by Kirk Henley, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible.”
— Rod Serling, creator of “The Twilight Zone”
We cannot help but wonder what the future will bring. Whether out of intellectual curiosity or sheer pleasure, we find ourselves imagining what the world will be like five, 10 or even 100 years from now. Science fiction is the literary product of these imaginative ventures, and it is a genre that offers us much to enjoy. These stories let us ponder the benefits and consequences of scientific and technological progress. They create alien cultures for us to examine and compare with our own. They give us the ability to travel the stars or journey through time. They allow our imaginations to run wild with the limitless possibilities of what could be.
Perhaps the most common setting found in works of science fiction is the unknown reaches of space. Lois McMaster Bujold’s multi-award-winning Vorkosigan Saga is a perfect example of a sprawling space epic, effectively combining elements of adventure, intrigue, romance and humor. This series, which mostly follows the exploits of Miles Vorkosigan, an aristocrat with a debilitating physical handicap, is composed of a handful of short stories and more than 10 novels, the most recent of which, “CryoBurn” (Baen, 2010), was just released in October. Fans of alien civilizations should try the Culture series by Iain M. Banks. This collection of novels and shorter works involves an interstellar society of humanoid races and artificial intelligences and their encounters with other civilizations. The latest release in this series is “Surface Detail” (Little Brown & Co., 2010).
For the more terrestrial-minded reader there is “Pump Six and Other Stories” (Night Shade, 2008) by Paolo Bacigalupi. This collection of dark, near-future tales addresses a wide variety of familiar issues, including environmental degradation, water rights, globalization and the increasing corporate control of farming practices. While science and technology are integral to Bacigalupi’s stories, Margaret Atwood’s companion novels “Oryx and Crake” (Doubleday, 2003) and “The Year of the Flood” (Doubleday, 2009) focus more on the social and philosophical aspects of living in a drastically changed future. The main characters in these parallel tales must find their way in a world ravaged by a catastrophic ecological disaster.
The possible changes that humanity will undergo, to both our bodies and minds, is another popular topic for science fiction writers. In the near-future world of Elizabeth Moon’s “Speed of Dark” (Ballantine, 2003), treatments have been discovered for almost all genetic defects, including autism. The main character, an autistic computer programmer, struggles with the decision to accept the treatment because he fears it might change his whole perception of himself and the world. “Never Let Me Go” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro delves into the issues of cloning bioethics and societal expectations. It recounts the story of three young people growing up in a secluded English boarding school and how they each deal differently with the revelation of who, or what, they are.
While the rules of science are important to many science fiction stories, sometimes the rules are broken, allowing characters to travel to places they would not otherwise be able to go. Connie Willis is the author of several novels about time travel. In “Blackout” (Ballantine, 2010) and its sequel, “All Clear” (Ballantine, 2010), three researchers travel to London during the Blitz, only to be stranded when their equipment malfunctions. Another book on the theme of travel is “Changing Planes” (Harcourt, 2003), a series of related short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin. The main character, a frequent flier who spends a considerable amount of time waiting in airports, discovers a method for traveling to different worlds. The stories are told as travelogues and are full of clever social commentary.
Many authors of science fiction are well-respected scientists themselves, and the genre has a proven history of describing fantastic technological advancements that become realities years later. “The Science in Science Fiction: 83 Predictions That Became Scientific Reality” (BenBella, 2005) by Robert Bly catalogs occurrences in which a fictional idea influenced the scientific community.
There are many good science fiction authors today who are familiar with the most cutting-edge science and could provide us with accurate views into the future. Robert J. Sawyer is one such author. Many of his novels merge high-tech concepts with more philosophical topics such as identity and awareness. “WWW: Wake” (Ace, 2009), the first in a trilogy, tells the story of a blind teenager who, after undergoing an experimental process to give her sight, discovers a fledgling consciousness within the World Wide Web. Another author known for creating highly plausible future worlds is Vernor Vinge. In “Rainbows End” (Tor, 2006), he touches on a number of futuristic subjects including cyberterrorism, computers as clothing, instantaneous learning and, last but not least, the future of books — a topic especially close to our librarians’ hearts.