Science Fiction as a Lens on the Present

By Brandon Engel: Science fiction, as a genre, has a distinct social purpose compared to that of conventional drama. While the latter is noblest when it cultivates empathy, forms of Sci-Fi, whether books or movies, serve a higher purpose when they foster critical scrutiny of the present. Sometimes this is best accomplished when all the trappings of the story—from the setting to characters’ habit of dress—are completely foreign and outlandish. But all this is mere window-dressing, for the right themes transcend these elements, stealthily communicating to careful readers important lessons about the actual world they inhabit.

Soylent Green, a 1973 film by Richard Fleischer, is a prime example: a film that addresses food issues still with us today. Loosely based on the 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green takes place in 2022, in a world ravaged by the triumphs of industrialization: namely, food scarcity and overpopulation. The bulk of society subsists on rations produced by the Soylent Corporation, whose newest item, Soylent Green, has just hit the market. Advertised to contain “high-energy plankton,” this green wafer is touted to be more nutritious and palatable than its forerunners “Red” and “Yellow,” but in short supply. The reality is that the wafers are composed of human flesh.

Above the fray sit those elite enough not to have to consume any of Soylent’s products, and enjoy a diverse diet of fresh food. This scenario bears a striking resemblance to our present food arrangement, where most people eat non-nutritious, genetically-modified food, either out of economic necessity or ignorance. Today, it’s a privileged position, almost a boutiquey pass-time, to consume healthy food.

Another perfect, more-recent example of big picture-conscious science fiction is a novel by Paolo Bacigalupi entitled The Windup Girl. This book extrapolates present social and environmental circumstances to a distant 23rd century Thailand where global warming has raised ocean levels, carbon fuel sources are no more, and biotech companies control food production by way of “genehacked” seeds. The corporations use private armies to carve out markets for their products, while populations succumb to widespread plague and illness. This scenario resembles today’s, but is stripped of its current benevolent veneer. Free-market rationales and pseudo-diplomacy are no longer necessary in Bacigalupi’s world, where such formality is dispensed with in favor of naked force.

In these bleak sci-fi forecasts of future dystopian societies, the issue always stems from humanity squandering planet earth’s scarce resources. And while headlines commonly decry abuses by Monsanto, we mustn’t lose hope just yet. Some states (Vermont especially) are starting to demand more transparency from agribusiness, and are insisting that all genetically modified foods be labelled appropriately. Independent, grass-fed farming is becoming more common throughout the United States, and even Monsanto is talking about experimenting with growing organic produce. Alternative energy is becoming more and more accessible too, with deregulation and technological advances in the US and Canada opening up options for consumers to source their energy from renewable sources instead of fossil fuels, and find their own information independently instead of relying on corporate propaganda.

For science fiction to play a role in public debate may seem a laughable notion, but it’s because of the imaginative power of many sci-fi authors that we live with much of today’s beloved technology. But for issues to have a visceral impact on citizens, for citizens to actually care about what goes on around them, important matters must framed in such a way that they can be understood emotionally and intuitively, rather than just intellectually. And it’s up to sci-fi authors to take up this task.

1 thought on “Science Fiction as a Lens on the Present

  1. I would agree that “Science fiction, as a genre, has a distinct social purpose compared to that of conventional drama”, but I suggest that the difference is more simply stated thus: Conventional drama entertains those who are in the mood for stories in setting resembling the world we live in; SF/F, those who want a story from another world, from plausible futures or Faerie.

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