The Importance of Science Fiction

"So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain held fast in the will to master it." - Martin Heidegger

For many people, Science Fiction (or SF) is simply the literary genre that deals with the future possibilities posed by scientific understanding — an entertaining distraction from the ho-hum themes and settings of contemporary fiction. I’m going to argue it’s much more serious than that, of course. The great Iain (M) Banks once said that “since the Industrial Revolution, science fiction has been the most important genre there is,” and this is because SF is the only genre that deals with the technologization of human society. By technologization, I don’t just mean humanity’s development of and reliance on technology — computers, cars, satellites, and vaccinations, for instance — but also our new perception of the world as a machine, a series of systems operating together through some relentless and impersonal cosmic mechanism, of which the individual is simply a part.

This technological perspective has allowed us to influence nature on a massive scale, but as a consequence we have to a great extent been separated from our fellow humans and from nature. Everything (humanity included) is dissected, quantified, and assigned a defined purpose and monetary value, and thus the divine and sublime universe is reduced to simple empirical facts. We become cogs without agency, born to die, and stuck fulfilling the demands of an eternal machine, with the consequences of this resulting in the mindless consumption that threatens our environment and our very future. No wonder so much SF is dystopian.

The problem is not specifically the technological, though, but rather our relationship to it. SF both embodies and promotes this connection, with literature changing over time, demonstrating the hopes and fears of contemporary society, but also subtly altering the way that same society considers the world, and setting the stage for the future. From Doctor Frankenstein’s fear of his scientific creation, to confident predictions of a space-faring society by Clarke and Asimov, and on to the desiccated, corporate world of cyberpunk, SF has become increasingly philosophical, questioning the nature of reality and the connection between humanity and world, universe and consciousness. There is no going back, only forward, and yet we have to change how we think if we’re to survive. The SF genre, by creating new ideas and possibilities, does this, so go read some Banks and embrace a more positive future — maybe it can become ours.