Science Friction

Contrary to the common misconception perpetuated on Amazon, science fiction is not in any way related to fantasy.

True science fiction is the hypothetical conjecture of how science could, in one form or another, shape the world of the future, and in that regard it is forward thinking.

Science fiction looks to preempt and predict how mankind will adapt to the challenges of the future.

Science fiction classics could loosely be termed science friction in that they agitate and challenge preconceptions. Throughout its brief history, the best loved science fiction stories have been those that dared to challenge the status quo.

George Orwell’s 1984 is, arguably, the greatest science fiction novel ever written.

Half a century before Skype video chats and Google hangouts, George Orwell saw the danger of our seemingly innocuous video screens with their built-in cameras.

Thought-police, newspeak and Big Brother became the clarion called that allowed the West to avoid the Stalinist-style abuse of technology portrayed in 1984.

If you’ve read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago you’ll understand this was no idle, misplaced phobia on Orwell’s part. Had Stalin, Hitler or Mao had access to such instruments of surveillance, their repressive, murderous regimes might still be with us.

And yet, a book review in 1949 noted “This may mean that [1984’s] greatness is only immediate, its power for us alone, now, in this generation, this decade, this year, that [1984] is doomed to be the pawn of time. Nevertheless it is probable that no other work of this generation has made us desire freedom more earnestly or loathe tyranny with such fulness.” Far from being limited to its day, 1984 stands as a dire warning about the dangers of authoritarian rule for countless generations to come.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a reactionary tale, written by Kurt Vonnegut, capturing the trauma and senseless waste of war as he experienced it during the Allied fire bombing of Dresden.

The book is fictional, but it is also allegorical and biographical, capturing the heartrending futility of death and violence as epitomized by destruction of Dresden. It’s hard to do the history of Dresden justice, needless to say, it was an Allied war crime. This excerpt from a survivor of the bombing conveys the horror Vonnegut witnessed.

Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon…
We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.
We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers… and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm [sucked] people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

As a writer, Vonnegut could not ignore the devastation he’d witness in World War II. His protagonist is propelled around in time, chaotically flashing back and forth, capturing the emotional trauma of survivors in an allegorical fashion.

In Slaughterhouse-Five he wrote, “It is, in the imagination of combat’s fans, the divinely listless loveplay that follows the orgasm of victory. It is called ‘mopping up.’” In this way, Vonnegut sought to arrest our attention, to ensure the past was not buried and forgotten, to make sure that the lessons were learned, not ignored.

In the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Vonnegut was determined we should not forget.

Science friction is fiction that wakes us from our lethargy, stirring us to action.

Robert Heinlein wrote several stories in this category. But his classic, Starship Troopers, became a cautionary tale in a way Heinlein never intended.

In Starship Troopers, Heinlein sets out his arguments against communism, the Cold War, and the need for duty to reinforce responsibility, all set against the backdrop of an interstellar conflict with alien bugs.

Somewhat ironically, the extremist right-wing views he promoted as future social values backfired. Throughout the book his characters debate the weakness of democracy and the need for military service, but the book was published just a few years before the Vietnam war escalated out of control. Starship Troopers became a parody of reality.

The book’s description of society happily accepting life on a war footing became a stark contrast to the socially traumatic events of the 60s. If anything, Heinlein’s vision highlights a fascist extreme the US narrowly avoided.

In 1962, Heinlein wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. With its focus on the formation of a new religion comprised of celebrities, one wonders if he intended his “all worlds religion” as a mockery of scientology.

In stark contrast to Starship Troopers, Heinlein unveils a world of free love, drugs and promiscuity. With themes such as homosexuality, hippies and a fascination with psychic powers, the book preempted the radical movements of the 60s and 70s.

The US Congressional Library named Stranger in a Strange Land as one of a hundred books that helped shape modern America. The stark contrast between Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land captures the contradiction that was America in the 1960s.

Perhaps the most radical work of science fiction friction is Planet of the Apes.

Although the motivation for the book was originally to highlight cruelty to animals and to challenge the presumption of man’s position at the head of creation, the movie version became a social statement on US racial tensions.

The racial overtones are overt, and clearly not intended just as an analogy for animal cruelty. African-American slavery, segregation and discrimination are subject to a role reversal within the movie, with Charlton Heston appearing very much as a white European slave held in chains. This switch was intended to shock audiences into the realization that racism is unjust.

White supremacists didn’t miss the point. In supremacist rallies in the late 60s, bigots displayed racist placards decrying what they saw as “Planet of the Apes” resulting from the dissolution of segregation.

In much the same manner, during some of the later movies in the series, black audiences cheered for Caesar, drowning out the movie’s dialogue as they cheered for his rebellion against oppression.

The point of all this is simple: We need mirrors.

We need to see ourselves in a mirror, to see who we are and where we are going in life, and science fiction does that, but not with flashy light-sabres and green muppets. Science fiction shows like Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica are legendary not because they fire photon torpedoes or travel faster than light, they preempted social change. It’s no surprise the first interracial kiss on TV occurred in Star Trek.

Science fiction can easily address topics we would not otherwise talk about. Often, these are the topics we needed to be talking about.

In the words of Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, “I knew I could get away with Martians saying things Republicans and Democrats couldn’t.

Science fiction should cause friction, but not to be obnoxious or sensational, to provoke critical thinking.

23 thoughts on “Science Friction

  1. You’ve touched on several authors who had a profound impact on me. One that might seem odd was Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land.” When Michael was asked what color a house was, he said: “On this side, it’s blue.” As a reporter, I loved his ability to only report what he saw … and not speculate.
    But the other aspects the authors you mentioned wrote about I did see as warnings on what we could become … and some dangerous things we set in motion. One example would be Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” when he references the horror of nuclear war thru his story, “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” and Sara Teasdale’s poem, “There Will Come Soft Rains.” I believe he wrote this in 1946.

    • Yeah, Michael Smith is consistently enigmatic in Stranger, such a contrast to Rico in Troopers, which is surprising as Heinlein wrote these books back to back.

      I haven’t read the Martian Chronicles. I’ll have to grab a copy. Thanks for the comments.

  2. Yeah, you should definitely read The Martian Chronicles.

    This is what I like about science fiction. It challenges society and inspires people to work toward a common goal or in some cases to look beyond themselves in terms of their goals in life. Unfortunately, so many people have a view of sci-fi that it’s just cheap storytelling for kids and “man babies”. It’s pretty mainstream now of course, but I think still has a long way to go before being accepted as legitimate literature by most of society.

  3. Great post, I certainly agree with your points. I see science-fiction as a lens to look at humanity as a whole, or the human person, in a way that is stripped of the idiosyncrasies of today’s mentality and ideals. That’s the whole fun of this genre.
    And the gadgets and aliens and ships and galactic phenomena! 😀

  4. I found this post really interesting as it reflects my opinion that the “classic” SF that I grew up with is still as relevant today as then. The huge advances in technology have made a lot of the science side of these novels obselete, but as you point out, the true messages in them are juat as relevant today.

    • Yeah, and even minor works still fit this category as well. Prometheus was aiming for it, with the panspermia concept. In Time was interesting in this respect, in that it switched money with time to make the radically different life expectancies we see around the world more obvious and alarming. I really like the thought-provoking aspect of sci-fi

  5. Peter … for some reason, I am unable to comment on my post as me. They keep putting up my daughter’s icon, etc. Thank you for your comments about my Frankenstein post. Mary Shelley might not have intended to add the suffering … but I initially felt sorry for the monster, and later for Dr. Frankenstein who regretted creating the monster.

    • yeah… at first, the monster is quite benign, and it’s Frankenstein’s revulsion over what he’s created that drives it to monstrous acts. As far as I know, Frankenstein is the first of the cautionary science fiction stories, where there’s alarm raised at the implications of a particular course of action. As much as I loved Jurassic Park, I hated the implication, that science shouldn’t dabble with the unknown because it was playing with pandora’s box. Certainly, a lot of people feel this way about genetic engineering of foods, but what they don’t realize is we’ve been genetically engineering food for thousands of years. Bananas, corn, wheat, lettuce, apples, almonds etc were all either sour, inedible or little more than fibre/roughage until we selectively bred them, indirectly altering their genes so they became more favourable and appealing to us. The same is true of cows, pigs, etc. Now, with genetic engineering we can be more precise. There is a need for caution, but not fearful paranoia 🙂

      • Thank you for a very informative response. (I finally figured out to respond to you on my own post.) 🙂 I didn’t realize how much of our food is genetically engineered. Thank heavens. I love most of those foods.
        I don’t want to see dinosaurs roaming the earth again – mainly because I might wind up as its food source. But I LOVED Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton.

      • The BBC did a brilliant documentary called Animal Pharm on genetic modification that’s well worth watching. It is a balanced look at foods and farming. Surprisingly, some of the most radical genetic changes (like featherless chickens and grotesquely muscled cows) are the result of selective breeding not gene splicing.

        Here’s Episode 2 and Episode 3, there’s more, but I couldn’t find them (sorry)

  6. Peter … thank you for bringing “Animal Pharm” to my attention. I watched all 3 episodes.
    Regarding the animals, I do find it deeply disturbing. They talked about using it for medical research such as blindness, and for answering our overharvesting of salmon, etc. That sounds like a positive goal. But I am concerned that the testing will be harmful to the animals as well as the humans that might consume them.
    The veggie aspect that was brought up was fascinating. Potatoes were at one time poisonous? Wow!

  7. Pingback: The Red Peri by Stanley G. Weinbaum « Excursions Into Imagination

  8. Edgar Swamp has just come out with a great book titled, “The Gyre Mission: Journey to the *sshole of the World.” Garbage Island, the setting of the book, is the setting for an innovative kind of survival story. Pretty intense book!

  9. Pingback: Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein, (Ace 1987, original published in serial form in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1959 {Blackstone Audio, 2006, Narrator: Lloyd James) | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  10. I pressed ‘like’ once and my photo popped up nine times! didn’t want you to think I was some kinda freak. really enjoyed the post, very interesting blog. I don’t know who ‘bookluver’ is, by the way, or what it has to do with your post, but seeing it pop on Google lead me to your blog. I’ll check out ‘Monster’, sounds very interesting!

  11. Wow, this is a really profound post! Science fiction as as a mirror…intriguing. I hope the observational sciences–like astronomy, climate science, marine biology, and zoology–can learn from science fiction to become more personal, more reflective of human impacts on and perceptions of the environment. I especially like the references to Planet of the Apes, Slaughterhouse Five, Star Trek, and The Twilight Zone. Those are some of my favorite works of literature!

    Thank you for reading my posts, too! You should check out some of my philosophy pieces, especially because this article touched on some of the more introspective areas of my blog!

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