There are essentially two types of science fiction: hard and soft. Soft science fiction is more like fantasy, not obeying the laws of physics (Star Wars) while hard science fiction aims to be scientifically accurate (2001: A Space Odyssey). I love Star Wars, but my real favorite genre is near-future hard science fiction such as Blade Runner, Interstellar, The Martian, Ex Machina, and Her. I think those kinds of stories—built around accurate science and technological innovations that can conceivably happen in the near future—are perhaps the most important form of fiction.
Speculating about what the future will be like is essential, not just for people today, but for our descendants, as they approach that point in the future where the story takes place. Fiction writers extrapolate current technology into the future and imagine the potential problems both societally and philosophically. This is important to do now because with the approaching technological singularity, questions of consciousness, free will, and the nature of reality are more relevant than ever. As humans build more and more human-like artificial intelligence, we will be forced to answer the deepest philosophical questions around what it means to be human. No one today may live to see the singularity, but we can write stories about the singularity that people in the future can read and learn from. Science fiction is necessary to predict and prepare society for possible futures—to be the guideposts for scientists, politicians, lawmakers, and all of society, really, about the futures we should either strive for or avoid.
There are many technologies today, such as AI, that we know are advancing, and we’re not exactly sure how it will play out, but we need to prepare for all possibilities. The role of science fiction is to anticipate the potential routes technology could take in the future and prepare society by inspiring scientists and engineers about what may be possible or warning everyday people about other possibilities, as in Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984.
Science fiction can propose ideas on how to avoid future catastrophes, such as nuclear annihilation, consider the moral implications of new technology like gene-editing (Gattaca), prepare for the day that we finally meet alien life (Arrival), or illustrate how the world could be impacted by climate change (Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140). Even if science fiction doesn’t get all the details right about the future (which is basically impossible) the stories can still explore philosophical questions that will remain relevant in the future.
The future is important to think about—perhaps the most important thing to think about. Science fiction provides a way to anticipate and consider the problems and possibilities of the future. It’s tough to get the average person to read a science fiction novel, but they might watch a movie or television show, especially on Netflix. That’s why Black Mirror is so important. It is one of the few television shows that is seriously considering the future implications of technologies we are using today. Science fiction books and short stories have been exploring issues around AI and the singularity for decades, but Black Mirror is bringing those ideas to the mainstream (and hopefully inspiring people to seek out books for more information).
If you doubt the power of science fiction, consider the case of Elon Musk. He’s talked a lot about his fondness for science fiction as a child, specifically the books of Douglas Adams, Issac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Iain M. Banks. They wrote science fiction stories about people going on spaceships to colonize other planets. And what is Musk doing now? He’s building his own spaceships to colonize Mars. Would SpaceX exist without science fiction books about spaceships and planetary exploration? I doubt it.
The science fiction of today is the science fact of the future. Don’t you want to know what might be coming?