Honestly, I’m still having a little trouble focusing to write. This has not been an easy week and involved a trip to the ER for an anxiety attack that would not go away. However, I’ve been thinking about why science fiction is still appealing when life is rough or why it’s especially appealing when life feels like shit.
Sci-Fi Pulls Us Outside Ourselves
One reason I mostly use pictures of the universe as my wallpaper is that whenever I look at it, I find myself doing my own mini-sci-fi. I wonder whether or not there’s any life or consciousness that we’d recognize in any of them.
As a rule, science fiction pulls us outside of our own worlds and concerns. Whether it takes us to another galaxy, to another solar system, to another planet on our solar system, or even to an alternate/future version of our own Earth, it makes us think about a different kind of life and society. And it helps us realize that our way of doing things may not be the only way they could be done.
Not only is it a good mental and emotional stretch to consider what life might be like outside our bubbles or our Earth, it’s great escapism when the rest of life is getting hard. Would it be healthy to respond to life’s problems by spending most of our mental time in a dream world? (*cough* freakiest Buffy episode ever *cough*) No, of course not. But a short mental break can actually help spark our own creativity and improve our outlook on life.
If it’s uplifting, things can be better. If it’s dystopian, things could be worse.
Sci-Fi Often Revolves Around People Fighting Against Long Odds
Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Ender’s Game, much Doctor Who, most Star Trek films and many episodes—whether it’s the future of humanity/the universe itself, the attempt to overthrow an oppressive regime, or the goal of saving a single planet/team/person from destruction, sci-fi often revolves around people who have to fight long odds for high stakes. Sometimes they don’t win, sometimes their victory involves a loss of another kind.
But when they do win, we feel their relief with them. We feel like we were part of the struggle and part of the success. (Well, when we’re not bitching over yet another redo of the Return of the Jedi finale.)
Sci-Fi Promises a Better Future — or a Future at All
Not all sci-fi is in the future, of course, sometimes it’s in the past or an alternate world. But it often promises that humanity does have a future. We can hope that we’ll get through the rough times (DS9 warns us to brace ourselves for the Bell Riots in the early 2020s) and have a better future with a measure of peace, exploration, and survival if nothing else.
Sure, Earth might end up being a completely desolate wasteland after a nuclear holocaust (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), but humans are capable of living and loving and even of settling on other planets. But because humanity is tough and capable of fighting against long odds and hanging on, we’ll make it.
You can blow up twelve colonies and have only fifty-thousand human beings left who have to run from the robots who tried to kill them in the first place, and they will still keep going and survive.
Sci-Fi Helps Us Discover Our Better Selves
While movies have less time for character development, sci-fi books and tv shows often show a character developing into being a better version of themselves as they keep running into obstacles. One of the most recent examples I can think of is that of the characters on Doctor Who.
I was not expecting to like Donna Noble. I braced myself for her and was grateful that it was one short season. Yet only 13 episodes later, I was devastated that she was gone and that she’d lost so much of the perspective she developed. The Doctor, too, develops under the influence of the companions. And it’s a good thing he does, we learn in the episode “Turn Left” because without them, he would self-destruct and doom Earth in the process.
We don’t develop and change along with the character, but just as the people we hang out with can have an influence on who we are and become, so can the people we read about and watch.
Are these things unique to sci-fi?
No. They’re not unique to sci-fi. But they’re found in most science fiction books, movies, and tv episodes. Sci-fi isn’t perfect, either. It can be depressing; it can be heartless. Sometimes characters do things which are truly awful. In some cases this is something we’re supposed to find awful and sometimes the writers were in complete sympathy with the character and only the viewers/readers see the horror.
The same can probably be said for fantasy, though I don’t read or watch as much and feel qualified to comment on the genre.
Do you see this in other entire genres? I’ve read lots of romances and mysteries (after getting a lit degree, my brain demanded nothing serious) and I haven’t picked up the same things from those genres. Certainly, they have elements of each of the things sci-fi does for us, but I don’t think they tackle it on the same scale and scope. I don’t know if they could.