It is widely agreed upon that Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein is the first literary work of science fiction. In light of her recent birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of science fiction literature as it relates to society today. My first exposure to sci-fi came to me via the Star Wars movies and the original X-Men cartoons thanks to the perks of having an older brother. But over time, I discovered that I could get similar stories right off of my bookshelf.
Fast forward to college where I pursued a writing and editing degree. My electives required literature-intensive credit hours as my main courses were merely writing, editing, and theory-based. The classes I chose varied from studying everything from short stories to essays, as well as some philosophy-based electives. Surprisingly, I learned a lot about who I am as a person by reading these stories. I’m constantly re-reading these and learning something new about myself and the world around me.
A Sound of Thunder, Ray Bradbury, 1952
I used to read this story to my students when I taught high school English. I always followed it up with an episode of The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror from season two in which Homer fixes a toaster to accidentally let him go back in time to the age of dinosaurs. In Bradbury’s story, time travel is a possibility and people use it to travel back in time to hunt dinosaurs. Eckels is a hunter who is accompanied by Travis and some others back in time to kill a Tyrannosaurus Rex. When the T Rex appears, Eckels panics and runs off the designated path; something he was explicitly told not to do. In his haste, he steps on a butterfly. Travis is ready to leave him behind, but the others convince him to bring Eckels back. When they return to present day, the entire world has shifted—everything from how people spell to who becomes president.
My favorite part of this story is how it cautions people to think about the effects their actions can have. It’s very easy to act in the moment, especially when our emotions get the best of us. Whether it’s fear or sadness or even rage, we often make mistakes that have irreversible consequences. My students always had a million questions after this story, like if it was actually possible for something like this to happen. I know they didn’t mean time travel, they meant if one tiny detail could cause a chain reaction like the one they read. It’s a great way to remind ourselves that hindsight is always 20/20, and being present in the moment is always important. Sometimes we say or do things that harm others and those things can’t always be undone. They can even leave lasting damage.
Skin Deep, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, 1987
I found this one buried in an anthology of science fiction short stories. Even thirty years later, the story speaks volumes in a time where the president of the United States of America is trying to rid the country of immigrants. Cullaene is a Riiame and his planet was colonized by humans. Some of his kind assimilated, but others didn’t and they were hunted by humans. As shape-shifters, they can blend in. Cullaene takes up work with farmer Jared, but when a corpse of skin appears one day, officials come to question Cullaene (who goes by Colin around humans) about it. Cullaene starts to notice Lucy, Jared’s daughter, is adapting as Riiame since she was born on their planet, and only he knows how to help her through the transition. Jared eventually realizes what’s happening and goes from wanting to eliminate all Riiame to realizing he loves his daughter no matter what and will get her whatever help she needs.
This tale has many obvious parallels to it. As the father starts to understand his daughter will continue to shape-shift throughout her life, his prejudice for the Riiame goes away. He begins to see them as beings, too. It’s amazing how quickly we will shift our perception of others when we think about something in a more personal way. Today, people have a bad habit of lumping others into one group, or making false accusations based on one or two poor examples. What I love about this story is that it urges us to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes before we make a judgement call. The violence Jared is ready to commit before he realizes his daughter needs his help is not a far cry from where we are today. People all over the country are villainizing people for their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and more. What a better world we would live in if we could just take a step back and get a little more perspective every day.
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, Ursula K. Le Guin, 1973
Le Guin is a master of science fiction in my opinion. She’s the first author who showed me how personal, human, and relatable stories that took place on other planets could be. This story has no plot, but it describes a utopian city where there is no suffering or pain. Everyone here is cultured, there is no war and there is no overbearing monarchy or dictatorship. However, the one atrocity the city commits is keeping a child in a state of constant darkness, misery, and filth. This child sits in a room, never seeing light or knowing who he or she is. Once old enough, citizens of Omelas learn of this child and are mostly accepting of it. For one child’s suffering, everyone else is given a chance to be happy. I first read this story in a philosophy class where my professor asked us after if we would stay in Omelas, leave Omelas, or try and save the child. The debate that followed was eye-opening.
I was on the side that would attempt to rescue the child and leave. Many people, however, chose to stay and ignore it. What I noticed about the people who ignored the child’s misery was that they were older. In fact, the people in the class who had children were even on that side. I was floored. Maybe I was young and naïve at the time, but reflecting on it, I still would attempt to save the child. We live in a world that turns a blind eye to many of the world’s atrocities, especially with the advent of social media. In a time of erratic weather that is wiping out cities all over the globe and civil wars that kill hundreds of people a day at times, we submit to our social media feeds. Footage of the most recent Syrian bombing, or the monsoon season that is currently wiping out Southeast Asia won’t get as much attention on our pages, so we opt for selfies and videos about food instead. We ignore the things that make us uncomfortable, always telling ourselves that someone will eventually step in, leading to a chain of inaction. I’m guilty of it too, but it’s nice to be reminded of the power we all have in affecting positive change in this wild world we live in. The lack of plot will make you believe Le Guin is writing about your life right now, in the present day.
Science fiction has been a source of imagination and possibilities since its beginnings. It’s true that reading makes us more empathetic, and if you want more than just a beach read, turning to science fiction is a great alternative. From short stories to novels and series, you won’t be disappointed in the message these creative stories try to send their reader. Even if it’s a theme of caution, there’s no doubt that a good sci-fi story will give you a good dose of perspective at the end of the day.