Can Science Fiction Save Us?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, February 12, 2016

Science fiction has always used world-wide worries to inspire story ideas, and since we have more problems than ever, no science fiction writer should have writer’s block. Science fiction about climate change is a growing sub-genre, and our lists of future-shaking events keeps growing. Any current concern in the news can be extrapolated into the future, becoming a muse for science fiction. But how effective is fiction at solving real world problems? Can science fiction save us?

When I was growing up the future was so bright we had to wear mirror shades. Now, our tomorrows are clouded over by menacing speculative storms. Most of the 7.3 billion passengers on spaceship Earth are so preoccupied with their day-to-day survival that any thoughts about the future are reserved for escapes into imaginary wonderlands. And I can dig that too — who desires realism when its dreary? Anyone who has seen Sullivan’s Travels, a Preston Sturges film about The Great Depression misery, knows that people don’t want stories with messages, but stories that let you forget your problems. I assume Lois McMaster Bujold has more fans than Paolo Bacigalupi.

dark clouds 3

Science fiction has always taken two paths. The first, and most common, is to entertain. The second, and harder to travel, is to philosophize about the discoveries of science and imagine what they mean to the future. Science fiction has always produced wild speculations, but for most of its history, was never taken seriously. SF was often ridiculed, even though it can be considered a cognitive tool for a highly specific task. Serious science fiction can warn us about emerging dangers through extrapolation, but it also has the potential to create desired goals with creative speculation.

Yet, I’ve got to wonder if science fiction can save us. When I was growing up you’d hide your Heinlein inside a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover to avoid the embarrassment of being caught reading science fiction. Science fiction was childish fantasies for weirdo kids. Trufans rationalized science fiction was serious stuff, claiming it prepared readers for the future, but that was mostly laughed at. Things changed May 25, 1977 when Star Wars came out, and science fiction became the favorite form of fairy tale for the information age. Now, billions say they love Sci-Fi, but few take it seriously. Should they?

The future is shaping up to be everything we never wanted. Maybe it’s time to reconsider’s science fiction’s role. Christians believe that studying the teachings of Jesus can save people, at least after they die. I’d like to believe studying science fiction could save our species before we reach self-extinction. I’m not asking that science fiction become boring and pedantic. I’m just wondering if it’s possible for science fiction to imagine desirable futures that are sustainable. Project Hieroglyph was one attempt.

Novels like Among Others by Jo Walton and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders convey how painful it used to be growing up nerdy. SF fans were outcasts. In my day they’d call us zeroes. But now that the geeks have inherited the Earth, science fiction fans seemed to have taken over the world. Is its appeal large enough to be influential? Science fiction must compete with two older literary traditions, The Bible and The Quran, for explaining reality. Science offers the only consistent explanation of reality, but evidently the majority of folks on this planet can’t comprehend it. Science fiction is only slightly more rigorous than religion, but it might be a step in the right direction since religion desperately seeks to focus on the past.

Just because pop culture has embraced comics and science fiction, doesn’t mean they have social impact. Can any novel change society? Maybe. Consider George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. That tale of Big Brother and newspeak did more to undermine communism than all the John Birchers put together. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe shamed a nation against slavery, so we know novels can help reshape morality. How many Victorian minds were blown by H. G. Wells? And didn’t Catch-22, M*A*S*H and Slaughterhouse-Five convince many Americans to turn against the Vietnam War?

Every day the mass media brings us more stories about how the future is going to bring humanity retribution for its evil ways. Political conservatives and faithful fundamentalists from around the globe have dedicated themselves to denying science. If billions refuse to listen to scientists, why should they pay attention to science fiction? Christianity uses Hell as an effective tool to sell salvation, so why doesn’t frightening futures work for science fiction? Of course Christianity has made the purchase price of salvation so ridiculously cheap that most people figure why not buy. Saying “I believe” is a micro-payment compared to the painful expense of self-disciplining our souls.

Where the rubber hits the road to tomorrowland is the fact that we all need to change the way we live. Most people can’t lose weight even when the incentive is not to die a miserable death. As a species we’re very adaptable at surviving in diverse environments, but we can’t adapt ourselves to stabilize the environment. In 1968, I read Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner. I was horrified by his vision of 2010. Brunner claimed two common themes would exist, worldwide terrorism, as well as daily TV news stories about crazed individuals committing mass killings. I really didn’t want to grow up to live in that future. But we all have. Could we have studied Brunner in the sixties to avoid the now in which we live? Brunner didn’t offer any prophecy. By the way, prophecy isn’t about predicting the future, but about convincing people how to live, so as to create a desired future. Can any science fiction novel be truly prophetic? Science fiction can create elaborate extrapolations leading to scary tomorrows, but can it find paths to greener pastures?

How often has the fate of the Earth been the plot driver of science fiction? 99% of the purpose of science fiction is entertainment, and even that 1% of serious speculation needs to be entertaining secondarily. Some science fiction writers have been prophets. Unfortunately, as people who read The Bible know, few people listen to prophets, which probably answers my title question.

I bring up this question now after reading All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, the first SF/F book I’ve read for 2016. Anders’ book is getting great reviews and buzz around the net. It’s a wonderful YA/SF/F/Literary mashup about many things, including the forces of magic and the forces of science separately fighting climate change. Not to give anything away, but I found their desperate solutions rather horrifying, which I think was Anders intention, but other recent science fiction stories have also come up with similar solutions that are even scarier.

The most extreme example is Interstellar, which preaches sacrificing all to build spaceships to seed other worlds before Earth collapses. Their logic is we’ve used up Earth, so let’s abandon it and go find a new home. There was never any suggestion that we try to save our planet. It’s the ultimate example of disposable consumerism. Our home world is a used Kleenex, so toss it out and get a new one.

In Seveneves, the latest novel by Neal Stephenson, the Earth is destroyed by an astronomical event, but humans were given enough time to build a fleet of Noah’s arks in space. This avoids the ethical issue of self-destruction. The story is extremely optimistic about our technological potential. But one of the common reasons now given to justify the colonization of other worlds is that we need to get all our genetic eggs out of one basket. Even scientists like Stephen Hawking are promoting this idea. And it’s logical. We could claim that science fiction inspired this philosophy. If we ever spend the money to colonize the Moon or Mars, we can give science fiction the credit. However, humans haven’t left Low-Earth orbit for over forty years, even after an explosion of science fiction popularity since the last man walked on the Moon. Taking care of Earth should be our prime priority — but it seldom is in science fiction. When will everyone realize that Earth might be our only home for millions of years?

We’re starting to see more science fiction deal with climate change. One very vivid novel last year, The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, focused on water wars. Bacigalupi doesn’t offer any instructions on how to avoid that future, but does paint such a scary picture of climate change’s side-effects that he’s trying to scare us straight. The novel got some good reviews, but I’ve yet to meet anyone else who’s read it and haven’t heard any buzz about it on the net.

Is preaching fire and brimstone futures the only tool science fiction has to convince us to avoid our life of sin? And let’s fess up here, climate change, mass extinction, polluted land, sea and sky, economic inequality, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and all the rest, are our sins. Yes, the world sometimes ends in a comet collision, gamma-ray burst or super-volcano eruption, but most of the time, Earth gets trashed by us.

There’s a growing library of climate change science fiction (Cli-Fi). But will reading such stories make us consume fewer resources? How many people read science fiction? Well, not that many. But multitudes go to the movies to see science fiction. What if HBO offered a mini-series based on The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi? Would it influence politics and lifestyle? The Windup Girl illustrates the results of climate change, monoculture farming, and using up all the oil. Even though it’s a very colorful future, it’s not one that most people would visit if they had a time machine.

All the governments around the world are working on reducing C02 in the atmosphere. Ninety-eight percent of the scientists and a large percentage of the general population know about the dangers of increase C02. The problem is many people refuse to believe there is a problem, including the Republican Party. Would more science fiction illustrating what life might be like after “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” make a difference? If all of us believed the science of climate change absolutely, would we change the way we live? Or are too many Homo sapiens fatalists?

1998 brought two films, Deep Impact and Armageddon about big rocks crashing into our planet. Since then, governments around the world have been spending money to develop early warning systems. And can’t we claim all the SF stories about malevolent emerging AI made the current client of skepticism of artificial intelligence what it is today? Hasn’t the phrase “living off the grid” come from SF-awareness? Haven’t all the Preppers gotten their philosophy from science fiction? Didn’t we go to the Moon because of science fiction? Cold war politics paid for the Apollo program, but wasn’t science fiction the original inspiration?

Science fiction can give us thousands of scenarios about ecological catastrophes, mass extinction events, and AIs transforming society, but are they useful? Do we all just read the stories to be thrilled, and then continue on with our excessive lifestyles, ignoring daily species extinctions, and even wanting our computers to get smarter and take over more jobs?

I have to be cynical here. Could science fiction be like religion, in that we’re willing to talk the talk, but not walk the walk? How many of the faithful swear absolute belief, yet make no attempt to live divinely? How many eco-evangelists live green lives? For the prophets of science fiction to succeed they must first imagine livable lifestyles, and then convince readers to live them. And isn’t the record for famous Biblical prophets something like Prophets 0, People 7? I don’t think we escape our fate by self-flagellation and choosing to live like ascetics. We need visionaries that can imagine new kinds of urban lifestyles that protect the environment yet offer self-sustaining forms of abundances to seek, rather than our rampant destructive consumerism we chase now.

Science fiction has always excelled at imagining Hells, but it’s awful at inventing Heavens. In fact, dystopias are what kids love today. Why? Isn’t it kind of sick that the chosen setting for escapist literature is a dystopia? Why have utopias gone out of fashion? Sure utopias are impossible almost by definition, but getting close might be possible. Utopias were popular hundreds of years ago, but I guess most of humanity gave up on Heaven on Earth back in the 19th century.

Donald Trump campaigns with the slogan “Make America Great Again” so we know a better future is a popular want because of his success. Yet, Republicans are so adamant about no new taxes that they are causing the country to slide into ruin and disrepair. You can’t make a great nation by penny pinching. All the anti-tax revolutionaries have done is ruined K-12 and higher education, neglected the infrastructure, deflated the middle class, fired first responders, teachers and other valuable governmental employees, gutted libraries, let parks run down, defund science and research, and the list goes on and on. America was great when we had the Apollo Moon program, or when we were fighting WWII—and we all paid a lot more in taxes. We weren’t cheap, and knew building a great nation costs money and requires sacrifice.

We have the scientific knowledge and technology to solve all our problems, but we don’t. Why? Because we’re not unified. All across the globe populations are divided between conservatives and liberals. Most of the Muslim world, and half the Christian, want to return to the past, to embrace an Old Testament view of reality. We all live in the same reality, but we each perceive it differently. Until we reach some kind of consensus about the nature of reality, we’re not going to solve our problems. This is where pop culture comes into play, it’s a kind of peer pressure of ideas.

At some point we have to do what the prophets ask, or face extinction. Did all the prophets of the past fail because they imagined unappealing lifestyles? Evidently convincing people to do what’s hard never succeeds over people choosing to do what they feel like. Can science fiction ever make us disciplined?

I didn’t write the above to make a political point, but to show that we lack vision for making life better. Most conservatives are arming themselves for the Armageddon, while liberals focus on their own brand of gloom and doom. Science fiction needs to stop thinking about the end of the world and focus on the goal of surviving a million years on this planet. If we don’t think about the future, then the future becomes whatever we’re doing without thinking.


14 thoughts on “Can Science Fiction Save Us?”

    1. It wasn’t meant to be a hit job on religion. The purpose of the essay is to point out we don’t follow prophets – of any kind. If you read The Bible, it’s a history of prophets pleading with people to follow the prophecy or lamenting they haven’t. For thousands of years prophets have tried to get people to work together to build a better tomorrow, and history has always shown that few cooperate. I’m just saying the prophets of science fiction will probably have the same fate. I’m not attacking prophets, I’m criticizing us followers for being weak.

  1. Like this post a lot; this stuff is very much on my mind. Reading Seveneves, I took it for granted that the event was a metaphor for global warming, exaggerated to grab attention. I’m not sure what I would do with that, or if it’s even a good thing to suggest that our problems could be solved by a desperate last stand of engineers freed from any political influence. Stephenson somewhere comments that the last third of the novel addresses just what you are saying about the lack of attractive imagined futures. I’ve been reading a lot of Kim Stanley Robinson lately (interested to know if you’ve an opinion on him), and it seems that Aurora is precisely an attempt to put the focus back on our responsibility for Earth. Finally, The Martian deserves a lot of credit for putting a positive spin back on science fiction; it would be a mistake to write it off as light, Hollywood ready entertainment.

  2. Re your observation, “Most of the 7.3 billion passengers on spaceship Earth are so preoccupied with their day-to-day survival that any thoughts about the future are reserved for escapes into imaginary wonderlands. And I can dig that too — who desires realism when it’s dreary?”

    Cixin Liu, in his Clarkesworld essay, “Another Word: Chinese Science Fiction and Chinese Reality,” translated by Ken Liu, makes a somewhat similar point:

    “The most profound way that Chinese science fiction reflects Chinese reality is not in the incisive portrayals of and subtle metaphors about Chinese society, but in its trend of moving away from concerns with everyday reality. The manner in which Chinese science fiction is moving further and further away from reality and closer to the future and the stars is a reflection of the deep changes in the thinking patterns of the Chinese people, especially the younger generation. I have no doubt such changes will, in turn, transform China’s present as well as its future.”

    Both observations explain why the last couple of SF short stories I’ve written can’t find a home (presuming they’re written well-enough to find one). They’re dreary, showing people 25-35 years from now struggling to find some meaning and agency in an even more corporatist, IoT world. It’s the world I see coming, and it’s terrifying, but how do I find something more hopeful to say? Do I leave all the corporatist stuff in the background rather than the “nature” the characters must struggle against? Is there any wonder left here on Earth when we have to move to the stars to find it?

    1. Excellent question Stephen. Why does science fiction usually find wonder off Earth? As a kid growing up with alcoholic parents, I read science fiction to escape by real world problems. But since we can’t live on Mars, we need to find wonder on Earth.

  3. Perhaps we have to leave Earth because on Earth that wonder is usually figured around unexplored regions (lost worlds), unattainable regions (lost horizons, secret societies, private spaces) and unfamiliar regions (non-Western cultures and the big city, to name a few), and there just aren’t any left. Everything is knowable remotely or reachable physically and, thus, local now. Why go to Paris when you can tour it using Google Streetview? Why stand in a huge crowd to look at the Mona Lisa when you can get perfect reproductions online? Why go to Japan to meet someone when you can Skype and tweet with them while eating takeout sushi? Heck, why even send soldiers to a country when you can bomb it with drones flown from an office park in California or missiles launched from a sub in the nearest ocean?

    Of course, this could be a personal thing. I’m not a great traveler. When I lived in Japan, once I found a place to buy my dinner and get my dress shirts laundered, I was home.

    I would (likely unoriginally) template the wonder story this way: “What’s on the other side of that fence? I bet the grass is greener over there, probably watered by someone I can love. So how do I get past it?” In SF, it seems to me, the fence is the depths of space, the the veils of reality, the twists of the mind, the restrictions of technology or the dimensional barrier of time (as a line is a fence to a point). Geographically, though, where is there to go? Maybe local SF (is that at term?) can find wonder in the physical spaces people can explore in an otherwise entirely defined or restricted world. Julia Steinbacher does that really well in “Inter-Exo.” So rather than thinking of future tech and corporate America as a type of nature people must fight against, perhaps I should be asking myself, What fences are being put up? Besides simply gated communities for the rich, of course, because the world in there may offer no more fulfilling lives, just better amenities.

    In fact, maybe the template of apocalypse stories is that people were on the greener side of the fence and didn’t realize it, then zombies, for instance, knocked it down, and people have to figure out how to get the fence back up to restore their lives and previously unquestioned privilege.

    1. This is a fascinating line of thought Stephen. I do know writers of the past, like Clifford Simak and Ray Bradbury found local sources of wonder. Two recent books I mentioned that have explored the role of the science fiction fan were Among Others by Jo Walton and All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. Both imply that fans are unhappy growing up but find wonder in science fiction and fantasy. Readers don’t actually travel physically to other places, but travel across space and time mentally. If you want to write successful stories I guess, then you need to appeal to that psyche. Like I said in the essay, 99% of science fiction’s appeal is escapism, and like I said in my reference to Sullivan’s Travels, that’s what people want. My point, if one is there in a vague way, is to suggest that if we don’t want to always live in escapist fantasies then we need to change the reality in which we live.

      But your challenge of wanting to write and sell stories is to appeal to the reader. I’m guessing if you want to sell a lot of stories, providing escape will lead to more sales than writing realistic stories that advocate dealing with the here and now.

      1. I think you’re absolutely right, doctor. I’m also a book editor handling business titles, and I tell authors their books can’t just tell readers what they should hear. The books, instead, must fulfill their readers’ recognized need or solve their specific problem. My SF should do the same, especially if the problem is, “I had to spend 8 hours at work and don’t want to think about my needs and problems anymore.”

        FYI, two of my SF stories that did sell were deliberate attempts at provoking wonder. They took place, perhaps unsurprisingly, on Mars and Pluto.

        I liked AMONG OTHERS, although it made me feel horribly underread.

        And I see an idea forming based around your idea of mental transport. Thanks.

  4. Hi James

    I have been pondering your question for some time, and my gut reaction was no, but I never thought CB radio would catch on so I I thought some more. Many SF writers are writing about the threats they perceive to humanity, but whether are these intended as warnings, prophecies or just topics they think are hot and would interest their readers is not always clear. Andre Norton when asked, whether her novel Star Man’s Son about life after a nuclear war reflected her anxiety about the bomb, said no, she simply wanted to write about Cleveland, where she lived as a ruin and this plot let her do it. On the other hand you have early proto-sf like the Battle of Dorking, written by George Chesney in 1871 about which wikipedia states “Chesney was a captain in the Royal Engineers and had grown concerned over the ramshackle state of Britain’s armed forces. He used fiction as a device to promulgate his views after letters and journalism on the issue had failed to impact on the public consciousness.
    The Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) had just demonstrated the speed, superiority and adaptability of the Prussian Army, which meant that Chesney’s depiction of a fast-moving and determined invader hit a nerve.[1]” Whether this influenced British rearmament I am not sure but he is considered one of the founders of the SF category of future war fiction.

    But regardless of what the writers intended I do think they can influence the way people think. Wollheim in his book the Universe Makers, Science Fiction Today starts his discussion on Post War SF with a chapter called Growing Up Grim, where he discussed how the optimism of earlier SF changed as the next generation of readers realized that they could well see the further use of atomic weapons, resulting in mass death, environmental pollution, mutation etc. and he felt this influenced the drop out youth cultures of the 60’s. When you read or listen to interviews with scientists many will mention SF as one of the reasons they entered engineering or astrophysics or space exploration. Often it seems to be the authors of our somewhat more optimistic period, Clarke or Asimov for example. I know watching the movie On the Beach from the novel by Shute with its powerful depiction of the consequences of nuclear war made a real impression on me. Did works like this help us, even slightly, avoid the next war we all thought might be coming when the missiles appeared in Cuba. You mentioned Stand on Zanzibar by Brunner, will this or Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up or their more recent equivalents influence the thinkings of new generations just as earlier SF influenced the readers of Clarke or Asimov. I think it will.

    But I don’t know if it can make much of a difference. We don’t, or many of us don’t, learn for history, not even recent history, as the events in the Middle East show. Many don’t believe, even in proven science, as the anti-vaccination movements demonstrate. So can we learn from SF, I suspect some of us can. I have seen in my own life that literature including SF can be a powerful tool in shaping your ideas. However I suspect that with so many people in denial about anything that will require any substantive change to the status quo, any changes will be insufficient to create real improvement. Even SF has a hard time postulating solutions to the problems we face, certainly not any solutions we are likely to adopt. I think the only thing that could work would be the well worn SF trope were our space brothers appear to save us from ourselves. But I have started Stand on Zanzibar again, a book I always abandon as too depressing so I will see what happens.

    Sorry I rambled a bit.

    All the best

    1. I’ve never read The Battle of Dorking, but I’ve read about it a number of times. I’m currently listening to the 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works, a Great Course from The Teaching Company, taught by Gary K. Wolfe. I recently listened to the lecture about 19th century invasion stories. This is a great lecture series. If you have Audible you can get it for one credit. At it’s rather expensive. I read Wollheim book decades ago. I should track down a copy. I just read an interview with him the other day.

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