The case for science non-fiction

The thing I love about science fiction is that it is a great storehouse for ideas spanning physics to philosophy. Because it is customarily about the future, especially the very far future, it pushes the reader to think about what caricatures and elements of society will change in the long term, and what kind of outsized impacts they will have on we, as humans. Of course, science fiction itself is a caricature, it takes potentials and then it follows them to their logical conclusions.

That’s why Black Mirror has so much power. It takes things that we know so well in our evolving technological life and then allows them to be expressed completely. You can watch everything you did today? What if you could watch everything everyone experienced for years past? What if you could rank people? What would that mean if we stretched that out to an entire society that could rank you? This is the Black Mirror formula, and hit or miss, it provides a powerful narrative and a number of caricatures that become a mirror for us to look at ourselves today. So if you’re reading the Left Hand of Darkness, 1984, Brave New World or watching Star Trek, Interstellar, or Dr. Who, the reality is these novels and films actually point at what is happening currently in the society.

But ultimately, I think science fiction becomes impotent if it wants to change society.

Science fiction is impotent because it is entertainment, and entertainment does not enter the center of the discourse as much as it would like, rather it is a reflection of ongoing discourse. It turns what we are processing in the zeitgeist of the society into a tangible and narrative form. In other words, entertainment becomes a manifestation of the society’s subconscious. For example, 3 Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri, which recently won a litany of awards, puts the concerns and manifestations of the #metoo movement into a relatable story. But the movie didn’t inspire the movement. After all, that isn’t really the job of art. Indeed, science fiction is a place for reflection, not change.

For that reason, I’d like to propose that we need a new genre, I like to think of it as Science Non-Fiction, but it can be called whatever. The main impetus here being that there needs to be a genre of writing that is a call to action based along similar philosophical and literary lines as science fiction. Where science fiction is a reflector, science non-fiction can be an actor. With science fiction, it asks the reader to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained and enter a hypothetical world for humans.

Science non-fiction therefore does the opposite, it asks the reader to consider the current human world and imagine its potential future in earnest. No doubt this genre already exists in the writings of futurists. Michio Kaku is one such person who is well known for applying scientific discoveries to understanding the future of humanity. But I think now is no greater time than any to reconsider this as a mainstream approach to how we view society, media, and even our individual actions as humans. We need to consider it as a serious genre of literature. We need a methodology of projecting ourselves into the very far future based on our current knowledge and technology and a forum to discuss those ideas.

Footnote: Within the science fiction community, there is that oft-repeated idea that scientists like Stephen Hawking and tech founders like Elon Musk look to science fiction for inspiration. We can be sure that the reverse is true, that science fiction writers take their inspiration from scientists. After all, many science fiction writers, from Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke were friends with scientists. Even Fred Hoyle, the writer, was actually a celebrated astronomer. But are we sure that science fiction actually inspires science? No doubt, science fiction offers warnings as well as hopeful futures, but let’s be honest science and technology follow science and technology. They exist in ecosystems of their own design and science fiction has the privilege of reflecting that. But it doesn’t actually inspire science fiction. It’s only incidentally so.