Speculative Fiction Maximizes the Power of Storytelling

Joaquin Phoenix in Her (2013)

Art has the ability to shape and mold society. We often look back at ancient cultures and only have their garbage middens and whatever art on vases that survived the passing of time as evidence for their grandeur. Not only do we judge the past by its art, but we also judge ourselves.

Books, movies, music and the other forms of art all have the potential to force us to look inward and try to understand, justify or fix elements within our lives. The subgenre of art that makes up science fiction (or more generally: speculative fiction) is particularly effective in this regard.

Marg Gilks, Paula Fleming and Moira Allen describe the science fiction genre on their website writing-world.com and detail the evolution of the genre from just stories about scientific ideas to what they call a “literature of ideas.”

“Science fiction has come a long way since its early days … by the 70s, the genre of science-based ideas had grown; it wasn’t just concerned with science, but with consequences. It asked ‘what if?’ What if a world existed in which this or that were true? Pamela Sargent dubbed it the literature of ideas,” Gilks, Fleming and Allen said.

And so we see science fiction serves as the genre of art that intentionally tries to provoke the introspective response that art, in general, aims to achieve. Science fiction’s power comes from breaking past the limits of what is true, or even what is possible, and jumping outside the borders of our expected reality, forcing us to face controversial aspects of morality, social structure, religion and so much more that we would otherwise happily leave unexamined.

Talking about the 2014 Academy Awards, my friend Alie Dalee has commended the recent science fiction film “Her” as a very deserving nominee.

“‘Her’ deserves the Oscar because it is a call-to-action for a generation too buried in its idealism, eyes bored into iPhones, to look up and engage in a reality so raw and chaotic, and yet so grounded in a beauty too refined to display on a retina screen, and manages to capture the idealistic struggle in all of its pragmatic glory,” Dalee said.

This cry for a removal of distraction and return to a more natural human existence exemplifies just one of many culturally relevant problems science fiction can confront.

In another example, the Disney-Pixar film “WALL-E” discusses a similar social conundrum as in “Her.” In “WALL-E” all of the humans have lost sight of their planet’s beauty and irreversibly trashed it to the point where everyone must take refuge in spacefaring colony ships. The story follows one of the last remaining trash-cleanup robots, Wall-e, who over the course of nearly 700 years developed what we would recognize as a sense of beauty and the whole range of human emotions. Pixar juxtaposes the little robot with the citizens of the colony ship who are all inextricably attached to their floating social media chairs and almost incapable of the same emotions Wall-e so carefully developed.

Pixar achieves a striking juxtaposition of Wall-e’s struggle for life, love and a subtle appreciation of beauty against the peaceful and harmonious lives of the hoverchair-ridden people who hardly live what we would call happy or well-examined lives. This juxtaposition serves as a check against the same kind of loss in society that “Her” more subtly tries to convey.

In all, I am bringing up these few examples (among thousands) to argue that we really should not write off science fiction as either bad science writing or as just a nerdy obsession or a frivolous and unproductive waste of time, but we should embrace it as one of the more forward-thinking and intentionally introspective instances of the arts. It takes advantage of the power of art and literature to tell stories and bring the audience in and, when done well, it utilizes it to the maximum, creating new and unfamiliar worlds to examine old and familiar ideas with fresh lenses.

This was originally written as an article for The Reflector at Mississippi State University in 2014. I could go on forever on this subject, defending Sci-Fi from attacks either from self-serious scientist or literary types. This is definitely not the last thing I have to say on the subject either.

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