Telling Futures

The relationship between reality and science fiction has a long history. The political surveillance of George Orwell’s 1984 is translated into the fish-bowl-observation TV show Big Brother. Star Trek fans know that the original USS Enterprise shared personnel with NASA when Communications Officer Uhuru (Nichelle Nichols) was employed to recruit minorities for the space program in the 1970s. In 2002, the film Minority Report – based on a Philip K. Dick novel – showcased current research into computer development and crowd control technology. More recently James Cameron’s film Avatar makes strong appeals to a rising environmental awareness and successfully pits indigenous ecowarriors against a high-tech military-industrial force on the imaginary planet of Pandora. So, when we think of shaping tomorrow’s world, science fiction stories often have an importance beyond simple entertainment value. They are a way we engage with the world and current issues, and they can tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships with each other, the environment and science and technology.

Science fiction stories are not only about space travel or about futures that are so far removed from us that they are unrecognizable. Many science fiction stories are actually written to address immediate scientific, social, political and environmental concerns. When H.G. Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, he spoke about technology and warfare – an immediate concern of the time – but he also wrote about politics, class and other issues that were important to his pre-antibiotic readers, such as flu pandemics.

The Australian author, George Turner, who won the Miles Franklin award for a non-science fiction book, turned in later life to the genre of science fiction to express important environmental ideas in an Australian context.  His vision was post-apocalyptic. In his books, the end of the world we know comes from the abuse of nuclear technology and the genetic modification of crops, which allows the spread of a virus. Published in 1987, The Sea and the Summer is one of the most important novels in the genre in Australia, as Turner tells a story of climate change and the breakdown of current money systems. While these ideas have been replicated in other books since that time, they were novel, powerful and strangely prophetic twenty-five years ago. More contemporary stories that consider climate change, particularly rising sea levels, are J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World, and Julie Bertagna’s Exodus and Zenith. Saci Lloyd’s young adult novels, The Carbon Diaries 2015 and The Carbon Diaries 2017, show carbon rationing due to climate change and John Barnes’ Mother of Storms was published in 1994, predating Hurricane Katrina by six years and Sandy by eighteen!

Not all science fiction story-tellers use apocalyptic settings or accurately predict future concerns. The genre can focus on current or emerging social interests and technology.  Reproduction is a classic theme of science fiction. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World connects reproduction with social class. Feminist utopias of the 1970s often depicted societies where men and women lived separate social realities or societies where women controlled reproductive behaviours. Joanna Russ’s When it Changed proposed an all female world and reproduction by parthenogenesis. Ursula Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness was an anthropological exploration of a society where everyone could bear children, while Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was a dystopian story of surrogacy by force.  Reproductive technology and practices are excellent fodder for science fiction stories and the well is far from dry. In 2009, the late Paul Haines’ novella Wives took readers to a dark and challenging conclusion about sex selection and gender imbalance. Even more recently The Courier’s New Bicycle by another Melbourne author, Kim Westwood, provides an energy depleted city backdrop for a story about scientific and religious ethics, human reproduction and animal rights.

Attwood’s book has been made into a film, as has P.D.JamesChildren of Men, a story of a sterile world awaiting the miracle of birth. Other science fiction films on reproduction and technology cover a wide spread of ideas, including Gattaca, AI and even movies such as the Alien and Species films.  Cloning is a related topic with many stories outlining it’s contentious dimensions. While no one has actually owned up to breaking the human replication barrier yet, popular culture is rife with potential abuses of the technology, most of which focus on the raising of clones for organ donation. The novel and film, Never Let me go, from Kazuo Ishigura is a recent offering in this sub-genre, but again there are others such as the film The Island, which may in turn have been based on Michael Marshall Smith ’s book, Spares  or even borrowed from The Experiment by  John Darnton or Clone Catcher by Alfred and Elizabeth Slote.

Think of a topic about which there is debate and it is extremely likely that someone will have written a science fiction story on the subject. It is also possible that someone will also have answered that particular fictionalized idea with a further story! This is the way conversations happen in science fiction, and how science fiction creates and participates in the culture of today and tomorrow. Stories are created around ideas, often to do with change.

Science and science fiction share that ‘what if?’ impulse in human knowledge building: the speculation about existing boundaries and how they might be changed. The site lists 27 science fictions that became science fact in the last year. They include staples of the genre – the fountain of youth, the humanoid robot and self-driving cars – but they also include new stories such as artificially photosynthesising leaves that produce hydrogen for energy, wafer thin solar panels, bendable glass and other discoveries that will help the injured and disabled. While many are still in the early stages of trials, and have to go through the laborious processes of finding funding for further development and then production, they are now part of our imaginative sense of ourselves and our environment. In other words, they are fair game for the science fiction writer: the writer who might want to tell a cautionary tale about an already overpopulated world where people live to two hundred years of age; the writer who might want to send a detective into a forest of hydrogen producing trees looking for a terrorist intent on destroying clean energy sources; the writer who wants to write about what happens when the disabled become more able than ordinary people through their technological enhancements.

Science fiction is not just a useful way of amusing the kids in the school holidays. It is a tool of cultural engagement, alerting all of us about important – and sometimes contentious – ideas. It can be both an early warning system and a safe way to explore social trends and the impact of technological, scientific and environmental change. Science fiction is an important place where we can ask questions about our relationship with science, technology, each other and the world. It is a significant tool for engaging with current cultural developments and it can contribute to the effective and positive shaping of tomorrow’s world.