The Measure of Science Fiction

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.

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18 responses

  1. I remember when you posted this, and I like it just as much the second time around. I have always loved Science Fiction. My favorite show is “”The Outer Limits”, both old and new episodes. I always left thinking thatt if we weren’t careful some of what was showm could happen someday. Thank you for posting this again, Alice.

    1. It’s funny, cause I was looking over it again and considering posting it and then I got comments and it was like – oh I did post it? But yes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, as they say. And unfortunately most of our government officials flunked history. We’re doomed.

  2. Very well written, you make an excellent case. I’ve always loved sci-fi.

    1. Me too, even when I was afraid to show my geekiness. Now it’s so much more accepted. My Thing Two brings her stuffed Yoda to school (in 5th grade) and the teacher is like, awesome, and puts it on her desk. Like wtf? No teacher did that for me! Times are a’changin’ maybe.

  3. A science fiction book like Orwell’s 1984 probably had more impact on humankind than many actual scientific books.

    1. Agreed. It scared the poop out of me when I read it and even more so now that in some aspects we are living it.

      1. Though I’ve heard plenty about the book, somehow I made it through school and two degrees in English without reading 1984. I did get to read Animal Farm, and I think it’s a definite contender for most influential book. Ironically it was often banned because people thought Orwell was a communist – something he was trying to speak against. D’oh.

    2. I think you can accomplish a lot more with fiction than you can with bare facts. That’s why Fox News is so successful. But seriously, even Jesus used parables to get his point across to the boneheaded people.

      On the other hand, there are those who can’t think critically, so they don’t get the meaning behind the words. The Hooked-On-Phonics crowd, if you will. Those are the ones who worry me.

  4. A truly great post, some of the greatest thinking of the greatest minds has been written in science fiction. It shame it’s marked the way it is. There is so much more to say on it that it would become a blog post in itself.

    1. Thank you. Star Trek and Star Wars in particular changed science fiction by showing hope as well as possible doom in our future. So it has evolved over the years. I’ve noticed that if you don’t directly state something is science fiction, people enjoy it more. The success of books like the Hunger Games is proof of that.

  5. Love science fiction – I’m a sworn Trekkie. Interestingly enough, my Mum, who is more a classics type person, sees science fiction as means to forward the cause of feminism. Characters and new social norms can be created and written that show the effectiveness of strong women characters and the importance of equality in our future.

    Great post Alice – Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Paul. Star Trek showed a black female character as a member of the crew. Sure she was mostly just a sci-fi telephone operator, but still that was pretty radical. Also they had a Russian kid piloting the ship, the first interracial kiss on TV, and so much more. Like Go Go boots as part of a uniform.

  6. I don’t watch or read much science fiction, but I agree it can be a great way to raise the moral issues our future might bring. Showing what could happen–whether fictional or not–and forcing readers to consider the consequences gives science fiction a depth some other genres lack.

    1. It really does. Sometimes the best way to get a point across is to trick people with a story. Some don’t get it, but enough do that many of these books end up banned, only serving to make them even more popular. There are also books not necessarily considered science fiction that really are – like books showing what might happen if a big scary plague wiped out most of the people . . . wait, where did I see that? 😀

      1. Haha, yes I did. But I doubt I’ll venture into the realm of science fiction again. I don’t know enough about the genre to do it justice beyond the light spin I gave my own story. 🙂

  7. Total Sci-Fi/Fantasy geek here too. And yes, it’s always about the story. Never mind whether it’s set in a historical setting or on a starship lightyears into the future. It’s about how we change the way people look at things, one word at a time.

    1. Exactly. What’s the most fun is when you get someone to read or watch something without telling them the genre. Then they like it. My kids are especially amazing when it comes from getting the deeper meaning out of things. Amazing how they can get stuff that adults miss.

      1. I think that’s why us adults love cartoons. Things like The Simpsons actually work on so many levels. But other stuff can make the brain ache…

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