How science fiction influences thinking about the future


Eileen Gunn writes, "What's science fiction good for? The May issue of Smithsonian magazine has an essay on the relationship between science, science fiction, and the future by Boing Boing buddy Eileen Gunn. Major writers -- Ursula K. Le Guin, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, Samuel R. Delany, Kim Stanley Robinson, Cory Doctorow and others -- talk about why science fiction likes to think about the future and how SF can be used to help scientists think about the uses and ethics of their inventions. The rest of the issue covers science and ethical issues of the near future."

Kim Stanley Robinson—the best-selling author of the Mars trilogy, 2312 and Shaman—shares this fear, and sees it manifested in the popularity of Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games, in which a wealthy governing class uses ruthless gladiatorial games to sow fear and helplessness among the potentially rebellious, impoverished citizens. “Science fiction represents how people in the present feel about the future,” Robinson says. “That’s why ‘big ideas’ were prevalent in the 1930s, ’40s and partly in the ’50s. People felt the future would be better, one way or another. Now it doesn’t feel that way. Rich people take nine-tenths of everything and force the rest of us to fight over the remaining tenth, and if we object to that, we are told we are espousing class warfare and are crushed. They toy with us for their entertainment, and they live in ridiculous luxury while we starve and fight each other. This is what The Hunger Games embodies in a narrative, and so the response to it has been tremendous, as it should be.”

For his part, William Gibson believes that to divide science fiction into dystopian and utopian camps is to create a “pointless dichotomy.” Although his seminal 1984 cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer, depicts a gritty, scarcity-driven future, he does not consider his work pessimistic. “I’ve only ever wanted to be naturalistic,” he says. “I assumed I was being less than dystopian in the 1980s, because I was writing about a world that had gotten out of the cold war intact. That actually seemed unrealistic to many intelligent people at the time.”

The distinction between dystopian and utopian may often seem to hinge on whether the author personally has hope for a better future. Robinson, for instance, consistently has taken on big, serious, potentially dystopian topics, such as nuclear war, ecological disaster and climate change. He does not, however, succumb to despair, and he works out his solutions in complex, realistic, well-researched scientific detail. Of his own work, he says, “Sure, use the word utopian.”

How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future [Eileen Gunn/Smithsonian]

(Thanks, Eileen!)

(Image: Mehreen Murtaza)

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  1. I've been reading some very current Sci Fi interspersed with old Sci Fi recently. The most glaring thing that old Sci Fi missed is the internet: Asimov's Foundation talks about books and phones, and wireless communication. It makes the old Sci Fi be more like a fairytale because they're antiquated always a danger in the genre.

    Frankly there is something dull about the old Sci Fi I've been reading and I'm not sure if its because they aren't as good at writing or story telling as they are about concepts or what.

    Martian Chronicles is next in the old Sci Fi list and I'm curious to see how that plays out.

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