Science fiction plays an important role in modern culture and aspirations for the future. Once considered just a genre for adolescent boys, sci-fi is true literary fiction, television and film that lets all of us ask “What if?” It reflects our societal worries and fears, it lets us dream of wonderful science and technology-filled futures and it creates cautionary tales of disaster if we don’t change our selfish ways. The cable channel BBC America is airing a four-part documentary series “The Real History of Science Fiction.” The show offers good research paper topics; follow along to learn about science fiction’s history, legacy, and cultural influences.
The show’s four episodes are dedicated to space, time travel, alien invasions, and robots and cyborgs. Featured are highlights of science fiction classics from literature, movies and television that cover Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Isaac Asimov’s centuries-spanning literary saga “Foundation.” The show also includes pop-culture television and movie hits like “X-Files” and “Star Trek,” as well as deeper shows and literature like “Babylon 5” and Ursula Le Guin’s gender-bending novel “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
The real history of science fiction
A history of science fiction should begin with a woman often considered the founding mother of science fiction, Mary Shelley. In 1817 she wrote the novel “Frankenstein,” about a scientist who recreates life by forming a man out of dead parts, adding an electrical impulse, and letting his creation loose on an unsuspecting public. “Frankenstein” is considered the first science fiction book.
“Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has as much to say about the world we live in as it did about any monster… At the heart of Shelley’s story are themes of scientific responsibility, parental neglect and the nature of good and evil,” observed a writer in the article “Monstrous Society: Nick Dear’s Adaptation Is a Brave, Exciting and Thrilling Account,” published in Lismore Australia’s Northern Star, July 13, 2013.
After Shelley, authors like Jules Verne, with “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and H. G. Wells, with “The Time Machine” and “War of the Worlds,” followed with fantastic “what if” tales. Science fiction was even there at the dawn of moving pictures. French illusionist Georges Méliès made one of the first science fiction movies, the 1902 “A Trip to the Moon,” a silent film based on a Jules Verne novel with scantily clad (for its time!) women launching a rocket to the moon.
Science fiction as a reflection of society
The success of the 1950s anthology fantasy television series “The Twilight Zone” was that it was able to discuss societal concerns of the day—communism, cold war, invasion, the atom bomb—in the guise of stories about space aliens, giants, and living mannequins. “The genre often reflects society’s anxieties as well as its hopes: the paranoia of the 1950s, the hope of science in the 1970s, the problems of immigration (‘Men in Black’) or the fear of totalitarian government (‘The Hunger Games’)…What if humanity’s end comes through a product of our technology or the end result of our hubris, e.g. ‘Terminator’?” questioned Tish Wells in her review “‘The Real History of Science Fiction’ from BBC America,” posted at Charlotte Observer, April 16, 2014.
Science fiction and gender
Science fiction doesn’t always discuss high-technology and robots. Considered “soft” science fiction, many books and movies explore the sociological and psychological consequences of “what if” scenarios.
The issue of gender identity and gender roles is discussed in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel “The Left Hand of Darkness,” about a human male emissary who visits a planet where the intelligent humanoid life is gender-neutral. Androgynous most of the time, they take on a specific sex only during mating season; this way a person can be both a mother and a father during its lifetime. They consider the emissary a pervert because he is always male.
Le Guin wrote “The Left Hand of Darkness” in 1967 as a feminist text. In “Coming Back From the Silence,” Jonathan White’s interview with Le Guin posted at the Swarthmore College website, Le Guin said that at the time “everybody was asking, ‘What is it to be a man? What is it to be a woman?’… [In the book] I eliminated gender to find out what would be left. Science fiction is a wonderful opportunity to play this kind of game.”
The TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Outcast” similarly explored a genderless society. Contemporary writers continue to tackle the idea of post-binary gender, inspiring a series of posts on the topic by Alex Dally MacFarlane at Tor.com.
Has a science fiction book or show caused you to see a modern sociological or technological problem in a different light?