Why Science Fiction is Important
Science fiction is considered by many of the literati to be mere genre or commercial fiction with little value beyond entertainment. Of course, if a work of science fiction is popular enough and is groundbreaking, conveys an important social message, or proves to be ominous, then, it is magically (forgive the fantasy pun) “transformed” into well-respected “literature” (e.g., Wells’ War of the Worlds, Orwell’s 1984, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, Huxley’s Brave New World). Regardless of such snobbish and pseudo-intellectualism, science fiction is important not only as part of our literary heritage but also to our society: science fiction inspires and it warns.
Science fiction inspires us to learn and explore. And we certainly need inspiration today. Here in the United States, too many of our best and brightest minds that leave our best universities with degrees in physics, mathematics, and engineering do not go off to NASA, research institutes, foundations, research universities or high-tech start-ups, rather they are bought by Wall Street to create credit default swaps and complex derivatives.
Pure science and exploration has fallen out of favor in the United States. The United States discontinued the shuttle program and has to buy passage on other countries’ rockets to get into orbit like some tourist. We landed on the moon over fifty years ago, but we are incapable of going to the moon today. Advances in science and technology have certainly grown exponentially if there is immediate commercial potential or military application, but the advancement of great and big ideas are slowing to a grinding halt if those incentives are not there. This is shortsighted and foolish.
Science fiction will help to build and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers who in turn will help advance our society and make the world, hopefully, a better place. It provides ideas and concepts. It inspires a sense of exploration of the unknown and awe of the infinite. It provides dreams to be fulfilled and hopes to be realized.
Perhaps more important than inspiration, science fiction is a powerful vehicle for criticism and caution. Science fiction allows writers to address issues facing contemporary society in a way that may be more difficult for other literature because the freedom science fiction affords its authors and readers. The plots plays out in a different time, a different place, or even by a different species. Its format is readily amenable to exploration of the effect of technology on the human condition and what it means to be human. It delves into the dangers and ethical dilemmas facing all scientific areas of inquiry. Science fiction explores social, economic, and political structures and institutions that may, or do, pose a threat to society
Humans are a dynamic species. We have adapted to our world, and we have adapted our world to us. There are some positive and some negative consequences to this reality. Science fiction inspires us to dream and reach for greatness and cautious us to be careful while doing it.