Imagining the future: Why society needs science fiction

'Leaving the opera in the year 2000' by Albert Robida.

Image credit: Albert Robida/Public domain.

First published on 3rd April 2012. Last updated 1 January 2020 by Dr Helen Klus

1. What is science fiction?

While there's no single accepted definition of science fiction, science fiction usually deals with worlds that differ from our own as the result of new scientific discoveries, new technologies, or different social systems. It then looks at the consequences of this change. Because of this broad definition, science fiction can be used to consider questions regarding science, politics, sociology, and the philosophy of the mind, as well as any questions about the future.

It's sometimes hard to distinguish science fiction from fantasy. This is because the definition of science has changed drastically over time, and as Arthur C. Clarke famously stated,

...any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic[1].

One of the greatest astronomers of the 17th century, Johannes Kepler, had to invoke demons to explain how someone could travel to the Moon in his novel Somnium, and 18th century author Samuel Madden used angels to explain time travel from the year 1998 in Memoirs Of the Twentieth Century.

2. A brief history of science fiction

Since there is no single accepted definition of science fiction, there is no way to say what constitutes the first science fiction story. Most religious texts and poems have elements that are also found in science fiction, especially those that describe the creation or destruction of the universe, and many gods are associated with powers that science fiction has since utilised. Some ancient philosophical texts also have science fiction-like imagery, Plato's The Republic, for example, discusses realms that we cannot experience with our senses.

Throughout much of human history, society did not change rapidly enough for people to be able to envision a future that was different from their own. At the same time, many parts of the Earth remained unexplored, and this may be why many older science fiction novels were set in the present. Science fiction from this period is also more likely to address social rather than scientific problems, firstly because there was less science to utilise and secondly, because science fiction offered an ideal medium to make social comments that could not be published as fact.

The first novel to involve rocket powered space travel was written by author and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac in the 17th century, shortly after the Copernican revolution. In the 18th century, Voltaire discussed the Earth from the perspective of a super-advanced alien from another star system. In the 19th century, Mary Shelley warned of the dangers of science, Jules Verne depicted scientists as heroes, and H. G. Wells used science fiction to satirise society and make predictions about the future.

Wells' The World Set Free is perhaps the best example of prophetic science fiction. Published in 1914, Wells described a new type of bomb fuelled by nuclear reactions, he predicted it would be discovered in 1933, and first detonated in 1956. Physicist Leo Szilard read the book and patented the idea[2]. Szilard was later directly responsible for the creation of the Manhattan Project, which led to two nuclear bombs being dropped on Japan in 1945.

In the first half of the 20th century, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell provided the first dystopian science fiction, inspired by the Russian Revolutions and two World Wars. In the last half of the century, science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, William Gibson, and Greg Egan explored the nature of reality and the human mind, through the creation of synthetic life and artificial realities.

Zombie apocalypses are currently popular in science fiction, and this might be because they represent the breakdown and rebuilding of society. This seems apt considering we are living in a time when people from all around the world are protesting against their governments. The gap between the rich and poor is higher than ever before, and we are undergoing a global recession.

There are numerous examples of books that have contributed to the history of science fiction, and these have been summarised by artist Ward Shelley. Some of the best examples are given at the bottom of the article.

Painting depicting the history of science fiction.

The History of Science Fiction (click to enlarge). Image credit: Ward Shelley/Copyrighted, used with permission.

3. Why science fiction is important

Science fiction is important for at least three reasons. Firstly, by considering worlds that are logically possible, science fiction can be used to explore our place in the universe and consider fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of reality and the mind. Books that explore these issues include Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott, Ubik by Philip K. Dick, and 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke once described science fiction as "the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug"[3].

Secondly, science fiction can inspire more people to become scientists. Edwin Hubble, who provided strong evidence for the big bang theory and was the first person to prove that galaxies exist outside of the Milky Way, was inspired to become a scientist after reading Jules Verne novels[4]. Astronomer and science fiction author Carl Sagan was influenced by Robert A. Heinlein[5], and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku enjoyed the television show Flash Gordon as a child[6a].

Kaku stated,

...years later, I began to realize that the two passions of my life - that is, physics and understanding the future are really the same thing - that if you understand the foundations of physics, you understand what is possible and you understand what could be just beyond the horizon[6b].

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, science fiction is the only genre that depicts how society could function differently. This is the first step towards progress as it allows us to imagine the future we want, and consider ways to work towards it. It also makes us aware of futures we wish to avoid, and helps us prevent them.

Perhaps the most famous example of the positive effect of science fiction comes from the inclusion of a multiracial cast on the original Star Trek television series. When Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura, was considering leaving the series, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. convinced her to stay[7a]. King argued that her inclusion on Star Trek was important because, as a black woman, she helped represent a future people could aspire to, one where people were judged solely on the content of their character.

Shortly after, Nichols publicly criticised NASA for only selecting white male astronauts, she was invited to NASA headquarters and asked to assist in convincing former applicants to reapply[7b]. This led to the selection of Sally Ride and Guion Bluford, who became NASA's first female and first black American astronauts respectively. NASA's first female black American astronaut, Mae Jemison, directly cited Star Trek as an influence[8], and later appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A photograph of Mae Jemison in space.

Mae Jemison. Image credit: NASA/Public domain.

In some ways, society has changed dramatically since Star Trek first aired in 1966. Many things that were once science fiction have already become reality: we have walked on the Moon, we have created clones, and synthetic life, and many people now have access to almost all human knowledge through a device that can fit in their pocket. Technology is progressing so fast that it is changing society, leading to unprecedented moral dilemmas and scientific challenges. This means that science fiction is more important now than ever.

As well as considering the effects of current and developing technologies, science fiction can help address long-term problems, such as global warming. It can help with the development of space exploration, and prepare us for problems we may not anticipate. One day, time travel, teleportation, or the genetic engineering of humans may happen, we might communicate with aliens, invent simulated realities, or build intelligent robots, and we'll be better prepared to deal with these, and other potential dilemmas, if we have already thought about them.

Scientist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov summarised the importance of science fiction in 1978, stating,

It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be...Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.

Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today - but the core of science fiction, its essence...has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all[9].

4. Books that have contributed to the history of science fiction

~2nd century - True History by Lucian of Samosata
True History is a fictional novel written to satirise stories like Homer's Odyssey, or Antonius Diogenes' Of the Wonderful Things Beyond Thule, which involves humans travelling to the Moon. Both present fantastic things as if they are real. Lucian wrote the most fantastical story he could, and used his new world in order to identify problems in the real world. True History involves encounters with life forms from the Sun and the Moon, as well as life forms created by human technology.

~750 - 13th century - One Thousand and One Nights by various authors
One Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, is a collection of stories from the Middle East and South Asia, compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. In The Adventures of Bulukiya, the hero travels across the cosmos, to worlds inhabited by talking snakes and trees. Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman describe an underwater society that practices primitive communism, and mechanical life forms are mentioned in The City of Brass, The Ebony Horse, and Third Qalandar's Tale.

~15th century - The Voynich manuscript by unknown
While not necessarily science fiction, the Voynich manuscript is perhaps the most mysterious book in the world. Discovered in 1912, and written between 1404 and 1483, it contains over 200 pages of currently undecipherable text, and hundreds of pictures of unidentified species and astronomical charts. A similar book, Codex Seraphinianus, was published in 1981.

Pages from the Voynich manuscript showing plants.

The Voynich manuscript, 15th century. Image credit: The Voynich manuscript/Public domain.

1516 - Utopia by Thomas More
The term utopia is now applied to all depictions of idealised societies. Thomas More's Utopia is ideal in some ways, but has a strict penal system, with criminals becoming slaves, and those guilty of premarital sex punished with a lifetime of enforced celibacy.

1634 - Somnium by Johannes Kepler
Johannes Kepler was the first person to show that planets move in ellipses, he also calculated the planets relative distances from the Sun, and their orbital speeds. After making these discoveries, Kepler wrote the novel Somnium, which is Latin for 'The Dream'. In Somnium, an astronomer's student is transported to the Moon by lunar demons, who are able to travel to Earth during solar eclipses. Kepler describes the effects of gravity, and how the Earth would look from the Moon.

1657 & 1662 - A Voyage to the Moon and A Voyage to the Sun by Cyrano de Bergerac
Writer and duelist Cyrano de Bergerac wrote two science fiction novels in the 17th century. The first involved a trip to the Moon and the second to the Sun. These books mocked the idea that the Earth was the centre of creation, and that only humans possess self-consciousness. A Voyage to the Moon contains the first example of rocket-powered space flight.

1666 - The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
In The Blazing World, Margaret Cavendish's protagonist describes a passage to another world, with blazing stars in the sky, which can be reached from the North Pole. In this world, she meets all sorts of sentient animals such as Bear-men, Geese-men, and Ant-men. She discusses various scientific theories with them, including atomic theory and, when she hears that her land is under threat, she travels home in a submarine.

1726 - Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
Gulliver's Travels explores philosophical questions regarding politics, morality, and the limits of human knowledge. During his travels, Gulliver encounters flying islands, and meets talking animals, as well as a race of tiny people, and a race of giants.

Cover of the 1856 edition of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift, 1856 edition. Image credit: Jonathan Swift/Public domain.

1733 & 1763 - Memoirs Of the Twentieth Century and The Reign of George VI, 1900 to 1925 by Samuel Madden
In Memoirs Of the Twentieth Century, an angel provides the narrator with documents from 1998, when George VI is a world Emperor. The Reign of George VI, 1900 to 1925 describes how George VI conquered France and Russia, and explained how the development of canals turned villages into cities.

1752 - Micromégas by Voltaire
In Micromégas, Voltaire describes the Earth from the perspective of a centuries-old, alien genius. The aliens in Micromégas are so large that we appear microscopic to them.

1818 & 1826 - Frankenstein and The Last Man by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley explored the potential negative effects of scientific advancements. Frankenstein explores the consequences of creating life, and The Last Man is set in the late 21st century, after a plague has wiped out most of the people on Earth.

1865 & 1870 - From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
Jules Verne wrote adventure stories that involved technology. He included a lot of details to explain how his ideas could one day be possible. In From the Earth to the Moon, Verne describes how three men build and launch a rocket to the Moon, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea follows the adventures of a marine biologist in a submarine. Verne also wrote A Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in Eighty Days.

1872 - Erewhon: or, Over the Range by Samuel Butler
In Erewhon, Samuel Butler describes a fictional land where mechanical life forms undergo evolution. Butler considered the idea that machines may one day be the dominant species on Earth.

1884 - Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott
Flatland describes the adventures of a two-dimensional life form, a square. The first part of the story satirises Victorian society. The second part describes how the square's perspective is changed after travelling to one-dimensional, and then three-dimensional, worlds. It suggests that there might be higher-dimensional beings that we are unaware of.

Cover of the 1953 edition of Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott.

Flatland by Edwin Abbott Abbott, 1953 edition. Image credit: Edwin Abbott Abbott/Public domain.

1888 & 1897 - Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887 and Equality by Edward Bellamy
Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887 follows the story of an American who is hypnotised in the late 19th century, and wakes up in the year 2000 to find that the United States has become a socialist utopia. In its sequel, Equality, Bellamy discusses the role of women in the twentieth century.

1890 - The Twentieth Century: The electric life by Albert Robida
In The Twentieth Century: The electric life, author and artist Albert Robida envisions the year 1955. He described the equality of women, devices to communicate at a distance, screens for displaying visual information, personal aircraft, military submarines, and biological warfare.

1895 - The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells often used science fiction to satirise society. In The Time Machine, the narrator travels to the future where he finds that people have evolved into two species, the childlike Eloi and the violent Morlocks. He considers that the Eloi could have evolved from the upper class and the Morlocks from the working class, and that both have lost an important part of their humanity. Wells also wrote The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Invisible Man.

1921 - We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
We is arguably the first dystopian science fiction novel. It was written by Yevgeny Zamyatin in response to the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutions, and the First World War. Zamyatin describes a totalitarian state that attempts to create a utopia, resulting in a society where people lose their personal identities. People are known by numbers, not names, they never know when the state is watching, and they could be watching at any time.

1931 - Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World is set in a dystopian future where much of a person's identity is decided before they are born, shaped by reproductive technology and social conditioning. Aldous Huxley later considered how a utopia could be formed in his novel Island.

1942 - 1992 - Various works by Isaac Asimov
Most of Isaac Asimov's stories are set in the same universe, and Asimov charts the evolution of humans from the creation of robots in the 1990s, through to the colonisation of the Galaxy over the next 10,000 years. Asimov first introduced his three laws of robotics in his short story Runaround, first published in 1942.

1948 - Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell describes a technologically advanced state that criminalises individuality, and dominates by controlling information.

1961 - Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
Stranger in a Strange Land explores what it's like for a human to come to Earth for the first time, having been born on Mars and raised by Martians. Heinlein also wrote Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

1968 - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick considers the moral implications of creating artificial life in a world damaged by nuclear warfare. Dick also wrote an alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, and considered the nature of reality in Ubik.

1968 - 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
2001: A Space Odyssey was developed as a novel and a film at the same time, and is partly based on some of Clarke's earlier short stories. It explores the cultural and physical evolution of humans, the development of space exploration, and artificial intelligence.

1984 - Neuromancer by William Gibson
William Gibson describes a world people can physically link their brain to a global computer network, known as the matrix. Neuromancer considers the potential effects of the internet, and popularised the term 'cyberspace'.

1994 - Permutation City by Greg Egan
In Permutation City, the narrator wakes up to find that he is a Copy, a computer simulation previously recorded from his physical self. Permutation City then addresses philosophical questions regarding human identity, self-consciousness, and reality. It has been used to help explain the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.

2009 - The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
The Windup Girl looks at the effects of biotechnology in a world undergoing global warming.

5. References

  1. Clarke, A. C., 2000, 'Profiles Of The Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible', Phoenix.

  2. Szilard, L., 1979, 'Some links in the chain', New Scientist.

  3. Clarke, A. C., 1986, Introduction to 'The Sentinel', Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated.

  4. Kupperberg, P., 2004, 'Hubble and the Big Bang', The Rosen Publishing Group.

  5. Sagan, C., 1979, 'Broca's brain: reflections on the romance of science', Random House.

  6. (a, b) Kaku, M., 'How does science fiction influence scientific research?', Curiosity.

  7. (a, b) NASA, 'Star Trek's Nichelle Nichols' Warp-Speed Visit to Dryden', last accessed 01-06-17.

  8. Kilgore, D. D., 2010, 'Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space', University of Pennsylvania Press.

  9. Asimov, I., 1978, Forward to 'Encyclopedia of Science Fiction', Holdstock, R. (ed), 1978, Wh Smith Pub.

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