Science fiction has always been rooted in social commentary. It exists as a kind of “what if?” exercise, drawn from the writer’s hopes, anxieties and predictions. Science fiction differs from fantasy and myth in its inherently speculative nature. Fantasy tells of a world that functions differently from our own; science fiction considers how our world could function differently. This is often used to explore the implications of human innovation, from ethical dilemmas to encounters with things beyond our current understanding.
Jordan Peele’s most recent film, “Nope,” much like his directorial debut, “Get Out,” is infused with science fiction elements. His films refuse to stay within the confines of the horror genre, and this pattern of genre-bending works beautifully. This should come as no surprise. Peele’s films are acclaimed for their brilliant social commentary; a trait traced back to science fiction’s inception.
Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1818, is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel. One of Shelley’s inspirations for the story was the emerging study of electricity’s role in muscle action. The theory of galvanism postulated that if electricity could make a corpse’s muscles contract, perhaps it could be used to restore life as well. This concept is developed in “Frankenstein,” and Shelley explores its troubling ethical implications. The relevance of “Frankenstein” doesn’t end with galvanism, though, as the story’s premise is used to draw out some deep-seated anxieties about human purpose, free will and ethics in a more general sense.
In “Frankenstein”-esque fashion, many works of science fiction draw on anxieties about social and technological change. Sometimes this takes the form of dystopian works like “Brave New World” and “1984.” A more recent example is “Black Mirror,” a series entirely based on frightening technologically-advanced futures. Another is “Snowpiercer,” a film that is simultaneously a picture of climate apocalypse and a commentary on class inequality. Sometimes the expression of timely anxieties in science fiction is more symbolic, such as in the original 1954 Japanese film “Gojira” (Godzilla). Godzilla is a harbinger of mass destruction, given frightening power by nuclear radiation. The film was made in Japan about a decade after the Second World War, meaning “Gojira” is very much a product of its time.
But science fiction’s vision of the future is not always so bleak. Some works present extremely optimistic visions of the future, and there is perhaps a no better example than “Star Trek.” “Star Trek: The Original Series” premiered in 1966, and its subsequent iterations are going strong today. “Star Trek” presents a remarkably positive vision of the future, in which humans have not only ventured into space and developed technologically but have eliminated war, poverty and even currency. But science fiction does not have to be dystopian to be a projection of timely values and predictions.
The utopian vision of “Star Trek” carries underlying assumptions about what the ideal future of humankind would look like. Despite the elimination of war, the organization of the “star fleet” is structured in a way that is strongly reminiscent of a military, and the starships themselves are armed with incredibly powerful weapons. The goals and ideals of the characters epitomize what the creators of the show believed were the best ideological bases for social and technological advancement.
Other works of science fiction offer a more balanced speculative view of the future, regarding technological advancement not as something to be praised or demonized but to be adapted to. All of these works, from the dystopian to the utopian and everything in between, bear the signature of the genre: speculation. Science fiction is an explicit projection of human imagination, using visions of the future to explore ideas in the present.
So what does science fiction look like today? As always, it reflects and comments on current social and technological changes. Jordan Peele’s “Nope” is an example of this, using the “what if?” scenario of a flying-saucer-esque creature that eludes being caught on camera to exaggerate the phenomenon of the modern spectacle. In an interview about the film, Peele stated that we live in “a society of the spectacle,” a statement that is heightened through the film’s fantastical elements. The past decade has seen some excellent examples of both the technology-focused and more generally speculative sides of science fiction, like “Her,” “Gravity” and “Black Mirror.”
But not all media that incorporates elements of science fiction probes so deeply into its implications. Several large franchises today, particularly Marvel and Star Wars, take fantastical technology as simply a part of their settings, resulting in a similar result as “Star Trek.” Works like these demonstrate unspoken assumptions about our relationship with technology, like the Marvel franchise’s depiction of powerful means of destruction as a force for good. Digging deeper into works like these can tell us about our beliefs and assumptions; popular media always becomes popular for a reason.
Speculation about both the future and the present is what makes science fiction work. As a result, the genre is often distinctly timely and informative about current anxieties, hopes, and values. By taking a closer look at science fiction, we can better understand ourselves and our world.