Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Matters


Author Garrett Calcaterra performing
air testing during BP Oil Spill
Gulf of Mexico 2010
Earlier this week, my controversial article “Can Sci-Fi Save the World from Climate Change?” was published in Black Gate magazine. My goal in writing the article was to rally the science fiction and fantasy (SFF) community into tackling the issue of climate change. As you might expect, the reception has been mixed. Some people have lauded the article, others have criticized me for telling other authors what “they should write,” while the vast majority of people have simply ignored the article all together, which is to be expected, because that’s more or less what most of us do when confronted by the nebulous, foreboding issue of global warming.

Despite all the cataclysmic evidence that climate change is already happening and that our outlook for continued human prosperity is bleak, I am still optimistic. Why? Well, because these sort of issues are exactly what the SFF field is great at tackling. In fact, the SFF community has a storied history when it comes to inspiring progress.



The godfathers of SF, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, wowed readers with their imaginations and inspired inventors and engineers to create the first submarines, airships, rockets, and spacecraft. During the Golden Age of SF, in the early 20th Century, Arthur C. Clarke conceptualized the idea of using geostationary satellites as communication relays, Isaac Asimov laid the groundwork for robotics and artificial intelligence, and E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen novels inspired the US Navy to create the first naval combat information center. Decades later, at a time when personal computers were still in their infancy, William Gibson imagined cyberspace with the subgenre of cyberpunk.

In addition to inspiring technology, SFF writers have also warned us about the dangers of our actions. Well before Verne and Wells were writing, Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein, a cautionary tale of what can happen when scientists try to alter life itself (a warning that seems more prescient than ever in an age of cloning and GMOs).

Then there all the classic dystopian tales, warning us of the dangers of taking social and political ideologies to their extreme ends: A Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. My personal favorite dystopia is E.M. Forester’s The Machine Stops, which predates all those classics. In Forester’s warning tale, humans have become so reliant on technology that they have become fat and slug-like, isolated in their private cubes, interacting with one another only via “the machine.” Sounds an awful like some students of mine who spend more time eating Doritos and playing games online than attending class.

And let’s not forget the 60s and 70s, which birthed a whole other sort of warning fiction with social SFF stories. Bradbury warned us of the dangers of becoming too enamored of technology, lest we become amused to death. Ursula K. Le Guin made us question our conceptions of gender and sexuality. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon challenged our rote acceptance of patriarchy and our disconnection from natural order.

You can see why I hold so much faith in the genre when it comes to approaching new challenges, climate change foremost amongst them. And, to be fair, there is already good fiction on the topic. Paolo Bacigalupi has been leading the charge, and his Nebula and Hugo award-winning novel The Windup Girl is fantastic.

As a community, though, SFF authors can, and need to, do more. If we’re going to continue to prosper into the next century, we need to do more than just engineer our way past Mother Nature. One commenter on my controversial article pointed to an old Analog SF short story from Randall Garrett called “Damned if You Don’t.” Amazingly, the issue the story raised back in 1960 is even more poignant today. Could it be that our societal and economic constructs are mortally flawed, that even if we came up with a magic bullet for clean energy, modern society would still collapse?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I am confident that a new generation of SFF books and stories can start the conversation.


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Garrett Calcaterra is an author of dark speculative fiction. His newest book, Dreamwielder, is an epic fantasy novel from Diversion Books. He is currently working on the sequel to Dreamwielder and an unrelated cli-fi novel. Learn more at www.garrettcalcaterra.com

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