Science fiction as a literary genre has long been ignored by both the academic and literary world as one that can be taken seriously. However, attitudes towards the genre are slowly changing. It is gradually being accepted and taught by many universities today, with literary modules dedicated to it emerging. It can also be potentially seen as a welcome break by those who are weaned off interpreting the likes of Chaucer or Shakespeare.
Stereotypically, science fiction would traditionally be thought of as a ‘childish’ genre featuring spaceships, Martians, laser guns, and time-travel. In fact, prior to the space race of the 1960s, stories published during the 1920s and ‘30s were often relegated to pulp magazines ordinarily consumed by teenagers and often bore the same kind of literary reputation that comic books had during the same era. For the same reasons, the genre was also not financially lucrative. Numbers of books sold by publishers were limited and writers were often forced to churn out several books per year just to make ends meet. It was also the type of profession many would be reluctant to admit to on social occasions.
However, heightened interest in the 1960s space race between the USA and Russia seemed to culminate in renewed appreciation for sci-fi in years to come. Interest in the genre would eventually culminate in more mainstream films and television shows, such as Star Wars and Star Trek during the 1970s. Obviously, for such a huge transition to occur in terms of public interest, great strides within the genre must surely have happened along the way. The eras leading to this were known as the Golden Age and the New Age of Science Fiction.
their intellectually superior masters are reluctant to give them their freedom, as the result of their doubts on the humans’ ability to self-govern
The reality is, speculative fiction in general has been known to transcend literary genres and cover themes that touch on traditionally non science-oriented topics such as politics, the humanities and even existentialism that one would normally expect from more ‘traditional’ forms of literature. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) could potentially be read as a form of postcolonial literature — in this story, Earth has long been colonised by aliens and is now demanding independence from their imperial masters. However, their intellectually superior masters are reluctant to give them their freedom, as the result of their doubts on the humans’ ability to self-govern. Since imperial studies are not commonly touched upon in Western academia, the obvious allegorical readings can be observed on a sensitive albeit crucial topic in world history. A similar theme can also be read in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966), which speaks of a revolt by a lunar colony seeking independence from earth.
Marxist and Foucouldian aspects of power and hegemony, so frequently touched upon in many humanities-type modules, can also be found in sci-fi. William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) prophesized the Internet as we know it today. Not only that, his brand of cyberpunk also predicted the more revolutionary aspects of the digitized, interconnected world that have been exemplified by recent events such as the 2011 Arab Spring. Such dramatic political revolutions could never have happened in many repressive Arab regimes without the aid of social media platforms such as Facebook to spread news, videos, and ideas, as well as inspire real-life political demonstrations. The Internet has undoubtedly made a huge impact in terms of spreading true democracy in the developing world.
Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) touched on empires that were motivated by the hunt for resources in foreign territories, thus resulting in imperial intergalactic domination following the control of such resources. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series discussed how oppressed civilizations could potentially reorganize themselves politically, intellectually and economically once an imperial regime was overthrown from their territory altogether.
an obvious allegory for how pointless the war really was
Military science fiction was also a common theme — The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was an interplanetary allegory for the Vietnam War (based on the author’s own military experiences in Vietnam). Utilizing the concept of time dilation from the theory of relativity, the protagonist would age only a few years during his time served on another planet, only to return to an Earth that has aged by centuries — an obvious allegory for how pointless the war really was.
Meanwhile, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) took an opposing stance to war in general, emphasizing on how military might is a necessity for peacekeeping reasons in foreign territories. The controversial novel was, of course, adapted into a satirical film by Paul Verhoeven in 1997 that seemed to take a completely opposite stance from the source material, by labeling war as an extension of fascism.
If history and geopolitics isn’t your cup of tea, maybe existentialism is — Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), famously made into the film Blade Runner by Ridley Scott, touches on what it means to be human in a seemingly robotic and unfeeling world. Dick’s short story The Minority Report (1956), famously adapted into a Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Cruise, seemed to predict the Internet surveillance age we live in today, exemplified by methods of behaviour-predicting and policing by an overarching bureaucracy as well as personalized advertising.
Dick’s novel Ubik (1969) spoke of a dystopian world in which everyday household technology plays a vital role in monitoring and influencing all aspects of our daily lives. The Man in the High Castle, currently being adapted into a television series by Amazon, discusses an alternate reality in which the Nazis and imperial Japan have won World War Two and go on to colonize the United States. Dick also wrote novels on mysticism, theology and political conspiracies, claiming that science fiction was an ideal vehicle for expressing his abstract ideas in fictional form.
the limitations of other languages can result in completely different interpretations of reality altogether
For those interested in linguistics, Samuel R. Delany’s Babel 17 touches on studying the intricacies of an alien language in order to decipher war codes, and how the limitations of other languages can result in completely different interpretations of reality altogether. The heartbreaking Flowers For Algernon (1959) by Daniel Keyes looks at neuroscience as a means to assisting the intellectually-handicapped. And let’s not forget dystopian classics such as George Orwell’s totalitarian 1984, the potential death of literature and intellectualism in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, as well as Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical Slaughterhouse Five.
Not to mention feminist sci-fi novels such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness — in which gender has been removed from an alien society altogether — and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which a totalitarian Christian theocracy results in the future subjugation of women.
Undeniably, it’s not uncommon for literature students to complain of a ‘dry’ and unstimulating reading list. While there will always be much to learn about the human condition from beloved classics, let’s not completely ignore the potential that other literary genres may offer as well. Because, startlingly enough, many predictions about the world we live in today were long predicted by science fiction authors decades ago. It is now ‘science fact’ and the setting is contemporary rather than ‘speculative’. Perhaps it’s time academia should start emphasizing more on reading about the future rather than dwelling on the past.
Featured image © NASA