Ruminations on Science Fiction

Mama Fisi
Mama Fisi's picture

I'll confess that I never really much cared for science fiction, but after I married a dyed-in-the-wool sci-fi geek, I've come to appreciate the genre.

My grandfather, who owned our TV, was big into sci-fi, and so I absorbed a lot of movies growing up in the days when there were only three networks and a couple of local-access channels, and one could either watch what Gramps was watching, or go outside and play. (I think that's where my love of the outdoors came from...)

He's watch Star Trek and Space:1999, Fantastic Voyage and Planet of the Apes, and dozens of others whose names I've either forgotten, or never really bothered to learn, because they were all so ridiculous and cheesy that I couldn't believe why an engineer with RCA would be gobbling that stuff up and going back for more.

What didn't occur to me at the time was that these movies were designed for guys like Gramps, guys who tinkered in their basements putting together their first television sets from scratch, who still dreamed of getting the flying car they were promised by the pulps and radio serials of their youth. These were guys who had been boys in a time when horses still provided much of the motive power, and now that they were grandfathers, they were watching men walking on the Moon.

The world had changed dramatically during the first sixty years of the twentieth century, bringing along radiation and plastics and laser beams and jet propulsion and satellite TV--amazing inventions, all presaged by science fiction. There was a constant, forward-thinking, upward-thrusting drive to make the world a better place through Science and Technology.

Science fiction is good for inspiring people to make ideas reality. My grandfather would be amazed by a smartphone, where a telephone, camera, and TV are all rolled into a device smaller than a pack of cigarettes. Of course, science fiction is also good for framing cautionary tales, against the perils of war, or tinkering with Nature to the point of sparking dangerous mutations.

I've heard it said that fantasy is an imaginative story that can't happen, while science fiction is an imaginative story that might happen. Simply put, fantasy has dragons, science fiction has dinosaurs. But the lines get way blurrier than that.

Science fiction has worked its way into our culture to the extent that we may not even notice it much anymore. We may no longer expect men from Mars to appear, but we've become so used to hearing about the space program, genetic engineering, nuclear medicine, and advanced computers, that we take for granted the things we see on TV and in the movies. We assume that it really is possible to "enhance" an image the way they do on CSI, or we overlook all the technology that goes into making our vehicles and data devices possible.

We may not have flying cars, or wear lycra jumpsuits, or eat our meals in pill form, but we are living in a world that the sci-fi writers of my grandfather's youth would have struggled to imagine. The invention of the microchip has had a lot to do with this; it's kind of quaint to watch old SF shows now with banks of reel-to-reel computers powering their interstellar ships.

The greatest beneficiary of the microchip revolution has been the communications industry. Never mind that I am writing this on a computer, and that within minutes of my posting it, people from around the world will be able to read it; think of the telephone. For ten thousand years of human history, we got along just fine without texting, but now, people actually go into withdrawal if they can't be constantly in touch with their social media. With mobile devices, we're functionally telepathic, being able to see, hear, and communicate instantaneously with people around the globe.

We live in a science fiction world. We travel on bullet trains and airplanes at speeds unimaginable to our ancestors. We grow crops with roboticized equipment. We have scanners that can see inside our bodies, slice by slice, without having to open us up. We routinely replace worn-out body parts. We can clone our pets. We can preserve our every waking thought for all eternity.

Where will we go from here? Some people think that we must head for a fall, a societal collapse, an ecological disaster. Others believe we've discovered everything there is to discover--but then, they said that at the turn of the previous century, too.

There's a universe of possibilities out there, and it's the job of science fiction to guide us there.