- Homer, The Odyssey
Science fiction at its core is the exploration of how technology affects humanity. How we deal with it, how it changes us for good or ill. Technology is a tool we use to protect, feed, entertain, and educate ourselves. We’ve also used it to take such things from others.
Two decades into the 21st century, technology has caught up to and in some cases surpassed the technologies that appeared in science fiction throughout the 20th century. This is especially true in the fields of communication, miniaturization, and medicine. Some key fictional technologies associated with SF—faster than light travel, cryogenic stasis, terraforming, and sentient artificial intelligence—haven’t been invented yet, and may never be. Now that our species is facing its greatest challenge in climate change, such far-fetched ideas may seem old-fashioned at first glance. Out of touch even, considering that none of them can be depended upon to save us from ourselves. In short, they have become a form of future mythology.
But it is not the purpose of myths to save, but rather to inspire.
“If science fiction is the mythology of modern technology, then its myth is tragic.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin
This is nothing new; traveling to the stars has long been SF’s most dearly cherished myth, just like heroic cowboys dispensing justice on the Western frontier was a cherished American myth. But while the latter has been easily invalidated via historical records and a reevaluation of American colonialism, the former has yet to be cast aside. Though interstellar space travel could happen if our civilization doesn’t destroy itself and continues to progress, it’s not a given. Yet the idea is still taken for granted, especially in SF circles. Even my own fiction features this element, in part because I find such stories fascinating and truly believe it is humanity’s likeliest direction, but also because it’s something I want to happen.
This is no different than a child reading a dime novel in the late 19th century and wanting to believe that his or her gunfighting idols really were heroes in the Old West.
No, I’m not calling space travel childish—neither its fictional status, nor its real world endeavors. But what are we really saying about ourselves by writing and reading such stories? They rarely are grounded in scientific fact (guilty as charged, here) and even more rarely take into account what is currently happening on Earth today. If climate change forecasts come true, even at a conservative rate, space travel won’t be able to save the entire human race. Neither will terraforming. The hubris of wanting to terraform another world, while we have nearly wrecked our own, is galling. There is plenty of SF out there now that is paying attention to what’s going on, but much of it is still built on what came before. Transhumanist ideas have become a new part of that future mythology, where uploaded/recreated minds dwell forever in digital cloud networks.
So is this future mythology mere wishful thinking? A fantasy to comfort us while the world literally burns down around us? Critics have long called SF stories just another form of escapism. Perhaps the escapism has been found in the proposed solutions detailed in those stories, not the stories themselves. Or is it little more than a collective dream?
I state these things because science fiction is more than entertainment or a passion to me. It is a hopeful medium where humanity can learn from its mistakes and create something better. The technologies that drive those stories—FTL travel, terraforming, super-intelligent robots, what have you—are mere placeholders that offer solutions to these problems. SF explores the ‘what if’ of how such changes could affect our species, our civilization. It is a parable that is meant to stimulate thought and maybe even action, a tool that allows us to both teach and to learn.
So what these stories say about us is that we know we can do better. That’s not myth.
Recently, some have termed such SF as ‘hopepunk’ but it doesn’t need a label. This genre has too many labels and subgenres already. Besides, SF doesn’t always need to be positive in order to illuminate something about ourselves and our future. Dystopian stories are a perfect example. They too fall under the category of future mythology, though, because so many people assume our society will collapse. Pre-millennial SF novels and films often focused on doom and gloom scenarios, particularly leading up to the year 2000. That reflected the uncertainty many had regarding the 21st century, especially in light of the horrors of the 20th century. The drivers behind that uncertainty—their consequences—are now at our doorstep and cannot be ignored.
I don’t see this as an excuse to give up hope. To give up on humanity.
I certainly don’t see it as an excuse to assume that SF can no longer inspire us.
Mythology remains with us because their narratives teach us something about the human condition. The names and players might change to reflect the current zeitgeist but the stories are essentially the same. Comic book heroes are certainly modern myths, but SF isn’t concerned necessarily with today, but tomorrow. We are at a crossroads where some of these myths—such as reaching the stars—could become reality. That is what separates this ‘future mythology’ from ancient or even modern myths.
So while SF serves the dual purpose of providing entertainment as well as allegorical thought experiment, it is unique in that its stories have inspired people to make those myths a reality. From the communicator on Star Trek rousing an inventor to create the mobile phone, to rocket engineers reading issues of Astounding that encouraged them to literally shoot for the Moon, SF has served, and will continue to serve, as a catalyst for what we can achieve.
I only hope that we don’t become myths ourselves in the process.
“Today, we're still loaded down - and, to some extent, embarrassed - by ancient myths, but we respect them as part of the same impulse that has led to the modern, scientific kind of myth. But we now have the opportunity to discover, for the first time, the way the universe is in fact constructed as opposed to how we would wish it to be constructed.”
- Carl Sagan