Note: This post was originally a guest post on another blog in August of 2013. In light of recent events, I wanted to publish it again, here.
There are many genres of literature. Mainstream Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Horror, but only one genre that seems to be unilaterally mocked as silly, strange, and only for “geeks.” That, of course, would be Science Fiction. I know that when I was a child, to admit you liked science fiction was to seal your fate on the lowest rungs of the status ladder for all eternity, or till the end of high school, whichever came first. God forbid anyone know you liked Star Wars, or Star Trek, or that you read the works of authors such as Isaac Asimov.
And yet, there is something about this genre that is special, unique. Dictionary.com defines fiction in part as “the class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form” but also as “an imaginary thing or event, postulated for the purposes of argument or exploration.” Fiction lets us explore the real world through the lives of imaginary people. We are transported to places many of us might never go in our lifetimes. To France, to Africa, to Antartica. We do not judge people who lose themselves in these works as “geeky.”
And yet – how is science fiction really different? Science fiction explores both our world, and others. Sometimes it is the world to come, sometimes it is another possible world, but generally it is about something that takes place in the future, whether centuries from now or just around the corner. Science fiction, unlike any other genre, seeks to give a picture of a possible future, and in many cases, the chance to either become that future, or to prevent it.
One of the most famous, and most simultaneously beloved and maligned of science fiction programs is the Star Trek series. It was created by Gene Roddenberry and the first episode “Where no Man has Gone before” aired in 1966. Though ratings initially were poor, through letter writing the series was extended for three seasons. But it did not die there. Fans formed a convention in 1972, and these are still had today. Later, after the success of science fiction films like Star Wars, Star Trek went to the silver screen. Now a show that originally was doomed to failure has spanned 12 films, a cartoon, and five different series all based around the same concept. Unlike many before him, Roddenberry saw a future in which there was hope.
But right now this is, as Phil Collins said, a land of confusion. We have many problems we are still working out. Science fiction is a place to bring attention to the problems, explore them, and possibly come to solutions. In the original series, Roddenberry explored many issues taking place in the 1960s, a primary one being civil rights. This is an issue that is far from settled, however. While most consider people of color to be equal, there are still hold outs. And there are still those who would deny rights to others, whether they be by gender, orientation, national origin, religion, or any number of other reasons. We still have a long way to go.
I was inspired to write about this by an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the second series produced in this line. In this episode, The Measure of a Man, an android, known as Lt. Commander Data, is under trial to determine if he is property of Starfleet, the military-like futuristic space organization the people serve. For a season and a half, the android Data has explored what it is to be human while serving on a starship as a member of the crew. What makes someone sentient? Further – what makes someone worthy or respect, of freedom of choice? These questions come to a head in this episode when the captain, Picard, must prove Data is sentient in order to save him from dangerous experiments that would involve dismantling and possibly destroying the essence of the android’s experiences, or rather, his soul.
So many issues are explored in this episode. It is not, in fact, just about an android, but about us. The man who wants to disassemble Data wants to create hundreds just like him, or a race, basically, of androids. As Picard considers his defense, he realizes that this has all been done before. Once African Americans were deemed less than human, ¾ of a human to be specific, according to the Constitution at one time. Since these people were less than human, it was permissible to enslave them. Would a race of these androids also be enslaved? Can you exploit a machine?
It brings to mind issues from the near future as well. Already we have cloned animals. How long until we can clone entire humans? If we are able to do so, will it be permissible to take from these clones organs in order to further our own existence? Will these people be considered human like us? What if we grow them without brains? Scary, isn’t it? And yet, possible given the right tools, the right knowledge, the right legislation. Science and technology are often speeding ahead of morality. Through science fiction, we can attempt to keep up.
And then there is today. Today we seek legislation to deny people of the same gender the right to marry. We seek legislation to deny women the right to choose whether to have their child or receive a safe abortion. And we seek legislation to deny the right to vote to the poor and disadvantaged. Are any of these groups of people unworthy of rights? If so, why?
Here is a clip from the show in which Picard successfully advocates for Data’s right to choose his own future. It is all very good, but pay careful attention starting at around the 3:30 mark. He demonstrates how it is our laws that determine the liberties of those around us. And at 4:18, Picard says, “Your honor, Starfleet was founded to seek out new life. Well there it SITS!”
Patrick Stewart, who plays Picard in this series, delivers this line so passionately that I dare you to not be moved by his words. So after all of this, I ask you, am I a geek for liking science fiction? Is science fiction worthless? I’m not demanding you enjoy it. I don’t enjoy all of it, and there are certainly some other genres I am not particularly fond of, yet I do not consider them silly, or trivial, or just for “geeks.” Science fiction is for everyone. It explores the past, the present, and the future in ways that make us question our values, our morals, in a time of extraordinary change. It’s important. And it is not just for geeks.