Recently, I reread Russ Hodge’s The Future of Genetics. I used the book to inform my newest contemporary sci-fi trilogy, which deals with the ethics and concerns about genetically engineering the human species to be stronger. Hodge qualifies as an exceptional writer, able to discuss complex science and make it comprehendible to the more artsy-fartsy folks, like myself.
However, I will say I take issue with his slight emphasis on the problems sci-fi writers have caused. He implies that writers sensationalize much too often, stripping scientific researchers of their morals and giving in to hubris to take science beyond acceptable ethical standards. I can see where this would be a problem–always vilifying scientists/researchers and creating fear of scientific discovery.
But I do take issue.
Science fiction serves an important role in our social discourse. Just as a scientist designs an experiment to observe outcomes, a writer models social settings and advancements in science to create ethical dilemmas affecting outcomes for humanity. As writers, we do need to consider whether we are condemning the advancements in science more than celebrating them. This is an important point.
I would argue that books such as Jurassic Park help us think about the outcome of certain variables–in a sense, not learning from history, but from the possible futures we can affect. That is, we should not be afraid of scientific advancement, but realize when the pursuit of knowledge and enhancement will create vast voids between members of our species or negatively affect our fragile eco-system.
Science moves us forward. That is not to be argued against. Strides forward in genetics have led to the treatment of deadly diseases, among other advancements. (However, these treatments are still inequitable – available only to those who have access). But we must weigh the issue carefully. Things like nuclear bombs and biochemical warfare are also products of science. Technology, an amazing piece of our social fabric, comes with its own set of issues (i.e., in the Matched trilogy, people no longer handwrite things, and since computers are monitored, there is no freedom outside the government eyes. In our current society, handwriting is already on the chopping block of school curriculum!).
Science fiction and the dystopian futures it suggests have social value. Writers create the fantastical, spurring the mind to consider and weigh future decisions we must make about our pursuit of advancements and any ethical concerns that accompany those decisions. Yes, writers have social responsibility to represent science (and scientists) in a truthful light and to create rich stories that don’t draw an arbitrary line between black and white. But novels have the power to evoke great emotion, which is why they have the power to make us think and reach beyond the normal everyday.
And that human capacity, I believe, is the reason we pursue science in the first place.