Science fiction imagines alternate realities and beings marked by technological and scientific advances impossible or not yet present on Earth. The genre’s creative world building enables readers to shed their terrestrial ways of thinking and contemplate new definitions of existence. Often, science fiction forces us to consider a reality in which “we are not alone” and humankind is no longer the sole standard of sentience or civilization. In this way, science fiction shares much with post-colonial and feminist thought, which challenges hegemonic structures such as capitalism, Western ideology, and the global patriarchy. Science fiction, especially when it involves extraterrestrial or artificial life, challenges the “humanarchy” and our understandings of intelligence, value, and morality. The genre questions and subverts what is possible – both physically and philosophically – allowing us to dip our toes in new thinking modes.

In her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin suggests that science fiction expands the pool of metaphors available to writers (class handout, p.4). Indeed, science fictionists are not constrained to “realistic” storylines by conventional standards, in the same way that abstract visual artists are not bound to literal representations of their subjects. Abstraction does not diminish the relevance or relatability of either art form. Instead, it offers a new lens to view reality through. Science fiction can also provide a valuable outlet. Author Ray Bradbury describes how his work enables readers to release tension and feel happy, sad, or even murderous within the safe context of fiction. Bradbury argues this avenue of expression is important to personal and societal health (in-class video, time 1:42).

Even when set in bizarre and improbable worlds, works of science fiction are rooted in human experience and contemporary thought. Le Guin insists that science fiction concerns the present, not the past or future, and employs “thought-experiments” to explore our current reality (class handout, page 1). After all, every science fictionist is creating within their present, which is inextricably linked to the fictional futures they build.

Some science fiction, such as the Jurassic Park or The Matrix films, is ominous: warning that if humankind continues down a certain path or pushes scientific advances too far, death and doom will follow. These narratives can be understood as reflections on our current selves and faults already present within humanity. Other science fiction offers more hopeful and tolerant futures without oppressive social norms or structures. Star Trek, for example, follows the Enterprise crew’s encounters with a wide diversity of civilizations and peoples. While there are moments of conflict and bloodshed in Star Trek, the show frequently promotes a message of interspecies acceptance and open-mindedness. The show, like much of science fiction, provides a safe testing ground for new ways of thinking and presents viewers with an assortment of new cultural norms to consider – not in a distant future, but in our daily existence.