Let's get one thing straight off the bat: I am a NERD. A Doctor Who-quoting, bookworming nerd. You could burn a copy of Isaac Asimov and I would probably snort the ashes. I love me some eerie fantasy.
But lately, I've begun to realize the difference between speculative fiction and the science fiction we all know and love. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the term, the definitions are actually quite similar: they both incorporate elements the author has imagined, and usually depict life in another time, place or even dimension. The difference between them has really developed just as fiction culture has.
For example: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is speculative fiction, and so is 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. These are books that imagine life as it is not currently, but these storylines ring warning bells.
Through them, we begin to see what the world would look like without books, or with significantly increased surveillance by the government, or with decreased human rights. By focusing on the story's particular aspects, we, the readers, can take the novel and let it influence us, and our world, for the better.
Science fiction, on the other hand, is speculative fiction's prettier younger sister. This is the genre of Star Wars, Star Trek and even works from Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft.
While we love reading and watching science fiction, and it is true that elements from these works have contributed to fields like medicine and astronomy, they're mostly just fluff. They're fun, and action-y, and they don't leave us feeling heavy or conflicted at the end.
Which is all well and good. But as with literally every other aspect of human life, we have to accept that our time may be better spent on speculative fiction.
This is why many high schools require students to read books like 1984 or examine work by Ray Bradbury. These books open our eyes to what our world could be if we neglect it.
I took a seminar this past semester that included several works of speculative fiction (including Handmaid), and I was able to put the book down feeling empowered to change my world in ways that it needs to be changed in order to avoid the atrocities I had read on every page.
For those who don't know about Margaret Atwood's dystopian masterpiece, the plot explores a world where women have been reduced to their most basic functions, through the eyes of a woman selected for breeding stock. The book horrified me and made me sad and angry--especially because it doesn't seem outside the realm of the possible.
This, in turn, motivated me to get more involved with women's rights and activism in order to improve my little corner of the world.
I can't honestly say that I felt the same way after watching Star Trek. The primary benefit of science fiction is that it inspires others to make better and better art, which is vital. However, right now, our world is hurting badly, and it may be that we need to put our cravings for laser blasters and spaceships aside in favor of fiction that can help us build our world the way it should be built.
Given the social and political climate we live in, and how fast our world changes on the daily, we are sorely in need of great ideas. I hate to say it, but great ideas sometimes need to come from the kind of dread that inspired authors to write those very works, especially those in the speculative fiction genre.
If we learn to protect the rights of minorities, keep the government in check the way it should be and speak up when something is wrong from the pages of a scary book, so be it. But one way or the other, we need to learn.