Science fiction and the fear of science

I was reading this (Is Movie Science Fiction Actually Anti-Science Fiction?) and here (Our science fiction movies hate science fiction). It got me thinking.

The authors argue, with some coherence, that science fiction blockbusters always make science the villian. They tie this, with some plausibility, to an anti-intellectual, conservative bent in our society. All that has its point, on some level. But there’s one thing they strangely left out.

Science fiction has a long history of creating cautionary tales. H.G. Wells drew from this well many times. Think of The Invisible Man’s obsession with scientific experimentation. Greed, selfish ambition, undoes him. Another novel, The War in the Air, is probably less well known; but here again technological advancement is prone to misuse. Wells effectively predicted the first World War in this novel. He wrote a line you may have heard, something like this: “We were so interested to find out if we could do it, we never asked whether we should.” Even the more famous War of the Worlds has a strong element of skepticism toward technology. For that matter, The First Men in the Moon is skeptical of science.

English: (left) Headgear worn by Patrick Stewa...

Headgear worn by Patrick Stewart as Locutus in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and arm belonging to Capt. Picard’s Borg captor, both exhibits from the Paul Allen Family Collection. Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, science can also save the day in science fiction. I was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Almost every other episode was solved by some clever scientific or technological innovation. But that seems to belong to the grand pro-Federation narrative. And the Borg are not to be forgotten: the looming threat of “assimilation” via technological hybridity.

So, I guess I’m saying let’s not get too crazy here. As if SF is really, at its best, about how great science is, how it will solve all our problems, and how “doing it because we can” is the only motto to live by. There are real, dare I say serious, questions about what technology and science are doing to us, as individuals and as societies, including globally. I think it’s a legitimate heritage of SF to explore these problems–not just the solutions science might provide.

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6 thoughts on “Science fiction and the fear of science

  1. Good food for thought! I think in the end, what passes for science in a science fiction movie has more to do with what little can be slipped into a movie where the focus is usually not the science but something else (aliens, darkness, intelligent bugs, etc.)

    I’m not sure I buy the anti-intellectual part (which does exist in society but less so in science fiction movies) but they do often treat it as magic.

    And I remember STNG mostly reversing the polarity of the main deflector dish or creating a new ray to solve their problems 😛

    Star Trek and other such shows used to bother my engineering sensibility until I finally learned to enjoy them for what they are (for instance, Star Trek’s main virtue is as a buddy movie/show & you know, what? I like that :P). Reality is boring and I have enough of that in my day job.

    On the other hand, that’s why I play fantasy RPGs and write fantasy: the premise already decouples from reality so no need to worry about those niggling little facts. Hmmm, makes me feel like Sheldon Cooper.

    • Thanks. I can see why Star Trek would bother engineering sensibilities! (“I need more power diverted to the shields, Scottie!”) I liked it for the philosophical elements. My favorite episode was when they tricked Data’s holographic creation, Professor Moriarty, into thinking he’d escaped the holodeck. That sort of thing–use of “technology” or “science” to explore a philosophical premise–is what I like best about SF.

      • I liked that Moriarty episode., too.

        Similarly, while I generally really dislike time travel for the obvious paradox reasons (and the silly polluting the time-line trope, as if anything at all wouldn’t pollute it), one of my top favorite ST:NG episodes is Yesterday’s Enterprise, with Enterprise C popping up in the alternate Federation is losing timeline. Sometimes, a good story (and you’re right, the philosophical aspects) can transcend a little clunky science.

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