So, a while back I saw a cartoon on Facebook that really stuck with me. It’s been a while, so I may have some of the details wrong, but I remember the gist of it. The title was, ‘the world’s first science fiction stories.’ One of them showed a caveman hitting a rock against another rock, while some other caveman yelled at him: ‘Thag! You Crazy! You destroy us all!’ In the next panel we saw the world splitting in half with a mighty ‘crack’ as Thag did indeed destroy us all. The next cartoon showed a similar scenario, with one caveman trying to start a fire, while another stood behind him shouting. ‘Grog gone mad! He kill us all!’ And in the following panel, well, you guessed it, the world was on fire.
My first reaction was to chuckle because, well, that’s pretty damned funny. But after that I couldn’t help but think about what was being said.
Science fiction, in this scenario, was playing the role of the fear monger. It shied away from any form of progress, or really, any kind of change at all. And it was an accurate depiction of many science fiction stories. Not all, obviously. Star Trek’s attitude towards technology tends towards optimism, and according to some television shows, technology is the solution to most of lives problems.
But there are definitely stories that fall into the framework described in the cartoons. One of the more obvious ones being ‘Jurassic Park.’ An eccentric billionaire figures out how to clone dinosaurs. He is warned of the dangers, but does it anyway, and the world falls apart because of it. Or at least, an island falls apart because of it.
So, is there a divide in science fiction? Fear mongering on one side, and hopeful idealism on the other?
I don’t think that’s the case. Partly because I enjoy the occasional ‘destroyed by their own hubris,’ story, but also because these stories don’t make we want to hide my head in the sand. At least, not forever.
I watched Terminator, and I still want us to start building AIs. I read ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,’ and I still want us to build androids. I read Jurassic Park, and I still want someone to start bringing back extinct species (in fact, I’d very much like to bring back the Dodo bird just to start a fast food franchise).
More than once, I’ve encountered people who treat science fiction as though it were prophetic. Arguments against the creation of artificial intelligence that amount to: ‘didn’t you see terminator? Don’t you know what will happen?’
But that isn’t the message that I take from those stories. To me they exist as reminders that we’re responsible for what happens now. Throughout much of human existence, when bad things happened, they were external forces which happened to us. Attacks by wild animals, natural disasters, what have you. But we have, as a species, reached a sort of puberty, and much of what lies ahead of us is going to be the result of the choices that we make.
In fairness, that’s reading quite a bit into what is, on a very real level, ‘just a story.’ But I think that it is a more valid message than, ‘fear change.’