Why Sci-Fi?

My first short story was about a psychologist employed at a research facility in Southwestern Colorado. His employer was funded by the government to research ways to manipulate a human’s perceptions of his own reality through drugs and what was known as the Dream Room, basically a 30×30 room with wall to wall 3D screens and interactive 4D holographic images. The patients were put into the room and then shown whatever series of images the researchers thought would work best to manipulate the patients’ perception of reality.

It was garbage. I thought it was brilliant at the time though. And the last line, “Her smile faded over and over again, forever.” Well, I thought it was gold. I may let you read it sometime.

That’s science fiction. I didn’t think it so at the time, but everything I write is science fiction.

Is it a preference? A moral imperative? An uncontrollable urge?

I think it just happens that way. It’s the language by which I communicate difficult ideas to people I think may have more difficulty coming to terms with them than I do. Do I think I’m smarter than my readers? Absolutely not, and that’s why I prevent myself from writing some days. I’m afraid my readers are more intelligent than I am.

Consider H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – who some consider the Fathers of Science Fiction. Their works weren’t about the technology presented, it was about mankind and how he would react in the presence of such changes. Would he change? Or would he stagnate and impede the progress of his species?

You should read The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells.

To me, science fiction is not about the setting, the characters, the technology. It’s not robots, aliens, spaceships, lasers. A work, to me, qualifies as science fiction if it poses a question that we have yet to answer as a species – that one day we must answer as a species.

The truth of our present is not in our past, it is in our future. Our worth should not be based on what we have done, but what we have the potential to do.

There is no greater commentary on both our past and present than our possible future.

We equate success to wealth, power, and fame – not vision, creativity, imagination.

We waste a great deal of time defending the traditions of generations long past as the road map to our future. We concern ourselves with where we sit in comparison with the rest of the world, and where we came from, when our lives should be dedicated to progress – the forward motion of our species into the frontier that lies just beyond where we’ve become comfortable existing.

The human species’ worst enemy is the human species we were yesterday.

We have allowed this idea of permanence to pervade and infect our culture, whether social, civil, military, corporate, or spiritual. We find contentment and then vehemently protest the movement away from that comfort zone. That … is … stagnation. We find our cash cow, and then rail against the cash machine. We inherit a prime location, and we won’t part with it for FEAR that we might not find something better.

I listen to a lot of news radio and I’m disturbed by the amount of paid advertising the oil corporations are putting out there pushing and pushing for continued support of their livelihood, regardless of its effect on the environment, more advanced initiatives, cleaner technology. It sickens me. It is the equivalent of the horse trader sabotaging the steam engine. The pickaxe maker spreading rumors about the dangers of mining machinery. The abacus entrepreneur swearing that the calculator causes cancer. The Flat-Earth believer stoning Copernicus. The monotheist tribe slaughtering the polytheist tribe.

The Promethean flame evolves, and we must evolve with it, eagle be damned.

That is why sci-fi.

82 responses to “Why Sci-Fi?

  1. Quite enjoyed your post, the ‘forward motion’ of it. Science Fiction can be brilliantly subtle and earthbound – aliens need not invade. I live in BC, Canada, so the oil push right now is driving me crazy – all in the face of future & forward-looking alternatives governments refuse to consider. Old fashioned monetary gain always seems to outweigh the need for change. That’s why I love sci-fi – because it forces people to think.

  2. Good post. I like what you say about science fiction being the medium by which humans can explore their possible future potential. You’re quite right about the oil companies too – they are assiduously buying up the patents for as many alternative energy sources as possible. Their paid lobbyists push their agenda in government and their tame scientist stooges do the same on television and in the popular media.

  3. “The human species’ worst enemy is the human species we were yesterday.”

    This line is probably the best thing I’ve ever read. I think you’ve spoken the mind of many science fiction fans like myself. Actually, I’d rather call myself a fan of speculative fiction. I like how ‘what-if’s makes us reflects on the now.

    • My mantra was once, “My greatest enemy is the person I was yesterday.” I’ve just expanded that a bit.

      I like the umbrella term “speculative fiction” too. The more I’ve read, the more difficult it becomes to differentiate high fantasy from hard science fiction. It’s all out there beyond the frontier, some other universe, some other multiverse. Still … I’m a fan of old school sci-fi. Call my works “speculative”, will you? I speculate not!

      My mantra was once, “My greatest enemy is the person I was yesterday.” I’ve just expanded that a bit.

  4. It’s somewhat ironic that the man who created man was damned to be stuck, in agony, for eternity due to what he created in his past. Perhaps its a lesson for us. That the past will like eat our livers for all time or something…I guess. Not entirely sure that metaphor works. But the worrying thing now is how innovation can be snuffed out so quickly, a lawsuit here, some wrangling there and bam! It’s gone. Even almost a hundred years ago this was going on – the electric car brought down by the supposed ‘convenience’ and cheapness of oil. We laugh now but don’t do anything. The tram system, bought and then dismantled by the automobile industry. It’s sickening to look back at all the potential in our past wasted and by greed, and even worse to know that’s unlikely to change.

    • Ah, but its the seeing and thinking that matters even when our forward progress is hampered. Half the world might ignore it, but there are plenty of us that seethe at it. We do notice, and that’s unlikely to change. Greed and stupidity have had a long run … and an infinite run is improbable.

  5. Science-fiction poses questions we have yet to answer as a species, but also contextualizes current or past issues differently so that we may see them in a new way. Authors often find inspiration in our history, various cultures, conflicts and mythologies from around the world. In fact this seems to be a large part of science-fiction, and is revealed, amongst other things, by the names of the characters, organizations or places in science-fiction universes. Ackbar was the name of an Indian mogul emperor. Yoda means “old” in Japanese. Mass Effect names are mapped in the sky and taken from mythology. I could go on. many Star Trek episodes explore current issues by “disguising” then in thr science-fiction cloth. This is equally as constructive as interrogating our future, and poses questions to the changes we want to bring to the present. Congrats in being FP!

    • Thanks! I take a long weekend break from the blog and I come back to all this.

      It’s amusing that you mention Mass Effect, it sparked this post. I was pining for something else to play and started getting frustrated by the lack of similarly epic science fiction games that weren’t just shooters wearing sci-fi masks.

      I agree with you. I didn’t necessarily mean to discount the past, but I think we must function cognitively in all three realms. Sometimes the past is as difficult to predict as the future. We know that we’re here, and we can dig up a certain amount of our past to theorize how we got here, but I think we have to strive to make sure we don’t stay here. As we move forward, though, we absolutely have to continue to investigate our past. Just as many answers to our past lie in our future, as answers to the future lie in the past.

  6. I love sci-fi for this exact reason. It seems like a safe genre to express ideas that may seem too ‘out there’ now, because they are usually set in the future and can be defended as speculative. I find most sci-fi explores a lot of philosophical ideas. I’m in the process of watching Battlestar Galactica and most of the time I’m thinking ‘whoa man, that’s deep’, that and ‘that Gaius Baltar guy’s really starting to grind my gears…’

    Anyways, nice post. Congrats on being F.P.

  7. What about Lawrence Manning’s ‘The man who awoke’? He’s the reason I like science fiction. I saw a star trek episode the other day (the origijnal) where Kirk is reading off what looks like an IPad. that’s the reason I like science ficiton.
    What I can’t understand is why people who wouldn’t dream of being rude if you were into the other genres sneer when you admit you read science fiction. :) That’s me smiling, not sneering.

    • We have so many visionaries, but so few corporations and/or governments willing to follow in their wake until they see fields of green. Asimov, Sagan, Bradbury, Clarke, Herbert – I’m sure most of them wouldn’t consider their contributions to science as visionary, only logical. Perhaps we should employ more science fiction writers in positions of power. I think the robot apocalypse will at least be terribly exciting.

  8. Interesting…but I recognize what you describe as something I’m very familiar with. You’re really describing a type of procrastination – something I’ve battled my whole life. For too long I focused on what might happen to me the next day instead of what I might do at that moment. What a waste. It wasn’t the visionary who daydreamed about a wheel that drove our civilization forward. It was the dullard who spent his day banging out flint arrowheads and axes to trade to others.
    Science fiction is cool and fun, but the serious part of life is doing what we can with what we have at hand. We can sit around and daydream about replacing oil with windmills, or we can use the wealth of our existing energy to raise the standard of living throughout the world. Progress comes from doers not dreamers. Potential is meaningless unless converted to actuality.

    • I’ll bite.

      No man is an island … and no man is a species. Polymaths are rare. The builder cannot exist without the architect. The sea captain cannot pilot his ship without a navigator. Mud huts and beasts of labor worked just fine for doers, but it was the thinkers that gave our species a map to a better existence. A car cannot drive itself. If you drive a car without thinking ahead, you’ll get nowhere. Insert other metaphors here.

      What’s most interesting about “doers” is that in most cases they can replaced by more efficient automated systems that don’t need pay, benefits, or sympathy for their inability to perform beyond their core programming.

      I guarantee that if you replaced the “thinkers and dreamers” with automated systems, doers would still be replaceable.

      • Well that’s my point, isn’t it? Of course I have a retirement plan, but it’s what I put into it today that makes it what it will be when tomorrow finally gets here. Edison was a visionary, but he did not change society by daydreaming about the light bulb. He did so by plodding through failure after failure until he developed something that worked. You said, “Our worth should not be based on what we have done, but what we have the potential to do.” I disagree. I say our worth should not be based on what we have done or what we may do, but on what we are doing now.

      • I was always a Tesla fan myself.

        I can see a familiar divide developing here. It’s likely perpetuated by our own positions at either side instead of as omnipotent observers.

        If you’re suggested that Asimov, Clarke, Wells, Verne, and the rest of the endless list of dreamers that have fueled the imaginations of the people that made their visions a reality are worthless, then I must disagree.

        For every one of the pulp sci-fi writers that was successful, there are thousands with just as much potential to inspire the rest of society to consider a better tomorrow and make it happen.

        I think we could go further faster if we nurtured this type of intellectual proclivity instead of labeling it as procrastination and laziness.

        The fuel cannot spark itself.

      • I would not call anyone worthless, neither dreamers nor doers. However, between the two, we owe more to the doers than the dreamers. For instance, Jules Verne did not dream up the idea of submarines but merely extrapolated from the actual submarines that the doers were busy perfecting.
        Of course, what I was really critiquing was what I perceived as petroleum-bashing, the idea that the villains of Big Oil are somehow lodged in our Neanderthal past while green energy is our hope and future. I don’t see a rational basis for that. The proposed replacements for petroleum are all not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players. They can only exist if they are heavily subsidized whereas fossil fuels are cheap, plentiful and proven. The natural replacement for fossil fuels will be fusion. That’s being developed and will be on line long before we run out of oil. The idea of wind farms and solar energy will seem as quaint as a 1950’s B-movie featuring giant grasshoppers.
        You must first have the fuel or else the spark is just a pretty little event.

      • If that’s what you were really critiquing, then why so wide an admonishment? It begins to sound like party line. My post was not political. There are no asses on my side of the fence. I’m a futurist, not a hippie.

        I also think your example of the Nautilus, a tiny speck of Verne’s prophetic contributions, was a simplistic assessment of science fiction’s impact on the progress of the human species. I challenge you to say the same of Asimov and Clarke.

        “What if? and Why?” got our species where it is today not dullards with no capacity for forward thinking as you suggested in your first comment.

        By the way, I appreciate the argument.

      • First of all, you probably just caught me on a grumpy day. Secondly, maybe I was too subtle in my first post. Apologies in both instances.
        You may be right when you said we were coming at this from different directions. I am more of a historian than a futurist, although I also have a deep and abiding passion for science. If you study history you find that most technological advances come in tiny increments adding on to what someone else did before. Years ago, James Burke had that terrific series (BBC and PBS) called Connections. If you’re not familiar with it, he traced the roots of modern technology back hundreds of years to little things that seem so remote and unimportant that we cannot believe they were necessary steps in the process of getting where we are. In the same way, I do not see us as mired in the past as much as we are dependent on it for inspiration.

      • I wasn’t sure if you were asking that as a flat-earther, or just saying the reference needed clarity. The reference was just another example of obsolescence. Science fiction is written and cherished in the spirit of “what if?” and many times those what-ifs turn into “this is”. I think the more we actively engage in futurist thought, the more we can ease the pains of obsolescence and prevent the retardation of evolution.

      • And what are those statistics for other countries? What is your plan for Uruguay? Tanzania?

        Since you like comparisons so much, the vikings tried family, faith, tradition. It worked …

        The future is the realm of imagination and creativity, two key ingredients to the evolution of our global familial species, our spirituality, and our reflection of the paths that have led us here. Science fiction is an artform of that ever-changing realm.

        I have no beef with your simple values, regardless of their impediment to the forward motion of our entire species. If you prefer to go a safe speed in the fast lane because you feel it is your right, then we will just pass you … I cannot guarantee the rest of my futurist peers won’t give you the finger, however.

  9. Muy buenas reflexiones. Siempre he sido un seguidor del género de la Ciencia Ficción, desde la más sencilla como Star Wars hasta cosas medio complejas como Solaris y Dark City, por citar dos películas, y ciertamente, a pesar de que sea vista como una literatura escapista, la reflexión profunda acerca de la forma como enfrentamos ciertas condiciones que exponen las fortalezas y debilidades de nuestra especie y de como nos valemos de ellas para resolver, es una de las premisas relevantes de la ciencia ficción. Felicitaciones.
    Congrats! Totally agree with you.

  10. “To me, science fiction is not about the setting, the characters, the technology. It’s not robots, aliens, spaceships, lasers. A work, to me, qualifies as science fiction if it poses a question that we have yet to answer as a species – that one day wemust answer as a species.” Yes, yes yes! I agree wholeheartedly. I also can’t understand why oil companies can’t move on.

    • Unfortunately, I can understand why they won’t move on, but I don’t find it appealing.

      I live in Texas and have quite a few peers that ended up in the industry just out of college – they’re easy to get drunk and mine for juicy data. There’s nothing clean about it, and I mean the business practices side, not the technology itself.

  11. Very well put. Your thoughts on this remind of James Gunn’s definition of science fiction as the “literature of change.” More than figuring out the differences between possibility and probability, this definition seems much more workable and more fulfilling.

  12. Along the lines of what you wrote here: “Herland” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) has an excellent scene in which the women of Herland are baffled at why the societies of the explorers still worship the same god they worshiped over a thousand years ago. One of the women asks if the explorers (men) and the people of their lands (Europe) still practice the same medicine, still use the same technological devices, and still have the same understanding of physics they did over a thousand years ago as well. Of course they don’t, the men protest. So why the dogged determination to stagnate in ones view of religion? Why impede progress, understanding, discovery in one or two areas of society but not in others?
    Also, “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus” was published in 1818 making Mary Shelley the Mother of Science Fiction some fifty years before H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. :) Just saying… acknowledgement and respect where they are due.

    • I’ll concede the point, but beg forgiveness. I have not read Frankenstein, but I promise I intend to. Beyond that, I tend to agree with Asimov that Kepler scored first in science fiction almost two centuries prior. I haven’t read it either. -shrugs-

      How about we agree that Shelley, Wells, Verne, among many others, are Prometheans, and that the enduring flame that is futurism has existed long before the tenders discovered how to dazzle us with the shadows it casts on the walls?

      I’ll have to check out “Herland”. :)

      Thanks for the comment.

  13. Wow, what a post!

    I totally agree with every one of your points, and most of your lines beat the crap out of entire sci-fi movie scripts I’ve had to sit through! :D

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  14. Great post. I wonder when the oil will eventually run out. I remember being at school in the 70s and being told by the teacher quite confidently that the oil would be gone in 30 years, yet here we are still ridiculously reliant on the stuff.

    • It’s hard to pick a side these days, and the issue gets all coated with politics. However, in the futurist mind, neither right nor left is forward, and forward is the imperative.

  15. Being a sci-fi enthusiast and writer myself, I enjoyed your post. It reminds me of why I’ve written the stories I have. In addition, I love what the imagination conjures up and the possibilities of what our future holds.

    I didn’t care so much for the ending of the post, however. I found it a bit alarmist and fearful. Yes, there are abuses in the world, but I think a lot of the fear is over-the-top. We should be good stewards of our world, but until the technology becomes available and affordable we’ll have to do the best with what we have and use it for the good of all mankind.

    • I’ll admit it was an unfortunate choice to portray my feelings about futurism and our society’s tendency to adopt a disdainful view towards it, but I don’t believe the abuses deserve to be ignored.

      It goes beyond the technology itself. And, we’re not using current technology for the good of all mankind as it is. There are too many dotted lines on the map for altruism, and our corporations have a tendency to bold those lines for profit at the expense of some of mankind. That’s a fire that needs to be monitored and controlled. It is its uncontrolled spread that we should fear, not the fire itself.

      I can’t apologize for it, but I could have left it out.

      I appreciate the engaging comment though. Either way, its an issue that requires thought, not regurgitation. At least we’re thinking about it.

  16. I love your insight. As a huge sci-fi fan and lover of sci-fi, I too always am looking to the future and hoping to someday reach that “forward motion of our species into the frontier that lies just beyond where we’ve become comfortable existing.” My question, which I hope to some day answer in a blog post, is why some people are completely uninterested in our future as a species and focus on learning from history…when history can only give us so much, especially as our technology advances pretty fast.

    • And its only going to get faster. The problem with the past is that is full of mistakes, and its difficult to recognize those mistakes without casting your eyes to the future – even the present is a woefully inadequate indicator at times.

      I think an easy answer to your question is that we are not educated in a fashion which assigns importance to concerning ourselves with future generations. Maybe if we tell people that in the future there will be a dislike button for “21st Century Humans” and it will be used, then people will fake futuristic engagement for “likes”.

      Thanks for the comment. :)

  17. NIce commentary. I, too, love SF and have been reading it since I was 12 (too many years ago to contemplate). While I’m a reader of many different kinds of literature, I always come back to SF. It finally occurred to a number of years ago that SF has the advantage of being able to explore a theme without any constraints. I think it is the only valid literature of our time.

    Congrats to you on writing some. I try and try, but my strength lies in creating situations, not in writing characters.

    BTW – just a thought – but the white on black is really hard to read.

  18. A work, to me, qualifies as science fiction if it poses a question that we have yet to answer as a species – that one day we must answer as a species.

    Great explanation. Lots of my writing has some sort of sci-fi or fantasy frame, even though I completely acknowledge that the story itself is not of a speculative nature.

    i.e. I’m plotting for National Novel Writing Month; the story involves three kids stumbling across an alien. They never see the alien after again, and the novel goes on to deal with the kids’ different family lives. The alien is in about 5 of 166 planned pages, and yet is vital to the story.

    I don’t know what draws me to the genres either but you’ve definitely unearthed some of it

    • Good luck with NaNoWriMo!

      I plan to finish part 2 of 3 of a longer novel. I wrote part 1 during last’s year’s NaNoWriMo. I tend to write epic sci-fi, and even 150,000 words seems a bit thin for what I want to do.

      I thank you for your comment. I guess that makes me an archaeologist of a sort, unearthing the reasons why we gaze longingly forwards. :)

  19. Your thoughts are the same as mine when it comes to the way progress is tripped by tradition. Fear is very much a part of the landscape.

    I hope you post your first short story. I would like to read it. I am making my first go at a short story soon. It would help inspire me.

    • Progress needs obstacles to increase endurance. The man who runs up mountains will eventually outlast the man who runs a flat path to nowhere.

      I’d love to post my original story at some point, but I think I should rewrite it first. It’s a bit … vulgar.

      However, I will start posting some of my other short fiction here. You can also check out a side project of mine akthorne.wordpress.com for some of my other short fiction that I pretend was written by a senile old man. :D

  20. Didn’t Einstein say something like “Imagination is more important than intelligence”? I also think vision is more important than sheer production for profit. Visionaries are changing our society, while pure businesspeople are just lining their pockets. Perhaps that is why science fiction feels necessary.

    • Maybe if we change our business practices, we can make a better world. The visionaries are there, lurking in seedy pubs, musty libraries, noxious labs – not because that is were they place themselves, that is where society places them.

      Imagine a world where the doer works for the thinker, not the other way around.

  21. Great article!

    I completely agree with your assessment of the Science Fiction genre. I’m not much into writing Science Fiction (I prefer a sort of soft, surreal fantasy world), but I’ve delved into a few shows/games (Star trek, Starcraft 2, Warhammer 40k, and a few movies) to see where you’re coming from. The best episodes of Star Trek almost always deal with moral issues that any viewer can understand/identify with, while the worst got too… uh, weird?

    In the field of movies and video games in particular, I think directors/developers focus too much on technology and aliens, and not enough on us (humans) and our role in the future.

    Oh, and I love the line “The human species’ worst enemy is the human species we were yesterday.” So true. If one of the oil companies would just kick their own butt, get out of their comfort zone (oil market), they could wield their massive fortunes from oil to spearhead innovation into renewable energy (a practical application), they could pioneer a world-wide market and own it all. Obviously there’s room for massive failure, but if an entrepreneur succeeded in supplanting gasoline and coal with cleaner, renewable energies, they wouldn’t just be richest person/persons in the world, they’d go down into the history books.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I personally look forward to the asteroid rush.

      You think oil companies are bad? Wait until the asteroid barons come around. They’re out there. They’re young, but they’re out there.

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