The Value of Science Fiction

By Martin Griffiths, Brecon Beacons Observatory

Science fiction (SF) has many definitions. From the perspective of educators, Joanna Russ’s definition must be one of the best: SF is “a literature that attempts to assimilate imaginatively, scientific knowledge about reality and the scientific method, as distinct from the merely practical changes science has made in our lives.” It is this imaginative approach to science that underlies SF’s broad appeal. The phenomenal success of high-grossing films such as Star Wars, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, ET, Close Encounters, The Day After Tomorrow, Avatar, the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and many more, attest to the success of not only SF’s value as entertainment, but its ability to excite, fascinate and encompass human values.

Science fiction and education

The inclusion of SF in the schooling curriculum can promote discriminating faculties with applicability in later life. Some of the greatest scientists of the previous century, figures such as Carl Sagan, Robert Goddard and Richard Feynmann, were inspired by the speculations found in SF. Scientists such as Isaac Asimov, Fred Hoyle, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds and Kim Stanley Robinson also became award-winning SF writers. 

SF writer Jack Williamson expresses the appeal of SF and its utility in education in his book Education for the Future: Teaching Science Fiction. SF, he claims, has “a timely sense of purpose that is lacking from so-called ‘realistic’ fiction and establishes the thought that, however unreal or weird its machines or alien motifs may appear, it drives the acknowledgement that technology and imagination are changing our world.” SF offers us freedom to think, and to explore ideas without inhibitions imposed by so-called “reality.” Indeed, SF sometimes allows us to think the unthinkable. Apocalyptic SF, for example, lets us explore a complex catastrophe from different viewpoints without having to experience its horrors first-hands.

The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. SF can inspire thinking about the potential applications of scientific research and technological innovation, which have so often gone beyond what original researchers imagined. SF that is well-rooted in contemporary science and policy, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars or many of the works of Arthur C. Clarke, or the excellent scientific-political Orbital Decay by Allen Steele, can provide discussion points in a classroom setting or science lab. For instance, works such as Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain — about genetically modifying people to make them more productive — help to illuminate the urgent ethical issues surrounding synthetic biology.

Carl Sagan, astronomer and SETI advocate, addresses many of these concerns in his book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Sagan not only stresses the importance of science education in our technological society, but also illustrates the capacity of SF to draw ingenious parallels with and connections to modern science. He admits to considering himself as fortunate to have been influenced by SF when a child. Sagan ponders that “the greatest human significance of SF may be as experiments on the future, as explorations of alternative destinies, as attempts to minimize future shock. The fact that some SF is not of the highest quality is irrelevant, most people do not read the scientific journals.” 

Sagan makes a good point. Generating an attraction for and enjoyment of a subject is one of the first hurdles any teacher faces. The use of SF may entice students to reconsider their first impressions of a topic. However, in order to truly illuminate the world around us, it is important that the ideas prevalent in SF are allowed to operate freely, and not be tied down to the particular narrative function they happen to have been assigned by the author. Students must realise that SF poses questions and brings ideas to life, but it does not make firm, fixed prophecies. As SF author Thomas Disch argues, to make reconciliation between the imaginary worlds and the real one, SF must be both bewitching and thought-provoking. SF must draw its readers into a fantastical reality … but it must also not allow them to forget the reality that they inhabit. 

Preparing for the future

More difficult concepts with subjective overtones can be illuminated with the spotlight of SF. People are rightly concerned about the effects of industry, politics, economics and technology on our climate and environment. Human cloning and genetic manipulation – with its many chilling possibilities – are a constant feature of news items. SF has been addressing these concerns, evaluating our environmental impacts, clarifying issues, warning of the consequences of misuse, questioning the validity of technological progress, and penetrating the “tunnel vision” approach that fosters a blind faith in progress, to the detriment of the world we inhabit. 

A case in point is the current Coronavirus pandemic. So many SF works have dealt with pandemics and their aftermaths to engage readers in a “what if” setting that could come to pass or at least mimics current fears. What would society do in the face of an existential risk? What would we as individuals do if we survived? Would we retain our humanity and look out for others or would we descend into barbarism? Such tropes are examined in books such as William Stewart’s Earth Abides; the excellent The Ringway Virus by Russell Foreman, a book that really encapsulates the current climate;  John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (published in the US as No Blade of Grass); Mary Shelley’s The Last Man; Stephen King’s The Stand; Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven; Ling Ma’s Severance, and even some ideas as far-fetched as those in Richard Mattheson’s I Am Legend. 

It is safe to say that there are many lessons to be learned from such literature. Using these books in a classroom environment has potential to stimulate new generations of readers, who face the myriad distractions of social media and digital technology. The concept of disease and pestilence strikes fear into many people, and the narratives of the survivors — heart-rending though some are — generally point to hope and regeneration. This is fitting in a world in which the individual seems disempowered and at the mercy of forces outside of their control. SF provides lessons in individual and collective empowerment, showing how taking responsibility, and developing and applying new skills and ideas, can transform despair into hope.

Many of these books also make an excellent ecological point. Humanity is not the master of the universe. The consequences of exceeding our planetary limits will be disastrous. We cannot cheat nature or damage her beyond what we or she can bear; man-made climate change is the most high-profile aspect of a complex ongoing environmental crisis, which also involves habitat destruction and wildlife extinction; plastics and e-wastes; soil exhaustion and desertification; and the toxification of the air we breathe and the water we drink. As the fictitious microbiologist Sir Julian Reece puts it in The Ringway Virus:

… we elected the wrong leaders; we gave our future and that of our children to those who saw only good in the destruction and exploitation of the natural world. We fell for the dangerous optimism of the ignorant, or worse, of the financially interested … we allowed our politicians, businessmen and economists to go on passing laws and inventing schemes designed to increase “productivity” and “growth” and therefore exacerbating an unsolvable problem. To our leaders, survival of species, conservation of the Earth’s resources, preservation of the environment was of far less importance than the deadly business of advantage for personal, political and financial gain.

If this does not present a powerful argument for comprehension and discussion in a science or geography or even PSE lesson, taken from a work of SF, then I am hard-pressed to think of a better one.

It can be argued that scientific, or even pseudo-scientific, conceptions, when encountered in youth, can influence adult behaviour. SF contains both. The youth of today are the adults of tomorrow. What sort of world will they inhabit? The values of our societies change from generation to generation, evolving and re-evaluating what is moral, ethical and acceptable in conjunction with emerging philosophies and technologies. Both Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein claimed that SF is the literature of change, and it is our ability to cope with such changes that will enable people from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds to enter the technological future with faith in their adaptability to new challenges. To some extent we already live in a world modeled by science fictional motifs. SF illuminates these challenges and is a vital educational tool to prepare a thinking person for whatever future they choose.

People educated with these patterns can face the future with confidence. They will have the intellectual, emotional, and imaginative resources to start constructing responses to the truly new. Will we receive a message from an extraterrestrial civilization? Will A.I. become commonplace? Will we transform our societies to overcome the environmental problems we face? Will our children live in a globalised Utopian society? The “prognostications” of SF may come to pass, or may not, or they may arrive in new forms. The point is that readers of SF have already been accommodated to such possibilities by reflecting on the lessons inherent in SF. They are conscious of the outward urge of humanity’s endeavours, clearly informed of the possibilities and drawbacks of scientific, technological, ecological, humanitarian or political progress, adapting to and comprehending a society in which they can play a dynamic, purposeful role. A little SF in any classroom may promote a greater future understanding of science and its social and cultural interactions; at the very least it will provide raw imaginative fodder for the next generation.

Martin Griffiths is the director of the Brecon Beacons Observatory in the International Dark Sky Reserve at the Brecon Beacons National Park. He has been an astronomer for over 40 years and has written many academic papers, articles (e.g. in Popular Astronomy, The Deep Sky Observer and Astronomy Now), and six books on features of observing: Alien Worlds;Planetary Nebulae; Choosing and Using Astronomical Filters; Observing Nebulae, Dark Land, Dark Skies and Variable Stars and how to Observe them.




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