Science Fiction: The Bellwether of Society

Like everyone who works at the library, I like to read. I’ve even been accused of reading cereal boxes if there’s nothing around (very true). I do read widely across the spectrum, but if I were forced to choose one genre above all to read it would be science fiction. Saying that conjures visions of ray guns, space ships and galactic empires. Eyes will often roll, but the same can be said of clichéd mysteries, some badly written novels and an endless parade of pulpy romance books. Everyone’s neural popcorn is different and even I skip from the erudite to the just plain fun. So why do I like it so much?

If we look at a well written novel, it is generally set in the time period it was written unless it is classified as historical. So Dickens is the 19th Century, Henry James the early 20th and John Irving, our current time frame. We can all relate to ourselves and our society very easily as we read. Topics are generally a mirror of society; customs and norms and relationships, both tragic and euphoric. While this is a bit of pigeonholing, it is the basic gist of fiction.

But what about writing the possible future? That’s the role of science fiction. A well-written book also deals with the human side and often shows that no matter where in the future it is set, human relationships are still important. Like any good work of fiction, if you can’t relate to the characters, why read it?

What makes science fiction different from mainstream fiction are the technological predictions of what the future will hold for humanity. Science fiction has been around for far longer than people would imagine with a lot of argument on which writings were the earliest. However, if we start with active speculation of what the future holds with a basis in science and technology, the 19th century would be the starting point with Mary Shelley, Jules Verne on into H.G.Wells. Each of these authors wrote in the first century of the Industrial Revolution and their writing reflects society’s unease with the effects of Industry.

In 1926 Amazing Stories was launched by Hugo Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing. It was the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. With that, science fiction became available to the mass market. Over the decades, more magazines followed; Galaxy, Weird Stories, Planet Stories and more. Looking at these stories shows the fears of society through the years – alien invasions, Armageddon, nuclear war, mutants – as well as their hopes and curiosity – rockets to the planets, galactic empires, better life through technology. Wikipedia’s timeline of science fiction is an excellent view of how science fiction reflects society. It lists publications of works alongside major technological events in history, and it’s pretty eye-opening.

Science fiction also has been adapted to films that shouldn’t be overlooked. From the films of the 1950s through 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Star Wars saga. Not to mention all of the TV series such as Star Trek that many of us grew up watching regularly.

So cozy up to your favorite library, find some good Sci-Fi reads and great films and blast your way into the future. Happy Voyaging!


“Course heading, Captain?”

“Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.”

-Brian, WFPL Circulation

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