Visualizing the Future: Why Society Needs Science Fiction
Author: Sky Kapoor
We’ve been telling stories since before we had the ability to write them down.
Storytelling helps us make sense of our world and to foster connection between people. These narratives enable our imaginations to travel far beyond our present moment, and there’s a story in everything.
Alongside this innate storytelling, history was on the right track in anticipating the emergence of science fiction — a mutable genre that has a namesake composed of two words which are seemingly contradictory. Of all the possible stories humanity could tell, those concerning science may be the most multifaceted. It’s an endeavour that, from its humble beginnings in pulps, has grown into a genre full of possibility — and that includes social commentary.
Before you ask, no, science fiction isn’t just for nerds and physics majors who still live with their parents. Admittedly, I fall into both categories, so perhaps I’m not making a very good case.
While robots may not be our best friends just yet, science fiction is deeper than its surface. Much of literature is devoted to the past, yet science fiction asks unanswered questions about the future. All of the what-ifs are encompassed within this genre, and it’s a realm that is full of potential. For those seeking robust discussion and dystopian social commentary, look no further than sci-fi.
While the exact origins of science fiction are a bit fuzzy due to the community’s debacle over the true definition of “sci-fi,” classic works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein undoubtedly contributed to the origins of the genre. Though it had these earlier beginnings, much of the sci-fi we know and love today emerged during the Industrial Revolution. This period in which manufacturing went from home to factory certainly provides some context as to why so much of the science fiction genre deals with technological advancement. However, the struggles of this time made it abundantly clear that the abilities of technology itself cannot make an impact on a human being. No matter how advanced technology is, it needs to be paired with the humane words and calming voices that impact an individual firsthand.
When society began to progress more rapidly, the world became rife with possibility, making it much easier to envision a future vastly different from one’s own. As such, when the industrial world flourished around them, science fiction writers eagerly took to their pens as their fantasies became real right in front of them. Whether it was as an outlet for anxieties surrounding universal progress or to imagine utopias, the genre blossomed alongside the times.
The genre is incredibly apt these days as we read about times when people protest against their governments, the gap between the rich and poor increases, and the environment deteriorates. Eerily, this hits a little close to home. Representations of the breakdown and rebuilding of new societies offer a fresh spark of hope, strengthening both the genre and our consideration of logically viable futures. In essence, science fiction captures the radical shift in the ways we interact with one another and the environment around us.
Many formerly imaginative aspects in sci-fi have now become parts of our daily lives: life can be created synthetically, people have walked on the Moon, animals have been cloned, and the approximate sum of human knowledge is accessible via a smartphone. Indeed, these technological advancements have indisputably sparked unprecedented moral and ethical dilemmas for the future.
Not only has science fiction consolidated our perceptions of the future, but it’s also withstood the test of time. Though limited in its predictions, the genre has more or less managed to survive through intense pressure and advancements from the modern world through the diligence of its creators.
The price of this persistence, however, is viscerally real.
With all successes come obstacles, and in the case of sci-fi, much of the criticism actually comes from the fanbase. While generalizations aren’t entirely true, there exists a subset of sci-fi fans with some very pointed opinions about the genre’s responsibilities, claiming that social commentary and diverse representation ruin the premise of science fiction. Many of these criticisms come from the addition of minority groups in sci-fi television series, notably the reveal of both black and female Doctors in Doctor Who, and non-binary and trans characters in Star Trek.
Despite these criticisms, even this sci-fi contains social commentary. Each of these series comment on a broad number of social issues while featuring a diverse cast. Star Trek, for one, has always promoted messages of diversity, tolerance, and social justice. The original Enterprise featured George Takei, a Japanese-American actor, as Lieutenant Hikaru Sulu, and Nichelle Nichols, an African-American actress, as Lieutenant Uhura, two characters that were an integral part of this utopic future. And this was only the beginning. The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, had a strong belief in what he coined as “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” and as such, the Trek universe is rarely faulted in its representations of minority groups as it portrays them in positions of strength and integrity. There’s always room for improvement, and the highlights of representations in Star Trek are vastly separate from the overall quality of each of the seven series. However, as the series has developed, Star Trek has made it unabashedly clear that there is a place for minorities within science fiction.
Unlike Star Trek, the public may not often look to Doctor Who for their first pick of diverse sci-fi. However, the series constantly strives for representation of minority groups as well. In particular, the series features several LGBTQ+ characters in important roles. Episodes such as The God Complex, which is a story about faith, represents religious faith through a Muslim doctor. In keeping with faith, the first director of an episode of Doctor Who episode was Waris Hussein, a Muslim immigrant from Pakistan and an openly gay man — in 1963. Of course, there are natural faults within Doctor Who’s representations of minority groups, and improvements should constantly be assessed. However, addressing contemporary social issues and portraying diversity has been an insistent theme throughout these television shows, and as sci-fi TV staples, this is certainly a step in the right direction by both series.
In response to this there is a critical contingent of “OG fans” who often feel personally slighted by challenges to their perception of the series, as there is in every fandom. But, regardless of what the unabating Facebook or Twitter superfans might claim, science fiction inherently includes social commentary and diverse members. In fact, sci-fi is hardly a genre that only serves the majority — many notable science fiction writers fall into one or more minority groups, and science fiction in the media grows to include more accurate representations of humanity.
From its beginnings, sci-fi stories began by telling tales of science, big government, and technological advancement. The genre is adept at masking pressing real-world issues — whether social, ethical, or environmental — as unique problems that affect different universes or realities. This clever masking allows us to engage with real issues from a different vantage point, resulting in a deeper understanding. Even the childish stories are ones that keep us alive behind visions of evil robots or gruesome aliens.
Of course, one could not comment on science fiction without bringing up Battlestar Galactica, a notable series that was ahead of its time. Storylines within the series include that of a woman seeking political asylum from her colony and struggling to gain approval of her decision to have an abortion. The series then shows a president that abruptly switches sides in her stance towards abortion rights, murder, and a deep commentary and criticism of religion: asking if it is always just. All of these topics are issues easily identifiable within our world, yet are represented in a completely different world. It’s this aspect of science fiction which creates ideas that not only leave us in awe of tomorrow, but that comment on today.
It’s nearly indisputable to say that the history of science fiction is innately tied into political and social representations of individuals. It’s a genre that, despite its initial appearance, serves underrepresented groups, meaningfully comments on real-world issues surrounding inequity, and hands the torch to minority creators. This innately leads to criticism, but I urge you to assess them for yourself. I know that whatever the criticisms may be, I’ll forever be rewatching my favourite sci-fi movies, leafing through old comic books, and immersing myself in the worlds created by them.
After all, the gaps between fantasy and reality become smaller every day.