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Science fiction: the most honest lies ever told

Is science fiction losing its charm as more discoveries are made in the lab? The Daily Shift’s Aaron Mc Nicholas investigates…

The more we learn from the world of science, the more stubbornly curious we become. Undoubtedly our scientists won’t rest until there are no more mysteries to unravel, and every aspect of existence comes with an explanation.

I would never write in favour of a life of ignorance. But it might be worth pondering what would be missing if we manage to answer all the age-old questions. Science fiction as a genre would lose its identity, and would be no different from fantasy.

Michael Carroll, author of Judge Dredd and The Quantum Prophecy, explains the difference between the two by saying that sci-fi cannot be based in an alternate universe. The only exception is when it’s set in the future.

“If you’re telling a story with science, tell it with real science, or make it sound real,” he advises.

So now you know why Star Wars doesn’t fall into the sci-fi bracket. It’s magic.

“Science fiction is any fiction which makes a scientist think,” says Nicola Marples, a professor in the zoology department at Trinity College, Dublin. “If you’re going to play with ideas, you need a scientific basis.”

Surely the more scientists discover, the less room sci-fi flicks will have to blow things up on the big screen in the future. Climate change only started getting serious attention as the new millennium approached, but it was still easy to see that the 2004 release of The Day After Tomorrow wasn’t giving us a vision of the future.

According to Pat Brereton, author of Smart Cinema, a ludicrous doomsday scenario like what The Day After Tomorrow gave us isn’t necessarily harmful. Brereton is a professor in the School of Communications at Dublin City University.

“Science fiction helps promote and expose these ideas,” he says. “Even if it does it badly, it puts it in the public sphere and makes it part of the popular culture.”

It’s hard to shake the feeling that a disaster film like that could easily put global warming in the same bracket as a UFO invasion. Something to treat as light entertainment, but not something to take too seriously. The Day After Tomorrow grossed $544 million, so eight years on, it’s still the climate change film that the largest number of people have paid to see.

“Science fiction is a key genre for displaying the hopes and fears of society,” says Brereton. According to him, Avatar could have been so much better, but it still succeeded in bringing environmental issues into popular culture.

“It has worked in commercial terms, because so many people have seen it…So it has raised issues related to waste, post-9/11 issues, and militarism.”

Science fiction can only live off an unlikely possibility for so long before it becomes redundant and unprofitable. These days, no one loses sleep over the possibility of a Martian invasion, so we shouldn’t expect to see another alien flick that overtakes the success of Independence Day.

What are our hopes and fears right now? We earnestly entrust our mobile devices with more responsibility, and the doomsday technology backlash has been most commonly found on-screen with the rebellious robot scenario.

We’re not seeing humanoid robots walking the streets just yet, so those scripts have a lot of life left.

And while we’re reminded of I, Robot, remember how that one ended? An injection of nanites put the ringleader robot out of commission. Nanotechnology saved the day there, and we have high hopes for it in all walks of life. It’s supposed to bring us health and wealth, and so many materials will become lighter yet stronger.

That won’t stop us being wary of the idea of nano-scale computers being so easily accessible. They could be watching our every move. A business publication in New Zealand recently reported the possibility of a spy drone with the shape and size of a mosquito.

Faced with that, it’s no surprise that George Orwell’s 1984 novel is set for a Hollywood remake. There will surely be more like it, using more modern source material.

So is science fiction’s appeal dependent on there being questions that scientists haven’t found the answers to?  I am reminded of the classic battle of good versus evil. Once the heroes find the answers, so will the villains. And villains will always have a place on the big screen.

*Lead image courtesy of Ahmadhakym Flickr
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About Aaron Mc Nicholas

Aaron Mc Nicholas is a journalism graduate from Dublin City University. He has written articles for websites such as The Daily Shift, One Way Japan, Sino NK and TheJournal.ie. Most recently he was a researcher for LMFM Radio in Co Louth.

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