Science Fiction, from the mirror of our societies to prospective reflection/ Part 1


The progress of science today leaves our societies with the feeling of being at a crossroads: technological breakthroughs are announced (nanotechnologies, synthetic biology, etc.) at a time when our models of economic growth seem destined to come up against the physical and environmental limits of the planet. At a time when there is increasing debate about the most desirable development model, how can science fiction and the way it looks at our society enrich our thinking?

In exploring the way it has evolved since its birth in the 19th century, it appears that science fiction is a revelation of our relationship to technology and, beyond that, of our relationship to each other. This is evidenced by the many questions about what defines us as humans, in works such as Blade Runner (P.K. Dick, 1966), Ghost in the Shell (M. Shirow, 1989), or The Robot Cycle of Isaac Asimov.

soleilvertIn fact, SF works are inseparable from the socio-economic context in which they were produced. They reflect the questioning of their contemporaries, their fears and their hopes, projected into a future world or into an alternative present. Fear of the nuclear apocalypse (The Planet of the ApesSchaffner, 1968), awareness of the finiteness of resources (Green SunH. Harrison, 1966), ethical issues raised by biotechnology (Welcome to GattacaNiccol, 1997) or the anguish of a climatic disaster (The Day AfterEmmerich, 2004) thus find an echo over time in literature and anticipation cinema.

The range of scenarios that SF explores is a real tool for thinking about the possible futures of our societies. By pushing the questions as far as possible from their logical or realistic consequences, and by adopting daring hypotheses, it enriches prospective thinking.

jourdapresThese stories are not attempts to predict the future, but an opportunity to test different future development trajectories. SF reveals a number of challenges that our societies will have to take up, some of which are particularly acute today: fear of resource scarcity, anxiety about climate change, or the impact of biotechnological applications on humans (increased cognitive capacities, cloning, etc.) or their environment (GMOs, etc.). Between prospective projection and romantic dreaming, science fiction stories thus have their place in collective reflection on our choices for the future.

What's at stake

According to Jeremy Rifkin, we are on the cusp of a new industrial revolution... (1)This is the result of the post-carbon era and the convergence of information and communication technologies. At the same time, concerns about the future of our societies and of our planet are becoming more and more prevalent, and technology, whether the cause or the remedy for these concerns, plays an important role. At a time when we are wondering how to reconcile economic, social and environmental developments and what purpose should be served by the scientific knowledge we have today and will have tomorrow, this analysis aims to contribute to these reflections by placing them in a little-exploited field: that of science fiction.

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Although to our knowledge little research has been done in this area (2)there are two ideas worth exploring:

- The first idea is that SF reflects the complexity of our relationship to technology and to others, and the way in which technical and scientific progress is changing human relationships and the way our societies function.

- Second idea, the works of SF, inseparable from the socio-economic context of their time, reflect the questions, fears and hopes of their contemporaries. (3)projected into a future world or an alternate reality... (4).

This analysis proposes to illustrate these two axes by a chronological approach.

It explores the different ages of SF, from its beginnings to the present day, and attempts to shed light on the scientific and socio-economic context of each era.

Part 1: From the mid-19th century to the First World War / The triumph of progress, the first fears of a scarcity of resources and the excesses of the theory of evolution

sfprogrs19mesicle1 - The ideal of progress: the engineer's positivism in the face of his doubts

Although many older stories can be considered as precursors of science fiction, the genre really originated in the 19th century, during the first industrial revolution. 

Moreover, it is developing in the two historical cradles of the economic and social transformation that this revolution represents: the British Empire, an industrialized country and great colonial power, and France, host in 1889 of the tenth Universal Exhibition, whose economic activity was boosted by the development of the railway or the launch of the great works of Baron Haussmann, which made Paris a modern city. The time was a time of debate about technological progress and the validity of the Saint-Simonian vision, the founding doctrine of industrial society. The SF, closely linked to Western society, also reflects its taste for rationality, its ideal of progress leading to the improvement of the human condition, but also the functioning of mass consumption.

sfjulesverneIn French-language literature, the genre was thus born with the works of Jules Verne, whose publisher Hetzel targets a wide audience. His Voyages extraordinaires (7) s, at first glance, are very optimistic about the prospects that technology offers for exploring the unknown (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) and the journey (Five weeks in a balloon). His novel From the Earth to the Moon (1865) as well as The First Men in the Moon of the Englishman H.G. Wells (1901) have inspired Journey to the Moon by Georges Méliès (1902), one of the first science fiction films.

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In his novels, Jules Verne expresses the formidable faith that positivist thought places in progress: nature is a resource to be exploited by the hand and mind of the engineer. (8)and the characters have a real fascination for the technique. But his works are in fact marked by a complex relationship to technology, which generally brings happiness only to an enlightened or economically advantaged elite, who master it and use it to achieve their own goals without seeking to benefit society as a whole. The fabulous machines imagined by J. Verne end up being destroyed, and definitively unusable at the end of the adventure. (9).

sfcapgrantThus, from its origins, SF has been built around one of its central messages: technology must be considered by man as a means, not an end. Its use can lead to disaster, intended or unintended: a train accident in Captain Grant's Children (1868), a revenge scheme for Captain Nemo's Nautilus (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,1870). At the heart of the industrialization of Europe, SF already appears as a form of questioning the great narrative of progress. 

sfmachinevapour2 - An emerging fear of the depletion of natural resources

The demand for energy resources, particularly coal, which had already increased significantly with the increase in population in the United Kingdom, is increasing again with the rise in power of the steam engine, the real driving force behind the first industrial revolution. Coal and coke replaced wood and were extracted until the mines were exhausted.

The Black Indies (1877), by Jules Verne, suggest the concrete realization of a deaf concern, that of the depletion of energy resources. Before the discovery of a new deposit, the novel opens up to a world that has been at a standstill, a desert, since the former miners left to convert to agriculture. The message is particularly distressing, since it envisages the exhaustion of resources and the end of the industrialization that then begins: dependent on machines and industry, man is vulnerable and will be lost if he forgets that mining wealth could one day disappear.

sfdarwin3 - A Relationship to the Other Complex: the Misuse of Darwinism and Racial Prejudice

The end of the 19th century was marked by the growing primacy of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution (The origin of the species, 1859). However, it was transposed at the same time by the proponents of "social Darwinism", a political doctrine that considered that natural selection should be applied within human societies. The latter notably supported the reinforcement of ideologies such as racism, colonialism and eugenics. Francis Galton, a cousin and great admirer of Charles Darwin, was the main initiator of the eugenics movement in Great Britain at the end of the 19th century. Supported by renowned scientists and physicians (10)This thought gradually became a central element in British debates until the eve of the Second World War. The Society for Eugenics Education, founded in 1907 in Great Britain and directed by Leonard Darwin, son of Charles, was behind the passing of a law in 1913 for the internment of the mentally retarded. In the United States, California passed eugenicist laws in 1909 which resulted in the sterilization of 65,000 Americans against their will, the prohibition of certain marriages and the isolation of populations.

guerremondesIn a novel inspired by darwinism, The War of the Worlds (1898), H.G. Wells imagines an invasion of extra-terrestrials who, lacking vital resources on their planet, decide to invest the Earth. But, like other colonizers in their time, they decided to take over the Earth. (11)the invaders succumb to an earthly microbe to which their natural resistances are not accustomed. In reality, these Martians are the result of an evolution of the human species, beings with hyper-developed brains and without limbs, which have become useless.

The image of this evolved species threatening Western civilization and its values, and going to war against it, is relatively new and fits naturally into eugenicist thinking by showing the result of uncontrolled human evolution. Later, in many SF works, the extraterrestrial will thus be the metaphor of the other, which must be fought against (AlienR. Scott, 1979; Independence day, R. Emmerich, 1996), or, more rarely, tame (E.T.Spielberg, 1982).

meilleurmondesThe progress of genetic engineering later inspired other SF authors, foremost among them Aldous Huxley, brother of the biologist-geneticist Julian Huxley, also a theorist of eugenics. In his novel The Best of all Worlds (1931), it presents a society where natural procreation no longer exists and where humans are created in laboratories; fetuses evolve in vials and are conditioned to determine their future position in the social hierarchy.

Continued: Part Two / The Inter-War Years: A more powerful humanity thanks to technology, but increasingly dehumanized

(1) Rifkin J. (2012), The Third Industrial Revolution, 380 p.
(2) Note, however, the "Thinking post-ecological societies with science fiction" project of the Chair of Social and Environmental Responsibility at the Université de Québec à Montréal.
(3) See Gyger P., Haver G. (2002), Beautiful tomorrows? History, Society and Politics in Science Fiction.
(4) This is particularly the case with uchronies, which rewrite history by modifying a past event. (5) Wilson W. (1853), A Little Earnest Book Upon A Great Old Subject.
(6) Their name refers to the poor quality paper ("pulp" in English) on which they were printed. The term appears in an editorial by Hugo Gernsback in the first issue of the pulp magazine Science Wonder Stories (1929).
(7) Collection of 68 novels whose first opus is Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863).
(8) See in particular the transformation of the mysterious island undertaken by the shipwrecked men guided by the engineer Cyrus Smith, in Verne J. (1874), The Mysterious Island.
(9) See Angelier F. (2006), Dictionnaire Jules Verne.
(10) Ronald Fisher, one of the founders of modern genetics, held the Galton Chair in Eugenics at University College London, Charles Robert Richet, Nobel Prize for Medicine 1913, was President of the French Eugenics Society from 1920 to 1926. Galton and his disciple, Karl Pearson, were the initiators of biometrics and population genetics. The biologists Julian Huxley (Aldous Huxley's brother), John Haldane and Ronald Fisher - considered to be the founder of modern genetics -, for their part, militated for a less harsh eugenics, which was called "reformist".
(11) A parallel between the Martian invasion and the colonization of Oceania by Europe is explicitly drawn by the author in the first chapter of the novel. Like many authors of that time, H.G. Wells has questioned the implications of Darwinism and eugenics. See in particular the essay The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind, 1931.

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