Is the genre of science fiction simply a form of titillating entertainment, unworthy of serious consideration? Or does it convey something of lasting value that can engage our interest and give us insight into ourselves and the world around us?
Before attempting to answer this question we should ask whether there is any such thing as a story of any kind that is of lasting value and which gives us insight into ourselves and the world around us. I would say that the answer to that question is unequivocally ‘Yes.’ As positive examples I would offer Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies: Macbeth, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello. Though these plays are more than four centuries old, they still captivate audiences today with their realistic portrayals of lives destroyed by greed, faithlessness, carelessness, and deceit.
And yet several of Shakespeare’s plays have anachronistic elements which do not align with present day understandings. The spirit of Hamlet’s father is one such example. Many of Shakespeare’s central characters represent a bygone era of kingship. Macbeth, Lear, and Hamlet are all royalty.
Shakespeare’s is a very different sort of tragedy than that of the ancient Greeks. In Sophocles’s King Oedipus, the protagonist (Oedipus) kills his own father and has sex with his own mother, exactly as an oracle had foretold. Characters in Greek dramas often went through their lives suffering at the whims of gods and goddesses who predetermined their fates. Shakespeare’s tragic characters are the victims of human designs rather than of preordained fate, and for that reason are far more believable than Greek tragic figures.
Science fiction writing has multiple purposes, often operating in conflict. One such purpose is to dazzle the audience with visions of wondrous technologies that have vanquished all social ills; another is to terrify the audience with visions of a technology run amok. Whether the goal is to instill wonder or fear, the result is often the sublimation of character and human motivation to a narrative that is focused on technology. When technology itself is either the protagonist or the antagonist, the result is certain to be a loss of human character, and consequently a loss of emotional impact.
On the other hand, any setting– however fantastic or imaginary– can serve as the backdrop for a compelling human drama, so long as the characters so positioned have realistic human emotions and reactions. But realistic characters must also be subject to credible risks. A race of immortal beings who meditate in a state of eternal bliss are subject to no risks and are therefore not a suitable source of relatable characters.
One of my favorite Star Trek movies is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The frequent allusions to Shakespeare are annoying, but the characters are well developed and believable. The subject of the movie is fear of the future, and futuristic technology is merely the backdrop against which a cold war morality tale is told.
A common trait of science fiction writing and movies is that science fiction stories are almost never developed as tragedies. They may have tragic figures– such as Darth Vader of the Star Wars series of movies– but the overall arc of a science fiction story is generally expected to result in the defeat of the forces of evil by those of the good. Is it possible for a science fiction writer to produce a true tragedy in the sense of one of Shakespeare’s great works? Perhaps, but such stories might never find an audience in today’s market.
And this poses what I consider to be the most interesting question about science fiction. Science fiction is inevitably about the future. The ‘science’ part of the term refers to technologies not presently available– but which might become available at some time in the future. People generally expect the future to be an improvement on the past. For that reason people tend to prefer stories about the future that are hopeful, not tragic. So is it even possible to write a truly tragic science fiction story?
The ‘science’ part of science fiction can too easily supplant the development of character. But it is equally possible to focus so exclusively on character development that all elements of science are so muted as to be irrelevant. At that point one may as well write about European kings.
In my view the great strength of science fiction is what it can tell us about our relationship to technology. Do we allow technology to rule our lives, to dictate our fates as did the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece? Or do we use technology for our own purposes, to our own ends, to the advantage of all? Shakespeare’s characters struggle with greed and guilt, confusion and uncertainty, indecision and indolence. Technology itself can elicit such struggles, and as an element of the story arc can serve to develop characters.
Science and technology have produced massive changes in human society. Technology will inevitably continue to shape our future. Science fiction can serve to give audiences a way to envision the impact that future technologies may have on the human psyche. When paired with strong character development in realistic human settings, such narratives can be very compelling. The challenge for the author is to balance character development against the narrative of technological influence. Too much in the direction of character development can dilute the technological aspects of the story arc; too much attention to technology can make the story sterile.
So is science fiction merely titillating entertainment of no serious value? Certainly it can be. Examples of shallow science fiction abound. But it can also challenge us to think about the directions our technologies are leading. If we want to be masters of our own fate, then we had best listen.
Copyright (c) 2022, David S. Moore
All rights reserved.