Why History-Buffs Love Sci-Fi & Why We Can Learn from the Genre
When we think of science fiction, we usually envision the stereotypical flying cars, robots, time travel machines, and aliens – infantile stories that bear no more profound message within them. Unfortunately, such a shallow perspective is hitherto persisting. However, at its core, the genre is not about these technologies and extraterrestrial threats but how humanity interacts with them. The social and technological backgrounds of novels like Shelley's Frankenstein and Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 do not exist today and have not existed in the past; nevertheless, they are, in various ways, based on elements of reality. Sci-fi stories are allegories at their finest, just as Plato's cave is, not merely descriptive narratives of the future dwellings of humankind. They allow us to improve our understanding of the present and the past by projecting them onto the future.
Many great pieces of science-fiction draw inspiration from historical events. For instance, Isaac Asimov's acclaimed Foundation took many elements from Edward Gibbon's historical The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. The author claims that the history of the empire led him to reflect on the life and death of civilizations generally, culminating in his creation of intergalactic civilizations. In his fictional saga, Asimov ultimately discusses the many factors behind the fall of empires, such as separatist movements in the empire's periphery and even "barbarians." However, his comments are not just imperial, as he also delves into history's guiding forces through his amalgamated "psychohistory." Furthermore, he offers many remarks on the use of politics, economics, and religion in conflict resolution, my favorite being the maxim: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." In a similar fashion, Frank Herbert's Dune makes more localized comments about history. As acknowledged many times by the author, Dune is an allegory for the US intervention in the Middle East: the spice represents oil, the Freemen, the Arabs and Persians, and the Harkonnen and Atreides, foreign powers disputing their resources. But Herbert also discusses messianic movements and even environmentalism in his books. Personally, I am particularly fascinated by his depiction of the balance of power behind opposing groups depicted by Paul Atreides' political upbringing, when he learned that "a popular man arouses the jealousy of the powerful" and that "he who can destroy a thing has real control of it.” In sum, sci-fi authors often make generalized or targeted comments on history through their fictional characters and stories, which are usually easier to comprehend than historiographic works.
Sci-Fi works and their inspirations.
Humans lean towards fiction. We base several aspects of our lives on shared belief systems that have no grounds in reality. For instance, monetary systems rely on the widespread belief that currencies have intrinsic value; nations base their territorial divisions on disseminated myths of creation and identity. As Oxford historian Yuval Noah Harari would note: "All mass identities rely on fictional narratives," which he posits to be instruments of social cohesion and collaboration. Shared beliefs and untrue stories allow us to operate in society, so there is no reason why we should not let them permeate our study of history.
The stories told by sci-fi often transcend the events that inspired their making; their lessons are universal rather than specific. For example, take George Orwell’s most influential novel, the dystopian 1984, which tells the story of a party worker in an oppressive all-knowing regime. Although it is undoubtedly inspired in Stalinist Russia (as suggested by the uncanny physical resemblance between “Big Brother” and Stalin –handsome, with dark eyes, a mustache, and in his mid-forties), it would be outrageous to claim that it is merely a critique against totalitarian communism because it can be (and is) more than that: it is a frightening warning against supreme governments, en masse manipulation, charismatic leaders, and blind hate. In other words, Orwell’s work is parallel to any totalitarian regime at any given time period – communist, fascist, or of any kind; it is timeless in all senses, not as in praise. Animal Farm draws from this exact same timelessness, establishing a critique of revolutions that deviate from their original purposes, such as the October Revolution (1917), the French Revolution (1789), and many others. Both novels elucidate a major characteristic of history: it is somewhat ‘cyclical’: the revolutions of today are the dictatorships of tomorrow, which is why Orwell’s books (inspired by past events) remain relevant. As he would put it, history has always been about three groups with well-defined intentions:
"The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. The aim of the Low, when they have an aim – for it is an abiding characteristic of the Low that they are too much crushed by drudgery to be more than intermittently conscious of anything outside their daily lives – is to abolish all distinctions and create a society in which all men shall be equal."
Mark Twain once posited that “History never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme;” science fiction can show us the anatomy of the rhyme schemes.
The messages of fiction are broader than we think.
People are at the core of said repetition of history; humans are the one constant through the rise and fall of civilizations, and some science fiction works are axioms for human behavior, be it in intergalactic empires hungry for spice or omniscient regimes. Thus, we should not underestimate science fiction as a source for history lessons. In many cases, fictional stories are more accessible to younger audiences, and they allow for a level of understanding of historical phenomena that would likely not be achieved via textbooks. The essence of science fiction has become “crucial to our salvation, if we are to be saved at all,” as Asimov would say. An in a time where STEM subjects have become hegemonic at the expense of social sciences, his words could not be more relevant.