“What you get in science fiction is what someone once called ‘the view from a distant star’. It helps to see our world from outside.” –Frederik Pohl, Wordsmiths of Wonder
The reason one can be either utterly fascinated by science fiction, or violently uninterested in it, is that it deals with the unknown – it goes beyond the present time, as well as beyond these places, putting our status as a species into perspective. The things that occupy our minds for most of our waking hours begin to appear petty, against the backdrop of the vast universe and the future stretching ahead of us. This sudden mental change of scale is at once both disconcerting and liberating; the very realisation of how small we are comes with a sense of wonder and purpose. One comes to identify more strongly with this amazing planet and all the life on it (and even the fact that we have only one sun lighting up our skies), because this is all that we are familiar with. At the same time, one learns to break out of the comfortable barriers of familiarity, and question all the things that we take for granted. Science fiction is something more than idle speculation; it is the way ahead, and in my opinion, everybody deserves at least a single exposure to the mind-opening experience of reading it.
My first encounter with some seriously thought-expanding science fiction was my introduction to Asimov’s Foundation books. Set so far in the future – that humans have colonised the galaxy, and the story of their origin on a single planet is lost in myth – these books had a big role in shaping the way I think and feel. Making Earth insignificant in the lives of these characters, though it hurt a little, was a step that made me think when I returned from the book to real life, where Earth and its affairs are all we ever think about. The Foundation books also reflect a respect for civilisation, scientific truth and the accumulated knowledge and understanding of the human race. One thing I noticed about good science fiction when I read Asimov is that the story is never about the fact that the galaxy is colonised, or that they have technologies more advanced than what we have now. These things are treated as background for a more complex and absorbing plot. The books seem to study society, psychology, politics and culture with science fiction concepts as a context (and they even made an unlikely reference for my project on democracy in school). ‘His vision and scope spanned the galaxy across eons and at the same time he told deeply personal stories of living characters’, said the writer Tracy Hickman of Isaac Asimov.
Arthur C. Clarke, one of the undisputed masters of science fiction, called it ‘the only genuine consciousness expanding drug’. Much before I read Clarke’s wonderful short stories and novels, I read a book written jointly by him and Stephen Baxter. Quite in contrast to the Foundation concept, ‘Sunstorm’ was set in the very near future, a time only a couple of years away from now. The book is a masterpiece in its responsible and realistic treatment of the future, as well as its delightfully bizarre view of the larger picture. (It’s funny how speculative fiction must be simultaneously realistic and weird!) Writing about approaching times definitely has problems that do not arise when the story is set unimaginably far in the future. Again, it is a story of people and their lives as much as one of the planet and the human race. Empathy and attachment to humanity as a whole become supremely important in the face of a threat to the entire planet.
Reading science fiction written in the past has its own joys, despite the fact that one can often see where the path taken by history deviates from the author’s projected future, or where one’s own imagination disagrees with the course of the story. When we question something that authors of the past took for granted, it may open our eyes to our own assumptions and mental conditioning in the present, so that we may get rid of modes of thought that our descendants will not accept. This is how science fiction can help us discard prejudices that we didn’t even know we had. The complete absence of strong women characters in most of the earlier works, for instance, is a glaring example – to today’s readers – of how those authors’ assumptions stopped them from seeing that the world would be very different in this respect, even a few centuries from their time. This leads us to ask ourselves: What are the biases we hold without realising them ourselves, as a product of our times – even as those authors held the biases and prejudices of their times? Today we can examine and judge writings of the past – how would the present civilisation fare in such an examination a few centuries from now?
The other important aspect of examining old science fiction is that we see many examples of imagined development from the past having become reality over the years. Star Trek famously inspired so many of the devices that are commonplace today. Jules Verne, in the nineteenth century, imagined gas-fuelled cars, fax machines, elevators, electronic music and much else. One way to take technology ahead is to let necessity be the mother of invention. Another is to let the imagination run wild and let a vision for the future point the way.
Similarly, the fact that we have already crossed 2001 and 2010 does not make Clarke’s odysseys (2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: Odyssey Two, and the remaining books in the series) any less brilliant, and the obvious fact that people twenty thousand years hence will not really speak the same kind of language as us – and all over the galaxy at that – must be disregarded while reading the Foundation books. (Take them as a translation – of the future language(s) into the past that is today!) If I was surprised that Asimov’s future humans did not encounter any intelligent aliens while occupying the galaxy, I temporarily ignored this doubt to be able to appreciate the magnitude of the idea of an entire galaxy inhabited.
Of course, science fiction doesn’t always paint a grand picture of the future. It may involve civilisations elsewhere whose intent towards humanity may be hostile just as well as it may be helpful. It may bring in strange parallel universes which, whatever else they achieve, have at least the result that the reader is willing to consider absolutely any possibility. (Douglas Adams’ classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a hilarious but deep Wodehouse-style comedy that accidentally came to be set in space – but is often classified as science fiction – and with its apparent lack of seriousness, is mind-opening in its own way.) The kind of science fiction works that are the most difficult to read are those that predict a bleak future, for instance, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But these are the ones that show us most strongly where we as a civilisation are going wrong and why we need to change.
Science fiction deals with the possibilities arising from an understanding of science and it can introduce one to the greatness of science and technology. Yet it is more than science, in that while keeping to some restrictions based on our current understanding of the universe, it dares to go beyond, into uncharted territory. It requires, in the author, an understanding of how society and the human mentality work – and yet it can envision and herald changes in these. One does not need training in the physical sciences or the social sciences to read and appreciate it – and one comes away filled with awe for these sciences, an insight into human nature and perhaps even a more balanced attitude towards life. For a reader of science fiction can never forget that we are simply a few billions of intelligent, ambitious, vulnerable organisms on a small planet orbiting one of the billions of stars in one of the billions of galaxies, who nonetheless value this intelligence, this planet and their future.
Suggested introductory science fiction reading (some from my experience and some from other people’s):
- Foundation, Isaac Asimov (also Second Foundation, Forward the Foundation and any other Foundation novels)
- 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke (also 2010: Odyssey two, 2061: Odyssey Three and 3001: The Final Odyssey)
- Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (and associated novels)
- Robot series, Isaac Asimov
- Sunstorm, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter (part of A Time Odyssey)
- The Wind from the Sun and The Sentinel, collections of short stories by Arthur C. Clarke
- Summertime on Icarus, Arthur C. Clarke
- The Last Question, Isaac Asimov
- The Songs of Distant Earth, Arthur C. Clarke
- Ringworld, Larry Niven
- The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
- Contact, Carl Sagan
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
- Time and Again, Clifford D. Simak
- Time is the Simplest Thing, Clifford D. Simak
- Cosmic Engineers, Clifford D. Simak
- Eye in the Sky, Philip K. Dick
- Discworld series, Terry Pratchett