Science fiction helps us understand the future as well as past and present

When I started reading science fiction, in my teens, it was widely regarded as a disreputable form of literature. This was not surprising, since at that time—the early 1940s—sci-fi was confined to pulp magazines with lurid covers, often depicting scantily-clad heroines shooting ray-guns at BEMS (bug-eyed monsters).

Living in Newfoundland at the time, while it was still a British colony, I had to order sci-fi periodicals from the United States. They had to be cleared by customs officers, who also doubled as the colony’s censors.

The censor who examined the magazines mailed to me from New York was Mr. Howell, who happened to be our nearby neighbour. Shocked by the trashy cover art, he spent an hour or more leafing page by page through Amazing Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Weird Tales, searching for evidence of pornography or obscenity, all the while shooting suspicious glances at me.

Fortunately, the stories were all as sexually sterile as the Hardy Boys’ books, as devoid of smut as the local church bulletin. Most of the stories didn’t even have a female character. So the custodian of colonial morality reluctantly had to allow me to take the magazines home — even without tearing off the offensive jackets.

But he left no doubt that, while he might be satisfied I wasn’t a pervert, he was not so sure about my mental stability. Surely no normal young man would waste his time reading nonsensical yarns about time and space travel, or encounters with extraterrestrial beings. My father was also skeptical about my reading preferences at the time, though he kept his disdain to the occasional sigh or rolling of eyes.

Ironically, many of the people who then sneered at science fiction were actually among its most avid readers. The books they frequently borrowed from the Corner Brook public library included H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

These books, however, were viewed as visionary or speculative classics, and thus considered far superior to the science-fiction stories that originally were published in the pulp magazines. Mainly because of the wartime paper shortage, that’s where the masterpieces of modern sci-fi pioneers first appeared.

Isaac Asimov launched his legendary Foundation series in the pulps, as did Ray Bradbury with his Martian Chronicles and Robert Heinlein with his “Future History” series. The pulps also featured the early narratives of Theodore Sturgeon, A.E. Van Vogt, Clifford D. Simak, John Campbell, Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson, Philip K. Dick, and other s.f. luminaries.

Imagination stifled

People who eschew science fiction deprive themselves of the most effective stimulant to their imagination. It’s a genre that expands our perceptivity beyond local, national, even global issues. There’s nothing like sci-fi to put human affairs in the right kind of perspective – to deflate egotism, to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.

After all, Earth is almost certainly just one of millions of inhabited planets in the universe, most with life-forms much farther advanced in intelligence, morality, and technology. Thus they are free from warfare, poverty, inequality, environmental desecration, and the other afflictions that plague the lives of most inhabitants of this planet.

While I was a reporter for the Montreal Gazette, I attended a lecture by the renowned astronomer Harlow Shapley. In referring to Earth as a minor planet in the remote arm of the Milky Way galaxy, he remarked that, in cosmological terms, its eventual destruction would be “no great loss.”

Admittedly, that was carrying scientific detachment a bit too far, but I suspect Shapley’s message was that an outlook that is cosmic in scope is far more conducive to sanity and tranquillity than a preoccupation with contentious political, economic, or ideological matters.

I am convinced that, if all politicians had been science-fiction enthusiasts for the past 50 years, we’d be wracked with far less international conflict. We might even be well on the way to the establishment of an idyllic One World Government.

It’s no coincidence that so many sci-fi writers have hypothesized the political unification of nations on Earth as the result of the landing of either hostile or benevolent aliens. These celestial visitors would either compel humans to unite for their mutual defence, or benignly help us replicate their superior cultural and conflict-free civilizations. In either case, the result would be the creation of a unified, peaceful, and progressive planet-wide society.

Learning of the past

I’ve always felt that we should all have some sense of the meaning of human existence. The popularity of religions that preach the belief in a heavenly afterlife is significant. So is the belief in reincarnation. But even agnostics can achieve a deep appreciation of life’s continuity.

The past is readily available to us through history. And especially through historical novels that imbue the past with flesh-and-blood reality. A good historical novel, meticulously researched, is not only easier to read than a didactic history book, but can be much more memorable. It enables us to “live” in previous centuries through the characters that a gifted author can create, surrounding them with the authentic sights and sounds of a bygone era.

Some examples? For ancient Rome, there are Robert Graves’s two outstanding biographical novels – I, Claudius, and Claudius the God – which reviewer Harrison Smith praised as “magnificent reconstructions of Roman life in the first years of the Christian era.” He found Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, however, to be even better, with its “lucid and immensely appealing prose style.”

For ancient Greece, there are the splendid novels of Mary Renault, such as The Last of the Wine and Fire from Heaven. Her fabulous trilogy about Alexander the Great invests that Macedonian conquereror with flesh-and-blood corporeality.

For ancient England, there are the intriguing novels of Edward Rutherford. In Sarum, London, and The Forest, he traces the hectic and always fascinating evolution of families down through the ages, from the distant past to the near present.

Learning of the future

The far future, too, is open to us through science fiction, although it obviously cannot be based on actual persons or events. Unlike the past, which is fixed in time, futuristic sci-fi perforce must be speculative, if only because it can take many diverse courses.

But the seeds of the future are planted in the present, so it is possible to anticipate how they might grow and blossom. That’s basically what science fiction writers do when they choose Earth’s future as their métier. They extrapolate from already discernible trends to shape the kind of world these trends may eventually bring into being.

So we have in the literature of sci-fi many predictable futures, both utopian and dystopian, either confined to this planet or extended throughout the solar system or even across the galaxy.

Among those limited to the future of Earth, many are set in the aftermath of a nuclear war, such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. We have futures postulated on complete state control, such as George Orwell’s 1984. We have nightmarish futures of an overpopulated world, such as John Hershey’s My Petition for More Space, and Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, later made into the movie Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston. We even have Thomas Berger’s Regiment of Women, in which a future Earth is dominated by matriarchs. (As it very properly should be today.)

There is probably not a possible future that some writer of science fiction hasn’t imagined and committed to prose. Having read a good many of them, I have some concept of where the human race could be going, as well as where it has come from.

At my advanced age, this gives me a comprehension of our species’ entire breadth of past, present, and potential future. In a curious way, it also gives me a sense of immortality, since, when my life ends, it will not be with the frustration of having been interrupted half-way through the story of humankind. With the help of science fiction, I have skipped ahead and read the final chapters.

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