Stories play a big part in the human psyche. Their usefulness is obvious from an evolutionary standpoint. They are lessons, allowing us to have the experiences of another, without having the mess of actually doing it. There is no need to make mistakes, expend energy or have the risk of impacting our own relationships or wellbeing. We can put our cognition into the mind of another, and live their life.
Science fiction is no exception. The stories are just set in a reality that doesn’t (currently) exist. But sci-fi does more. It allows us to dream of what could be and, unlike paranormal or fantasy, these dreams might perhaps one day become true. Even the term “science fiction,” which was coined back in 1851, means: “In which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true.” (From William Wilson’s A Little Earnest Book upon a Great Old Subject). Obviously, that definition has changed somewhat over the years, but the principal has remained the same: Combine science with a story that could be true.
I ran across an NPR article the other day with this quote in it:
“It is very well-documented that people who work for NASA have been inspired by science fiction,” says Calla Cofield, a reporter for Space.com who covers the space industry. “And there’s always a back-and-forth, you know, between science fiction and reality. All of this is about dreaming about what’s going on off the surface of the Earth.”
I think this hints at a symbiotic relationship between dreamers (authors) and do’ers (scientists and engineers). Without both, there is no forward progress.
Science fiction also has the ability to make scientific discoveries relatable to the masses. It illustrates how technologies might be used. It also warns us what might happen if we go down the wrong road. Sci-fi teaches us how we might one day deal with contact from an extraterrestrial lifeform. It shows us who we are, or who we might be.
There are many lists online that show just how many different things were created in sci-fi before becoming a reality. More important than those gadgets and gizmos, however, is how science fiction can inspire the human spirit. The desire to see strange worlds and walk in fantastic places is powerful. Science fiction allows us to indulge this need to explore while inspiring us to expand our knowledge of the real world. It motivates us to take care of our own planet so that perhaps we might have time to develop the technology to go to others.
I love many genres of fiction (fantasy and horror being favorites), but science fiction will always be at the top of the list for these reasons.
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