Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Nature of Science Fiction

Look at the stars. What do you see? Pin pricks of light against empty black sky? Or do you stare and wonder what is actually out there? Probably the former rather than the latter, but there are still a few of us who glance up there and wonder what is going on around those stars, or what went on back when they were still alive and burning brightly. How much of the science fiction pantheon we have collectively dreamed up has already been happening light years away? We’ll certainly never know during my lifetime, but it is dreams like this that have given science fiction its immortal appeal.

It is, at a very basic level, a beast of ideas and of comment. It is a forum where all of the ‘What if?’ questions are let loose upon the imaginations of writers, creators and fans the world over. The technology it tells of may be outlandish and far off being a reality (or not in some cases), but these trinkets are little more than devices to help the story along. While the science may not always be sound (or, in the case of franchises such as Star Wars, completely insane), the SF elements generally play second fiddle to the actual story and characters.

The ‘Hard SF’ genre may like its technology more, but it is still telling stories, albeit with a greater tendency towards techno-porn. Then there is Space Opera, which is a fantastic mix of as many genres as possible, again with the focus very much on the story, this time on a much grander scale. If a tale focuses too much on the tools and the ship and the guns, then it will lose so much in the way of pace and readability.

Science Fiction does what it says on the tin, but not always in a conventional sense. While the literal meaning of the term may speak of fiction with a speculative science element, it can be used in such a subtle way that stories can dwell almost in the urban fantasy genre. So what is it that makes something SF? An atmosphere? Spaceships? Perhaps an underlying feeling that something is slightly askew with the world? It is open to debate. What can definitely be said is that Science Fiction, through stories of the distant (and not so distant) future, helps us take a look at the world we currently live in now from a different perspective.

It gives us glimpses of what we could become, and how we might live and survive. It warns us of catastrophes that could befall us and how we could overcome them, or at least learn to live with them. Even the most outlandish story can have a basis in reality. It can help us learn more about ourselves from the ground up, and it can help us dream that little bit harder, push our minds that little bit further.

As the line between science fiction and reality continues to blur in our everyday lives (we do already live a much dreamed-of future, even without hovercars or omnipotent AIs), it is sometimes easy to take SF for granted, as if it were still something far off and intangible, yet here it is, within our grasp. There is still so much to discover and learn and wonder. Spare a moment and look up at those stars once in a while, and maybe even spare a thought for who, or indeed what, may be doing the exact same thing, somewhere out there.

What if?

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