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In Defence of Science Fiction

When you think of science fiction, what comes to mind? Aliens? Sheldon Cooper? That trope where a condescending male character spews scientific jargon, only to be asked to repeat themselves “in English, please”? Space as “the final frontier”?

When you think of science fiction, what comes to mind? Aliens? Sheldon Cooper? That trope where a condescending male character spews scientific jargon, only to be asked to repeat themselves “in English, please”? Space as “the final frontier”?

Sorry to any Star Trek fans out there, but that last one is a good example of why the science fiction genre can be, at first glance, unattractive. Star Trek is a quintessential example of the genre’s characteristic theme of space travel functioning as a sympathetic metaphor for colonisation. Astrofuturism, it’s called—the idea that the Euro-American advance into “the final frontier” could solve social problems, conveniently ignoring the demonstrable horrors and destruction of Western expansionism.

Even if it were easy to look past the uncomfortable, racist resonances of astrofuturism, characters in the sci-fi genre can sometimes be so extraordinary as to be totally unrelatable to consumers. Whether they’re super-genius astronauts, outcast space explorers or straight-up aliens, they get to escape what ordinary people actually go through in daily life. It’s an uncomfortable parallel to the billionaire space race, which evokes miserable imagery evokes of our planet shrinking in the rear-view mirror of Jeff Bezos’ commercial spaceship, along with all its problems his extraordinary wealth could solve.

This is not to mention probably the single most common turn-off for sci-fi that laypersons cite: the perception of the genre’s fans and writers as overly dry, male-dominated and technical. If the characters, plots and concepts of science fiction are at once so distant, unhuman and elitist that we can’t relate to them—can’t learn anything about ourselves or the world we live in by reading about them—has it not failed the most basic function of fiction and of art? A movie or book that just feels like somebody mansplaining robotics homework to me certainly wouldn’t be my first choice for entertainment. I’d rather spend my time with a more “organic” genre like fantasy, tearing my way through a fun yet profound allegory of good and evil that features a zany cast of wizards in funny outfits. But hang on. Does that sound familiar? Because that’s basically what Star Wars is, except it also happens to be set in space. The gems of science fiction have never been about escapism, astrofuturism or even science at all; rather, they’re about human drama, morality and the incommunicable realms of the spirit.

For decades, Dune by Frank Herbert (since adapted into the 2021 film starring Timothée Chalamet) was thought of as too dry, too nerdy and too damn complicated for any normal person to enjoy. It’s sci-fi, but it doesn’t even have computers in it! Employing a quasi-medieval feudal system involving emperors and family “houses”, you could, in fact, argue that the Dune experience is a trip back to a simpler time in human history rather than straight ahead into a cold, technological future. The film adaptation’s director Denis Villeneuve said it best when explaining the technophobic—and thus the unexpectedly human—quality of the source material: “Dune is about triumph of the human spirit.”

In that way, science fiction is functionally the same thing as fantasy. Sci-fi teaches us about and explores the limits of our reality by departing from it; it explores the possibilities of the real present in metaphors of rich, faraway, fictional worlds that we otherwise can’t reach. Only, the technicality assumed by sci-fi that I mentioned earlier—if harnessed properly so as not to combust into astrofuturism discourse—can take the genre further to suggest that dreaming of other worlds and tending to the human spirit is in fact pragmatic, because dreams are the birthplace of science.

Sci-fi and fantasy work so well as complements to each other because, in terms of plot device, science is exactly to science fiction what magic is to fantasy: merely a medium through which amorphous concepts like morality, nature, dreams and the soul can intuitively be explored, given some suspension of belief.

What makes science such a fun tool for fictional conjecture is that the average person is ignorant enough that sci-fi barely necessitates that suspension of belief at all. Sure, I’m familiar enough with basic neuroscience and psychology terms that I can grasp the pseudoscientific dream-control mechanism described in Ursula K. Le Guin’s sci-fi masterpiece, The Lathe of Heaven, without Googling anything. But I’m also so scientifically illiterate that I’m barely cognisant of how ridiculous and implausible it actually is.

Space’s emptiness—both in the vast spatial sense and in our collective ignorance regarding it—is the perfect canvas to project our most nebulous, dreamlike and thus human imagery onto. Think of the psychedelic Stargate sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the source material of which is a masterclass in utilising science as a vehicle for exploration of the human spirit to supernatural, almost magical effect.

And if it seems unintuitive to equate science with magic, remember that—at risk of sounding sappy—most people with a passion for science would probably agree that science is magic, or at least, it’s as close to it as we can get. Dr Deo Florence Onda, one of the first to make the voyage into the third-deepest trench in our oceans, evokes pure magical realism in describing his descent: “I saw each and every page of my oceanography book coming into reality, like a fairytale,” he said. “I was seeing how light dissipates with depth. I was seeing how pressure increases, which then decreases temperature, and all of the physics and chemistry and biology of oceanography coming into reality. It was a fantasy for me.”

Furthermore, often stories of scientific discovery are actually about the people doing the discovering rather than the science that is being discovered, which is key in understanding sci-fi’s modus operandi. Patrik Svensson wrote an article describing the history of how we came to know where, geographically, European eels breed. Svensson tells of Danish scientist Johannes Schmidt, who, at the turn of the twentieth century, set out on the Atlantic Ocean with the intention of figuring it out. His method was tedious. Years went by. With World War I breaking out, his route became downright perilous. “He just kept on going,” said Svensson. All so that in 1920—18 years after he first set out to do it!—he could finally say with certainty that the European eels breed in the Sargasso Sea. “This says something about the human urge to understand nature,” said Svensson. “There was no money in it, there was no prestige. It was just his curiosity.”

This, in my opinion, is the beating heart of science-fiction that makes it so special: human stories of hardship, curiosity and love on the path toward discovery. It brings to mind the quest trope that has been a cornerstone of fiction since time immemorial. “It’s not the grail we want, but to journey toward our longing,” Traci Brimhall writes in Our Lady of the Ruins (2012), crucially, of quests. “We want to find the tomb empty.” It’s not technology, cold escapism or a sense of intellectual superiority we read sci-fi for, but to dream of our present in new ways, of a better future, or just for the sake of dreaming.

 

Sci-fi recs for people who don’t like sci-fi:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur Clarke
  • A Fisherman of the Inland Sea by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
  • Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki
  • The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (again)
 
Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Five 2022

EDITION SIX 'RETROFUTURISM' AVAILABLE NOW!

Our last print edition of 2022 is here! This wild, visionary edition is filled with burning nostalgia, glittering hope, and tantalising visions of the future, past, and present.

Read online