On the dilemma of science fiction

The last couple of months has seen a host of activity in the science fiction universe. Warping in were The Revenge of the Sith and the movie version of the incomparable The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Going where, perhaps, no man will ever be able to go, Star Trek became history.

An interesting analysis of the last of the Star Wars prequels by Jai Arjun Singh, got me thinking- why is it that themes in Science Fiction are often borrowed from classical literature. Isn’t Science Fiction synonymous with creative freedom? Shouldn’t it escape the bounds of the reality of general literature?

Asimov’s Foundation series, particularly The Foundation and The Foundation and the Empire borrowed heavily from History, particularly The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire that Asimov had just finished reading. While city states were replaced by planets, chariots by spacecrafts, Asimov did speculate on usage of nuclear power. Of course, his theories were limited largely by lack of knowlegdge of the dangers that we now associate with nuclear energy, but the themes remained more or less the same.

I avoided science fiction for a majority of my life. Except for the occasional episode of Star Trek, which I enjoyed in spite of William Shatner’s relentless drone, Science Fiction meant trekkies (read nerds) in strange attires and with fake pointy ears and stretched eyebrows, making strange gestures with their fingers, saying “Live long and prosper”, attempting to spread their disease. The first few episodes of Star Trek did not do particularly well: with phasor guns in hand, there was little scope for trading punches, something which the producers realised quickly and modified content to better suit audience requirements.

I guess that perhaps explains the dilemma of science fiction writers best – while at one hand they have the freedom to stretch reality and explore new dimensions, create new races and conflicts, and new planets with varying atmospheres and stellar influences – they still have to, to use a cliche – keep it real. Their patrons remain humans, and there’s always a danger that while some of the readers might enjoy exploring the nuances of the Klingon language, a majority of them would find too far fetched a creation (or too irritating in case of Jar Jar Binks), unpalpable.

The science fiction writer, thus, needs to find a common ground – a believable premiss, an identifiable behaviour and/or a comfort zone for the reader. What better place than something that’s already been done, like classical literature.

And then, of course, there’s Philip K. Dick.


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  1. I’ve always thought that science fiction is just ordinary stories set in “different” locations.

    Oh, and thanks for the link ūüôā

  2. Well, I feel there’s more to it than just locations. There’s often a philosophical inquiry into possibilities – take, for example, The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick which questions the morality of acting on pre-determined information, and the fallacy of working under cetric parabis. Or the three laws of robotics in Asimov’s I,Robot series. Foundation, which I’m currently reading, is set in conditions of the collapse of “civilisation” in the galaxy as we know it, and a return to feudal society of the middle ages on several planets.

    Why I’m enjoying Foundation is probably because there are, so far, no alien beings. Just several humans and an odd little mutant.

  3. OK, what I should have said was I’ve stopped classifying stories into categories like sci-fi. I was big into knowing the “type” of any story I read, and that brought me nothing but trouble.

    Now I just call everything fiction and be done with it. Otherwise you get science-fiction, “hard” science-fiction, “soft” science fiction, space operas, speculative fiction, fantasy-fiction, cyperpunk, et cetera.

    Oh, and you should look over at fixing the template a bit. I can only see the comments on the post page, no info on who posted them. I *love* the Kubrick design, but never got around to using it.

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