The double-standard of science fiction

I was reading an article in the July 2011 Scientific American this weekend called “The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox and came across a paragraph with an interesting conclusion:

Do the laws of thermodynamics, then, impose a limit on neuron-based intelligence, one that applies universally, whether in birds, primates, porpoises, or praying mantises? This question apparently has never been asked in such broad terms, but the scientists interviewed for this article generally agree that it is a question worth contemplating. “It’s a very interesting point,” says Vijay Balasubramanian, a physicist who studies neural coding of information at the University of Pennsylvania. “I’ve never even seen this point discussed in science fiction.”

The article itself was a fascinating one, but Balasubramanian’s observation about science fiction troubled me. Of course, it is difficult to tell from the context of a popular science article whether it was said in approval or distain. Yet in either case, it seems to be holding science fiction (and thus science fiction writers) responsible for thinking of ideas that scientists have not yet considered.

And yet, there is a flip side to this coin. Consider news articles with headlines like: “These Cures Are No Longer Science Fiction“; or “Science fiction? Airbus shows off aircraft of the future” (with the rather¬†disdainful¬†line, “some might ‘wonder if Airbus engineering chief Charles Champion and his team spent a bit too much of their youth watching early science fiction films.'” In these instances, ideas that sound like science fiction are treated with scorn; in other words, if it’s science fiction, it must be impossible.

I find this double-standard in science fiction both amusing and alarming. In the first case, I’ve always held that science fiction is not an attempt to predict the future. Rather, it is the literature of the effect of technological change on society. That technological change can be for better or for worse. It can be an increase or a decrease. It is not meant to predict what will come about, but to explore and examine the human condition through the lens of technology. When someone (particularly a scientist) accuses science fiction of not coming through on a prediction, they miss the point of the literature. (Indeed, perhaps the most famous case is science fiction’s failure to predict the Internet.)

In the second case, science fiction is all imaginary, and anything labeled science fiction must be impossible from the outset. This is a ridiculous position to take because there is overwhelming evidence to show that science fiction has explored many avenues that ultimately became viable sciences, the least of which is space travel and the exploration of the solar system.

How can science fiction be taken to task for not predicting something, on the one hand, when its very name is often a sign that it is impossible, on the other hand?

For me, science fiction is not about prediction, although that is sometimes a side-effect of story-telling. At its most basic level, science fiction is about entertaining an audience through stories that involve technology of some kind. At times, those technologies have proven prescient, and yet still, many of the oldest tropes of science fiction (faster-than-light travel; time-travel) are known to be impossible based on our current understanding of the universe. The point is that technology is a means to an end: that end being entertainment, in much the same way that romance is the means to the end in romance novels; or magic in fantasy novels.

I think it says something about the cultural importance of science fiction as a literature that it flirts with this double-standard. Its notions are taken seriously by some, and it is therefore held to a higher standard; and its notions are cast aside by others as “just science fiction”. It would be interesting to see how the demographics of these aspersions break down. Is it mostly science-minded people who believe science fiction has an obligation to predict things that scientists themselves have not yet considered? Do people without a background in science cast science fiction aside as irrelevant to cultural impact?

And outside of the summer blockbuster movies, does anyone outside the genre still look at science fiction as a form of entertainment?

One comment

  1. And outside of the summer blockbuster movies, does anyone outside the genre still look at science fiction as a form of entertainment?

    I don’t think so. And those who are watching summer blockbuster movies aren’t consciously thinking that they are watching science fiction.

    to them, Jurassic Park, Armageddon, Transformers aren’t SF, they are “blockbuster action movies”.


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