Society from a Martian perspective

Matthew Palmer makes the case for the significance of science fiction in today’s society

I’ll admit it: I love sci-fi. Worse, I’m not ashamed of it – even proud of it. Admitting this fact can occasionally be akin to stating your love for Hannah Montana, eliciting responses varying from condescension to sneering contempt. Isn’t sci-fi for children and sad old men, just cheap trash to whittle away the hours? Especially as a literature student, I’m expected to spend my hours reading Virginia Woolf or Thomas Hardy, rather than Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert.

This attitude is highly irritating, especially as it often stems from ignorance. I’m not expecting everybody to suddenly love science fiction – far from it – but I would like to end this common-place view that any tale set in the future, or based around technology, should be seen as lesser fiction than ‘real’ literature.

Anybody with the faintest under- standing of the English language should be able to grasp the point that dismissing sci-fi as ‘not real’ compared to other fiction is ridiculous. Are ‘fiction’ and ‘reality’ not antonyms? The stories of Charles Dickens and James Joyce are not ‘real’: they are made up.

After making this argument, the usual modification of detractors is that sci-fi is not ‘realistic’. Though the ‘realistic’ quality of much of ‘realist’ fiction is questionable: how many mundane conversations, telephone calls and toilet breaks that you have in real life appear in the pages of fiction.

Regardless, sci-fi should be regarded as not just on par with other genres, but in some ways as surpassing it, thanks to several unusual characteristics. Firstly, science fiction often indirectly concerns itself with the hopes and fears of its author’s era. And second to that, science fiction engages with the problems of the future.

This first element is not unique to sci-fi, but is worth bearing in mind. Science fiction often describes the future as the author hopes – or fears – that their society is progressing towards: Brave New World could be seen as the terrifying future of a society gripped by the banality of mass-produced consumerism; The Time Machine as the extreme end of a Victorian society ever-more divided along class lines; Ender’s Game is without a doubt a child of the late Cold War. Sci-fi is an excellent way of looking at our own society through an unfamiliar lens, revealing its vices and virtues in a different light, from a ‘Martian perspective’.

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The second element is crucial to the enduring importance of sci-fi – its unique ability to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of technology, so important in our hyper-fast digital world. For this, the Culture novels of the late, much missed Iain M. Banks are exemplary.

In essence, the Culture novels take place in a society that is post-scarcity, post-singularity, post-commercial: almost post-human. Nobody wants for anything or needs to work, society is benevolently run by unimaginably powerful super-computers, and regular AI – tellingly, called ‘drones’ – are sentient beings with full rights as citizens.

Humans can alter themselves considerably, change sex at will, and practically do whatever they want – semi-anarchistic hedonism rules the day. A key theme of the novels is the contact between the Culture and less-advanced societies, and how a powerful civilisation deals with its ‘inferiors’.

This might sound like nonsense, but think about how it relates to modern Western society. Every week we hear stories about how the robots are going to take people’s jobs, the dangers of the singularity, the potential of ‘designer babies’, the ubiquity of drones – often from highly respected individuals. Think about how interventionist our societies have been in recent history – parallels with the Culture abound.

Reading sci-fi is perhaps the best way of thinking through the possibilities and problems of tomorrow, so we can maximise the former and minimize the latter – it’s not just all aliens and laser guns. But those are really cool too.