What Is Science Fiction Good For?

06/04/2012 06:25 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2012

The New Yorker just released its first special issue devoted to science fiction, including contributions from genre giants like Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury as well as rising "literary fiction" stars like Junot Díaz and Karen Russell. As writers at Wired and io9 have noted, the issue marks a new level of mainstream interest in science fiction, giving a whole cadre of New-Yorker-obsessed "serious readers" license to take genre fiction, well, seriously. But what about science fiction in universities? In her contribution to the new issue, Ursula K. Le Guin argues that in the past "quite a few science-fiction writers accepted exile from the Republic of Letters to the ghetto of genre, perhaps because ghettos, like all gated communities, give the illusion of safety."

In fact, science fiction has been sneaking into all sorts of new neighborhoods. The U.K.-based New Scientist has launched Arc, "a new magazine about the future," while the venerable MIT Technology Review released a special issue of science fiction featuring Cory Doctorow, Joe Haldeman, and others. Ridley Scott's television series Prophets of Science Fiction explores the power of fiction to both advance and complicate our ideas about the future, and Stephen Hawking is hosting the Science Channel's Stephen Hawking's Sci-Fi Masters.

What's remarkable about these items is not that science fiction is suddenly entering the mainstream (presumably every human on the planet has now received at least one transmission from the Star Trek universe). The surprising shift is that public figures who traditionally kept a safe distance between their work and the flying saucers -- scientists, highbrow writers, and serious journalists -- are now embracing science fiction not as a form of escapism but as a tool for learning things about the real world.

As it turns out, science fiction is a great educational tool for getting people to think seriously about the future. It's easy to dream up press releases about the future with no people in them, no problems, no trash in the streets or religious discord -- politicians do it all the time! But when you actually write stories with characters, you are confronted with all the difficult questions. Imagining a world with actual people in it forces you to create not just the technologies of the future but societies with blind spots and ethical challenges. A narrative requires tensions and problems, which forces you to consider a spectrum of potential futures and the role of human agency in making the world better or worse.

Here at Arizona State University we are investing in the role of science fiction to create positive change in a number of ways. This past March we hosted a remarkable three-day event, Emerge, built on the idea of "design fiction" -- using science fiction, prototyping, and collaborative storytelling to answer the question, "What kind of future do we want?" Emerge brought together writers and thinkers from many fields, including luminaries Stewart Brand, Bruce Mau, Sherry Turkle, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling. Participants created visions of the future ranging from the corner convenience store to an interactive performance combining live digital music and dance. As a whole, Emerge prompted some startling encounters with the future through the mechanisms of science fiction, combining the spell of a good story with the tactile appeal of physical objects.

We aim to make Emerge an annual event, but that's just the beginning of how we plan to use science fiction to teach in new ways. I am co-editing a project called Hieroglyph, which will bring writers, scientists, and others into collaboration on ambitious, near-term projects. For example, Neal Stephenson is working with Keith Hjelmstad, an ASU structural engineer, on an idea for a 20-kilometer-tall tower. Their collaboration might become the starting point for a module on structural engineering, a semester project in an urban planning seminar, or a prompt for creative writing in a science communication class. These projects explore "what" and "how," but they also prompt students to ask "why."

"Why" is the engine that drives good science fiction, and good stories in general. The ability to project ourselves into future worlds is a powerful tool for asking why this world is the way it is and how we can make it better. It's time to break science fiction out of its ghetto and use it as a common language to connect the arts, humanities, and sciences.