I'm a frequent reader of Slate.com, so I was interested to see a science fiction article there today. It goes by the grandiose title "The Purpose of Science Fiction" and is by Robert Sawyer. Huh, I didn't realize there was only one purpose...but ok. Still cool to see an SF article there.
Except...not. The basic argument is that the essence and ultimate reason for SF is to prepare us for the future so that when things happen, when technology and new discoveries change our world, we won't be caught completely unprepared. Don't get me wrong, I think it's just peachy when one work or another happens to have that effect for some readers regarding this technology or that. But is that really it's main purpose? Seems a pretty limited mindset to me.
I know I've pointed before to Ursula LeGuin's essay that appeared as a forward to her science fiction classic The Left Hand of Darkness, but it's worth mentioning it again. I don't have it before me, so I won't quote verbatim. The gist of the article is that science fiction, for all its superficially futuristic appearance, really has nothing to do with the future. A science fiction writer claiming to predict the future is a charlatan, and even one claiming to predict a possible future if things continue XYZ...meh, that's not what it's about. What a science fiction writer does, LeGuin argues, is tell you about today, about her place in history, his life, what it's like to live here, now. And, ultimately, what it is to be human on a more universal level, as well. If they take a slant-wise, futuristic path to explore that, or a steampunk corridor, or a winding medieval road, or a completely mundane-seeming city street like the one just around the corner...well, that's all surface.
From the article,
George Orwell's science-fiction classic Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn't a failure because the future it predicted failed to come to pass. Rather, it was a resounding success because it helped us prevent that future.
I agree wholeheartedly with the first half of this quote, but disagree with the second--it was a resounding success because it told us something of the fears and dangers of the day...and fears and dangers that may have changed in many ways but remain a part of what it is to be human today as well, and into the future. Science fiction doesn't fail or succeed based, either, on whether it comes true nor whether it prevents something from coming true. It fails or succeeds based on the same metrics and rubrics and aesthetic approaches that we take toward judging any work of literature, or any art.