Science fiction is dead. Long live science fiction.
Before you ask, yes, both those statements are true. Science fiction as understood by most people—as the gleaming predictor of the future—has been dead for decades.
Of course, to state that SF isn’t about predicting the future is tantamount to heresy among many genre fans. Last year I sat on a convention panel where, after stating my view on SF predictions, a fellow panelist began yelling at me. While I didn’t appreciate the scream-fest, I understood why he was upset. Saying you disagree with the predictive powers of science fiction is almost like questioning someone’s religion and often produces similar screams of anguish.
So let me be clear—I’m not dismissing the importance of ideas and technology in science fiction. Science fiction is the most penetrating of all literary genres precisely because it deals with the two aspects of humanity—ideas and technology—which truly make us human. Be the ideas as revolutionary as monetary exchange and farming, or the technology as simply as a hand axe and spear, without ideas and technology humanity would never have become human. And these two concepts are still shaping humanity into new and exciting directions, a phenomenon science fiction is perfectly situated to explore.
But all of that, of course, isn’t what pops into the popular mind when you mention science fiction. Instead, to most people science fiction is about predicting the future.
While this prediction fallacy has been around since nearly the beginning of the science fiction genre, it first gained significant power in the U.S.A. with the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. Sputnik caused many Americans to feel their country had fallen behind in the technology and space race with the Soviet Union.
But where the general public felt panic, those who loved science fiction saw an opportunity.
You see, until then science fiction had been firmly locked inside the ghetto of kids’ literature. Never mind that tons of adults read science fiction—the genre simply wasn’t given any respect. To say that science fiction in the 1940s and early ’50s was held in as low regard as pornography wouldn’t be stretching the truth too much; in fact, quite a few people back then probably would have regarded pornography as being classier than science fiction. After all, you could understand why people looked at pornography. But adults reading those kiddie books? That was just weird.
But after Sputnik, all those people who’d decried science fiction were now worried about kids learning about science and technology so the great U.S. of A could beat those nasty communists. And what better way to convince the youth of today to become the scientists of tomorrow than to interest them in science fiction.
Suddenly SF was respectable. And as rockets, moon landings, satellites and other technological advances became ingrained in the public’s mind, lovers of science fiction lost no time in pointing out that their beloved genre had seen all of this coming decades before.
Which they had. In a way. So suddenly the true value of SF was about predicting the future.
Unfortunately, once SF became about predicting the future too many people forgot the deeper role of the genre in exploring how ideas and technology make us human.
Since then the genre has partly moved away from this simplistic view of SF, a transition jump started by the New Wave movement of the 1960s and ’70s. However, the public’s view of the genre has remained stuck in a moon-landing time frame. As a result, you continually hear people both in and outside the genre wondering if science fiction is still relevant when technological advances happen faster than SF can predict.
Short answer: if you believe SF is about predicting the future, then yes, the genre is indeed dead.
But if you believe the genre is instead about creating the future, about understanding where humanity is going, then science fiction is alive and well.
One of the most insightful genre essays I’ve read in recent years is “A Vocabulary for Speaking about the Future” by award-winning SF author Cory Doctorow. In the essay Doctorow, author of such novels as the best-seller Little Brother, rightly dismisses the idea of science fiction predicting the future.
Instead, he says that while SF authors may think they’re predicting the future—such as with previous so-called SF predictions like the Web, flip-phones, waterbeds, rocketships and robots—the truth is that in “nearly every instance where science fiction has successfully ‘predicted’ a turn of events, it’s more true to say that it has inspired that turn of events.”
As an example, Doctorow cites the Motorola flip-phone, which resembled the Star Trek communicators from the 1960’s TV show. But Star Trek didn’t predict the flip-phone. Instead, the engineers at Motorola were fans of Star Trek and modeled their phone after communicators in their favorite series.
I believe Doctorow’s view of SF predictions is correct—SF inspires the future instead of predicting it. And Doctorow doesn’t stop there. As he states, “the really interesting thing is how science fiction does its best tricks: through creating the narrative vocabularies by which futures can be debated, discussed, adopted, or discarded.”
Doctorow gives George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four as an example of what this type of futuristic verbal judo can accomplish. Before Orwell’s famous novel, it was difficult to discuss the dangers of an overreaching surveillance-based state. But after Orwell, not only does humanity have the words to express these dangers—Orwellian and Big Brother are two such words which jump to mind—we also have the larger story of Nineteen Eighty-Four to help us comprehend and process these words.
So forget about science fiction predicting the future. Such a belief arose because it was useful for a while during the genre’s history, not because it was correct.
Instead, the science fiction genre inspires the future. SF creates the future. And that’s more powerful than any prediction will ever be.
Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.