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