Science fiction requires a suspension of belief on the part of the reader. However, that suspension of a particular belief, say that people cannot fly, must be compensated with a plausible alternative or explanation. That is, you could write a piece of viable science fiction about humans flying if you explained the phenomenon with a reasonable technology or biological adaptation. Again, science fiction operates in the realm of the possible.
The famous Star Trek series proposes some fantastic scientific phenomena. But notice that the events aboard the Enterprise (or the Voyager) play out in familiar ways. The social structure is comfortably hierarchical, much like our current naval system. Social interaction and further understanding of "human-ness" are the principle themes of most episodes. Even the alien races in Star Trek reflect decidedly human behavior and social systems. I mention Star Trek because it is an example of successful science fiction. However, much of its success relies not on suspension of belief but on a reinforcement of our cultural values and our desire to see humanity as essentially noble.
Not all successful science fiction reifies our social structures. Indeed, science fiction often critiques popular culture, politics, and human behavior. Some of the most surprising science fiction imagines alternatives. Heinlein, whom some identify as the father of science fiction, wrote scathing criticism of governmental politics and offered an alternative based on an ethos of love, personal autonomy, and personal accountability.
Science fiction's dystopias often operate as commentary on actual world situations. Heinlein once stated that speculative fiction writers take a current cultural or societal trend and follow it to its logical, if extreme, conclusion. Margaret Atwood's A Handmaid's Tale is a powerful dystopic novel that imagines a world where women have no autonomy over their own bodies. Octavia Butler's books, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talen ts, imagine a world where many current social ills have taken on dramatic proportions. Thirty years in the future, inner cities have fallen into complete violence and chaos. Rape, murder, and other acts are common outside the walls of Lauren Oya
Olamina's neighborhood. But within this dystopic context, there is hope for a different future, as imagined by Lauren Oya Olamina, from whose point of view the story is told. The Parable of the Sower is excerpted at the end of this chapter.
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