In Praise Of... Science Fiction

Many of us associate science fiction with the image of a mad scientist exclaiming triumphantly as a patchwork cadaver is brought to life by arcing bolts of electricity.

But this is a notion tarnished by examples of escapism adopting the façade of science fiction. The Star Wars films are heroic adventurism in outer space: the young peasant boy and the rogue knight rescuing the beautiful princess from the evil king’s dark castle. And the Alien movies are pure horror stories with monsters and a spacecraft standing in for the axe-murderer and the haunted house. Neither are true science fiction.

Hollywood has even distorted our idea of Mary Shelley’s ground-breaking novel, Frankenstein. Written in 1816 and published two years later, Frankenstein stems from the Romantic Gothic literary tradition. Film versions of her tale have emphasised the sensational elements to fashion suspenseful tales of the grotesque. The original novel, however, is an early piece of science fiction: a morality tale posing critical questions about where the modern age of reason and discovery was taking human society. It remains a moving piece of literature, thought-provoking and agonisingly tragic.

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The genre engages the audience with concepts by bringing scientific theories and ideas to life

In popular fiction, most genres have names that denote the emotions evoked by the stories being told; tales that are romantic, comic or dramatic; tales that are thrilling or horrifying. Science fiction, in contrast, is a genre defined by its subject matter: science. It is a genre about visions of the future, of stories crafted to make its audience think rather than merely feel, to provoke rather than just entertain. In 1953, Sir Isaac Asimov defined it as “the branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings”.

Shelley’s seminal work has been followed by novels and films with chilling warnings about bio-warfare (The Day of the Triffids), overpopulation and environmental degradation (Soylent Green), cybernetics (Blade Runner and Ex-Machina), unregulated reproductive technology (Gattaca) and the creation of human clones for organ harvesting (Never Let Me Go).

Infused with elements of horror, suspense, film noir and romance, such acclaimed works of science fiction are fascinating harbingers of possible futures. They demand thoughtful reflection rather than just passive consumption and vicarious enjoyment. They are works that intrigue the mind as well as move the heart.

Genuine science fiction engages us with concepts rather than spectacle. It captivates us with explorations of where rational endeavour is taking us. Sometimes those explorations reveal utopian visions of civilizations on distant worlds, but at other times they proffer dire warnings of the impact on our own planet of progress unchecked by a moral conscience.

Television is a medium where science fiction has particularly flourished. Without the budget that allows Hollywood features to overwhelm with computer-generated wizardry, programs such as Doctor Who have relied on intriguing ideas for their success. The show’s creator declared that he didn’t want it to feature bug-eyed monsters.

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Science fiction is thought-provoking, asking the audience to think as well as be entertained

Such alien creatures soon appeared regularly, of course, famously sending a generation of children scuttling behind the sofa, from the out-set ideas that were put front and centre.

Designed to educate viewers about science and history, early serials alternated between encounters in space and adventures in history, and the famous Time Lord’s first human companions were the science and history teachers from his grand-daughter’s school. For many, the longevity of Doctor Who has been the way the programme has raised such issues as nuclear proliferation and environmental pollution. The magic wasn’t in the wobbly sets or bug-eyed monster of the week. It was in the ideas.

And therein lies not only the strength of science fiction, but its value as a genre; a genre described by one recent anthology review as “the literature of ideas”.

Indeed, in the words of Dr Frankenstein: “It’s alive. It’s ALIVE!"


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Image credit: (feature) © BBC/BBC WORLDWIDE, Doctor Who 2014; (in-text) © Columbia Pictures Industries, Gattaca 1997; (in-text) © Universal Pictures International, Ex-Machina 2014.