SF – Its Often Overlooked Role

In his book, The Meaning of Human Existence, the noted biologist Edmund Wilson calls for what amounts to a return to “the Enlightenment” with the unification of the sciences and the humanities in the quest for meaning. He argues that the initial thrust of the Enlightenment “stalled” essentially because the sciences alone could provide no real explanations that would fulfill the human desire to find meaning in the universe, and, in response the humanities, especially the founders of Romantic literature, turned away from the sciences in their quest for meaning.

Wilson goes on to argue that a unified approach to discovering the meaning of life is necessary and vital because the conflicts between and within belief systems and religions cannot be resolved otherwise. [This point does assume that human beings will eventually accept factual discoveries that conflict with beliefs, an issue that I’ve raised more than once, since I suspect many humans will find it difficult to abandon belief in a faith-based supernatural.] He also points out, if quietly, that the rate of scientific advance has slowed and will continue to slow as more is discovered, and as more resources are required to research and develop subsequent knowledge and technology.

More to the point of the role of science fiction, Wilson points out that science fiction already plays a key role by using aliens as a means for us to reflect on our own condition. I frankly believe that Wilson ascribes to SF far too narrow a role in regard to charting the future course of human endeavor, although I’m glad to see a recognition in print of at least some of what speculative fiction has done and what I hope it will continue to do.

The Romantic movement sought to find the “truth” about the human condition and “reality” through everything from drugs to the elaborate use of metaphor, apparently because science did not provide an adequate and immediate answer. In a sense, the aliens of science fiction are indeed a metaphorical device for investigating the human condition, but SF also addresses more directly such basic questions as the role of science and technology in society in a way that is far more accessible than any scholarly or academic treatise can hope to do… and in fact in a fashion more accessible than even Wilson’s book. This exploration of the still-widening gulf between belief and scientific grounding in the existing reality of the universe is becoming more and more necessary… but at a time when harder science fiction is being written and read less frequently.

At the same time, I do have to admit that I am concerned about the swelling of interest in fantasy, particularly in the United Stated and particularly fantasy based on permutations and variations of the supernatural, and, equally, about the diminution of overall interest in science fiction grounded directly in scientific precepts and verified facts, perhaps because a great deal of supernatural-related fantasy appears to reinforce the existing dichotomy between the humanities and the sciences, or more bluntly, between romantic/religious faith/fantasy and a fact-based view of the universe.

If that seems a harsh judgment, consider that tens of thousands of people, if not more, have been slaughtered over the past decade by the suicide attacks of “true believers,” many of whom deeply believe they will achieve a paradise in heaven where they will be waited on, served, and serviced by seventy-odd virgins, based on extrapolation of teachings supposedly founded on the words of the Koran. Or consider the hard-core Christian fundamentalists who insist that the world is less than ten thousand years old. Clearly, there is a certain lack of even fundamental understanding of science, suggesting that such beliefs are about as far as one can get from the rational understanding of the human condition sought by Francis Bacon and the early proponents of the Enlightenment.

All of which suggests to me that there needs to be more good science fiction read by more people, particularly those of school age… but then, what else would a F&SF writer suggest?

4 thoughts on “SF – Its Often Overlooked Role”

  1. Tom says:

    Where does the fact that “one can lead a horse to water but one cannot make the horse drink” come in this idea of ‘enlightenment’? You can have voluminous SF but if it is not read by the “believers” then what?

    If “hard” means that one does not know what a word means then preaching to the choir is what “hard” science fiction does. It implies that other readers who find science fiction “hard” do not realize that with the help of that awful “google” (which has replaced a dictionary/encyclopedia) one can understand the “hard” science, in science fiction.

    Understanding ideas that are put forward by the author(s) is dependent on the the ability of the author(s) to write well, ie. clearly.

    1. D Archerd says:

      I believe the general meaning of the word “hard” in the phrase “hard Science Fiction” refers not to difficulty in comprehension but rather reliance on known scientific facts as the basis for the extrapolation into a story line by the author.

      And it is certainly possible to have “soft” Sci-Fi – think of Star Wars, where the technological advances (lightsabers, anti-gravity, tractor beams, FTL travel, etc.) are simply accepted and never explained and the truly central “technology” to the plot, The Force, has much more to do with magic and fantasy than with “hard science”. In my opinion, Star Wars in all its iterations is actually a “sword and sorcery” fantasy which happens to be set in a world with some technological advances that Sci-Fi has suggested may be possible.

      And while I heartily agree with LEM’s suggestion that more “hard SF” be read by young people, one of the biggest drawbacks to the genre is how quickly it can become dated. Some of the most recognized SF works of all time are now, for me, virtually unreadable because so much of their scientific premise has been superseded or revised, e.g. the habitability of Venus. But that I suppose that means there will always be fresh inspiration for Sci-Fi writers, who need to ensure their work is read and appreciated before it exceeds its “sell-by” date.

  2. Daze says:

    While moderating a web debate elsewhere on the ethics etc of potential cyber- and bio-enhamcement of human capabilities, someone said: “no-one has thought through what the possibilities and problems of this technology might be. i gave him a necessarily selective list of SF books that had explored these questions in considerable detail. He probably went off to another site and said the same things though.

  3. East Coast says:

    Tom, in this context “hard science fiction” does not mean difficult. It means a fictional world which operates according to the (currently) known laws of nature, with perhaps rationally predicted future technology.

    Many works labeled Science Fiction, in my opinion, are really works of fantasy. “The Matrix,” for example, seems to start from a SF premise, but quickly devolves into the fantasy structure of the Promised One destined to redeem through sacrifice.

    If there is an increase in interest in fantasy, I think it arises from the average citizen’s lack of grounding in scientific principles. Any sufficiently advanced technology is (to the uninformed observer) indistinguishable from magic.

    Could the first 20 people you meet on the street explain what http stands for? How an MRI works? The relative merits of an electric car vs. a hybrid? For the average person, I think the workings of everyday technologies could just as well run on magic.

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