Borg on the fourth of July! Yes, Monday’s topic really is based on the idea that science fiction can be very revealing of American culture and society. I thought it would make a fun summer holiday topic. That and it let me use that pun.
I know this topic puzzled some of you. Here’s my thinking. I read once that if you want to understand a country’s history or politics or economics, you should read non-fiction. But, if you want to understand a nation’s culture then you must read its fiction, and really try to grok (the first of many Sci-Fi metaphors this week) what it is trying to say about society.
Science fiction in particular, IMO, can tell us a lot about where our cultural zeitgeist is at and where it’s heading. Why? Because sci-fi is speculation about what the future might be and should be like: How we’ll use technology, organize society, and see ourselves. It also explores who might benefit and suffer under alternate scenarios. Like all fiction, reflects our cultural zeitgeist. Perhaps more than other types of fiction, sci-fi helps to frame our big choices and their consequences .
(BTW, to quote Robert Heinlein, “a handy short definition of almost all science fiction might read: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.” If sci-fi is about what might be, fantasy can be thought of as being about what cannot be.)
Plus, science fiction is wildly popular these days. Sci-fi movies took in nearly one-quarter of U.S. ticket sales in 2015, triple what they did in 1995. TV is awash in sci-fi and mixed sci-fi/fantasy/horror shows, like The Walking Dead and Preacher.
Moreover, the sci-fi/fantasy genres have changed a lot recently. On the bright side, there’s more cultural and international diversity in both authorship, viewership, and plotlines. But, modern sci-fi has also gotten pretty dark and apocalyptic and it seems more explicitly political and ideological than it used to be, at least to me. Movie sci-fi has gotten really, really dumbed-down too, in my opinion, with its superheroes and digital special effects overkill.
Some of these changes reflect changes in the entertainment industry and special effects technology, not cultural evolution or devolution. I’ll explain some of those changes in a brief opening presentation on Monday. Then, we can get our sociology and cultural criticism on. Or we can talk about Thor, World War Z, or the latest Superman atrocity. But, please – not Jar Jar Binks.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Why science fiction matters –
- Sci-Fi heavily influences Americans’ view of what the future will look like.
- It spurs us to speculate on what our future might be like and to beware some of them. Both recommended and fun!
- Apocalyptic Sci-Fi: Since 2000, war and ecological disasters were the trigger most often in sci-fi novels. Zombies came in 7th. Way cool.
Sci-Fi as social/political commentary –
- Many blockbuster Sci-Fi movies have had obvious political or social messages. Did you miss any of them?
- Today’s Sci-Fi is:
- Diversity, the culture wars and Sci-Fi: What happened at the Hugo awards last year and why it matters. Jeez.
- [Last minute link: Why the West likes sci-fi more than other countries.]
How Sci-Fi has changed recently and why –
- It’s all dystopian and dark, which makes us too pessimistic about our future. Recommended.
- Why zombies and superheroes dominate. Recommended.
Next Week: Are Californians environmentally over-regulated?