Aliens, time machines, and galaxies far, far away: welcome to the awesome (seriously, you'll be filled with awe) world of science fiction. This world stretches the bounds of our imagination… because most of what science fiction depicts is beyond the realm of our actual knowledge.
Putting the entire genre of science fiction into a nutshell is like trying to fit all your experiences on a single memory implant tucked behind your ear. It's like trying to cram the entire world into a massive, rotating ring. Or answering all of life, the universe and everything's questions with the number 42.
In other words, it can't be done. Or… can it? Science fiction walks the line between the possible and the impossible like the world's best tightrope walker.
It also dances through time and space like an astronaut ballerina in a DeLorean. Many of the classic science fiction works are set in times that are very distant from our own, mostly in the future. Or, they're set in places that we haven't even really explored yet (like outer space) or in fantastic imaginary worlds.
And while science fiction deals loads of characters that are aliens, or machines or part-machines, it also deals very much with the human—characters that are people just like us… or maybe almost like us, but trapped in creepy dystopias, or given eternal life, or outfitted with whatever crazy gizmo this genre can think up.
But we're not using the word "genre" as a pejorative (although some snobby people pooh-pooh genre in general)—sci-fi works are super-literary. They have everything that literary fiction novels have, plus robots. They have stunning language. They have well-rounded characters. They grapple with themes that we'll find in any great work of literature: love and honor and loss and violence. They have nuance.
And, they have history. While sci-fi as a genre boomed in the 20th century, its roots go further back to to the 18th and 19th centuries, when advances in science and technology got writers all excited. All of a sudden, a (brave) new world of possibility opened up to writers. They began writing about, and imagining, all the different ways in which science and technology could affect human society—both in our own time and also in the future.
Face it: we're utterly dependent on technology. (Not you, lumbersexuals—we know that you're fine out in the woods alone.) Who can survive without a smartphone in this day and age? And can we even remember what the world was like before the internet? And how did anyone find their way around before Googlemaps?
Science and technology, in other words, have completely transformed the way we live. And if we're interested in speculating about how they might further change the way we live in, say, one hundred, or even a thousand years from now, then we have to be interested in science fiction.
Given that science and technology are also at the center of our lives, we'd do well to try and understand what, exactly, those sci-fi writers are up to. We'll learn a lot not only about the present that we live in, but also about our future.
After all, there is a long and weird history of science fiction becoming science fact. Credit cards were first envisioned by writer Edward Bellamy in 1888, and didn't become reality until 1950. Tanks were thought up by H.G. Wells in 1903 and started getting used as early as 1916. Jules Verne thought up the electric submarine in 1870, and less than a hundred years later they actually existed. The list goes on: bionic limbs, real-time audio translation, space tourism, and glow in the dark ice cream.
So not only is reading science fiction fun, thrilling, terrifying and mesmerizing… it's also a good way to predict what the world will turn into. Throw away your Magic Eight Ball, grab a bowl of glow in the dark ice cream, tuck into a sci-fi novel, and learn about the dang future of humanity.