When the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard stepped out onto the street across from the British Museum on September 12, 1933, he had an epiphany. He realized how to create an atomic bomb. What he had to look for was an element that would split and emit two neutrons for every one it absorbed. Nine years later, at the University of Chicago, he and Enrico Fermi initiated the first controlled nuclear reaction of uranium atoms. A new age had begun.
His inspiration for the bomb reportedly came from a science fiction novel, H. G. Wells’ The World Set Free, published in 1914. Szilard had read it in 1932, the year before he stepped off of that London curb. It provided him and his contemporaries with a vision of the possible.
Reimagining the possible is one of the ways speculative fiction has been helping to shape society for over a century. It’s why many of the scientists and technicians who helped to engineer the moon landing credited Robert Heinlein for their interest in spaceflight, and why Peter H. Diamandis brought Heinlein’s novella “The Man Who Sold the Moon” with him on the flight that won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 and helped galvanize a new generation of space industry entrepreneurs.
The idea that spec fic can shape the future sounds like hyperbole the first time you hear it but makes more sense the longer you think about it. The stories we tell show us how the world works and help us navigate it. We read books and turn on the TV or watch YouTube and think we’re seeing the world as it is. But spec fic is different, because it tells you about how things could be.
When Nichelle Nichols met Martin Luther King, Jr., she was preparing to take advantage of her newfound popularity from Star Trek to transition to Broadway. Star Trek inspired or predicted so many inventions that keeping track of them all is a genre unto itself, but Nichols’ story indicates that the impact of spec fic goes beyond technology.
Nichols was the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura, the Enterprise’s communications officer, and King convinced her to stay on the program because she was showing black Americans to the world in a way that couldn’t be seen anywhere else. Kids including Whoopi Goldberg, who grew up to act on the next Star Trek series on her way to becoming the highest-paid actress in the world, saw her and thought maybe they could act too, or become scientists, or do whatever else they wanted to do. And that’s about as much as you can ask from any revolution.
If we lived in a perfect meritocracy, perhaps this wouldn’t matter quite so much. But we don’t, and it does. Traditionally many women and minorities steered clear of science careers because they simply didn’t think that option was possible. Kids choose careers based on how other people view them, as well as on how they view themselves.
But we can go further and argue that even scientific inquiry is shaped by our perception of possibility. Ptolemy’s system matched the observed universe, or at least matched it well enough to get by with some periodic tweaking, but Copernicus was able to look at something everyone else was looking at and see something else. And if we accept that perception can influence theory, then we can probably also accept that fiction can change that perception.
The theories we use to describe the world, the scientific paradigms that define and divide the modern age, have gone through multiple stages. A clockwork, mechanistic universe described by Newton’s laws. Einstein’s theories of relativity. Quantum mechanics. Each of these theories or group of theories is correct, in that they have been confirmed by observation and experiment. Yet each is a new story about how the world works. Obviously they shape fiction, but perhaps the relationship is
sometimes reciprocal. Within the field of quantum mechanics, for example, there are various interpretations to explain the mind-bending things that everyone agrees is happening. Recently, many worlds theories have gained in popularity (“many worlds” meaning that there are universes parallel to this one), and whether coincidentally or not many worlds theories happen to be aesthetically reminiscent of the multiverse that DC popularized while the baby boomers were growing up.
Metaphors and Archetypes
Regardless of how we explain them, the rules of physics are still rules. (Well, at least within our own universe, if indeed there is a multiverse. At this particular stage of the universe’s evolution. Actually, I’ll just leave that to physicists to sort out.) But social rules are more flexible. Yuval Noah Harari’s recent book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, asserts that the appearance of fiction through myths is what created the rules and norms that led to human civilization.
Ancient humans generally split into groups of about 150 people every time they got larger. The psychologist Robin Dunbar has argued that 150 is roughly the number of people with whom a human can have a genuine social relationship, based on the limitations of human memory. This size is too small to form any substantial polity. But create a shared myth, Harari writes, and suddenly you have a context for shared expectations and familiarity with people you’ve never met before. Nations, corporations, religions, currencies, genders—none of these have any absolute, concrete existence. They exist because we agree that, through our collective stories, they exist. When our stories change, so will they.
All stories help to create our shared reality. Dictators innately know this; you can learn a lot about a society and the myths it promotes by the fiction it bans. Or even better, the fiction it promotes: North Korea’s schoolbooks proclaim that supreme leader Kim Jong-un could drive by the age of three. But we don’t necessarily notice all the shared narratives that help to create a culture, or even recognize them as stories.
Among all of the stories that influence us, some genres of spec fic stand out for directly engaging mythic archetypes. Joseph Campbell, building on Carl Jung, described literature throughout the ages as portraying archetypal characters journeying through archetypal milestones. All stories have archetypes like threshold guardians or shapeshifters. In spec fiction, those characters are more likely to be literal threshold guardians or shapeshifters, and not just stand in for them. In fact, spec fic often deals with allegories and metaphors, whether explicitly or implicitly. Metaphors, symbols which represent something else, have a lot going for them as literary devices; among other things, they’re psychologically powerful and they universalize the specific situation they’re describing.
The strength of metaphors and archetypes isn’t that you’ll always interpret them the same way the author does. You might not get that Tolkien’s elves stand for a fading pre-industrial age. The Lord of the Rings might remind you of World War II even if that wasn’t Tolkien’s intention. But because it uses the language of archetype, allegory and metaphor, it speaks to all of these historical transitions and more.
The metaphorical nature of spec fiction allows writers to question and play with the assumptions that underlie our society, but in a way that sidesteps many of the reflexive biases that might be triggered if the stories discussed actual political figures or events. If one of the things that makes spec fic influential is its ability to suggest new possibilities, then the very act of challenging the social and technological status quo suggests the most subversive possibility of all: that our society is not the necessary endpoint of human civilization, and that other arrangements are possible. This means that spec fic is particularly well-placed to challenge what Mark Twain called “the lie of silent assertion,” the mute acceptance and perpetuation of laws and institutions which we know to be fundamentally unjust or nonsensical.
A lot of studios passed on the 1990 film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale because it was about women, and many actresses wanted to steer clear of a story that was so emphatically feminist. The success of Mad Max: Fury Road shows that a lot has changed since then, although the fact that a feminist adventure film is still considered revolutionary suggests that perhaps not as much had changed as one would think.
The Handmaid’s Tale and Fury Road are also very different films. But there are few things they have in common. They both challenge the seeming inevitability of the present. They both point to new possibility. And if our world really is created by storytelling, then it can be reengineered by storytelling as well, and both stories make good cases that spec fiction is the most likely candidate to make that happen.