Word Nerdery: The Rise of Science Fiction

These days, it can sometimes (often) feel like we’re living in a science fiction novel. The plague? Check. AI trying to take over things like art and writing and music? Check. Cryptocurrency falling apart? The downfall of social media? Check check.

But what exactly is sci-fi, and why do we feel like we’re living in a sci-fi novel? 

Science fiction is, according to the online Oxford Dictionary is, “fiction based on imagined future scientific or technological advances and major social or environmental changes, frequently portraying space of time travel and life on other planets.” As definitions go, that one is very non-specific. It doesn’t paint the entire picture of science fiction as a genre. Science fiction is a story that hinges on a technological, scientific, social, or environmental difference to our world. But more importantly, it is a story of what people do with that difference.

Science fiction, like many stories, is about people.

The first science fiction novel is widely considered to be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, wherein Victor Frankenstein plays God and creates a horrendous, intelligent monster, who hunts him down for the hubris of creating life. (Apologies if you haven’t read the book, I just spoiled the plot.) This book is absolutely a commentary on the sheer arrogance of humanity, believing that we are above divinity and can take absolute control of the world. The technology, in this instance, is artificial life. The book, though, only uses that as artifice for the comments about people.

From Frankenstein, we move on to Jules Verne and such titles as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and others; H.G. Wells and the many stories he produced; on into the twentieth century, where we get Isaac Asimov’s Robot series and Foundation series. George Orwell, author of 1984, is also in the sci-fi category, though his book falls into the subset of dystopian fiction, which is a very particular sort of science fiction. All of these early sci-fi authors focus on technology or science as the primary means of exploring their theme, that is, a discussion on humanity. Some extol our genius, others caution us against arrogance, but all are about people above everything.

Then, in the late 1950s and 60s, everything changed for science fiction. Why? 

The space race.

Suddenly, the prospect of getting off this strange little lump of rock was not just an imaginary concept, but possible, and the sheen of technology became the apple in just about everyone’s eye. The stories then produced absolutely still involved the human conundrum (what story doesn’t), but the focus on technology and science and possibility increased.

Along came the Star Trek franchise, which opened up our eyes to the possibility of fantastical new species and worlds, as well as our own place in those worlds. Then, Star Wars, which brought us back to the epics of old and explored the battle of good and evil, right and wrong. (Star Wars, interestingly, is actually classified as a space opera, a subset of sci-fi that is, in essence, a Western story set in space.) From these two franchises and epic stories, the entire universe opened up to the purveyors of science fiction.

Most every Phillip K. Dick book.

Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

The Stargate television series.


Babylon 5.

A whole slew of zombie books and movies and television series. Explorations of space. Explorations of time travel. Exploration for the sake of exploration. Science fiction opened up entirely new possibilities for us, and did so in such a way that the technological and scientific (even societal) advances in those stories influenced us. 

For example, GPS was actually developed based off of an idea from a science fiction book. Artificial Intelligence, as demonstrated in Star Trek, helped to influence the way we go about advancing that technology. The original Star Trek series was also a forerunner of some social justice movements that are now prominent today. 

Science fiction has brought us into an age of advancement and enlightenment and potential.

But, what this beautiful, new, space age world can often hide is that the original science fiction stories, all the way back to Frankenstein, were about people. The human condition. Our triumphs and our failings. Because, no matter how advanced our society becomes, we are still human with human problems. We have the hubris to create life. We are relentless explorers. We are sometimes good. Sometimes not so much. All that technology? That scientific advancement? It is helping to pull us into the future, and that future can absolutely be beautiful.

If living in the 2020s has taught us anything, though, it is that this futuristic advancement can also be deadly. Dark. Dangerous.

Technology is both our saving grace, and our doom.

And science fiction? It’s not really about the science. It’s about us.