat has been genetically engineered the hard way through thousands of years of selective breeding. The wild animal that cattle evolved from, the auroch, is extinct. What remains is something intentionally designed by humans to supply food and labor. Wolves are dangerous animals, but we’ve transformed them into loving pets that live in a near symbiosis with human beings with some dogs preferring the company of people over other dogs. We’ve constructed every aspect of our reality. It would benefit us to understand how.
Science is the process of understanding how the universe works and ideally we use that understanding to improve life. Storytelling is one of the oldest human traits, reaching back to tales told around fires and painted onto cave walls. Science fiction is the act of understanding the universe and the human condition through the framework of story.
The Baltimore Science Fiction Society is a local non-profit literary society dedicated to encouraging appreciation for all kinds of speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.) and fostering new writers. One of only three science fiction societies in the country that possesses its own physical headquarters (along with the New England Science Fiction Association and the LA Science Fiction Society), we host monthly book discussions and have visiting authors give presentations. A writing critique circle is held twice a month, day long writing workshops are run by professional authors several times a year, and members organize trips to literary events in the Baltimore-D.C. area.
About John: John Zaharick grew up in coal country Pennsylvania, among forests and mine fires. He has worked as an assistant editor for a weekly newspaper and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in ecology. His poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons and his fiction in Allegory. He can be found online at http://gplus.to/johnzaharick.