The best part about being a nerd is the childlike excitement at what tomorrow might bring. Along with this comes an eye for questions that we will have to answer as societies and as a species. The work of Philip K. Dick was laden with ideas about artificial intelligence and the post-modern idea of reality itself. This is the genre I refer to as Sci-Phi, as in Science-Philosophy, which is literature addressing the sociological and human impact of changing technology. It may not be set far in the future, and it may not have many dense scientific concepts to puzzle over. That isn’t because of ignorance. It is a result of the focus being on the human aspect of life in the future.
Popular space-operas like Star Wars have allegorical themes, as most good stories do, but they are not very intense and are aimed more at a general audience. Think of it in the same way that a book may be a good story and not rise to the level of “significant literature”.
Star Trek is the most notable Sci-Phi because much about the races, world-view, and social projections are based around problems that we have today. Television’s first interracial kiss happened on the bridge of the Enterprise, and caused a huge wave. In Star Trek The Next Generation, issues like transgender, gender roles and gender itself were questioned and examined. On an episode of Deep Space 9, you can even see two mature, responsible women discuss using holographic sex programs on the holodeck (I am tickled to report that “holodeck” is so commonly used, that MS Office spellcheck doesn’t even mark it).
Each race also represents a sociological issue that we see around us. The Vulcans are an aspirational goal, but skeptically viewed. The Klingons represent problems with our violent history as apex predators. The Borg are a comment on our interdependence with technology and creating a system around ourselves. Of course, underlying all of this is the idea that peaceful coexistence with all forms of life is possible. Overall, it is an optimistic view of the future, but it is an important perspective to have.
One of the first novels that I read that I considered “Sci-Phi” was Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. If you haven’t read it, it follows a man named Valentine Michael Smith, who is the unintentional by-blow of a love triangle between the first three astronauts to reach Mars. The result is that they all die, and he is raised by a race of Martians with the ability to “grok”, which is a nearly magical ability to control anything. Even the ability to remove things (and people) from reality entirely.
At its core, it is the story is a rehash of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, except it discards his “obsolete values and understanding”. Sexual morality looks completely different, according to the story. Well, what have we seen since the nineteen-sixties but exactly that? Gender politics are outlined through the use of time-travel in the story To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and The Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls asks us what makes a being alive?
These days, my favorite shows are The Expanse and Black Mirror, and both are excellent Science Fiction and Philosophy. The Expanse shows us that another frontier is going to open up, in space. When that happens, just like the discovery of America, a huge new economic relationship from the “heartland” to the colonies. Just like the colonies here did, the potential for revolution will build up and possibly change the world, just as ours did.
Black Mirror is much closer in the future and focuses heavily on social media, virtual reality, and cyber-punk than it does any space travel. It also has a few ideas projected into a futuristic setting in order to be able to look at the absurdity of our modern lives objectively. One episode deals with the need for social media attention, and a young woman bets it all that she can raise her score. The desperation of her situation is heart-wrenching, but then you realize this is a reflection of how much of an impact social media has on our self-image.
The master of this genre was, undoubtedly, Philip K. Dick. His titles are all over Hollywood. Some came out well, some bad and some were outright silly. Blade Runner is based on the story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It asks us about our responsibilities as creators using “replicants”, which are outlawed on Earth and slave labor in space. It sounds an awful lot like the slavery issue in the early years of the United States, doesn’t it? Total Recall is based on the short-story We’ll Remember it for You Wholesale, and questions our very understanding of reality. The Verhoeven version is very, very loosely based on it, but the remake is much closer to the main concept. Several false memories cause the protagonist to waffle about what the “real” him would do.
What I love is the ability to think about problems that we wouldn’t otherwise even notice. Either problems of development, or current affairs painted on a new background for more careful examination. Sure, I love the hard science stories, as well. The technology is fun, but the social ideas and patterns are so much more interesting. It is an important genre, especially, because of the decline of religion.
I view religion as the first crack at sociology, flawed by an imperfect understanding of the universe. It was a way to build a society with common values that met the widest spectrum of needs and kept progress moving in the right direction. Now, as more and more people accept that religion is myth, we are having to take responsibility for our own destiny. If Sky-Dumbledore isn’t there to look out for us, we need to look out for ourselves, right?
Science is important because it is a series of factual conclusions. Philosophy is just as important because it gives us the wisdom to interpret those facts and act on them. Just as religion used allegory and fables to impart its wisdom, the age of man will need looks forward and backward through point of views that aren’t historical, or scientifically accurate. This is literature, but this subcategory looks firmly ahead and asks us just who we want to be when we grow up?