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)