MedHum Monday: Imagining the Future (I)

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Our MedHum Monday post today is the first part of a piece from Rebecca Cecala, a PhD candidate in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. She is currently writing her dissertation on the fight of New York City’s Bureau of Child Hygiene against infant mortality in the early twentieth-century, and teaches online courses for Eastern Mennonite University. Studying the mutual influences of science and religion on American culture is what she likes to do. You can finder her on Twitter: @MegBeckii and at her blog: http://sites.psu.edu/beckycecala/.

In an online course on the theological and ecological themes in science fiction, I ask students to read an article entitled “How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future.”1 The article asserts that science fiction is a genre that allows both writers and readers to contemplate “possible futures.” The potential benefits to both individuals and society in using science fiction to take a step back and contemplate possible futures where old assumptions are cast in a new light are many. Truly, given the myriad media in which science fiction stories manifest themselves (television, video games, novels, graphic novels, comics, web serials, film) authors and consumers of science fiction now can not only read about possible futures, they can virtually live and participate in possible futures.

As an example, the world of one my all-time favorite movies, The Matrix (1999), quickly expanded to two sequels and an animated film, The Animatrix (2003). Then came the comic books and the video game. At first blush this profusion of access points to the world of the Matrix can seem familiar: yet another way for a franchise to make money. Certainly that’s part of the goal, I’m sure. But a more recent example, the Syfy network show Defiance (2013 – 2015), and its co-release as a video game that allowed players to participate in plotlines that would lead to the next episode of the show, suggests that almost 360o immersion in a possible future world is also a goal. Immersion in a fictional world can be many things: an escape, an outlet for emotion, a place to try on a new identity. But in the case of science fiction, a possibility we sometimes forget is that immersion in another world can give us valuable perspective on fundamental aspects of our own.

Science fiction is a genre that provides just enough familiarity in an imagined world for its readers to be able to relate to it. Through the remaining aspects of that imagined world the author is then at liberty to explore common issues or themes in a totally new context or from an unexpected angle. The reader’s frame of reference shifts and a familiar topic might suddenly spark new insight when seen from a different perspective. Bloodchild by Octavia Butler is one of the stories we read that I think is an especially good example of this. Potentially controversial and contentious conversations about family planning, childbirth, and male and female roles are all explored, but on an alien planet by two alien races trying to coexist peacefully. The mothers are insect-like creatures and the fathers are terrestrial humanoids: the mothers implant eggs into the fathers, and harvest them through surgery when they’ve developed. The assumptions that we make about what male, female, mother, and father mean are cast in an entirely different light.

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1. Eileen Gunn, “How America’s Leading Science Fiction Authors Are Shaping Your Future,” Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-americas-leading-science-fiction-authors-are-shaping-your-future-180951169/#MQiOg5HZcsESMAtc.99

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