The Social Value of Science Fiction: Asimov, Ellison and Social Justice
(By Joseph Orosco, January 30, 2020)
This year marks the Isaac Asimov’s 100th birthday. He is perhaps one of the most well known science fiction writers, a pioneer of the Golden Era of the genre. He is best known for emphasizing “hard science fiction”–the kind that takes seriously describing the scientific elements of a story and theorizing the implications of new technological developments (he was educated as a natural scientist, after all).
In a recent commemorative essay, David Leslie recommends that we turn back to Asimov for the kind of perspective his work allows us to adapt. Leslie says Asimov gave us a way to get a wider view of humanity’s place in the universe and the responsibility of being an inhabitant on Earth and that such a vision might be what we need today:
“A century after Asimov’s birth, forests burn from Australia to California. Shorelines are swallowed by rising seas, towns ravaged by unearthly storms. Humanity’s insatiable appetites continue to crush the diversity of life, and conflicts draw us ever closer to a fiery end. At such a juncture, we might do well to pick up Asimov’s writings and take flight with him. Perhaps then we can together peer back at our pale blue island, suspended in the void, and gain a saner, more humane and more rational point of view.”
This made me look to see what other science fiction writers had to say about the social value of speculative fiction. I found this short clip, which I think comes from interviews conducted by James Gunn at the University of Kansas. It’s grainy and only features men, but some of the interviews express the kind of hope that I think the Anarres Project embodies about the radical imagination and social transformation. The highlights for me are:
- Harlan Ellison (the writer of perhaps the very best Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”) at 1:40 talking about the need to think imaginatively because of the realization of ecological connection on earth. Science fiction can prime us to be aware of our individual impact on the well-being of the planet
- I believe its James Gunn at 3:08, talking about the value of science fiction not so much in predicting the future, but providing a way to envision different alternatives about what the future could be. Science fiction can help us to change our world by giving us visions of what we might be able to work for and bring about.
- At 3:23, Harlan Ellison again talks about how we might think of speculative fiction as a tool that sparks our imagination and makes social change happen in the manner of other forms of literature that have instigated new ways of thinking of human rights and social justice.
How else can speculative fiction nourish our search for social justice?