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Science Fiction looks at the future. Scary? ED #138
October 15, 2019

Science Fiction looks at the future. Scary?

When I tried to think of a scary topic for Halloween, the most terrifying ideas I found came from some intelligent writers imagining the future we could be heading into. I started thinking of the novel 1984 again. (It comes up uncomfortably often!) The BBC and NPR also had fascinating articles about how science fiction serves us. It can be a warning and a way to consider the implications of current trends. It helps us better imagine what life might feel like for people living long after us.

This summer, months after I sent out issue #113 on Orwell’s novel 1984, I read another compelling article about it in the Atlantic. As the author says “It’s almost impossible to talk about propaganda, surveillance, authoritarian politics, or perversions of truth without dropping a reference to 1984.” The author had read it in school and felt he knew it. But when he reread it, he found SO much more.

If you have any interest in current affairs, this discussion of how Orwell’s thinking still applies today is well worth reading. As the article points out, the urge to distort the truth is not just from one party or one kind of politics. “The will to power still passes through hatred on the right and virtue on the left.” I was left pondering his conclusion that “The central drama of politics is the one inside your skull.”

The Value of Science Fiction

The BBC has a fascinating article about the value of fiction, and especially science fiction (or sci-fi). It talks about John Brunner’s sci-fi novel, Stand on Zanzibar, written in 1986 but set in 2010.

The plot revolves around governments controlling population growth by choosing who is allowed to have children. He pictures a violent, partisan world. Brunner was interested in the future and had done extensive research on some trends he saw developing. As a result, his novel is amazingly accurate in many of its predictions, small and large. Much of the article’s interest is in tracing how his research enabled him to get so much correct—and in looking at the predictions he got wrong.

NPR interviewed teens in a book club about why they read dystopian science fiction. It turns out they enjoy it partly because it feels strangely familiar. They can identify with the feelings and situations of the characters they read about. They think about some of the same issues they may also need to face later. The article concludes “these books offer a safety net… where kids can ‘flirt with those kinds of questions without really doing anything that might get them into trouble,” – and that’s a good reason for their parents and schools to buy them.

I can’t resist a quick reference to one last link. The BBC has another article specifically on science fiction that looks at climate change. As it points out, such fiction is extremely important in helping us emotionally process a future that can be hard to imagine—but that our choices will affect. The article points out the need to look at “multiple versions of the future we get from different groups,” not just the white men that have dominated classic sci-fi. We should be listening to the different perspectives of all the groups who will be affected by the changing climate. BBC provides a guide to the varied group of authors from many regions who are trying to help us picture the changes ahead and consider our options.

Sci-Fi + Vocabulary Practice

Today’s Vocabulary practice discusses some words used frequently in these articles and several important suffixes: -ian, -ism, & -ist.

To assume is to think that something is true without examining it or checking for proof. An assumption is an idea that you accept as true without questioning.

A catastrophe is a terrible event—a disaster.

A clone is an exact copy of a person or animal. (Until recently, this was pure science fiction. Now scientists have cloned a sheep. People are starting to think about the ethical implications of cloning.)

The word ‘dystopia’ comes from utopia- an imaginary good society. Dys- is a Greek prefix for bad (as in dysfunctional—not working well.) The adjectives to describe these kinds of societies are dystopian or utopian.

Fiction is writing about imagined events rather than actual facts. Science fiction (sci fi) is stories about possible or imaginary futures.

A genre is a particular type of writing, often with a group of fans who prefer it to general literature. Science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, and romances are examples of fiction genres.

An instance is an example, on occasion when this kind of event happened

A novel is a book of fiction writing (as compared to a novella—shorter, or a short story—much shorter.

Optimism is looking forward with hope or confidence (Its opposite is pessimism—an attitude that things will probably go badly or get worse.)

The plot is the story line of a novel or short story: what happens. Terror is extreme fear; something terrifying is much worse than just ’scary.’

Look at these related words: capitalist/capitalism, environmentalist/environmentalism, novel/novelist, optimist/optimism, pessimist/pessimism, socialist/socialism. Did you notice some of these pairs of words in the articles? The words ending in -ist are people who believe in the “-isms.” (Except for a novelist, who is a person who writes novels.)

We also saw authoritarian/authoritarianism, dystopia/dystopian & utopia/utopian. Here -ian (or sometimes -an) is a suffix that’s most commonly an adjective describing something based on a system or idea, or from a place (like Indonesian, Mexican, or Parisian cooking.) Sometimes -ian can also be used for a person who believes or practices something or is from a place. (Think of a musician, a physician, a Mexican, an American, or a Canadian.)

Warmly, Catherine Simonton,

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