Space: the Final Frontier.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
These are phrases that we all know and love - household phrases that prove the thriving, lively popularity of science fiction in our mainstream culture. Everyone knows about Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner and the on-going list of sci-fi classics because of their engaging drama, their charm, their timeless stories, and their irresistible ability to entertain. But what most people may not realize is that science fiction is a much more influential genre than we may take it to be at first glance. The genre is a sneaky creature, impacting our culture just as much as our culture influences it.
A Brief History...
Let’s begin by looking at the origin of science fiction. True History is commonly referred to as the earliest known piece of science fiction, being the first fiction to explore alien life, space travel and interplanetary warfare. Written by a Syrian author named Lucien during the 2nd century AD, True History has some of the strangest imagery I’ve come across. You can read summaries and even the full text of True History online, but essentially the plot goes like this: adventuring heroes are sailing across the sea when they're lifted by a whirlwind to the moon and become involved in a war between the citizens of the moon and the sun. They do all that and more, including becoming trapped in a giant whale and finding an island of cheese.
What's most brilliant about True History was that Lucien’s intent was to write a satire against adventure tales, such as those of Homer, that were filled to the brim with embellishments and fallacies. Lucien’s intent was to write an adventure story so ridiculous, it could never be believed as true, even as he insists it is throughout the entire tale.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the predecessor to a very important factor of science fiction today: social commentary.
Personally, I like to consider science fiction in three broad categories that can, and often do, overlap each other when applied to a piece of media: escapism, social commentary, and hard science. I believe these three categories are broad enough brush strokes to cover most, if not all, science fiction out there (as well as fantasy in some cases, which as we all know, goes with science fiction as well as brownies and milk.)
Probably the broadest way to describe science fiction is that it is escapism (same goes for fantasy… or any form of media, when you get right down to it). Escapism is something we all engage in, whether it be as small as daydreaming out the office window to as large as binge-marathoning six seasons of Stargate SG-1 on Netflix (too soon, I know).
To clarify, I prefer to think of escapism as a way of describing media that is removed enough from reality, or at least engaging enough, to fully distract or entertain you away from your worries—a suspension of disbelief, a crucial feature to every piece of media out there. It’s immersion. It’s forgetting, if only for a short while. And like all forms of narrative, you can learn something from the media you consume to improve your every day life. Really, it’s a win-win. To an extent.
Escapism is an important factor here because it is a healthy way to refresh yourself to continue to fight the good fight. But, like all things, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. Escapism gets a nasty taste to it when done in excess. The individual engaged in too much escapism is perceived as losing a connection with the rest of society and can also have negative impacts on an individual’s health (i.e. sacrificing sleeping, eating, basic human contact, etc). Because science fiction (and fantasy) is such a popular avenue for escapism, therein lies a perceived correlation: fans of sci-fi escape from from their lives to the extent as to lose connection to the real world.
While this can be true in some situations, it is hardly true in every situation. Unfortunately, the negative side of the coin was populated as the truth for a long time. We’ve all seen the vastly over-done stereotypes: the unshaven, acne-riddled fanboy mouth-breathing his way through a Star Trek convention. The pasty skin. The inability to catch social cues. Have you ever caught a news station covering attendees of a science fiction/fantasy convention? The judgment is practically palpable.
Which, I must say, is pretty ironic considering how embedded into main stream culture science fiction has become throughout the last decade or two.
Hard science fiction is a narrower, educated niche of the overall genre that emphasizes accurate scientific and technical facts and details. These stories tend to have more rigorous restrictions based on scientific fact and presenting the story in a logical and realistic way. If you’re a hardcore science buff, this can be a fun genre because you get to engage in “the game”—that is, fact checking and challenging the ideas presented by the author in a fictional setting. The game behind hard sci-fi is an engagement of back and forth that isn’t present in all forms of media, which really makes this niche of the genre unique and worth exploring.
The best thing is that this game is also present on a grander scale. Yes, there is the back and forth between author and reader—and then there's the back and forth amongst science fiction and true technology. The current technology of the world influences how science fiction writers envision the future—the tools we have not yet invented to make life more convenient. On the other hand, those envisioned tools of science fiction can become reality. Cloning, anyone? We may not have hover cars yet, but hey, we have functional holograms and twisted laser beams, don’t we? This is one of the many ways that science fiction becomes an influence for the future of our society.
And this brings me to my last category: Social commentary. This is where media, of any genre of any medium, really packs a punch. Sci-fi, whether hard or soft, can engage in this objective. This is what Lucien was doing when he wrote True History. Any of those influential sci-fi authors, like HG Wells, or Isaac Asimov? Social commentary.
This is where science fiction stops being an influence for our society and starts being influenced by society-- because at the root of every sci-fi flick there’s something to be said. Something to be analyzed.
Science fiction is an avenue for our wildest dreams of the future of humankind—and it can also be a horrible catalyst for our biggest fears. The antagonists that drive the movies we sit down in front of to forget the real world are the same monsters that bully the world from which we escape. Next time you sit down in front of a sci-fi film, the next big box office hit, think about what it might say about what we, as a society, fear and want from our lives.
I say movies, and not other forms of media, only because movies are the most accessible and popular, but you can do this with video games (also pretty cinematic these days) and, of course, books. What you will most likely see is a lot of terrorism, disease (sometimes in the form of zombies, sometimes not) and war. Not that that’s new; war has always been a popular subject in sci-fi and many other genres. Still, considering the current events over the past couple of decades, it’s really not surprising at all.
These days, it seems science fiction movies are focusing more on our fears, and less on our aspirations and dreams for the future. Nowadays, it’s what we dread for the future. How will we handle things? How will we survive? What will humankind do? If all our media is focusing on what we are worried about, doesn’t that, in itself, say an awful lot about where our society is today?
Am I saying we need our science fiction to be inspiring, uplifting, and full of wonder? Well heck, why wouldn’t I say that? But no, the point isn’t what we need from science fiction, but rather, it’s important to acknowledge “the game.” If this is the kind of subjects we always see in our science fiction these days, what direction will our society and technology take? If our world was concerned about different things, or were striving towards different inventions and ideals, I think science fiction would take drastically different directions.
And since science fiction is much more mainstream these days, instead of regarded only as some kind of shameful niche genre, your job as a consumer becomes even more important. Analyze your media. Or simply just enjoy it and forget for a while. But expect no less from the authors and directors who produce the work you enjoy.
After all, that’s how you play the game.