One of the most notable things about the genre of science fiction is its ability to predict and inspire new technology in the real world. This could allow you to anticipate and plan for the future, and predict the course of society. Unfortunately, because of the stunning nature of futuristic tech, the other things that the genre has to offer can be overlooked. The Transformers franchise is more salient than the self-driving car (115 million hits and 44.4 million hits on Google, respectively).
Like all kinds of fiction, science fiction is a variation on the “what if…” game. Depending on the scope of a particular work, it can build a scene out of ifs, or an entire galaxy. Broadly, fiction allows its readers to examine ideas and scenarios that are equally applicable to reality, without actually requiring that they confront them there. By reading fiction, readers can preliminarily work out their views on anything—which makes operation in the real world much more easy and fruitful. In many ways, fiction is akin to learning mathematics before being tasked with a technical project. Best to learn the math first.
But science fiction is special, because largely unlike other forms of the genre, it is oriented towards the future and its particulars. It presents a possible technical project which requires the creation of a new branch of mathematics, and says figure it out. Most forms of fiction prepare readers for circumstances and scenarios that exist or have existed in the world. Science fiction prepares readers for those that don’t yet exist. As a result, works of science fiction can take on some degree of immediacy that is normally reserved for non-fiction accounts of the world.
Consider an example: what if self-driving cars existed and were widely deployed? This possibility is present in much science fiction. More than that, it is now a reality. Would non-autonomous cars be allowed on the roads? Would we still have traffic signals and signs? What would the insurance plans on those cars look like? Would we ever have to spend time looking for parking again, or would we just send the car to find some itself? How would these things change our economy and society? All of these questions are vitally important, and should be examined and thought out before answers are immediately required. This is especially true of the implied question: controlled by whom?
Self-driving cars are an easy way to show how science fiction anticipates science fact, because we are in the middle of the transition between the two. But what about those stories which are still only fiction, and not yet fact? These are more easily dismissed, but are no less important. Consider another example: what if there existed technology that could change an individual’s sexual orientation? How would it affect society, particularly those individuals who are not straight? How would governments around the world respond to such technology? Would and should parents be permitted to force it on their children? If individuals can work out the answers to these questions before this technology is invented, the world will be much better served. Even if the technology is never invented, attempting to find answers to those questions still yields useful results. For a fuller discussion on this issue, see here.
Science fiction is a wonderful mode of entertainment, but it is also an invaluable tool. In addition to the dazzling displays of technology and possible alternative societies, it provides its readers with the ability to preemptively solve problems before they arise—and to capitalize on opportunities so that they are not missed. When you next consume a work of science fiction, whether it be in the form of a movie, book, or otherwise, enjoy the show. But don’t forget to consider its implications, and find the seeds of the future in the present. Science fiction is more than lasers and explosions.