So the worlds described in science fiction or fantasy stories aren’t real.
Does that mean they don’t have any significance in our present lives? Cautionary tales always have significance, and science fiction/fantasy delivers them in ways that are irresistible and irrefutable. That’s why it’s the fiction genre that I write and it’s also the one that I often choose to read – or sometimes, view in film (either adapted from fiction or original).
The cautionary tale is nothing more than a writer’s attempt to get you to “think about it.” What “it”? The “it” that has significance as well as ethical and moral implications. What we can do is take it out of the socio-political realm of everyday life that leaves you bored or jaded or just not interested or too tired to listen again…and put the issues in a new milieu. So that it seems fresh.
But it’s not. In fact, it may be as old as the Greek philosophers.
One of the courses I was required as a philosophy major at the University of Washington in Seattle to take was a course in Ethics and Morals. I still have the textbook. Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and others – no, they didn’t write science fiction or fantasy. However, at the same time as I was enrolled in this class, every Sunday afternoon on the local independent TV station, reruns of the original Star Trek series aired (thank you and bless you Gene Roddenberry, wherever you are) and I was astounded to realize (not like I’d not seen them the first time around, I had, but I wasn’t a philosophy major then) that every single episode dealt with an ethical/moral issue. Even “The Trouble with Tribbles” (which is so fraught with double entendres that you might die laughing!)
I also took a course called “The Philosophy of Science Fiction” and this is where, reading fiction writers like Kurt Vonnegut (“Slaughterhouse Five”) and Ursula LeGuin (“The Left Hand of God”) among others; I began to realize that fiction in this genre left more possibilities for discussing the issues of our time than setting a story in our time. Why?
Because it creates more openness in the reader by bringing them into a new world.
Let me just say, that’s a lot of heavy lifting from a creative perspective, but I’m not complaining. In doing the work, I have to reflect on ethical and moral issues that are coming to the forefront for us now, as well as make them novel to the characters who experience them.
As The Casebook of Elisha Grey expands, and then evolves, ethical and moral issues will be at the forefront of every story. Challenging people’s notions of what is, or isn’t, moral is part of an artist’s path – because that’s what makes any art meaningful.
In this regard, as a writer, I’ve learned by being a reader. Here’s a list (not exhaustive) of novels that I would consider science fiction, or fantasy, or dystopic (news flash: dystopic fiction is all about getting the reader to question the status quo) or all three. These are in no particular order.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (considered the “first” science fiction novel; certainly a cautionary tale if ever there was one with regard to science making scientists think they have the power of a god).
Dracula by Bram Stoker (what better way to address the Victorian Era’s suppression of sexuality than to create a fantasy linking sex and death?)
1984 by George Orwell. I don’t think I need to explain this. The film adaptation is worthwhile as well.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. If you wonder what “soma” is and why everyone needs to take it, just consider the epidemic of SSRI drug use in the US. We are all supposed to have the same mood all the time, right? Methinks not.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. What would you think if the state told you what to do with your body, when, why and how?
Orlando by Virginia Woolfe. Not considered science fiction. I don’t know why… imagine a man who lives for 400 years and THEN awakes one day to find that he’s a woman – in a world where women, shall we say, don’t have the same opportunities as men?
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Is the future better than the past? The most recent film adaptation was quite well done and close to the book.
The Trial by Franz Kafka. Oh, there’s more Kafka on the list. Because…it’s all about wondering why the world doesn’t have a place for you in it that you can live in, like…
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Wake up as a bug. Deal with it. Politely. With your family. Through a closed door.
The Castle by Franz Kafka. Oh, the bureaucracy of it all. Do you smell a cautionary tale when you hear the word bureaucracy? You might want to.
The Plague by Albert Camus. Just when you thought modern medicine could solve everything, well…maybe we need more than science to understand our existence, and the end of our existence.
Films: too many to mention but when in doubt look for any film adaptation of a novel by Philip K. Dick: "Total Recall" (the remake is much superior to the original), “Blade Runner”, “The Minority Report”, “The Adjustment Bureau”, “A Scanner Darkly” as well as, of course, “The Matrix” trilogy (yes, it’s the hero’s journey, but it’s also a cautionary tale – which pill do YOU want to take? The red one or the blue one?) Then there’s “Soylent Green” (can’t remember the name of the author of the book) which should really make you wonder about the push for manufactured food over real food…especially when a creator actually names it ‘soylent’. Oh. Just when you thought your Netflix queue was safe? Check out the remake of "The Stepford Wives".
Science fiction/fantasy writing will make you think about your life, the world around you, and the values you and others hold dear without the socio-political detritus of the modern daily world. And THAT will open your mind, which in turn can lead to...well, changing the world around us.
If you're a science fiction/fantasy reader, I'll bet you're ready for that.
photo: Quonset hut building, Klamath Falls, OR from PreserveOregon FaceBook page