Thursday, September 18, 2008

Is Science Fiction the Cassandra of Our Times?

In Greek mythology, the god, Apollo, fell in love with the king’s daughter, Cassandra. He bestowed upon her the gift of foreseeing the future. When she rejected his love, he cursed her by making sure no one believed her predictions. She has always been a favorite character of mine because despite her misfortunes, she never gave up trying to let people know the horrors that would come.

I think her tale is very similar to the path science fiction (aka sci-fi) has taken over the years. It began with tales of space exploration and alien encounters. Early authors like Jules Vern wrote stories (“From the Earth to the Moon”) that predicted things like the Apollo space program and NASA using Florida as a base of operations. Did the story inspire future scientists that tried to duplicate what they read or did Jules Vern have enough foresight to see the progress of technology? I think it is a combination of both. Regardless, sci-fi writers have been credited with helping the cause of space travel and paving the way for people to accept that the stars may be our future. Authors, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, have been invited to shuttle launches and celebrated in the NASA community for this very reason. The love affair between readers and sci-fi had begun.

Authors used this time to not only voice their visions of the future but also express their opinions of the current times by replacing the word Russian with Martian or communist with pod person. Sci-fi leapt off the page and into homes on both the radio and the television and into neighborhoods on the silver screen. The stories were widely accepted and there was no stigma to enjoying them.

Much like Cassandra not being able to control whom she loved, sci-fi couldn’t help but be changed as culture shifted. The sixties were a seismic change in culture that the seventies rebelled against. Peace, love and drugs gave way to repression, Watergate, Vietnam and gas shortages. People didn’t need their political stories disguised anymore. Their opinions were right out in the open. They said it loud and they said it proud. Space exploration went from flights of fancy in the imagination to actually walking on the moon.

Apollo didn’t take her ability to see the future away. He just added a clause to it. Sci-fi didn’t stop predicting future changes or providing social commentary, it just got degraded down from common culture to a sub-culture. People who enjoy sci-fi are branded as geeks or nerds and described in unflattering stereotypes. It started with Star Trek and Star Wars. Fans of both these series became organized and let their love for the work transform some from fans to fanatics. These fanatics became the poster children for sci-fans.

Sci-fi fans are considered as credible as conspiracy theorists. The thing is that conspiracy theorists have been known to be correct from time to time. They were the ones talking about the Tuskegee Airmen before the government ever admitted it was true. I think that current sci-fi writers, sadly, might be right. It could be artificial intelligence rebelling against us like Blade Runner, Terminator, Matrix and the new Battlestar Gallactica have all shown us. In Firefly/Serenity, we have exhausted Earth and have to terraform new planets. Gattica has genetic prejudice dictating how people live. Children of Men has women just stop giving birth without explanation and Y: The Last Man has all males of all species drop dead at the same time. Zombies, in general, have stopped crawling out of the grave and instead come back to life by means of something similar to a virus. The plausibility of these futures seem more and more realistic than the old days of waiting for aliens to come and destroy us or use us for recipes in their cookbooks.

Hopefully, as Cassandra didn’t give up, sci-fi won’t either. Maybe it is all for the best. This way the geeks will inherit the Earth. After all, they will be the only ones ready for an alien invasion or prepared to fight the zombies. As the will say, those who don’t know their future are doomed to live it.

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