In 1930, Hugo Gernsback wrote, “Not only is science fiction an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated by the man on the street.”
I’ve never subscribed to the view that science fiction should be didactic or predictive. To me, sf is a literary mode – not a teaching tool, not futurism. Yes, any science in a sf text needs to be accurate and rigorous, but it’s only there to enable the plot.
Given some of the outright bollocks being perpetuated by the right in both the US and UK, I have to wonder if it’s time science fiction should play a didactic role. In the US, the education boards of some states are planning to remove all references to evolution from school textbooks. In the UK, some national newspapers repeatedly publish pieces claiming Anthropogenic Global Warming is nothing more than a conspiracy by a handful of scientists desperate for funding. (And just look at the outright lies perpetrated by far-right web sites such as the Conservapedia.)
Scientific conversation is being swamped by right-wing politics. The right does not believe in the politics of debate, but the politics of exclusion. They’re not presenting an alternative view, they’re telling you that their view is the correct one. Despite all evidence to the contrary. And they insist their view is correct because their view is the one that perpetuates their privilege. The right is oligarchic and its politics exist solely to maintain that oligarchy.
This is reflected to some extent in genre fiction. The rational worldview at the core of science fiction is disappearing from the shelves of book shops. Those shelves are now dominated by fantasy novels. And the politics of fantasy tends to the oligarchic and autocratic – all those empires and kingdoms, all those Peasant Heroes and Dark Lords. Mind you, much space opera and military sf is no different – and in many ways no less rational than fantasy. Perhaps this has been partly driven by media sf, which has been chiefly fantastical since 1977.
I put this down to a confusion over sf tropes. They’re not the be-all and end-all of the genre. They’re not setting. They exist to enable the plot. Incorporate them solely as background, as a pandering to the current desire for immersion in secondary worlds and… well, doesn’t that lead to readers turning their back on this world?
When Geoff Ryman founded the Mundane SF Movement in 2002, I saw it only as a bunch of sf writers throwing the best toys out of science fiction’s pram. When Jetse de Vries called for sf to be optimistic in 2008, I didn’t really understand as, to me, the genre was neither pessimistic nor optimistic.
But it occurred to me recently that these two attempts to change how science fiction thinks about itself are themselves symptomatic of the erosion of the scientific worldview in the public arena. By excluding the more fanciful, the more fantastical, tropes in sf, Mundane SF forces writers and readers to engage with known science and a scientific view of the world. And optimistic fiction, by focusing on “possible roads to a better tomorrow”, acknowledges that situations exist now which require solutions. It forces us to look at those situations, to examine the world and not rely on a two-thousand-year-old fantasy novel, or the opinions of the scientifically-ignorant, for our worldview.
I’m not suggesting all sf writers should immediately start writing their twenty-first versions of Ralph 124C 41+. Nor that all fantasy writers must immediately cease and desist, and write optimistic Mundane sf instead. What I am saying is, that as readers and writers of genre fiction, we should perhaps begin to question how the public perception of our world is formed, and refuse to perpetuate the same lies and inaccuracies. We must examine our world more rigorously, we must examine the worlds we create more rigorously.
I’m horrified by the thought of an entire generation thinking there must be a god because they cannot conceive of any other way for the Earth, or humanity, to have come about. I’m frightened that the nations of this planet will not work together to prevent the climate from crashing because they believe it will never happen. I’m scared that the world is turning into a place in which orthodoxy dominates all media. I don’t want to live in a world in which I am told what to think.
And yes, there have even been a few science fiction novels written about that very situation.