To ask if science fiction can save the world is to waste time asking a question when none is necessary – the hypothesis has already been formulated, the results already documented. To ask the question is to ignore the world science fiction has already saved – and the awful years we’ve already lived through.
When one claims that Star Trek (and other science fiction) is a reflection of our rosier past, as Hamish Wood does in his Overland article ‘Can science fiction save the world?’, we must respond, whose past? Because what does it mean to deter the apocalypse? What is ‘a world that needs saving’?
Star Trek had a whole lot of violence. It presented a rosy world of exploration, but the narrative was still colonial and racist, as was the period it was shot in. In the 1960s, for instance, Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, couldn’t be contracted as a regular. She also received hate mail after kissing Kirk onscreen – the first interracial kiss on American television. She was a groundbreaker, but still a Black woman playing subservient to a whole bunch of white men. And what is that, if not a reflection of our past and current racial politics?
It is simply untrue to portray vintage science fiction as naive or lacking in darkness. Science fiction’s past is one made of class gulfs and racial violence, colonialism, the slaughter of other peoples (usually aliens), and of fearing the things we can’t or don’t want to understand. From the Cold War to Skynet, and the fear that Artificial Intelligence will destroy humanity, science fiction has always explored our fears and concerns about society.
Frankenstein, written in 1818 and often posited as the world’s first science-fiction novel, looked at societal difference, objectification, and dehumanisation – experiences many transgender or non-white people still have within Western society. And if you were non-white or a woman or anything other than a cis white man, not only was the past an uncomfortable place, but you faced a future where you were furniture (see women in Soylent Green) or sleeping three-deep on stairs (everyone in the lower-classes in Soylent Green) or simply didn’t exist (see non-white people in Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, and so on).
Hardly an optimistic future! Make Room! Make Room! – better known by its screen adaptation Soylent Green – envisaged a future where the food the state provides is made from the bodies of humans. It’s a far bleaker future than we imagine now – in Snowpiercer, Chris Evans’ Curtis is distraught and disgusted to realise the protein bars served to the rear of the train are cockroaches. (Which is weird, because many cultures today regard cockroaches as a perfectly acceptable food source.)
Contrary to Wood’s claims, science fiction’s visions have often been grim, and had resonance in the real world. Leo Szilard both solved the problem of creating a nuclear chain reaction (1933), and was inspired to campaign for arms control, after reading HG Wells’ The World Set Free (1914). Rollerball (1975) suggested corporate-sponsored, state-sanctioned gruesome violence, while Battle Royale was about blood sports – a concept that existed then and still exists now. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) establishes a theocratic Christian dystopia with a military dictatorship where women are mere possessions, not even allowed to read; we might not be quite there, but we can see the historical and contemporary parallels.
The Lord of the Rings (1954), although primarily a fantasy text, is a significant part of this tradition, using science fiction to discuss problems and future concerns. It was a critique of the Second World War and of the technological determinism that followed. Although couched in flights of Arthurian fantasy, and filled with many a racist, xenophobic and sexist subtext, JRR Tolkien used this text to talk about nature, the fear of technology, the loss of the maker’s craft, and the anxiety that society would be replaced with a world we couldn’t comprehend, that destroyed all that was familiar. Yet there’s hope there too, for humanity and the future, in every chapter of the work.
I would argue that science fiction and fantasy (SFF) has a long history of imagining genocide, colonialism, racial privilege, homophobia and other social problems, sometimes critically, but often through inadequate tokenism and metaphor. But it was also inspirational, and it has already saved us, in many ways.
Indeed, SFF has long inspired science and technology. Take the first Motorola phone, demonstrated seven years after the first season of Star Trek – the design modelled on what characters used onscreen. ‘That was not fantasy to us,’ Martin Cooper, the director of research and development at Motorola said. ‘That was an objective.’ Star Trek also encouraged scientists to explore virtual reality, holograms, and even helped develop Quicktime (see Star Trek: The Next Generation).
Further back than that, we saw the first modern submarine in 1898, following Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, while Brave New World (1931) pointed us towards antidepressants. The helicopter was invented by a man aiming for the machines in Verne’s Clipper of the Clouds. The first rockets were produced after War of the Worlds, and Robert Heinlein predicted the end of the Second World War via a nuclear detonation and the beginning of the nuclear arms race in Solution Unnecessary. Winston Churchill, inspired by science fiction, attempted to create a ‘death ray’ (which later led to RADAR). Tasers were inspired by and named after Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (that is, Thomas A Swift Electric Rifle).
Then there’s the phrase ‘Orwellian’, used frequently to describe the modern world – it didn’t come from nowhere. George Orwell, in both 1984 (1949) and Animal Farm (1945), gave us, in many ways, the language we use now to describe life in a time of the surveillance state; he also gave us ‘Cold War’, ‘Big Brother’, and ‘thought police’).
There’s also the characters themselves. Nichols’ Uhura has been cited as an inspiration by astronauts – such as Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go into space (who later made a cameo appearance in Star Trek: The Next Generation in Nichols’ honour). In fact, in the 1980s, Nichols did work as a recruiter for NASA, actively seeking women and minorities for the space programs.
Science fiction has always been the ethics class, the mud map, the brainstorming of scientists – and has long reflected the problems within our society while doing so. Science Fiction can save the world. Indeed, it already did, and it’ll do so again.