Because of the proliferation of late-night cable schlock and special effects-driven movies with no internal consistency, science fiction has become associated with action over content, CGI over plot and green slime over suspense. The thing is, science fiction includes some of the most progressive, thoughtful and content-driven fiction of the past century.
Back in the Cold War Era, science fiction writers were among the relative few who challenged the status quo regarding matters of American society, testing prevailing notions of humanity and identity through speculation and allegory. Rod Serling used The Twilight Zone as a vehicle to explore various aspects of American society, from conformity to racism to vanity. Margaret Atwood challenged ‘casually held attitudes’ (as she ingeniously put it) about gender in A Handmaid’s Tale. Philip K. Dick asked us to consider the meaning of humanity with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ursula LeGuin asked us to consider the distribution of suffering in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica is an epic, layered drama that capably addresses politics, ethics, religion, ethnicity and loyalty. There are countless examples of science fiction that ask important questions about humanity, identity and society; these themes are explored in what many consider to be the original science fiction novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Speaking of which, one might note how many of the aforementioned authors are women; this belies the conventional wisdom that science fiction is a male province. I haven’t yet even mentioned Ayn Rand, whose epic novels certainly fall into the category of futurism…which leads me to my last point, something that’s been addressed by Ms. Atwood herself. While I understand why science fiction was given its name–and while I understand that some science fiction (not only the schlocky stuff) is indeed science and technology driven–I believe a more appropriate, fluid and telling moniker would be ‘speculative’. Speculation, about the future of human civilization and the possible outcomes of future developments, is at the heart of most of the best ‘science fiction’; in fact, stories like A Handmaid’s Tale and Blade Runner are more about the human condition than they are about whatever technological or futuristic development might be the vehicle for their analysis. Speculative fiction is also more ethnically diverse than people tend to assume; writers like Octavia Butler might be among the few recognized african-american authors of the genre, but fans of science fiction include a lot more differently-hued people than conventional wisdom suggests.
Conventional wisdom also fails to recognize how much speculation influences popular culture. There are lots of popular and critically acclaimed books and movies with speculative elements, even though people don’t casually think of them as ‘sci fi’. The Time Traveler’s Wife, despite the fact that ‘Time Travel’ is in the title, is thought of as more of a romance than anything else. Sliding Doors, the Gwyneth Paltrow film generally known as a love story, is also an alternate-universe tale. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind involves a memory erasing device! As far as I see it, if a major element of the premise involves something that’s not considered plausible in everyday life, then it’s speculative. If the story centers around a love story, political drama or moral redemption, this only furthers my point: that speculation, even futuristic speculation, is an excellent vehicle for exploring the complexities of the human condition.