Science Fiction: The Pros and Cons of Modernity

Science fiction has the purpose of both critiquing and advancing modernity. Initially, sci-fi represented a naive optimism concerning human control over science. In tandem with the expression of fears regarding technology, a more ambivalent approach has been adopted to sci-fi. 

1. Space and Time

Space and time … there is little we can do about them. With respect to space, we can reclaim a bit of land here, do a bit of feng shui there, erect a skyscraper over there. Generally, however, whatever space we have, we are stuck with, not forgetting how the sea erodes what bit of land we have.

Then there is Time … bit T. What is Time?, as St Augustine might muse. Whatever time is, we have even less control over it than we have over space. The eroding of the cliff by the sea, an erosion which constricts our space, is an even more suitable metaphor for the eroding of our life by time. We are as helpless as a cliff in the face of our mortality.

2. Moving Space and Time With Fiction

Space and time can’t be conquered in reality, but in fiction we can score a Pyrrhic victory. We can invent places, we can travel in time. Escapism is always the esence of fiction but this ‘reality’ comes out more clearly when we transfer ourselves in space and/or time, by means of a work of literature.

3. Difference of this Epoch

This is as old a literary trick as there is in ‘the book,’ but the modern age (by modern I mean from the Renaissance onwards) is different from the medieval or classical periods. Generally, in the classical age time or space travel was of the mythic variety. Heroes encountered monsters, there were golden ages in the past … these were all to inspire a sense of duty amongst listeners. In the Medieval era, religion parameterized any space or time-travel. Spatially you could upwards or downwards upon death (possibly after a limbo in purgatory). Temporally, medieval Man lived in what was called the nunc-stans, where he was in time with God existing out of time. Both realities were united in God with the Church mediating between the two realms.

An important change came with the importation of Plato’s Republic by Byzantine scholars during the councils of Florence and Ferrara (1438-1439). Plato’s allegorical tale was taken to heart by Europeans. The effect was to produce a whole series of Utopian literature, the first bona fide document Thomas More’s classic work.

At the same time as an interest in Plato occurred amongst learned Europeans, two other movements were underway. The first was the outstretching of European wings – this heralded the Age of Discovery and with this Age came a branching of the fruits of conquest and land appropriation. Secondly, there was the Scientific Revolution which ruptured the mental idea of the universe as much as the discoveries of new lands perturbed any notions about the Earth that were held.

4. Francis Bacon

Like a lightning rod, all these diverse happenstances coalesced in the thought of one Francis Bacon. While other writers like Shakespeare in The Tempest (ca. 1611), showed signs of a burgeoning awareness of science, it was Bacon, in New Atlantis (1627), who most definitely perceived the implications of scientific discovery.

Bacon joined scientific knowledge with the spirit of discovery and formalized these in the manner of Plato. Science was uppermost in his thoughts, nonetheless, and remember, this was the man who coined the phrase ‘knowledge is power,’ an exhortation for monarchs to put science at their disposal.

After a meeting with Sir Walter Raleigh, who had arrived back from the New World and was facing execution, Bacon began to pen New Atlantis. The work was set in a fictional place called Bensalem where peace and quiet reigned… this alone would not set it apart from other utopian works. What really made this the first proper sci-fi novel was the precedence given to science in making the lives of inhabitants easy. Bacon also placed in Bensalem a controlling and commanding bureaucracy and he demonstrated a realization of the kind of power that would be required in a world predicated on scientific discovery and a conquering of nature.

5. Sci-fi Gets Critical

Bacon was well-read during the French Enlightenment and to a great extent fuelled a sense of optimism amongst philosophes. But implications of his sci-fi vision of conquering nature were not fully grasped … control of nature meant a tight leash being kept on any disturbance of the machine. Perhaps it took the perception of Mary Shelley to allegorically express the darker side of science in Frankenstein. Advancement of science was not a free lunch.

The grandaddies of contemporary sci-fi, HG Wells and Jules Verne, were at the nexus of the optimistic views, that older generations held in progress and science, and the pessimistic assessments of technology, that future generations who were scarred by war and in fear of annihilation were to have. Wells was convinced of the benefits of planned societies. While he was not an advocate for Soviet Russia Wells was a believer in scientific socialism. Verne, on the other hand, expressed an awareness of the implications of conquering nature. His protagonist in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) is Captain Nemo, Nemo meaning ‘no-name,’ an an allusion to the anonymity engendered by modernity.

Before and during WWII, Wells ‘batted’ for a planned world. A contemporary, Aldous Huxley, saw modernity differently. For Huxley, as with George Orwell, a ‘sci-fact’ future was one of dehumanization and social control.

6. Sci-fi Today

And so, it seems, the sci-fi world has done a 180. Some of the most famous authors of the latter half of the 20th century, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, tell us of the dangers of science. They tell us that, no matter how fast we can travel or how many worlds we conquer, we are humans whose emotions cannot be ‘scientized’ out of existence. Popular TV series like Star Trek concentrate more on the ‘discovery’ aspect of sci-fi and downplay any optimism about science giving us giving us the big anwers or steering us away from potentially dangerous questions or opinions.

In conclusion, sci-fi is the history of human aspirations and fears. Those yearnings for science to solve human problems, born in the late Renaissance, gave way to Frankenstein theories. While Bacon and his devotees believed they could control science, we tend to believe science has a frigntening power to control us. And while we are ever more hungry for technological wonders we feel more at home critiquing science. But in another sense, we are not all that different from our classical and medieval predecessors who also sought escape from the prisons of space and time.

Colm Gillis is an Irish author based in England. His books focus on political theory. His latest work, The Exceptionally Decisive Carl Schmitt, can be viewed by clicking on the link below. 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. danallosso says:

    Interesting theme. A couple that are current favorites are Forster’s The Machine Stops and Cixin Liu’s more recent Three Body Problem, a Chinese story which begins during the Cultural Revolution. Also, I think Star Trek TNG gave us Picard explaining the virtue of an “abundance” civilization not dominated by money and markets.

    Regarding Bacon, he’s sort of a lightning rod, isn’t he? Carolyn Merchant built her whole edifice around bashing him. But she didn’t really propose an alternative. That continues to be a problem in my field (Environmental History), and may be something Sci Fi is well-positioned to explore.


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