How science-fiction tells us who we are

How science-fiction tells us who we are

2001: A Space Odyssey

In the early 2000s, after a particularly painful viewing of a dystopian science-fiction film, the famed critic Roger Ebert did something he had scarcely done before: He slammed most science storytelling as falling into the trap of portraying either future utopias or future miseries.

The assertion was that much of science-fiction veers off the mark because they are coloured by the sentiments of today. Yet, science-fiction has had an uncanny ability to project a convincing world of tomorrow or in the case of the science of the past, the world of today. It all comes to the nitty-gritty details. 

In the early 2000s when cell-phones began to proliferate in the global market, pundits made a quick nod to the original Star Trek TV show from the 1960s, which had introduced a flip-communicator - a device best manifested by Motorola’s RAZR flip-phones of the mid-2000s. Another Trekkie staple, the tricorder which can analyse the surrounding landscape has its equivalent in the modern smartphone, with its gyroscopes, its cutting-edge cameras once found only on satellites, its heart-rate monitors and its magnetic field sensors.

We may still be waiting for the Star Trek universe’s beam transport technology, but most science-fiction is not about the whizz-bang glimpses of a mind-boggling future. At its core, science-fiction’s real value is its social commentary on how we are evolving culturally and how technology changes us.

In his 1965 novel, God Bless You Mr Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut, the giant of postmodernism, paid kudos to the genre by having his protagonist, the idealistic but damaged millionaire war hero Eliot Rosewater tell an assembled crowd of science-fiction writers: “You're the only ones who'll talk about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstandings, mistakes, accidents and catastrophes do to us.”

Professor Rahul Siddharthan of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai, agreed that some “science fiction is more a warning than a prediction.” He cited the examples of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s seminal Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and more recently Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

Orwell’s 1984 presaged the problem of mass surveillance equipment. The novel’s ever-present “telescreens” which saturate public and private spaces with cameras and microphones accessible to the government serve as both a conveyor of information and as surveillance device. The telescreens foreshadow our modern smartphone and our own vanity infused disclosures on social media.

In Bradbury’s dystopian masterwork Fahrenheit 451, in which a future government is more interested in destroying knowledge than creating it, characters wore “thimble radios” which would enable people to hear audio and communicate with the others. Airpods, anyone? Meantime, Paul Verhooven’s hyper-militaristic Starship Troopers about future human colonisation of other worlds was soundly mocked by critics when it first came out in 1997. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin panned the film as “crazed, lurid spectacle...raunchiness tailor-made for teen-age boys.” But in just a few years, precipitated by the Second Gulf War, the film was starting to become recognised as a satire of the modern American war machine and a no-holds-barred castigation of right-wing militarism.

Technology and the future were equally grim in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey (which was parallelly novelised by Arthur C Clarke), a work which intriguingly starts out as a utopia in which humankind believes it has mastered space. In the film, a voice-activated “thinking” computer named HAL 9000 encounters a logic flaw and begins killing off crewmen. What does this portend for us? Quite a lot, explained the Indian Space pioneer, Dr Susmita Mohanty.

“Artificial Intelligence as personified by HAL is starting to show up in rudimentary ways. Siris and Alexas are starting to invade people’s living rooms. However, “it will take a while before AI becomes good enough for the Siris and Alexas to take on their masters and even checkmate them, but the day will come, in the not so distant future, I am sure,” she added.

At the same time, Kubrick’s film also predicted futuristic concepts which have come to stay. Early in the film, one of the primary characters, Dr Floyd, uses a picture phone to call his daughter during his layover on Space Station V.  “Picture phones (FaceTime, WhatsApp video, et al) are now here to stay. With families strewn apart geographically primarily due to work, people can keep in touch visually, acoustically, emotionally through picture phones, much like Dr Floyd did,” Mohanty said.

In their efforts to comment on where humanity is headed, writers sometimes simply could not help imaging the world of the future. Robert Heinlein, who had written Starship Troopers amid the escalation of the cold war in 1959, had previously penned a short story in 1942 called “Waldo” about a physically disabled inventor who creates and patents a mechanical hand. 

This inspired the nuclear industry which has been using remote manipulator arms which it calls “Waldos.” Meantime, Edward Bellamy, a 19th century college dropout wrote in his 1888 novel “Looking Backwards,” that paper money would largely be dispensed with and that people would carry a card that would allow them to spend credit from a centralised bank. 

Bellamy’s sense of foresight was remarkable - and unique. Most science fiction writers hedge their bets on a sure thing. When William Gibson wrote his 1984 novel, Neuromancer which predicted the world wide web, VR technology and even hacking, some academics and researchers were already toying with computers to communicate with each other.

If science-fiction’s primary role is to explore the consequences of ideas, sometimes its aim could be to be reassure the people that everything will turn out alright in the unknown future. For Dr Jahnavi Phalkey, founding director of the Science Gallery in Bengaluru, the archetype of this is an obscure 1923 Hindi-language science-fiction text titled Baisvi Sadi (The Twenty-Second Century).

Its progenitor was Rahul Sankrityayan, the 20th century Indian travel writer, who was nevertheless compelled to describe a world of the future where technology would become the great equaliser, dismantling hierarchies, resulting in a utopia. “That may not have happened with social feeding into the divisiveness, but the vision that Sankrityayan wrote is comforting. It makes you feel good about the idea that technology and social transformation could go hand-in-hand, committed to harmony,” Dr Phalkey said.

In retrospect, the idea that technology could unite disparate human groups seems far-fetched. But could this because of the lack of a seminal work in the past warning us of what was to come?

“The democratic decay of today can be largely attributed to social media,” Dr Mohanty said. “The fact that people lack the ability to think critically or read between the lines. They believe whatever the TV barks at them and whatever pops up in their social media feeds - which they amplify with gleeful forwards.”

If short-term thinking is a catalyst for this decay, perhaps science-fiction’s inherent value comes down to its ability to get us to reflect on our existential crisis and how people interact with each other. These kinds of thoughts are important, Dr Mohanty said.

“Unless we teach our children to subvert algos and think critically, the future will be bleak,” she added.