Some of the Best Science Social Fiction of our Time

April 2, 2017 § 5 Comments

I have a confession. I never considered myself a fan of science fiction. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see myself as one until I was 20 years old. If we’re being honest, I had always regarded science fiction as a genre for geeks. I thought it could offer me little, and that it was simply low-quality material about alien invasions and space travel. Movies like Star Wars, or The Matrix, were fun to watch, but I had never read the stuff – and had no intention of doing so.

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That is, until I was hoodwinked into reading Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. The book began just as I would expect. A lot of talk about space travel and interplanetary exploration. However, that only lasted for a few pages, and it was just a means of setting up the plot. The “real” story, as I saw it, became much more of a social commentary than any sort of alien invasion tale I was expecting.

After reading more of these quasi-science fiction stories, I realized that a work doesn’t have to be wholly “hard” science fiction to be classified as such, and I began to redefine my idea of the genre. Just as I had come to terms with my new, broader label of science fiction applying to just about everything, I read author Margaret Atwood’s definition of her works. The books I’ve read by Atwood were less “science fiction proper” and more typical of those that would fall in the outskirts – in that grey area that had confused me in the past. Actually, Atwood doesn’t consider herself to be related at all to science fiction. In fact, she

“define[s] science fiction as fiction in which things happen that are not possible today – that depend, for instance, on advanced space travel, time travel, the discovery of green monsters on other planets or galaxies, or which contain various technologies we have not yet developed.”

She went on to say that she defines her own works, such as A Handmaid’s Tale and the Oryx and Crake trilogy, as speculative fiction, which employ “elements that already exist in some form, like genetic engineering,” as opposed to more “wildly hypothetical science fiction ideas.”

With this definition in mind, I began to consider the extent to which the some of the technological elements of Oryx and Crake are extensions of technology we have today, and how far her speculative world is from our own.

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Artist’s depiction of RejoovenEssence Compound

Remember when Crake’s dad was accused of “destroy[ing an] elegant concept” when he questioned the HelthWyzer method of sustaining jobs by introducing disease through hostile bioforms implanted into the vitamin pills, and then he was executed on behalf of “the general good”? Well, it looks like modern scientists might be facing similar resistance from large, wealthy corporations.

David Williams, a cellular biologist at UCLA, has some concerns about genetic modification (GM) that he’d like to investigate. However, he says that it’s difficult to find funding for such research because the majority of funding for plant molecular biology comes from “the companies that sell GM seeds,” and these companies are more interested in research that expands the use of genetic modification in agriculture. Although the scientists who remain skeptical of GM are few in numbers, those who publish research that presents risks associated with the technology are “the focus of vicious attacks on their credibility.” I haven’t heard of any executions taking place to stop such research, but this slander and lack of funding seems to be successfully impeding extensive studies from a more neutral standpoint.

Another aspect of the Oryx and Crake world related to genetic modification is their complete reliance on synthesized food for nutrition. Due to the state of the environment, plus overpopulation, the citizens no longer consume “real” meats and “natural” vegetables. These have been almost entirely replaced with engineered foods, everything from SoyoBoyBurgers to HappiCuppa coffee.

Jimmy sees the development stage of a new variety, ChickieNobs, when visiting Crake at the Watson and Crick Institute. These protein sources are bred simply based on what’s profitable – beaks and eyes are replaced by a hole in the middle of a conglomeration of breasts. Very similarly, Mark Post of the University of Maastricht announced in 2013 that he had created the first “cultured burger.” No, this isn’t a piece of meat that enjoys attending symphonies and discussing the fate of the EU post-Brexit. Instead, Post’s creation started with stem cells, which his lab then differentiated into muscle fibers to create a burger patty. The lab is now working to also differentiate stem cells into fat cells that will enhance the taste. A video representation of the process can be seen here.

Although these still require a bovine cell source to initiate the process, it’s a more environmentally friendly means of production, and they are working on a completely animal-free production now. This technology is also something that the book, published in 2004, seemed to predict. With that said, these elements of Atwood’s speculative fiction seem pretty spot-on.

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Did Atwood take notes from Churchill’s article in The Strand Magazine from 1931?

However, I want to call into question her distinction between the related elements of modern technology that she calls speculative fiction, and those technologies explored in science fiction. If science fiction is a genre that employs space travel, and speculative fiction is one that discusses extensions of current technology, then what does that say to the rocket scientists and researchers of today using real science to create real technologies to be used in outer space?

Christopher Nolan, director of Interstellar, said that he wanted the robots in his film to be a “realistic approach to what a robot [of today] would be.” He wanted to push the limits between realistic fiction and science fiction by not “calling them robots in the script” – he used the term “articulated machines” to encourage not just audience members, but also the cast and crew, to challenge their preconceived notions of robotics.

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Though I did, in my younger years, classify science fiction as an unrealistic genre full of time travel and alien warfare, I believe that distinction is a slap in the face to the science fiction community, both its writers and its fans. To me, it all comes down to Doris Lessing’s statement “Science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time.”

-Mollie Maples

Sources:

Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982 – 2004, Margaret Atwood, 2004

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/18/doris-lessing-five-best-novels

http://www.thenational.ae/arts-lifestyle/film/interstellar-director-christopher-nolan-says-he-had-a-very-particular-vision-for-the-robots

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-genetically-modified-food/

http://gizmodo.com/the-future-will-be-full-of-lab-grown-meat-1720874704

http://www.new-harvest.org/mark_post_cultured_beef

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§ 5 Responses to Some of the Best Science Social Fiction of our Time

  • Emmie Kline says:

    I’m not sure I wholeheartedly agree with Atwood’s notion of a complete distinction between speculative and science fiction. I view a lot of literature as science fiction even when the realities expressed in the book are completely plausible; however, I do think science fiction has transformed completely from what most people believe it is. If we consider Frankenstein the first work of science fiction, it is complet[ely implausible, especially when one considers available science and technology in 1818 when Shelley originally published it. However, as our society developed more advanced technologies, we developed increasingly complex and far-fetched fantasies regarding what we could accomplish with this technology in the future. I believe stories of aliens and everything else Atwood mentioned also resulted from this notion. As we have seen by reading older works of science fiction, such as the stories of Asimov, what once seemed impossible eventually become plausible and maybe even a reality. I think it’s important to consider the development and history of the genre before completely separating the two.
    This is not to say that science fiction cannot be deeply meaningful; in fact, I argue the opposite. At the beginning of the semester, I admittedly had deep misconceptions about science fiction as a very crude literary genre, but I’ve been proven wrong time and time again. The genre raises important questions about human nature in a manner that no other genre can; with that blanket exploration also comes important messages about power, progress, social mobility, economy, government, and much more. Science fiction has a lot to say; I don’t think we should shy away from that label.

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  • zachgospe says:

    I find classifying genres to be an arbitrary task, and one that is often unfruitful. Genres are great for getting a general idea for a book, categorizing novels on the shelf, or beginning to approach the intersection between several literary works, but in the end, a text is much more than its genre. Regardless of if Oryx and Crake is speculative fiction, social fiction, or science fiction, its meaning remains the same.

    The distinction that Atwood provides is one of historical context: a speculative fiction is written against the backdrop of plausibility, while science fiction is futuristic. Yet, while this may be a helpful distinction in this day and age, it is one that will change with time. Oryx and Crake may be speculative fiction today, but if it were written forty of fifty years ago, even Atwood would have likely admitted that it was a work of science fiction. Alternatively, the advance of technology, by her definition, could retroactively redefine a text’s genre. If time travel or space travel become possible and feasible in the future, Star Trek may suddenly become speculative fiction rather than science fiction; once advances in artificial intelligence allow for robotic companions, the stories in I, Robot would cease to be science fiction. Because of the mutability of genre, I argue that these distinctions are often more distracting than helpful when critically analyzing a text. Regardless of genre, Oryx and Crake should be approached as a complex entity, not limited by a broad categorization.

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  • elizabeth1315 says:

    You raise a really interesting discussion about the the definition of Science Fiction as a genre. We mentioned earlier this semester that science fiction provides a “distance” between our own world and the worlds present in these stories, allowing us to question our own world on a deeper, perhaps more sincere level. As you have pointed out, the distance does not have to be exclusively in the form of aliens and space travel and that distinction does not do the genre justice. It can be much closer to home, as the director of Interstellar presented.

    However we draw the line, the distance that exists between our world and the one in the story can be used to provide meaningful and even necessary social commentary. The genre challenges us to think critically not only about the customs and events of our own world, but also about how we perceive other worlds and the differences, or lack thereof, between our world and theirs.

    But the difficulty in defining science fiction remains. It seems odd to me that what we believe to be a genre is so hard to define, but perhaps that’s the beauty of it all. There are so many different directions to take Science Fiction, so many different ways to perceive it and to engage with it. That in itself is a powerful tool for social commentary.

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  • kbyron94 says:

    Your blog post really resonated with me because I too have never fully appreciated science fiction until reading such a variety of works this year. Although Atwood considers herself to be writing speculative fiction, I still feel that Oryx and Crake can be classified as science fiction because of its dealings with genetics, diseases, and technology. I would argue that science fiction is merely a subset of speculative fiction, and therefore the work doesn’t have to be classified as one or the other.

    In addition, I think your discussion of the technology presented in Oryx and Crake compared to technology and science occurring today is very interesting as well as unsettling. The more you described genetic modification controversies and the “cultured “burger,” the more I began to think that Atwood’s world is only a slight extrapolation from our current world. In some ways, the fact that the occurrences in Oryx and Crake are so similar to today’s technology makes Atwood’s novel more unnerving. Can the uncanny valley apply to speculative fiction? The more similar a fictitious world is to our own, the more eerie and unsettling a book will be. With your points about the scientific similarities between today and Atwood’s novel, Oryx and Crake has developed a greater significance to me.

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  • mihirakonda says:

    The distinction you bring to light between speculative fiction and science fiction is very interesting. Atwood appears to be trying to give her novels more legitimacy by calling it speculative fiction rather than science fiction. Somehow a fictional world that is loosely based on available technology is more capable of making critiques than a fictional world that imagines more wildly futuristic technology. But it seems like a very superficial difference based simply on an arbitrary designation of the relative possibility of a particular facet of the story is. Like you mentioned, the decision that space travel crosses the line of plausibility into science fiction seems arbitrary, especially when there are rocket scientists and physicists devoting their lives to it. In fact, science fiction writers have predicted dozens of technological developments that actually occurred, mostly through huge extrapolations on current technology. For instance, H.G. Wells wrote about a device very similiar to the atomic bomb, extrapolating on research on radioactivity. I think when attempting to understand why speculative fiction is treated as more legitimate than science fiction we have to consider questions about the line of plausibility that divides the two. Who is to say what is plausible and what is not? The readers? The authors? Science?

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