Why science fiction speaks the language of anxiety

Learning to be anxious the right way is learning the ultimate. –Søren Kierkegaard

When people think of science fiction, things like space travel, alien invasions, and futuristic technology usually come to mind. Science fiction is all that, but it is also much more. It can take place at any time, from the present to billions of years in evolutionary history, from the recent past to a time prior to memory resembling the future. Science fiction inhabits places that feel familiar or where people are strangers in a foreign land. All the while, science fiction navigates and maps all of the uncertain possibilities of being human and helps articulate our purpose in the universe. This is why he speaks the language of anguish, but also of hope.

Renaissances in science fiction in times of upheaval

Indeed, it is no coincidence that science fiction revivals occur during dynamic periods fraught with technological and societal upheaval. During the first industrial revolution, Mary Shelley imagined a patchwork man resurrected during a thunderstorm by a miracle of medical science, and Jules Verne took humanity 20,000 leagues under the sea and to the center of the earth, not to mention the whole world. in 80 days and from Earth to the Moon. As the post-war world recovered from the unimaginable, it also reaped the rewards of the second industrial revolution, with the ubiquitous use of electricity and the internal combustion engine. Arthur C. Clarke imagined the iPad; Ray Bradbury landed on Mars, one step ahead of landing on the moon; and Captain Kirk took Earth on a “Star Trek” where no one had gone before.

And now, in the 21st century, technologies that used to occupy entire rooms can be easily held in the palm of your hand, information can be shared at the speed of light through fiber optic cables, and artificial intelligence hidden, banal, in every corner. . Almost at the right time, science fiction became our primary form of entertainment: nostalgic journeys like “Star Wars,” “Dune,” and “Ready Player One”; or, for the younger ones, dystopias ripped from the pages of YA novels like Divergent and maze runner, The hunger Games and The Mortal Instruments. And, of course, you can’t escape multiple universes teeming with comic book heroes like Wonder Woman, Shang-Chi, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and dozens more. There is a superhero for everyone. And it’s a good thing. Science fiction is the creative outlet at the moment, when the range of possible futures seems incredibly impossible to predict.

Essentially, science fiction is the genre of change, of human potential, of how, through technology, people change the world and themselves, for better and for worse. It’s because science fiction is the fulfillment of anxieties and hopes that if you do a running count, it’s actually not so good at predicting the future. No evil AI is taking over the world, driving cars, becoming androids, or launching into an intoxicating cyber-matrix through our cranial ports…yet.

What great works of science fiction are really good at is helping people deal with the concerns, conflicts, and anxieties of the day through the comfortable distance of a parabola. In her 1973 short story “Those Who Stray From Omelas,” novelist Ursula K. Le Guin presents a psychomyth about a fictional utopia, Omelas. Its beauty and splendor were unmatched – so pleasing, in fact, that to convince the reader that it really exists, the narrator shares its one atrocity: an only child kept in perpetual misery, tortured in a room under the city, in grime and darkness, with no kindness offered. If ever the misery of this child were relieved, even in the smallest of ways, utopia would be destroyed. It is the payment for everyone’s happiness.

This terrible truth is revealed to citizens when they come of age. Most, initially horrified, soon acquiesce to the arrangement as it ensures everyone’s happiness. But some of them refuse the market and end up leaving the city. The story ends thus: “The place they are heading towards is a place even less imaginable for most of us than the city of happiness. I can’t describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going. , those who stray from Omelas.”


Science fiction constantly confronts difficult truths and injustices to chart a better path forward. Afrofuturism is a subgenre of science fiction that envisions a technologically and artistically rich future for black and African diaspora communities. From writers like Octavia E. Butler and Samuel R. Delany, to musicians like Sun Ra and George Clinton and P-Funk, to on-screen images like the warrior women of Wakanda from Marvel Studios’ hit film “Black Panther.” in 2018, Afrofuturism reclaims the legacy of ancestral histories, identities, symbols, and philosophies that have been systematically destroyed by the institution of slavery. It pushes back against the fact that the vast majority of science fiction is almost completely devoid of black characters. Created and inhabited primarily by white people, science fiction has historically left little room for others. The future appears to be white, so in the most basic sense Afrofuturism envisions a future for black people in which they simply exist and can thrive.

Kinship, by Octavia E. Butler, is a cornerstone of Afrofuturism. In it, Dana, a young black woman, and her white husband, Kevin, are inexplicably transported from 1970s California to the prewar South. Traveling back in time between these worlds, Dana encounters her own ancestors, including Rufus, a white slaver. To ensure her own existence, she must keep him alive until her great-grandmother is conceived. Along the way, Dana struggles to find a glimmer of moral redemption for Rufus, but there’s little to be gained. In the end, she is forced to kill Rufus in self-defense. As she returns to the seemingly safe present, she finds that her arm is severed and crushed where Rufus grabbed her, pointing out that she cannot chart her future without considering the past.

The promise of science fiction is that it helps us make sense of our anxieties and, in doing so, gives us inspiration and consolation, as well as a vision for the future. It reminds us of the things we care about. He lights a fire under us. You don’t have to love science fiction to remember the key questions it raises: How do you find purpose? How do you direct your life towards the things you care about and towards the future you want? Once you ask these questions, you will begin to find answers. And when you do, like those walking away from Omelas, you may not know where you’re going or exactly what you’ll be doing when you get there, but being anxious in the right way means you’ve decided that it is worth making the trip.

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About Donald P. Hooten

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