Dreaming the impossible: How science fiction helps us understand ourselves

Writers and other artists have always engaged with science and technology as a way to understand a changing world. As technology develops faster, it's crucial for us to have a forum to discuss the ways these changes impact the human experience.

Ironically, in the days before people could summon any tidbit of information they want with a few keystrokes, society seemed more curious and thirsty for knowledge of new developments, especially in the sciences. Fiction was a way to understand and process scientific discoveries. Science fiction eventually became a literary genre of its own, and now permeates every type of creative endeavour, from novels and movies to art and video games.

"There weren't the divisions that we experience in our own society, that science is over here, and arts are over here," says Stefania Forlini, an associate professor of English in UCalgary's Faculty of Arts. "The culture of specialization that we live in was starting, but those divisions between disciplines and between specializations weren't entrenched yet. It was a much more fluid culture."

Forlini says that in the 19th century, popular periodicals began reporting more on scientific findings and discoveries, with many advances entering public debate. "From the 1870s onward there's unprecedented literacy," Forlini says. "The amount of people participating was really quite wide and diverse. Even if you weren't studying science yourself, you could engage with some of the debates. There would be cartoons making fun of the implications of some of these findings, and there was quite a popular response. People were very interested in knowing."


Then, in 1877, the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed what he thought were canals on the surface of Mars, and the public was captivated by the idea that Mars was populated. Martian civilization became a common theme in literature, and the notion that there was life on Mars persisted until the 1960s, when NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft returned photos of a barren, inhospitable landscape with no signs of life.

By then, however, popular culture and fiction had exploded with speculation about life on Mars and other planets. Imaginary little green men and Martian invasions dominated books, movies and other media, including Orson Welles's notorious radio production of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, which allegedly caused widespread panic when it aired. "The encounter with the alien is often about looking at our own social organizations and how it contrasts with theirs," says Forlini. "It pushes us into thinking about what if we could re-organize society, or commerce, or gender, or whatever it is, in different ways. That's what keeps the genre cycling."

It's a theme that remains hugely popular across all media, especially as human flight to the Red Planet becomes more and more feasible.  Only now, instead of dealing with interplanetary relations and conflicts with alien life forms, the narratives revolve around human settlement of other planets and what that means for Earth and humans as a species.

Forlini says that science fiction continues to provide us with a way to examine the ramifications and the impact of scientific advances on our way of life and on the human condition. "What science fiction does really well is ask timely and important questions, and face us with a different way of looking at the way things are and the way they could be," Forlini says. "It's asking 'what if we made it Mars?' 'What if we discovered life on Venus?' 'What if we entered a wormhole?' It's all these what-ifs, and the speculation of what's possible, and pushing our boundaries that makes the genre so attractive."



With global debates about climate change and human impact on the planet, Forlini says that contemporary science fiction tends to deal with the consequences of human activity. "The most urgent topic that science fiction is engaging with today is less about technological and scientific advance," she says. "It's more about dystopic and apocalyptic visions of current unsustainable environmental practices. I think that a lot of our awareness of the really profound impact we're having on the planet is coming from these imaginative extrapolations of where might we be in 50 years, in 100 years, when all the things that scientists are predicting will happen, like the extinction of all these different species, or if we continue with climate change, or all these kinds of scenarios, what this might look like. We believe in equal rights, and shared knowledge, but all those things are up for grabs once we start competing for basic resources."


As the world's space agencies and private commercial enterprises contemplate reaching Mars, the conversation usually focuses on technical issues, with the social and cultural implications often lost. According to Forlini, science fiction provides an important way to grapple with some of the more human questions.

"Technology is the most obvious," Forlini says. "When we introduce a new technology, there's often a polarized reaction between the ecstatic promise of what the technology is going to give us, but then also the question of what it's going to take away and how it might change us for the worse. Those kinds of questions we deal with all the time, science fiction allows the processing of that." 

For Forlini, travel to Mars is also an opportunity to reflect on how we approach the idea of ownership and settling new territories and how that's affected the Earth's history. "The word 'colonizing,' it's shocking that we would still use that kind of language given our complicated history," she says. "How easy it can be to neglect the effects of that history on so many different people, that makes us think it's okay to say 'colonizing.' And right now we don't think there's life on Mars, so 'colonizing' maybe is less loaded, but the impulse is the same, and it's that impulse that has led us to treat this planet the way we have.

"The kind of critical reflection that science fiction invites is to say, 'Well, wait a minute. Say we did go off to another planet, and we go with the same attitude that says everything there is disposable and for our use, how much longer will we be on Mars and then looking for the next planet, and who do we think we are?"

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Stefania Forlini is an associate professor of English in UCalgary’s Faculty of Arts. Her research focuses on late Victorian literature and culture, especially the early evolution of science fiction, and fin-de-siècle science, aesthetics, and material culture. View Stefania's publications