“I turned on the news. The minor epidemic they’d been talking about earlier wasn’t behaving in the usual way—a local outbreak, one they could contain. Now it was an emergency. They showed a map of the world, with the hotspots lightning up in red—Brazil, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Bombay, Paris, Berlin … The news jockeys were trying to keep calm. The experts didn’t know what the superbug was, but it was a pandemic for sure, and a lot of people were dying fast”
Is this fact or fiction? What sounds like a recent report is actually taken from a science fiction novel. And this novel wasn’t published only recently but 11 years ago: Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. Now, did Atwood see this pandemic coming? Have we arrived in her dystopian future? Do we need The Simpsons any longer to predict the future?
I think part of the appeal of science fiction is that we recognize ourselves and our world in these weird futuristic setting. What distinguishes the genre from others is that there’s a lot of fact behind the fiction. In the acknowledgements of her novel, Atwood warns us that “The Year of the Flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact” (I know, Margaret, you don’t want your work to be considered science fiction, but let’s discuss this another time)
Although sci-fi stories are set in the near or distant future and envision technologies that aren’t yet invented (with an emphasis on not yet), they’re very much concerned with the present. These aren’t far-fetched visions, but they reflect their authors’ very real fears and hopes about the future.
Reading science fiction books thus tells us a lot about the society they come from. Whereas SF stories were largely celebratory of scientific and technological progress in the 1950s, for example, they became much bleaker from the 1970s onwards, when authors turned to dystopian visions to warn their readers against a future society worse off. The explanation for this change is quite simple: With the emergence of the environmental and feminist movement, writers became more critical towards trends in society they considered alarming. This is actually still so today. One only needs to look at the bestseller lists in the past years: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, The Road, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, you name it. All of these picture a quite scary future.
But these visions aren’t scary only for the sake of entertainment, but they show us in what direction our world is heading. If Atwood writes about a global pandemic that wipes out most of humanity, that’s to warn us against the environmental damage we’re causing in the long run. If Suzanne Collins describes a totalitarian regime, that’s to remind young people of the importance of freedom. And if James Dashner envisions a world where the government runs human experimentation, it’s to questions the morality of such experiments in the real world.
Of course, I’m not trying to say that these authors are forecasting the future, but that they make us aware of alarming trends in society. They invite us to draw connections between their fictional world and the real one and, as a result, encourage us to question contemporary conditions and imagine future consequences.
So next time you read a sci-fi novel or watch a sci-fi film, watch out for the facts behind the fiction.
Finally, I want to close this post with another important wisdom from the God’s Gardeners:
What’s your favourite science fiction book/movie? Let me know in the comment section below!