Science fiction, from the mirror of our societies to prospective reflection / Fourth part and conclusion


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 the debate?

This analysis explores the different ages of science fiction, from its beginnings to the present day, and attempts to shed light on the scientific and socio-economic context of each era, using a chronological approach. Here is the fourth part and the conclusion.

Part Four: Since 1980, Contemporary Science-Fiction / The Fear of the Ecological Apocalypse and an Ever Contrasting Relationship to Technology

1 - Climate change becomes the new apocalyptic narrative

armageddonAs we have seen, the theme of global cataclysm has largely inspired fiction from the Cold War onwards. The deaf anguish of a Third World War, in which the atomic bomb would eliminate all life from the surface of the Earth, will find echoes until the 1980s. The hypothesis of a "nuclear winter", a global cooling phenomenon caused by the dust raised by a large-scale atomic explosion, plunging the planet into darkness and cold, was then explored by scientists. (28).

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The fear of a nuclear impact has been replaced by the fear of a natural impact: meteorites, comets and asteroids have taken a prominent place in recent American science fiction films. Deep Impact (M. Leder, 1997), Armageddon (M. Bay, 1998), 2012 (Emmerich, 2009) are built on the same framework, that of the natural threat.

The confirmation of anthropogenic climate change, with dangerous consequences in the medium and long term, by the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1990, followed in 1992 by the creation of the UNFCCC, the UN body responsible for organising a global effort to combat the phenomenon, offers the authors of SF a new subject.

The scientific literature on this theme inspires the novel narrative. In fact, climatologists express deep concern about this phenomenon (J. Hansen wondered in 2003 about the possibility of "defusing the climate change time bomb").(29). Moreover, possible scenarios for the climate crisis have already been written, based on the projections made by the IPCC, which in its Fourth Assessment Report evaluates possible changes in global average temperature by 2100. (30).

jouraprsScience fiction brings the proposals of science to life. Feature films and novels illustrate all the potential impacts of climate change described by researchers: tropicalization of the West (Blue as an orangeN. Spinrad, 1999), glaciation following the cessation of the Gulf Stream (The day after, R. Emmerich, 2004), sea level rise from melting glaciers (Waterworld, K. Reynolds, 1995). An all-grey postapocalyptic world, where photosynthesis itself has ceased to function, is also described in The Road by C. McCarthy (2006).

Environmental fiction, or "ecofiction"... (31) apocalyptic, then knows a turning point. As in the stories of nuclear explosions during the Cold War, the disaster was man-made, but was now a collective responsibility, not the fault of a single individual (the figure of the "mad scientist"). In the 1960s, the New Wave movement evoked climatic disturbances, but these most often had their origin in natural phenomena, more or less clearly explained: J.G. Ballard imagined that the planet would be swallowed up by solar cycles... (Le Monde englouti, 1962), or the petrifaction of living beings (The Crystal Forest, 1966).

duneBeyond the denunciation of man's unconsciousness (according to "..."), it is not only the denunciation of his own unconsciousness that is important. the Gaïa hypothesis "by J. Lovelock (32)If the Earth and its inhabitants form a single living entity, which the latter would threaten by damaging the environment), some science-fiction authors go so far as to imagine a "post-terrestrial" future. The novels of F. Herbert (Dune1965) and R. Bradbury (Martian Chronicles1950) describe the settlement of man on other planets, after reconditioning to make them habitable and leading to the creation of a breathable atmosphere. Some authors anticipate the ethical debates surrounding the manipulation of nature, or even the abandonment of the Earth: The Mars Trilogy (1993-1999) by K.S. Robinson, which describes the development of Mars, also sets out the terms of the debate between the proponents of the conservation of the natural wealth of the planet of origin and those of the total recreation of the Earth's environment. It is interesting to note that fiction has inspired science in this area: the concept of geo-engineering (terraforming) was originally an invention of Author J. Williamson, in a 1942 short story(33). (33) It was taken up two decades later by C. Sagan, astronomer and father of exobiology, who proposed a method for transforming the atmosphere of Venus to bring it closer to that of the Earth. (34).

2 - The conquest of virtual worlds: in search of the frontier between man and machine

bladerunnerIn the early 1980s, in the midst of the explosion of information and communication technologies, the "cyberpunk" movement was born. Some SF authors imagine dark universes where telecommunications are omnipresent, where gifted but solitary and marginal hackers try to evolve in a disorganized society controlled by overpowering multinational firms. The border between real and virtual becomes blurred, and many works renew the old theme of man/machine relations by the yardstick of artificial intelligence. Many of these works question what makes up the very nature of man: What is being human? What would differentiate us from a robot thinking and being aware of its existence? Thus in the film Blade Runner (R. Scott, 1982), considered a cyberpunk reference, it is no longer possible to distinguish between humanoid and human robots.

mangaghostIn the manga Ghost in the Shell (M. Shirow, 1989), heroin is a "cyborg," a human being hybridized from artificial systems, who stalks a cybercriminal who turns out to be an artificial intelligence awakening to consciousness. In Terminator (J. Cameron, 1984), a planetary artificial intelligence that has become conscious decides to exterminate humanity in order to escape the control of its creators. In Matrix (A. and L. Wachowski, 1999), humans are trapped in a virtual world, enslaved and reduced to the state of fuel for machines, because artificial intelligence sees the human species as a scourge for the planet. (35).

3 - Hopes for a new industrial revolution: increased human vision and geoengineering

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In the early 2000s, the rise of nanotechnologies is reviving the old fantasy of the human being improved in terms of physical but also cognitive performance, connected and overloaded with multiple prostheses. This theme, which developed with the cyborgs of the 1980s, is taking off again. After the computer boom, biology and technologies of the living seem to progress radically (high-throughput genome screening, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, etc.).

gattacaThe film Welcome to Gattaca (1997) shows the struggle of a "non-augmented" character to progress in a universe where genetic improvement has become the rule. Based on the convergence of biotechnologies, ICTs, nanotechnologies and cognitive sciences, so-called "transhumanist" movements advocate the improvement of human performance and the advent of a radical "posthumanity", the next stage of evolution that will transform the very nature of humans.

In the United States, the Department of Defense has been one of the main players in research in the field of nanotechnology and NBIC convergence (nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer and cognitive sciences) for the past twenty years, maintaining the blur between what is really developed and what is fantasy fiction. The rapid and worldwide expansion of nanotechnologies over the last ten years or so and the many questions and fears associated with it are manifested in works such as The Prey (2002), by Mr. Crichton. In this novel, a swarm of self-replicating nanorobots, a form of artificial intelligence, escapes the control of U.S. military researchers, threatening to annihilate all life by absorbing the energy of living things to propagate.

At the same time, mankind is becoming more and more familiar with the properties and mechanisms of life, matter and the planet, giving rise to the hopes of geo-engineering. Science is enabling him to push back the limits of what is possible on Earth. The Mars Trilogy (1992-1996), by K.S. Robinson, is thus the story of a terraformation (36) If man cannot adapt to Mars, we will have to adapt Mars to man, create an atmosphere, transform glaciers into oceans, etc. New tales of anticipation are emerging, in which "post-penury" high-tech societies have overcome physical or even biological constraints (longer life expectancy), as in The Culture Cycle (1987-2010) of I. M. Banks.

4 - The pandemic, scenario of the defeat of the human species

ebolaSince the 1980s, marked by the discovery of the AIDS virus (37) and diseases transmissible from animals to humans (Ebola fever, bird flu, "mad cow", etc.), the health alerts and the fears they generate partly explain the recurrence of stories of pandemics in science fiction.

The great epidemics (plague, cholera, Spanish flu, etc.) have deeply marked the history of our country and are an ancient theme in literature : The Hussar on the roof by J. Giono, 1951, traces the origin of the spread of cholera. The terror of the epidemic may have been for a time mitigated by the progress of modern medicine, particularly in the field of vaccination. This subject is once again central in recent films and novels of anticipation, and is enriched by the idea that globalization and increased trade can lead to the worldwide dissemination of a pathogen in record time.

army12singesBecause they endanger it, viruses call into question the place of man in nature and in the evolution of species. They reveal our vulnerability: The White DeathF. Herbert's novel (1982), The Army of Twelve Apes...a T. Gilliam film released in 1995, The Scourge, novel by S. King reissued in 1990, or I am LegendThe two new models, taken from the book by R. Matheson (1954), the last remake of which dates back to 2007, simulate the virtual disappearance of humanity following a pandemic.

The virus is sometimes portrayed as a life form superior to the human species, especially if it is an alien (the television series X-Files unfolds a scenario in which human DNA was created by a life form from elsewhere; the film saga AlienThe first episode of this series, which first appeared in 1979, depicts the struggle of an astronaut crew against a parasite that has been overtaken by a parasite).

Contaminated, man can undergo a mutation: in recent narratives, the figure of the "zombie", or the "undead", previously attached to that of the vampire, a supernatural, solitary being endowed with a personality in its own right, degenerates and loses its personality to become the component of a multitude, of an army without conscience or individuality. Resident EvilThe film series, adapted from video games, in which the research of a major pharmaceutical group is at the origin of the spread of a devastating epidemic, thus accurately reflects the fears expressed through the characters of the "modern zombies", those of the alienation of mankind through the harmful use of science. 


manaugmenteScience fiction finds its origins and its "guiding thread" in the questioning of man's relationship to science and technology. This genre is thus a real way of questioning the implications of the consequences of scientific progress.


manaugmente2Science fiction works are also strongly influenced by the socio-economic context of the times in which they were produced, and in this sense reflect the anxieties and hopes of their contemporaries.

Beyond its function as a "thermometer of an era", SF can serve as a real instrument for reflection and questioning of the development models of our scientific, technological and societal societies. (40). Stories about "augmented men" learning to control and then modify their environment thus refer to the questions raised in the "real world" by the technological possibilities opened up by nanotechnology or geo-engineering.

cloningScience fiction has also prefigured a number of very topical debates, on cloning or genetic engineering, for example. "Neither prediction nor divagation"(41)science fiction is a considerable source of material for future-oriented thinking. (42). It could help to get out of the trend scenarios and to imagine changes in our societies that could lead to a rupture... to better avoid them or, on the contrary, to better achieve them. »

According to Albert Einstein: "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, while imagination encompasses the whole world, stimulates progress, brings about evolution. »

Previous Chapter (Part Three)

(27 ) See Chelebourg, C. (2012), Les écofictions - Mythologies de la fin du monde, Les impressions nouvelles.
(28) The phenomenon is currently the subject of research. Among the early publications devoted to it, see Turco R.P., Toon O.B., Ackerman T.P., Pollack J.B. and Sagan C. (1983), "Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions", Science 222 (4630): 1283-92. DOI:10.1126/science.222.4630.1283. PMID 17773320.
(29) Hansen J. (2003), "Can we defuse the global warming time bomb? "NaturalScience.
(30 ) See Fodor F. and Brunetière V. (2011), Climate of anxiety. L'imaginaire du changement climatique.
(31 ) See Chelebourg C. (2012), op.cit.
(32) See Lovelock J. (2000), Gaïa: A New Look at Life on Earth.
(33) "Collision Orbit" (1942), published in Astounding Science Fiction.
(34) "The Planet Venus" (1961), in Science, 133 (3456): 849-58.
(35) Quote from Agent Smith in Matrix: "I realized that you are not really mammals. All mammals on this planet maintain a natural balance with their environment, but humans do not. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know which one it is? The virus. Humans are a disease, the cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we're the cure. »
(36 ) Term coined by the American writer Jack Williamson (see below).
(37) Highlighted at the Pasteur Institute in 1983, by the team of Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi.
(38) However, mention should be made of The Cycle of Culture of I. Banks' Cycle of Culture (1987-2010), which has aspects of political utopia: it depicts an interplanetary civilization whose management has been delegated to an artificial intelligence.
(39) See research note Girard B. and Gendron C. (2010), "Quand l'imaginaire produit du social," Les cahiers de la CRSDD, No. 03-2010, 60 p.
(40 ) See Rumpala Y. (2009), Between anticipation and problematization: science fiction as avant-garde.
(41 ) See Rumpala Y. (2010), "What science fiction could bring to political thought", Raisons politiques, 2010/4, No. 40.
(42) In 2000, the European Space Agency had also initiated "a study of the technologies described in the works of SF, in order to draw from them ideas that could possibly be developed [...] and applied to the space sector", see ESA (2002) Les Nouvelles Technologies dans la science-fiction appliquées au domaine spatial (New Technologies in Science Fiction Applied to Space),

Dossier produced by the Centre d'analyse stratégique - Dec 2012 / Blandine Barreau, Géraldine Ducos and Aude Teillant, Sustainable Development Department. With the assistance of Jean-Luc Pujol, scientific advisor at the Centre d'analyse stratégique. The authors would like to thank all the experts who contributed to this work.


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