01 May 2012

Storytime: Science Fiction

A transit of Venus is when the planet Venus passes between the Earth and the Sun and we can see it (if we have the right equipment) as a tiny black dot against the yellow. It is a predictable event, but very rare. A few hundred years ago it was used to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. It will happen on June 6th of this year and not again until 2117.

VIP: Very Important Planet
Why do we care? Because it’s amazing and we figured it out ourselves. Tiny creatures on the surface of this one planet, and we can use a shadow to figure out vast distances exactly. This kind of incredible thing drives discovery, imagination, and that wonderful side-effect of both: Science Fiction.

I could write for pages about how science fiction apparently used to be the sole playground of nerds and crazy people, but that’s been done to death. What’s much more interesting is how mainstream science fiction has become lately, and how acceptable it is to enjoy it now. Perhaps not love its every miniscule detail, as a geek would, but enjoy it heartily just the same—sometimes without realizing it’s science fiction. For example: Lost, Flashforward, District 9, Doctor Who, Under the Dome, and The Hunger Games, among many others.

This surge of interest indicates to me an appreciation for one of the most important kinds of storytelling. That is: storytelling that starts with reality and goes somewhere interesting, and that we can believe might really happen in one universe or another. (Even the fact that I can say “in one universe or another” and be generally understood is a step in the right direction.) It means audiences are realizing that these stories are more relevant than ever. And in our current world, of course they are. Twenty years ago the internet was nothing to any of us, and now it’s nearly everything. Ten years ago there wasn't a single mobile phone photo taken of the 911 tragedy, and now just try to pry our smartphones from our hands. Technology and what we do with that technology is moving as fast as we can imagine.

My God. It's full of geeky quotes.
Except creative types are still imagining, and so science fiction is stronger than ever.

When I was a kid the only science fiction I read was 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. At least that’s all I thought I read. I didn’t realize that much of the other fiction I adored was what we’d now call Speculative Fiction, which is basically science fiction in every guise including fantastical, dystopian, alternate history, and superhero, and Slipstream, which is a cross between science fiction and literary fiction. For example, Christopher Pike’s Remember Me series which starts with a murder mystery and continues through to reincarnation and hereditary memory. This is at the boundary of what scientists would believe, but it still dances on that line, which is one of the great things science fiction can do.

Another great thing science fiction does is help us understand humanity. There’s a reason so many Star Trek episodes are concerned with what it means to be human, and why they always end with the epiphany that humans are flawed, bizarre, and totally great. Science fiction is a traditional way to examine ourselves as if we’re outsiders, and consider where we might be going next.

The shuttle program has ended, but we’re looking to Mars. Pluto is no longer a planet, but there’s a worldwide rejection of that result because as far as we’re concerned Pluto belongs to us. And science fiction belongs to us because the future belongs to us. I hope we can make it a good story.


  1. Lovely post! I agree. Speculative fiction is a beautiful discussion of people. It's about their humanity and assessing it through a different lens. Science fiction in particular is about assessing humanity through the lens of a possible future. It's about where our current humanity might take us! Wonderful thoughts.
    Also. Space is amazing.


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