My favorite anecdote on the power of science fiction isn’t, strictly speaking, about science fiction, yet it illustrates well what the genre does best: imaginatively explores possibilities based on what is known of the world at a particular moment in time. A couple of years ago, I stumbled across a news article on the internet, which announced that scientists had discovered that trees communicated with each other through an underground network of fungi. This delighted me, but more than viewing this discovery as a mere victory of science, I celebrated it as a triumph of speculative fiction. After all, in dozens of the stories I’d read as a child, talking trees were the norm. Perhaps those writers got the mode and medium of communication wrong, but the idea that trees communicated with the wider world was clearly present in them much before science legitimized it.
The most highly-acclaimed works within the genre all tend to contain a fictional hypothesis (a ‘what if’ supposition) which the writer backs up by using the principles of scientific thought as justification, so that the world presented to the reader is convincing; even if it exists outside of or overlaps with the domain of our lived reality. This is not too different from how scientists make new discoveries and inventions: first by hypothesizing, then by building a body of proof using elements from their empirical environment. People often marvel at the fact that new technology or scientific phenomena were predicted by science fiction writers well before their time, but this isn’t surprising given that both scientist and science fiction writer use similar methodologies in their work.
Darko Suvin, an academician who has been largely instrumental in developing a poetics of the science fiction genre, has provided a useful theoretical framework for determining what science fiction is. With this, it becomes possible to tell good sci-fi from badly-executed attempts at it, without having to fall back on popular aesthetic choices within the genre as the only yardstick for quality. His definition throws a light on works, for instance: Flowers for Algernon, Autoplay: Not-So Stories, and The Carpet Makers, which do not contain the usual tropes of spaceships, alien-invasions, A.I. takeovers or engineered ecological disasters, but are valid examples of good science fiction writing.
Suvin’s primary qualification for sci-fi is the concept of cognitive estrangement, which we are alerted to by the presence of something he calls ‘the novum’. A novum is usually an object, either an invention or something derived from the author’s environment, which is out-of-the-ordinary. Its function in the story is to reveal that the fictional world being unravelled to the reader, operates in a logically consistent way which is yet unlike the ‘natural’ world the reader inhabits. Being introduced to novums in a text creates a state of cognitive estrangement in the reader, where she begins to reconsider how all the other elements of the fictionalized world may differ from her own as a result of this new addition. The novum makes the familiar strange. Sometimes, this strangeness could be embodied in a single object, whose inclusion in a story alters the world contained within it. In some science fiction, the novum can be more conceptual than material, and it manifests in the way the society or civilization in the story perceives sociological concepts of time, gender, and race. An effective use of the novum is the first line of 1984: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Or the sentence, “the king is pregnant”, in The Left Hand of Darkness.
In an interview, Ray Bradbury, an American writer well-loved for his science-fiction novels, described science fiction as ‘the fiction of ideas’. These ideas tend to be performed in a futuristic setting or in a parallel universe, one that is often an extrapolation of the writer’s contemporary times. The realm of ideas that the genre engages in are often linked to science via technology. In the hyper-globalized twenty-first century, the rate of technologically driven change is so high that it is now commonplace to encounter obsolete objects whose function was highly valued only say, five years previously. However, we are not as quick to process these crucial shifts psychologically or ethically, on both an individual and social level. Sci-fi writers, through their collective mapping of the realm of possibilities, have a key social function: they anticipate and ‘create’ milieus for us, thus easing the shock of having to confront an uncertain future for the first time as the present catches up to it. Science fiction worlds are spaces we inhabit imaginatively so that when the time comes to accept that one, or an amalgamation of them, has become reality, we are somewhat prepared. By exploring the worst of human potential (via imagined dystopias) and the most ideal (via imagined utopias), we are somewhat better equipped to face the tumultuous present-day times.
The emergence of new technologies and their power-harnessing, destructive capabilities has always raised the biggest ethical dilemmas in human history. These dilemmas tend to be at the heart of the plot of the best sci-fi works, driving the story forward. Climate change, anthropocentrism, the increasing prominence of artificial intelligence, surveillance and thought control in a world governed by technocratic authoritarianism, the dominance of certain social groups over others (via colonialism, classism, sexism, racism) are themes which are addressed in a myriad number of ways, via the the sub-genres of utopias, grand voyages to the unknown, superhero stories, artificial intelligence stories, time travel, natural or man-made dystopias, encounters with aliens, etc. These are often situated in an imagined future, but the real historical present and past of the reader are also accessible through this futuristic lens. The intersection of the actual socio-political world and imagined ones helps us conceive of radically different histories and their implications for the present, were they to have actually taken place.
It is unsurprising therefore, that sci-fi novels, especially, compelling ones, tend to be politically charged texts, addressing revolutionary change. It is this phenomenon of cognitive estrangement which creates a space for the reader, which is recognizable yet distant. It allows her to spread out all the ideas s/he had about her world in her mindscape, and question them. Finally, it forces her to look at them in a new light. This, and the fact that sci-fi worlds are built as alternative world models to the real one we inhabit, make the genre particularly suffused with the potential to be subversive. In the history of science fiction literature, you can find several examples of writers living in repressive regimes, who have used the genre as a vehicle for political commentary (although it would be limiting and reductive to view these stories as solely that). This is why many science fiction works have been banned by the government in countries where state censorship is highly commonplace. A recent example of this is the novel The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung, which is about state-engineered social amnesia (specifically where remembering the events that took place during the Cultural Revolution is concerned), was banned in mainland China and has never been published there, though digital copies of the novel briefly circulated on the internet until it was mysteriously taken down. Slightly ironic, then, is the fact that book banning as a strategy used by a totalitarian government is a subject made iconic in the 1953 bestseller Fahrenheit 451, where a government in a futuristic American society bans books by burning them, in order to prevent the flow of dissenting ideas.
These stories can also be regarded as a forewarning; or a prescription, if ever one finds themselves publicly agitating over similar issues in the actual world. Sometimes, symbols within these novels become symbols used to mobilize masses in real life. This year, in March, several women in Texas wore outfits (red habit, white bonnet) based on the clothes worn by the enslaved women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to protest bills that could restrict abortion rights. In the aftermath of the U.S. elections, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World have increased, with a bookstore in San Francisco even handing out copies of popular dystopian novels to customers for free.
Old science fiction also preserves for posterity the ideas that might have been shaping discourse at the time they were written in. They are historically relevant texts, in that they are a record of even the ideas that never came to fruition in the future. They reveal to us the aspirations and anxieties–both sentiments predicated on the future– that people living in those times had. Science fiction from the Cold War era, from the U.S. and the then-USSR, most prominently reveal how these power blocs viewed themselves as well as the other. Similarly, with the boom in Chinese science fiction since the 1980’s (post the end of the Cultural Revolution), it is possible to trace the complexities of Chinese society evaluating itself in the context of the nation undergoing rapid socioeconomic change.
With the rise of the far right happening in nation-states around the globe, we live in times which increasingly resemble the dystopias we once read of merely as entertainment. In the nineteenth century, historical realism painted a portrait of the masses as they were, rather than as they ‘should be’. In the twentieth century, postmodern literature revealed the cracks in the canvas, which is to say, the two world wars tore apart the fragile links holding society together to reveal its fragmented, dying heart. Perhaps science fiction is the literature of the twenty first century, but the portrait it proffers is one in constant flux; a digital portrait, a motion picture. Certainly, by creating new metaphors via which we understand our brave new world, it shows us who we are, but most importantly what we can become, if only we…
Words: Francesca Cotta
Art: Sanaya Chandar
Edits: Amal Shiyas
- The ideas in this piece have been largely shaped by Darko Suvin’s (1972) “On the Poetics of the Science Fiction Genre”, published in College English, Vol. 34, No. 3.
- The biggest limitation of this article is the fact that the writer’s reading habits have been overwhelmingly, unwittingly and unfortunately hegemonized by the global, Anglophonic book market. In light of this, here are some useful introductory sources that can set you on a path to exploring good science fiction literature, which isn’t limited to the United States and the U.K., and isn’t produced exclusively by people who are white and/or men:
- “23 Best Non-English Science Fiction Books” http://best-sci-fi-books.com/23-best-non-english-science-fiction-books/
- “China Dreams: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction” by Ken Liu http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/liu_12_14/
- “14 Women Writers Who Dominate the Universe of Sci-Fi” http://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/women-who-dominate-the-universe-of-sci-fi_us_55ccfd02e4b0898c4886f69a
- .“This is the Muslim tradition of sci-fi and speculative fiction” https://aeon.co/ideas/think-sci-fi-doesnt-belong-in-the-muslim-world-think-again
- “The Stars of Modern SF Pick The Best Science Fiction” https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/may/14/science-fiction-authors-choice