I read an article a few weeks back, and unfortunately I can’t find it now. That’s alright, because it was so full of the language of literary criticism that I almost could not understand it. Almost. So, unless you’ve taken some higher level literature courses you would probably also find it a difficult read.
The overall point of the article was that much of the Science Fiction being written today imagines a future society similar to the future societies imagined fifty years ago. We still see the archetypes of the dystopian world, the space-faring buccaneer, the science team exploring a new world, and the vastly expanding human race spreading unchecked throughout the cosmos, settling and setting up independent worlds in far flung reaches.
The writer of the article expressed the contention that these archetypes, and others common to the world of Science Fiction, are no longer logical to imagine as future possibilities with the direction our global society is going. He proposes that Science Fiction, as a genre, should not just entertain but should also inform and teach us about ourselves, about our society, and either warn against or voice in favor of a particular element or direction of our society.
In order to do so, he says, Science Fiction must accurately reflect the direction our society is heading. And he doesn’t believe the current culture of Science Fiction is doing so.
We could spend a lot of time discussing whether or not he’s right. Does current Science Fiction reflect the direction of our society? Does it not? What direction is our society headed? Can anyone know that? Most futurists (those who make a hobby/occupation of predicting what will happen in the near future) can usually only achieve about 60-80% accuracy predicting the next year. Predicting accurately what will happen in two, three, five hundred years seems an impossible feat.
So instead of trying to tackle the author’s specific contention, let’s raise a discussion on his foundational premise. Is it necessary that Science Fiction reflect the direction of culture?
Certainly, we can think of examples that have gone into history as powerful classics: Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Brave New World, 2001: A Space Odyssey. These, and many others, definitely reflect trends and directions in our society and teach us much about what could happen if certain things are left unchecked. They’re also extremely heavy subject matter and not something a person just picks up and reads for a little bit of diversion.
Which leads me to my point, or rather, the real question behind my discussion here: What is the purpose of Science Fiction? Is the goal to teach us about society? Or is it to entertain? Does it need to be both? Can it be just one or the other?
Many people who enjoy Science Fiction enjoy it because it offers an escape from the real world. It’s an opportunity to imagine a world beyond what I have to deal with day to day. Others just love the “gosh! wow!” thrill of imagining what life would be like centuries from today. And some do read it to learn a lesson or two about life.
So what is it for you? Do you feel Science Fiction needs to be a teaching tool? Or can it be just a diversion? Or which shade of gray would you feel most comfortable coloring it?