“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:

The Year of the Flood

What’s your favourite science fiction book/movie? Let me know in the comment section below!

31 thoughts on “Why You Should Read Science Fiction

  1. I loved this post! Margaret Atwood does sci-fi so well – the quote at the end gave me goosebumps! My favourite sci-fi book is The Handmaid’s Tale: I know it’s an obvious choice, but it’s scary how quickly our society could turn into one like Gilead and even scarier how the book remains relevant almost forty years on from its publication.

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  2. Earth Abides by George Stewart is a pandemic-fallen world set in 1949 when it was written. No ease of social media, and technology is minimal compared to present day. This is a fascinating study of how the world falls apart to become rebuilt. No zombies.

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  3. love your point about how dystopias are used to show us where we’re heading- especially that the hunger games uses the symbol of the totalitarian regime to teach us the importance of freedom. Brilliant post! (and I definitely want to read year of the flood).

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  4. I so rarely reach for science fiction, so I thought, but your take on this has made me realise how much I do: I loved the Hunger Games and much of Margaret Atwood’s work is on my current TBR list. This was such an interesting post to read, and I’m sure I’ll pay much more attention to what I’m actually reading when I pick up these books now!

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  5. I’m new to the reading scene
    And I remember a couple of days ago I was having a chat with a friend and I stressed how I would never read a sci-fi book
    Thanks to you, my perception just escalated from never to I have to read a sci-fi henceforth

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  6. Margaret Atwood’s books have just moved up a spot on my TBR! And wow… it’s shocking and quite creepy how accurate she was, especially with that last quote! x

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  7. I love that sci fi and dystopian fiction is horrific yet gripping events and worlds that we hope are completely out of the realms of possibility. It is scary that sometimes the real world catches up (aka an epidemic) but usually I just love that they blow my mind and get the cogs whirring!!! Beautiful post xxxx

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    1. Thank you! That’s a really good question and one that can’t be easily answered as the lines are quite blurry. The way I see it is that sci-fi often works with dystopian elements (in that it presents imaginary futures worse than our own), but sci-fi doesn’t necessarily have to be dystopian. There are in fact many examples of sci-fi books or films that are utopian ( presenting a perfect or ideal society), like Star Trek or other spaceship narratives. In the end, it’s a matter of opinion and there are certainly some who’d disagree with my view (above all Atwood who doesn’t like to be considered a sci-fi author)

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  8. I feel like Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi belongs in her own genre. It’s so unique and brilliant! I personally love those kinds of sci-fi, but I also enjoy the more “classic” ones like Michael Crichton’s very thriller-y, science-based novels. Both are really fun reads, especially at these times.

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  9. I love this! And I spoke partly about this in my dissertation: how fiction acts as a catalyst for reviewing our ways of living and reflects contemporary phenomenon. But, although I adored the MaddAddam trilogy (that Atwood classes as speculative rather than sci-fi), I haven’t read much science fiction at all. I plan on reading some Ursula K. Le Guin and Blake Crouch soon though! Great post x

    Evie x || http://www.eviejayne.co.uk

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  10. The Handmaid’s take was such a surprise for me. The way the book was going it blew me my mind on every single page. I loved reading Hunger Games too. Reading Hunger Games taught me many lessons and I understood that there were certain skills that everyone should know. It was like watching a series instead of reading one. I love reading science fiction by the way and also watching documentaries on this genre.

    Best wishes from The Strong Traveller and have a great day.

    Do have a look at my blog whenever you find the time. There are some travel and lifestyle content which you may find interesting. Your thoughts will surely be very valuable. Stay connected. 🙂

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