The Real Utility of Science Fiction

Science Fiction often gets lumped together with Fantasy, even though they're not similar in any way at all. Each has their place, but they're not interchangeable terms. Star Wars is Fantasy (sword-fights, magical powers, alternate galaxy, good vs evil), and Star Trek is Science Fiction (it doesn't break too many physical laws and at least attempts to base its technology on real science).

Science Fiction is about exploring what the future—our future—might look like in light of emerging technologies and innovations. The genre tries to do this based on scientific principles (more or less), exploring the implications of technologies such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, space colonization, genetic engineering, and so on.

Artificial Intelligence is just bound to be weird.
Image Credit: Ex Machina (2015)

Fantasy is nothing like that. Instead of examining possible futures, Fantasy takes place in far away galaxies or alternative worlds, like Middle Earth and Hogwarts (well, I guess Hogwarts is meant to exist in our modern world, but it's definitely a very different sort of world from the real-life version). These tales often focus on the attainment of "power" and, in doing so, tend to explore the black-and-white conflict of "good" versus "evil."

For the most part, Science Fiction does away with "good" and "evil" altogether, and tends to hover in an ambiguous grey area where there are no cut-and-dry solutions to the technology-induced conflicts that arise (at least, this is what happens in good Sci-Fi).

To this end, the utility of good Science Fiction is to fabricate useful thought-experiments that can be applied to real-world problems that are either happening now or are bound to happen in the near-future. If the solutions were easy, they wouldn't be interesting. And to make things interesting, the first step is getting lost in the woods.

Exploring Possible Futures

Science Fiction explores possible futures for humanity—it illuminates pathways through a forest of possibilities. Sometimes it jumps far into the future and assumes that we achieve a god-like level of technology, like in Star Trek. Sometimes it explores near-term consequences of emerging technologies, like in Ex Machina. And sometimes it's used to extrapolate on a big idea that could be achieved if only we put in the effort to do so, like in The Martian

All of these different Science Fiction scenarios represent possibilities for out present society—futures we could achieve if we take certain actions, and problems that we may run into if certain actions are taken.

The reaction we're all going to have with the next big social media craze.
Image Credit: Total Recall (1990)

Like different pathways in an expansive forest, humanity stands here in the present. In front of us are strewn an infinite number of diverging paths, each leading to an alternate future that will itself present infinitely more diverging paths. 

The problem here is that we don't know which path leads to the best possible future, or even what that future would look like. Some paths are marked better than others. Most are littered with unknowns. The forest, which represents humanity's past, present, and future, is mostly unexplored, and of indeterminate size.

We have some idea of the paths we took to get to where we are now. We have a reasonable understanding of our immediate surroundings, and we can look a few steps ahead. But we're mostly lost in this conceptual forest of possibilities, and unsure of where we're going.

Science Fiction is a way of exploring these various paths, and of possibly illuminating an ideal way forward. For example, if we're looking for a waterfall in this forest, there are a few steps we would need to take in order to find it.

First, we need to listen for running water and follow paths leading in that direction. Once we come across a river, we need to find a path that follows it upstream towards its source. We may encounter obstacles along the way, we may encounter a dead end and be forced to find a new way back onto a different path. It may turn out to be a grueling journey, but as long as we navigate well, we should eventually arrive at our destination.

Science Fiction is a way of conceptualizing the journey to this symbolic waterfall before we go there. Before we begin going in that direction, we should first determine whether or not the waterfall itself is worth the effort, and whether it's an ideal place to aim for.

The Science part takes what we already know about this conceptual forest and attempts to predict what the waterfall might be like, based on the knowledge that we've already attained. The Fiction part then seeks to tease out the pros and cons of the waterfall by weaving a believable a story around it.

This allows us to learn a little bit about what the waterfall might be like without actually going there. The benefit is that we can do this with other paths as well—dead ends, obstacles, dangers that are both visible and obscured. This exploration via fiction allows us to make better choices as to which paths to take going forward.

Our ideal future probably looks more like this than anything else.
Image Credit: Star Trek: First Contact

An example of this is George Orwell's 1984, a dystopian novel in which an authoritarian state monitors and controls every aspect of its citizens' lives. It's a clear example of a path we don't want to take, and it has influenced our culture for decades. This is the utility of having good Science Fiction (though today in 2016, Orwell's 1984 does look closer to reality than ever before).

Choosing The Right Path

We have a lot of options:

  • Star Trek is a possible future for humanity, but it requires a lot of luck: inventing warp drives, replicators, and dematerializing transporters within a few centuries. Oh, and universal translators so we can communicate with our diverse crew of alien buddies.
  • Ex Machina is a possible future, assuming that sentient artificial intelligence becomes possible within what seemed like a decade. And yes, some nerd is probably building his very own super-attractive female android in a basement somewhere at this very moment.
  • The Martian is a possible future, even with a modest doubling of NASA's annual budget for the next two decades and a steadfast focus on putting human beings on Mars. Is there really any reason we should not achieve this?
  • Independence Day is a possible future... If aliens show up and start destroying our planet for no apparent reason. Luckily, if plot holes are ignored, the alien invasion will eventually be thwarted by a crafty hacker and his Fresh Prince side-kick (spoiler alert). Sort of like strangling the bear to death as it mauls you...
  • Contact is a possible future, if SETI does its job and some hyper-advanced and enlightened species of aliens actually exists. And hey, it even predicts the rise of a super-billionaire engineer who's really interested in space stuff
  • Blade Runner is a possible future, if we start creating synthetic humans to do our dirty jobs for us. But as I've said before, we don't yet need to create synthetic humans for cheap labor, because we still have untold millions of real humans living in the developing world that are willing and able.
  • The Matrix is a possible future—technically, it could be the present if it turns out that we're all living inside of a computer simulation
  • Terminator is a possible future, if Google turns into Skynet and figures out a way to travel back in time to destroy Elon Musk (he's definitely the John Connor of 2016).
  • Total Recall is a possible future, if... Well, that's a really big if... Read this: "14 Things we can Learn about the Future from 1990's Total Recall."
  • George Orwell's 1984 was a possible future when it was written in 1948. And it could be argued that it's actually the present of North Korea today in 2016 (and don't forget the NSA).
  • Star Wars is not a possible future (it's not even Science Fiction!). I mean, it says right there in the subtitle, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." So even if it were based on reality, it happened super far away and in the past... In a galactic civilization that has space ships, magic, and sword duels, oh my. 
No matter what, we'll probably end up with lasers.
Image Credit (Top): Star Trek TNG, 'Yesterday's Enterprise' (1990)
Image Credit (Bottom): Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

We most likely want to choose some other path. Perhaps even a Frankenstein's mixture of all of the above: a synthesis of every good outcome we can conjure up, while avoiding most of the bad outcomes that we've been able to identify so far.

It's more likely though that we'll end up in some future that doesn't look anything like what we predict in any of the above scenarios. Some unforeseen technology that changes society in unpredictable ways. And I'm not in any place to predict what that might even look like at this point. For that, you'll simply need to kick back and await the release of my first Science Fiction novel.

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