Can Speculative Fiction Save the World?

Is It Too Much to Ask?

floating cities, BBC

Speculative fiction is a literature of ideas and possibilities. It is also written primarily for entertainment. Worlds and situations built from what-if scenarios to make us forget our everyday problems.

And yet, with a pandemic, economic turmoil, war, ethnic conflict, and terror back in the evening news, a politically divided country, weird weather patterns, we need to ask, can speculative fiction save us?

Many authors support this idea.

Nonetheless, is it not a bit preposterous and unrealistic? Aren’t we placing too many expectations in speculative fiction? Because I don’t see fans or authors of other genres making similar claims.

Furthermore, not even authors of literary novels (you know, the kind that wins the Pulitzer, the Man Booker, or the Nobel), are claiming their words will save the world. Thus again, are we asking too much from speculative fiction?

For example, when was the last time you heard crime novel authors claim crime fiction will solve the crime situation in the United States? Or the last time romance authors said romance novels will make readers less likely to fight or get divorced.

Final Fantasy: The Dawn of the Future ©Square Enix

Of course, we are. Yet, those authors making those claims have strong arguments. I have my take. But first, does the world needs saving?

No, the world does not need saving. The world needs to come together to find solutions to common problems affecting all of us.

Indeed, climate change can be the unifying enemy to bring us all to cooperate and work as one human race rather than a plurality of nations and ethnicities.

So, if speculative fiction itself cannot save the world, where does this belief comes from? Where else? From our stories.

In speculative fiction, the hero or heroine saves the day every time from worse. How could we not look for saving within its pages?

Okay, so prose does not equal reality. Except when it does. Let me show you.

Never Underestimate the Power of Art

Utopian world, Pinterest

We already know speculative fiction can be inspiring. Likewise, it can be allegorical and effective at discussing today’s problems.

Literature and fiction are art. Art has the power to inspire people and make them reflect. Good art can persuade minds, create change, and provoke.

The power of the best literature rest in allowing the reader to empathize with characters different than them. To step in someone else’s shoes and experience life from their point of view. That’s why the best novels have characters to who the reader can relate.

Speculative fiction goes further than regular fiction. It takes place in unrealistic environments, diverse timelines, and secondary worlds. Speculative fiction is not the typical mirror held to society, reflecting our world with insight. Not really.

Instead, speculative fiction shows us the world not as it is but as it could be.

Speculative fiction authors think about society and culture but go beyond. They think about alternatives. They think about us. They think about the future. Moreover, they think about what is possible, what is not possible, and what could be possible.

future world, Pinterest

Can they impossible become possible? In spec-fic it can. And it shows the reader our world is not natural, but a social construct that could be different.

Speculative fiction is transgressive by virtue of changing the narrative.

For instance, LGBTQ rights? Speculative fiction writers wrote novels featuring aliens with third genders, where homosexuality was normalized and LGBTQ people were treated with respect long before it was socially acceptable.

Women’s rights? Speculative fiction gave us female protagonists with agency and in positions of power and equal rights long before the nation’s laws made it so.

Women in the army? Speculative fiction had female marines fighting aliens long before they were accepted in the armed forces.

And you thought sci-fi and fantasy were only good for predicting new technology? It can predict social change by showing us it can be possible.

Can Speculative Fiction Save the World?

Futuristic Mexican City, Chicano sci-fi, Al Día

To answer this question, we need to remember why do we read speculative fiction. We read for escapism, fun, and entertaining. The last thing readers want is to be reminded how much the world sucks.

In fairness, our current world problems, specifically climate change, our greatest challenge, will require more than just picking a book and reading it.

Thus, no, speculative fiction by itself cannot save the world. Let’s not delude ourselves.

So, what can speculative fiction do? It can still do several things.
  • It can show us we can survive the worst.
  • It can show us the world can be different, we can do better.
  • It can show us the repercussions and effects of continuing to do things the same way (post-apocalyptic fiction, anyone?)
  • It can show us alternative solutions.

Honestly, saving the world through fiction is not as easy as imagining what a better future would look like.

hands holding planet Earth, image: WallHere

And before you laugh, remember, speculative fiction put a man on the moon and showed us the destructive potential of nuclear power long before it happened in the last century.

Whatever policies and initiatives we undertake to save the planet, our civilization, and make the world a better place to live will need new narratives able to persuade the population that, yes we can, and here is how.

There is a reason in my review of Kim Stanley Robinson‘s The Ministry for the Future (2020) I said it was not the most entertaining read but still an important one.

New solutions will require new thinking. We should be cultivating more critical thinking. Today.

To conclude, can speculative fiction save the world? By itself, no it cannot. That is not its purpose. However, speculative fiction can change hearts and minds. It can be an agent of change.

Hence, we should change the world before we can save it.

Reader, do you think speculative fiction can save the world? Should it try to?

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March 2023