Scientific fiction is not about science or technology

Jonathon Logan

Science and Environment Editor


The greatest works of science fiction most often revolve around some far-flung, scientific advancement or technology brought to life only by the author’s imagination. Take, for example, the far-caster in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion or the space elevator in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars. Fans of science fiction like to get hung up on how faster-than-light communication was used in a sci-fi novel instead of the reality created by the author. Often overlooked are the coming-of-age narratives, the capacity of characters to adapt and the role of fear. Science fiction is not the genre that will inspire you to pursue a STEM degree; no, it is the genre that will equip you with the moral and mental resilience needed to navigate a global pandemic (the stuff of sci-fi).

Frank Herbert’s 1975 book, Dune, is perhaps the greatest work of science fiction ever. What made this sci-fi chief among others was Herbert’s willingness to intentionally suppress the role of technology in the world he had built. In fact, a massive revolt against the god of machine-logic lays the foundation for a central tenet of the entire saga: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.” This resulted in a prohibition on human-like machines. Herbert then immerses the reader in a world of fear that is wholly free of scientific or technological influence — confronting the reader with the hard truths young adults have to face. In chapter one Herbert writes: “Fear is the mind-killer. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. When the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

Fear is pervasive. It is dominant in our world today. Sci-fi does not transport readers to an alternate reality where you can forget the fear. It does not relay what to do when one achieves their goals. No, science fiction creates the lens through which one views their world, it nurtures the capacity to adapt when news shatters your day: “We’ve decided to move forward with more qualified candidates,” “we will be fully remote for the remainder of the semester” and so on. The Social and Personality Psychology journal published an article in 2016 asserting that “connecting to story worlds involves a process of dual empathy.” Good science fiction recognizes this. Sci-fi is not the geeky escape where a hermit STEM major goes to plot how to become Dr. Doofenshmirtz. Sci-fi is the tech-free zone where everyone has found themselves contemplating their worst fears, reflecting on human relationships and coming of age.

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