Science Fiction and the Human Condition

I really almost hate writing think pieces because I always feel like an idiot when I do. However, sometimes a thought brews in my brain and I have to “write it out” to see where it goes. This post is a result of that. 

Recently I’ve been reading a rather shocking number of books that focus on, or toy with, the idea of what makes us human. How do we interact with each other? How do our ideas and inventions affect us both short term and long term? I love books like that because they make me think, but it seems like I’ve read more books in that arena this year than I have any other year.

Speculative fiction is a fertile playground for toying with progressive, and introspective ideas. There are a lot of reasons for this, but when your imagination is the limit, it is hard to keep your feet on the ground. What other literary genre can be filled with elves, aliens, cryogenically frozen people, and all of the moral, legal, and political issues all of those races and situations thrust upon societies? None. That’s pure speculative fiction, baby, and that’s why I love it so much. Speculative fiction takes us out of what we know, and puts us into worlds and situations that are completely foreign. As readers, it is our job to sink or swim, to navigate the treacherous waters of uncomfortable moral questions, and figure out what is right and wrong on our own terms.

Applying all of that to the world we live in, now that’s the real challenge.

An interesting paradigm shift is happening right now. Our technology is catching up to our imaginations. Science fiction isn’t so far in the future anymore. Afterparty, by Daryl Gregory, a social science fiction book, takes place in the near future. Love Minus Eighty, one of the best science fiction books in the history of the universe (IMO, of course) takes place in a more distant future, but much of the technology directly reflects on the technology we know and use today, like Facebook and Youtube. These ideas, these things that fill our days, aren’t so strange anymore. We don’t have to imagine it, because it is all around us. Interstellar travel? No, we haven’t sent men to Mars yet, but notice, there is a ‘yet’ in that sentence. It’s not too far away. We have satellites that have gone further than any man-made object has ever gone. We are finding Earth-like planets almost daily. A mission to Mars is just a matter of time.

This is making an impact on science fiction. We’ve put men on the moon, and can talk to people across the world from us in a matter of seconds. People meet, date, and fall in love virtually. We can watch countries getting blown to bits live. Technology isn’t just developed, it is being developed and we are living in an age when the far future and all the possibilities it contains isn’t too far away anymore. Speculative fiction is reflecting that. Technology is part of us, and it is opening up a whole can of worms, worms that are wiggling their ways onto books by the hundreds.

Are cyborgs human? Read Cinder by Marissa Meyer to really get an insiders look into that topic. It’s not such a weird issue anymore, especially when you consider all the people (myself included) who have non-human parts in their bodies to keep them functioning at a normal level.

Want to explore the morality of cryogenics and social media? Check out Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh. When you consider the voluntary erosion of our privacy from social media outlets and the study into the science behind death, Love Minus Eighty is a very poignant and timely novel.

Space exploration is changing. NASA has lost a bit of funding over the years. Interested in reading more about how privatization of the space industry could affect it? Read Mars, Inc. by Ben Bova.

Curious about our pharmaceutical industry, technology, and easy access? Afterparty by Daryl Gregory will rock you to your core.

Want to read about global issues like rising oceans, a hotter earth, mass human migration, and the ability to bring soldiers back to life – and all the moral issues that are contained there? When We Wake by Karen Healey.

The list could go on and on. And those are just books that I’ve read this year, and not even all of them that I could list. Not even a fraction. More and more science fiction authors are wandering into social SciFi territory. It is a fascinating playground and I am loving every second of it. Our world is evolving. Never before has technology and society been so absolutely intermixed, and near-future scifi books are reflecting that. People are looked up on Facebook before they are called for job interviews. We post pictures of our dinner online. Our world is just as tactile as it is virtual, and science fiction seems to be truly exploring where those two realities converge.

Science fiction has an incredible ability to make us dream, to wonder what if, to look into a future that doesn’t exist and make us see just how we could (or shouldn’t) bring it about. It is a genre that is rooted in the present, and expands it into a future that may or may not be glorious. The marriage of our society and all its positives and negatives, with technology, is irreversible, but it is ripe fodder for science fiction authors to play with. SciFi authors can get their readers to look at  their intricate relationship with the world around them and just how technology and relationships, choices and decisions, affect it. Not just in a future far, far away, but tomorrow as well. SciFi seems to be a perfect genre for exploring the human condition, and I am deeply grateful to the authors who are making us all look at our relationships with each other, and with the societies and world we inhabit.

I am so glad social SciFi is becoming a bigger trend. I hope it lasts.

5 Responses

  • Social SF seems to come in waves or pulses, and with novels like these (and many others), it does seem Social SF is riding high again.

  • I too am glad that social sci-fi is getting bigger, and not in just the sense of “Yet Another Near-Future Dystopia.” I used to say that I hated sci-fi. Couldn’t get into it. And that was because for a long time, most of the sci-fi I was exposed to was military sci-fi, and it was the military aspect that I didn’t like, couldn’t appreciate, and didn’t want to read about. Then since starting reviewing books I’ve had this wonderful exposure to a greater number of genre books and got to see that people were writing different kinds of science fiction than what I used to see. It was a bit of a revelation for me, something akin to when I discovered Ruth Goodman and went, “Holy fuck, you mean there’s such a thing as a domestic historian? You mean it’s not just me who’s interested in this stuff?!” Social sci-fi is the kind that I can really sink my teeth into and adore as much as I used to adore and crave high epic fantasy.

  • Of the broad spectrum encompassing science fiction and fantasy, I’d have to say social SF ranks right at the top. I like being challenged to think in new ways about people and cultures.

    I have lots of reading to catch up on!

  • Yes! Love this post and this trend so much as well. I like the ability of sci-fi to deal with these tough issues in a context different from the current day since I suspect it teaches us lessons we might be resistant to otherwise sometimes 😉

  • You always write the best posts!

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