Science Fiction: Imagination That Changes the World

Fifty years of “Star Trek,” the series that became a cultural phenomenon, highlights the ties between scientific adventures and movies, series and comics that – set in the future – talk about today.

On Feb. 28, 2015, two universes – considered for centuries to be irreconcilable and set opposite each other – united in a photograph. In the complete solitude of space – the only place surrounded by nothing and everything at the same time – a woman swings her body around to examine the earth outside with the devotion of an entomologist. A 12-centimeter-thick oval window separates her from the vacuum. The striking gesture that she proudly exhibits, in contrast, instantly connects her with a community of millions.

There, 400 kilometers [248 miles] over our heads, displaying the “Vulcan salute” was the only way that Samantha Cristoforetti found to pay homage to actor Leonard Nimoy, who, a few hours prior, had been entered into the Parnassus of cultural immortality. In a kind of cosmic “coming out” on board the International Space Station, the Italian astronaut and “wonder woman” showed in one image that she was not just a fan of “Star Trek,” but was also indebted to that space opera that, while exciting her imagination, had raised her up there, to space, to our only colony among the stars.

With this little, the photo says a lot. But above all, it portrays a blood tie: the infinite in-loop wherein science and fiction find themselves linked. Because far from being a parasitic genre, since its beginning almost two centuries ago science fiction has been nourished with the sciences while simultaneously fueling them with images, dreams, nightmares and anxieties. Physics, biology, genetics, astronomy, space exploration and other scientific adventures influence writers and screenwriters. And at the same time books, movies, series, and comics inspire generations of engineers, scientists, and astronauts, both in guiding them to their vocations as well as in directing their ideas and questions.

A mutual, invisible, and stealthy influence operates between science and fiction. They function and reason in a continuum, just like the space-time continuum. For eons, these two categories that govern us were considered to be separate, until 1905, when Einstein connected the theory of special relativity and we began to think of the concepts as inseparably related.

In his case, the interchanges between fiction and science were more symbolic than material. The Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, for example, admitted that he had borrowed his idea of the nuclear chain reaction from the novel “The World Set Free” (1914) by H.G. Wells. For his part, Werner von Braun, the German father of the American space program, was a devoted reader of Jules Verne. In 1959, the genius Richard Feynman unveiled the era of nanotechnology while propelling the ideas that were already flowing in 1942 in “Waldo,” by Richard Heinlein. And Marvin Minksy, the father of artificial intelligence and faithful reader of Isaac Asimov, helped create the supercomputer HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” that with the rational arrogance of silicon, was guiding the directions and aspirations of computation from 1968.

But it is in “Star Trek” where all the paths converge and rise with a clarity that captures the constant crux of these two narratives. At 8:30 pm on Thursday, Sept. 8, 1966, on the NBC network, the future began. One of many, one to wish for, one that ended up captivating us.

Only 79 episodes, the creation by a former fighter pilot named Gene Roddenberry was enough to reshape the world. Like a virus, the series infiltrated the flood of collective imagination, rewriting from within. Not with its action of bombastically gesturing men and women in obvious pajama-suits, or with a ship with a name closely related to U.S. military history and which revived UFO iconography, or with the ever-same alien worlds made of Styrofoam. “Star Trek” shaped the world to champion a revolutionary idea.

At the hottest moment of the Cold War and of the struggles of the civil-rights movement, it did what the best science fiction knows how to do well: it convinced us that the present was not like the past and that the future could be different, better. Without hunger, without wars, a multicultural future to aspire to, where differences of race and gender have officially been done away with.

No other show in worldwide broadcasting history has influenced society, science, language and fan culture like “Star Trek”: a fiction that morphed into a cultural phenomenon and forged an off-screen reality with its humanist philosophy, while betting on faith in unlimited progress, scientific rationality, the belief that technology is capable of solving (or complicating) everything, camaraderie, tolerance for the other, and cooperation within such times and surroundings hostile to life.

The Future Is Today

But despite taking place in the 23rd century, “Star Trek” – within its six series and 13 movies, so far – like the soon-to-be-released “Star Trek Beyond” – was never a series about the future. No work of sci-fi is, actually. Like the Englishman Brian Aldiss is fond of saying, good science fiction is always a metaphor for the present: “The future does not exist. The science fiction writer uses it like a mirror hanging on the wall to look back at himself and his time period.”* Allegory, metaphor, and satire rather than special effects or the voyager are the genre’s true weapons.

Seen in this light, “Star Trek” is the continuation of the American expansionist impulse founded around the myth of the frontier. Fredrick Jackson Turner stated in 1893 that the history and identity of the United States were moved by the continuous advance of the settlers in their struggle against a hostile environment. In the case of “Star Trek,” space – the final frontier – was a new desert to cross, the meeting point with the other. It is not by chance that westerns like “Bonanza” and “The Wild Wild West” have been shifted to prime time television due to this and other westerns in space.

Anthropologist Conrad Phillip Kottak maintains that “Star Trek” was born as an extension of the U.S.-origin myth, and that the series places within the future what the Thanksgiving holiday has placed within the past: the aspiration to an assimilating, cohesive society, a melting pot of cultures and races. “Thanksgiving and ‘Star Trek,’” Kottak writes, “illustrate the credo that unity through diversity is essential for survival (whether of a harsh winter or the perils of outer space).”

At its heart, the story of “Star Trek” is the unfolding of the of idea of good rule expanding and controlling vast regions of space to bring peace, spreading human morality in its path like an invasive species throughout the other solar systems. Which didn’t keep the global audiences from falling in love with the real wealth of the series and its movies – the exploration of human nature – and ended up promoting in a kind of self-fulfilling destiny the launch of the space program, the lessening of racism – through the first interracial kiss on TV – and the technological atmosphere that we breathe today, from cell phones – the first thing we touch in the morning, the last thing we touch at night – to iPads, personal computers, automatic translators, video conferencing and food printers.

Far from being an escape from everyday life, science fiction makes up our environment. In certain aspects, today is the future of that yesterday. Like the philosopher Pablo Capanna likes to say, science fiction authors wanted to anticipate the future and stop proposing it.

The Muscles of Astonishment

In its diverse evolutionary stages (fictionalized science, anticipatory science, scientific romance, science fiction, fantascience), science fiction always functions as a lens to think about society: a sensory machine that illuminates the present. Through cognitive distancing, the genre that configures the imagination of the twentieth century and of (so far) this 21st century, in all of its varieties – space opera, gadget story, cyberpunk, techno thriller, climate fiction – offers the possibility of looking at the present from outside.

Through its fables of clunky and depressed robots that rebel against their creators, the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem denounced the alienation of work and of totalitarian regimes. “El Eternauta” (1957), by Héctor Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López, is crucial for understanding Argentinian history. The militaristic utopia “Starship Troopers” (1959) by Robert Heinlein cannot be separated in its reading from the “Red scare” or anti-Communist fervor in the West. Written during the Cold War, “Foundation” – the most ambitious saga in all of science fiction history – by Asimov expresses dread in the face of nuclear war or the first ethical dilemmas awakened by robotics. A sign of the post-colonial hopelessness, “Dune” (1965) by Frank Herbert, for its part, considered the armed conflicts that were looming: the oil crisis, conflicts in the Middle East, religion, genetic manipulation and the ecological disasters we are suffering from today.

Intertextuality is within science fiction’s DNA. So, in each reincarnation over its 50-year-span, “Star Trek” has functioned as the time period’s emotional electrocardiogram. For example, in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987), the saga’s second installment, the series adapted the social changes of Reagan-era American society. The conqueror – of women and space – represented in the character of Captain James Kirk was replaced by Jean-Luc Picard, a cultured French but stylistically Shakespearean diplomat, whose last name echoed exploratory feats of old. And the real enemies were no longer the Klingons (the Russians) or the Romulans (the Chinese) but the Borg: a metaphor for dehumanized technology.

During the ’90s, the darker “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” – a great metaphor of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – the border no longer operated as a meeting area of cultures but as a space of conflict. In the first decade of the 21st century, “Battlestar Galactica” – a powerful political and religious drama set in space – occupied the empty void left by “Star Trek” and functioned as a critique of the post-9/11 world; as well, “The Windup Girl” (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi and “Ready Player One” (2011) by Ernest Cline, explored our fears surrounding the social consequences of climate change, overpopulation and genetic engineering.

As the great Chinese bestseller “The Three Body Problem” by Liu Cixin demonstrates, science fiction in the 21st century expresses our doubt about the future and, while doing that, pushes the limits of our imagination, exercising the muscle of our astonishment.

“Politicians should read science fiction, not westerns or detective stories,” Arthur Clarke wrote several decades ago. Because, while exploring words and distant eras, these laboratories of ideas allow us to break down the anxieties of our present, discern alternatives, and explore possibilities, change. Like Ursula K. Le Guin says, it is about a means for thinking of reality, a method.

Within the collective universe produced by Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip Dick, J.G. Ballard, Octavia Butler, and so many other screenwriters and writers of books, movies and science fictions series, the keys to our survival as a species are hidden. A user’s manual to learn about the past, comprehend the present and build the future.

*Editor’s note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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