I can’t remember the exact quote, but there’s a fairly famous quote about the sci-fi genre which goes something along the lines of “science fiction is actually about the present day, rather than the future“.
Although this quote might sound slightly confusing at first – after all, science fiction stories are supposed to be set in the future – there’s actually a lot of truth in it.
This quote tends to be used most often about sci-fi stories that are trying to make some kind of political point and, in this case, the meaning is usually fairly obvious. As ways to make a political point go, you can’t beat a sci-fi story for showing what kind of utopic or dystopic future will happen if your political opinions are or are not followed by everyone else.
But, I’d argue that this quote is about a lot more than just mere politics.
Although sci-fi stories are almost always set in the future, they are always written in the present day. What this means is that they are a snapshot of everyone’s hopes, fears, predictions and dreams about the future.
In short, a science fiction story is a frozen account of everyone’s guesses about the future. You may be wondering why I said “everyone’s”, rather than “the author’s”, but I’ll explain more about this at the end of the article.
You can see this sort of thing most clearly in old sci-fi stories and films, when people have got things wrong in a hilarious way. For example, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cinematic masterpiece “Blade Runner” predicts that we will have flying cars, perfect human cloning and off-world colonies by the year 2017. Somehow, I doubt that we’ll be able to come up with all of this stuff within the next two years.
But, most tellingly, “Blade Runner” also gets a lot of subtle things wrong about the futuristic era of the 2010s. For example, in “Blade Runner” – no-one uses mobile phones. Seriously, there’s no smartphones, no polyphonic ringtones, no Twitter and no selfies.
When the main character in the film wants to place a video call to someone, he has to use a futuristic phone booth to do it. Call me old-fashioned, but I vastly prefer the “Blade Runner” version of the future.
And it’s not just phones, there are loads of other subtle predictions about the 2010s that “Blade Runner” sadly gets wrong. It looks exactly like what someone in the 1980s might have thought of when try were trying to think of what the year 2017 might look like.
Another good example of this is a near-future cyberpunk novel (if not the cyberpunk novel) from 1984 called “Neuromancer” by William Gibson. Although Gibson predicted things like the popularity of the internet and the fact that corporations have a lot more power than the should do, he also unfortunately got a lot of other things wrong.
For example, he overestimated the level of computer technology that we’d have these days. I’m still typing this article on a computer and looking at it on a screen, rather than viewing it in a cool-looking virtual reality environment.
So, yes, when people talk about how “science fiction is actually about the present day” what they’re talking about is that a sci-fi story reflects many people’s hopes, dreams and/or expectations about the future at a particular point in time. Yes, science fiction stories are about more than just the author’s predictions of the future for at least a couple of reasons.
Firstly, science fiction stories only become popular because one person’s ideas about the future are either interesting enough for other people to want to think about or because one person’s ideas about the future reflect what a lot of other people think about the future.
Likwise, when someone writes a sci-fi story and makes a prediction about the future, then they’re probably also going to base this prediction on the world around them. So, again, although science fiction storyies are usually written by just one person, they can also reflect society as a whole at one point in time.
This also means that old science fiction novels, comics, movies and games that have stood the test of time and are still known today are one of the most interesting types of historical documents out there for the simple reason that they give us an extremely vivid window into the history of everyone’s imaginations, everyone’s hopes, everyone’s fears and everyone’s dreams.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂