By: Joseph Szalinski
Science fiction (sci-fi) isn’t considered to be as legitimate as more “classic” genres like drama, comedy, or even horror. This is especially true in literature, where even quality sci-fi is often denounced in favor of subpar literary fiction, simply because the latter is “familiar” and more realistic. But just because sci-fi isn’t immediately relatable, for most, on the surface, doesn’t mean that there isn’t any worthwhile material within. Sci-fi employs a myriad of philosophical themes that an audience can connect to. These themes give sci-fi its poignancy. If sci-fi started banal and inane dialogues, it would have already withered and died as a genre. read more . . .
War, death, consciousness, artificial intelligence, religion, and morality all appear in seminal sci-fi. Satires on culture and government are viable options as well. A case-in-point is the work of Kurt Vonnegut, notably Slaughterhouse-Five. One particular passage is especially poignant: “You know — we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. “‘My God, my God — ‘ I said to myself, ‘It’s the Children’s Crusade” (106). This passage evokes the horrors of war that other genres, like more traditional dramatic works, have chronicled.
It is a commentary on mortality and warfare, but expressed in a nontraditional, post-modern way.
However, written in Vonnegut’s wry style, and complemented by the myriad of other themes present in the text, this passage takes on more significance. It is a commentary on mortality and warfare, but expressed in a nontraditional, post-modern way.
The marriage of eternal human themes, and science-fiction elements, helps to cement how “human and universal” even the most outlandish stories can be, as they all aim to extoll some sort of philosophy. Philosophical literature, like the kind Voltaire wrote, has fallen by the wayside, but those ideas can now be explored in sci-fi. Its stories can be testing grounds for concepts that normally wouldn’t receive consideration in scientific and academic presentations. Scenarios are fleshed out, developing hypotheses so that they exist beyond initial ideas. A discussion on the execution and impact of said idea(s) can allow for some interesting results.
None of this is to say the science reported and referenced in sci-fi isn’t sound. Although sci-fi can act as a substitute for fantasy for a more informed and technologically literate populace, probable or practical sci-fi, which operates according to reason and logic, can be critically and commercially well-received. Just look at the works of Isaac Asimov, or the film <em>Interstellar</em>, compelling narratives that also include at times mind-bending depictions of scientific ideas. Just because something is impossible doesn’t mean it has to be boring or any less magical.
And for a nation suffering from rampant scientific illiteracy, it’s incredibly beneficial for sci-fi to exist, as it promotes an interest ub science, or at least attempts to help people arrive at an curiosity. Novel connections appear when the creative and the academic commune.
Take, for example, acclaimed theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. Although he’s an internationally known academic, he acknowledges the role sci-fi has played in his personal and professional pursuits, as well as how the genre plays into the lives of other scientists: “We physicists don’t like to admit it, but some of us are closet science fiction fans. We hate to admit it because it sounds undignified. But when we were children, that’s when we got interested in science, for a lot of us.”
Sci-fi, then, is about adventure. Keep in mind, it’s contemporary (technically futuristic) fantasy. The narrative is predicated on adventure or overcoming adversity. Struggle and conflict drive literature! Who cares if it’s a factually-unsound and fantastical story, like the kind HG Wells and Jules Verne wrote, as long as people can connect to it and be prompted to have their curiosity piqued?
Sci-fi functions as more than a story with space travel, robots, and aliens. It’s a meditation on eternal themes authors will always write about and existence will always face. Sci-fi is a call to arms, a battle cry for scientific literacy.
Just because it’s a trope-heavy genre, as of late, doesn’t mean it’s entirely horrible. Every genre includes imitative pulp. It’s an endearing genre that engenders continued readership in multiple mediums. That kind of devotion is hard to find elsewhere. Thus should serve as a reminder that sci-fi has plenty to offer and should be given respect.