Why Do So Many Science Fiction Writers Fear Science?


Charlie Jane Anders at io9 asked an interesting question this week: “Why does science fiction portray extended human lifespans negatively?”. It is an interesting question in and of itself, but it almost immediately raised other questions for me. Specifically, how do science fiction writers treat other advances that may soon be within our grasp. Surprisingly, in most cases, the answer was the same. People who write science fiction seem largely to be afraid of the future.

For example in sci-fi genetic engineering is, mostly, something to be feared. In reality it has the potential to eliminate many physical disabilities and genetic illnesses. It could also greatly enhance our current physical and mental abilities. In science fiction though, we get Khan. When genetically engineered humans show up, they are typically super-human villains who are hostile to ordinary humans.

Cybernetics are dealt with in much the same way. It could potentially make us immortal. Looked at in a positive light, we could potentially have a human brain, in a body of circuits. We’d no longer have the need to eat, drink, breathe or sleep. If our bodies wore down, we could get a new one and our bodies could have abilities far beyond anything we have currently. In the hands of science fiction writers though we get Daleks, Cybermen, the Borg and Cylons.

I’ve always intuitively thought of science fiction writers as, automatically, optimistic futurists of some stripe. It would appear though that it is less true than I thought. On the whole people fear science and always have. People were angry about the idea that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe as well as the idea that the Earth was round. In some uneducated quarters people are still angry about the idea of evolution. Vaccines have saved millions of lives in the last century but there are people who are convinced that they are unhealthy. Genetically modified crops have the potential to save millions of lives by producing greater quantities of more nutritious food on less land with fewer pesticides, but there are many people who would like to see them banned completely.

Science has made some mistakes over the years and there have certainly been unforeseen consequences but on balance trusting to science has worked for us. Over the last two hundred years science and technology have improved standards of living, better quality of life, lower infant mortality rates and vastly increased life expectancy. It’s true that without technology we wouldn’t be facing global warming, but it’s also true that without technology we wouldn’t know that.

So perhaps the ability to speculate about science, technology and the future doesn’t necessarily make people optimistic about it. Maybe having some optimism about the future isn’t enough to overcome a natural fear of change, or maybe imagining the worst just makes for better stories.

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