Science fiction has always played a crucial – and often overlooked – role in our society. Flying cars, aliens, space travel and new technology… it’s appealing. It’s fun. But it’s also important.
First of all, science fiction is about new ideas. It’s about hope and belief in the future. In 1889, Jules Vern wrote a story entitled “In the Year 2889”, which describes an incredible futuristic technology: the phonotelephote. What the phonotelephote does is quite simple: it’s a telephone, with an additional ability that allows you to actually see the other person, no matter how far away. Jules Vern believed we were almost a thousand years away from realizing that kind of technology. And now, more than eight centuries earlier than Jules Vern predicted, Facetime and Skype are not only a reality, but rapidly taking the place of standard old phone calls.
The point is, science fiction asks us an important question: What If? What if we could talk face-to-face from thousands of miles away? What if we could explore planets in other galaxies? What if we could re-purpose carbon monoxide and other pollutants into a safe energy source? Science fiction can direct our attention to the possibilities of the future that we ought to look into. It can predict what is possible, long before our science non-fiction arrives there on its own. And it can give us the hope to pursue those things, or the fear to need to.
But science fiction has an even more important social role. It’s a medium through which we can send powerful, even blatant messages without bringing the hammer down on ourselves. In the ’60s, race relations were tense, and a show outright condemning the racist attitudes of so many at that time would never have gotten airtime. So what did Star Trek do? Oh so many things.
First, it featured a diverse crew in its advanced society – a black woman and an asian man played two of the most prominent leadership roles aboard the ship. Nichelle Nichols herself has recounted her memory of when Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her how important her role was. She was not just a tiny step fueled by the civil rights movement – she represented the civil rights movement, and gave so many African-Americans hope for their futures. Nichols also participated in the very first interracial kiss ever aired on television in the United States – with, of course, William Shatner. The episode was nearly banned and rewritten with a hug, but in the end they succeeded.
Beyond the subversive casting, Star Trek also wrote a number of episodes and story lines that dealt directly with racism, without bringing down the wrath of the networks and the people (especially the south at this time). Spock’s half-human, half-Vulcan status provided an easy medium for social commentary. Spock was often treated or viewed as a heartless monster by humans, and as a weak, over-emotional head-case by Vulcans. In one episode, he was accused of being a devil (because of his pointy ears) and an “inferior being” (because of his large forehead), harkening to the pseudo-scientific studies of the skulls of various races, which were often used to claim that the white race was intellectually and morally superior. But of course, the viewers know for certain that Spock is infinitely more intelligent than the blundering man claiming his inferiority. They also know that Spock is an alien – this is just science fiction.
So Star Trek delivered the message to those who maintained their belief that they were superior on the basis of race: you’re an idiot. Look how dumb you look. Look how wrong you are. And yet, no one was offended – what would have been banned before even reaching the filming stage should they have used a black man in the US instead of an alien to send the same message, was aired and celebrated. It can make its statement and its change, and no one is going to stop it. It’s just science fiction.
Of course, Star Trek could also beat you over the head with their anti-racism message. The episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was a ham-fisted exercise in racism. Its message screams “racism bad! racism stupid!” But again, they don’t talk about black people and white people and asian people – it’s science fiction. They have much larger tools in their toolbox. So they simplify it: one people have black on the right side of their face and white on the left, the other people have black on the left of their face and white on the right. The right-black race ruled over the left-black race, believing themselves superior, until the left-black race rose up against them.
Now they are at war, destroying themselves over which side of their face is darker. Now the conflict looks even more ridiculous than our own ridiculous skin-color-based racism – these people look exactly the same. The difference is obscure and irrelevant – we know that, the crew knows that, everyone knows that except the people fighting. It’s a metaphor, of course, but it’s also a satire. It’s not just “racism bad”. It’s “racism absurd“. It’s “look at yourselves – look how insane you are”. You could never have said that on mainstream television to the entire United States in the 1960s, but Star Trek did – because they were just aliens. It’s just science fiction.
Now, Star Trek is just an easy example. But all science fiction has the same power – you can create whatever you want. Aliens can look and talk and act however you want, to send whatever message you want. Technology can be as advanced as you want. Science fiction is a realm in which ideas have power, immense power: only with science fiction can you channel all of your hope and frustration and anger and excitement and fear and everything you’ve ever felt and above all, still entertain. It’s “just science fiction”. The message has power, but it’s neat. It’s new. It’s something else.
I think above all, that’s why science fiction appeals to so many of us. It’s not just geek-culture and every kid’s desire to visit space. It’s about the things that matter most to us, that we could drive ourselves crazy thinking about day in and day out, but with an added dash of hope. And usually, an added dash of fun as well.