Can that still be true in our new, so-called ‘post-truth’ society? Where it is now fashionable, in certain circles, to proudly disregard knowledge and intellect, to give opinion the same weight as fact? When daily, we watch the frightening rise of regressive behaviors such as bigotry, assault on women’s rights, climate change denial, and even those who believe the Earth is flat? Or that we never landed on the Moon? When elected leaders freely cast doubt on what is true or false, for blatant political gain?
What worth can science fiction have in such a society? This question is more important than ever, as the general public’s main exposure to SF is the big Hollywood blockbuster: big explosions, dumbed-down plot, technology akin to magic. When people doubt we ever sent humans into space, while using a mobile phone that receives signals from orbiting satellites. Post-modern ideas claiming science (and thus critical thought) is just another religion. Worst of all, empowered racists that ask if some people can even be considered human beings.
The best way to fight this nonsense is to maintain our standard of knowledge. One that never normalizes ignorance. A standard that science fiction epitomizes.
But wait, I know what some will say: the genre itself has always been politicized. From the Libertarian-tinged works of Robert A. Heinlein, to the feminist perspectives given by Ursula K. Le Guin, science fiction has never been a stranger to controversy (in fact, what works are considered controversial is in itself a controversy). There’s nothing wrong with this; having multiple perspectives on how humans will advance (or not) is what gives the field its strength. There’s something for all tastes, all political persuasions. That doesn’t mean we should normalize racism, sexism, and otherwise hateful material when it arises. Recognizing and calling out such things doesn’t stifle creativity. But abiding them certainly stifles the SF community, and, ultimately, the rest of society.
Yet, for all the friction within SF fandom, we’ve always been united by a respect for learning. I hope this continues. As the cultural wars spill over into the SF community, I fear some authors will assume the same stubborn, ignorant, even petty stances that certain elements of society now espouse. We’ve already witnessed that in regards to the Sad/Rabid Puppies movement. Regardless of where one stands on that issue, it’s mere distraction compared to what is happening around us. What we once read about in SF books, has now, or likely will, come true:
The mass-surveillance state as shown in George Orwell’s 1984;
The rise of corporatism, as depicted in William Gibson’s Neuromancer;
Women as baby-making machines, from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale;
The deterioration of urban, non-white neighborhoods, from Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower;
Rising sea levels, like those from JG Ballard’s The Drowned World.
There are other examples, but this list suffices to make my point. True, some of these haven’t come to pass, or aren’t as extreme as their fictional counterpart. But the signs are there, much more so than when the author in question penned said work (which is why I didn’t select recent titles). We are walking the razor’s edge, barefoot and blindfolded.
So, what can we, as science fiction writers, do?
Some will say, ‘do nothing, keep it business as usual’. I can’t condemn that. Just because we write SF, that doesn’t make us activists, prophets, or anything bent on swaying another’s thinking. That’s not my intent when I write a short story or novel. Our beliefs, hopes, prejudices, and all else that makes us individuals, will surface in our art, regardless of authorial intent. But there is one thing we can all do: maintain respect for knowledge.
Support reason, praise intellect, require facts instead of opinions. Keep these tenements in your work, subtle or no. Inspire with that sense of wonder, like Arthur C. Clarke did with his work. Foster hope that humanity can overcome these challenges, like Octavia Butler. Challenge our concepts of gender and civilization, like Ursula K. Le Guin or Samuel Delaney. Or, like George Orwell and Margaret Atwood, tell us your greatest fears, so that we might be forewarned.
Never forget that science fiction inspired some of our greatest scientists and inventors; without this genre, rockets and mobile devices might never have left the proverbial drawing board. Our knowledge sets us apart from every other lifeform we currently know; therefore, let us celebrate it, increase it, and most importantly, share it, so that the idea of a ‘post-truth’ era dies like all other ephemeral, meaningless trends. Let science fiction be a pestilence upon ignorance, a poison against irrationality, and an antidote to regressive thinking.
“There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere.”