I’ve recently been reading World War Z by Max Brooks, and it made me realise that science fiction, or speculative fiction, is often really underrated as a literary or cultural art-form. While things like Star Trek or Stargate are more often identified with science fiction today, they’re really not – strictly speaking they’re more like space opera: soap opera, but in space, or cheap action-adventure thrills with a loose sprinkling of pseudo-scientific nonsense sprinkled on top.
A real work of science fiction takes a big, but vaguely plausible, extrapolation into the future, and then from that draws the possible consequences it will have on society, on people’s lives. The aim of the endeavour is to make you sit up and think, explore the boundaries and parameters of human existence. In a way I get a similar feeling from history – people biologically almost identical to ourselves, but living under vastly different conditions. The circuses of the Roman Empire for instance are unthinkable today, but they’re the product of their time, and we can get an insight into true human nature by stripping away the ephemeral layers of our society.
One book I think did this wonderfully is The Light of Other Days by the late great Sir Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, where the central idea is that a technology is invented for creating wormholes between any two points in space, allowing the instant transfer of light from one to the other; it’s quickly realised that the other end of the wormhole can just as easily be in the past, making it possible to see any point in history exactly as it occurred. The book maps the effects this has on judicial trials, politics, personal privacy, etc. and the ramifications the resulting changes in society have on the characters.
I could type forever listing the books that contain similarly wonderful ideas, but it’s already getting late, alas. Some of them include: a branch of mathematics that can predict the behaviour of large human populations, and its application to restoring a fallen civilisation; creating human beings designed from conception to be happy and fulfilled in a particular social role; what if you could immediately fabricate any item, given just any kind of matter as the raw material?
Bonus points if anyone can identify the books those come from.
Meanwhile, on Stargate Atlantis, a heat-sink that’s connected to an alternate universe by a space-time bridge puts the lives of a conference full of scientists in peril when it malfunctions, causing them to be trapped (by also malfunctioning plasma shields) in a facility rapidly cooling to below freezing. Oh, and one of the characters declares her love for another, mere moments after she was legally dead from hypothermia. Oh, and then, they joined the Mile High Club.
Seriously. Not making that up.
I’ll properly review World War Z in maybe a couple of days when I can do it justice.