What should a human being do?

Robert A. Heinlein, a popular (and controversial) science fiction writer, on what a human being should be capable of doing:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

– Robert A. Henlein, Time Enough for Love (1973) p.248

Specialization is, indeed, for insects.


Why Science Fiction Matters

Science fiction is a strange beast. After so many years of churning out brilliant writers who have pushed literary boundaries, it’s still somehow relegated to the fringes of mainstream media. In other words: it’s still seen as the “geeky thing”, the medium which those interested in the high-tech, science, engineering, anything technical affix themselves to. Yes, recent pop currents have popularised the “nerd culture” (hipsters, I’m looking at you) but when it comes to the real SF stuff – the Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Douglas Adams arenas – those pseudo-interested parties shy away and we return once again to the fringes of society where these greats still dwell.

Why do I think Science Fiction is so important? It’s fictional science, after all – it’s all in the name; surely this can’t be elevated to the arena of those more “hard-hitting” genres such as historic fiction, biography, political drama, even thrillers?

Well, why can’t it?

Inherent in the name of this genre is the word science. What is science? It’s a tool for understanding. For predicting. For modelling theories and making sense and getting a grip on the vastness of our cosmos. The fiction part is where the fun happens – where the author’s imagination can let loose and the great fusion between whimsical fantasy and hard science converge to create a solid framework for seeing not just fantastical futuristic worlds, but ourselves, our present societies.

Science Fiction provides a structure for us to understand the way we live today through the lens of a future world; whether that world is a hundred years away, or merely set in the next year – it’s inconsequential. The fictional representation of advanced scientific application to problem solving and dramatisation on one level inspires the great pursuit of science, and on a deeper level allows contemplation. And contemplation is a rare thing in today’s interconnected, rapid world.

Added to this is the fundamental fact that SF is one of our best testing beds for new ideas, and thus becomes a great window into what the future world might look like. Because, after all, SF is what gets most people interested in the fields of science, engineering, the design of future worlds… those trail-blazers, innovators that are the true inventors of humanity’s future. If their minds came into contact with the words of Clarke or Asimov or Bradbury, then undoubtedly, somewhere, at some time, their work will be influenced by these and other titans of Science Fiction.

I leave you with the words of Sir Arthur C. Clarke: “One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind. Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns and detective stories.”

Ray Bradbury on writing

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

– Ray Bradbury

Bradbury is one of my favourite sci-fi writers. He wrote unrelentlessly until his death a few weeks ago, forever imbuing his passion for the art and the genre into his large collection of work.

His most famous novel,  Fahrenheit 451, illustrates a dystopian future not unlike the reality we’re experiencing today.