Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1002
Science and the Supernatural
Science Fiction often reflects the time in which it is written. So it is that in the early twentieth century, when society was still heavily focused on technological innovation through science and industry, stories were often exploratory in nature. These stories were usually dominated by natural sciences like physics and astronomy, which often manifested themselves plot devices like spaceships or evolution. These plot devices were often incorporated into tales about humanity’s future or alien races on other worlds. In the more metaphysical 1960s, however, books like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land experimented with pseudosciences (theories or practices considered to be without scientific foundation). A good example is when Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land protagonist, a human given paranormal abilities by the Martians, is first asked to demonstrate his telekinetic powers: “‘Mike, will you please, without touching it, lift that ash tray a foot above the desk?’ . . . The ash tray raised, floated above the desk.”
Many Science Fiction purists prefer stories that employ “hard” sciences, and some maintain that pseudoscientific elements like telekinesis marks a work as Fantasy. The same is generally true of magic, which is often incorporated into Fantasy works like Tolkien’s The Hobbit. When Gandalf, the wizard, is surprised by goblins, he uses his magical powers to defend himself: “there was a terrible flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead.” In the imaginary realm of Fantasy, however, wizards are not the only ones with magical powers. Sometimes objects contain special powers as Bilbo discovers when he finds a mysterious ring: “It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring: it made you invisible!” Bilbo’s supernatural power to turn invisible is not only interesting, it also serves as an important plot device in the novel.
Of all of the themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, the manipulation of time has been one of the most frequently used. Most Science Fiction or Fantasy stories take place in another time, either the past or the future. In some cases, as in Wells’s influential novel The Time Machine, the protagonist travels in a machine, which physically takes him either backward or forward through time, the fourth dimension. Says the time traveler, “I am afraid I cannot convey the peculiar sensations of time travelling. They are excessively unpleasant.”
Other forms of traveling through time, such as near-light-speed space travel, are more physically pleasant for the traveler. Following Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, Science Fiction writers have created a host of spaceships capable of traveling near the speed of light. Theoretically, as a ship like this approaches the speed of light, time will slow down for the ship’s passengers, so that they will age less quickly than those who remain at the point where the ship started. Joe Haldeman demonstrated the potential emotional and psychological ramifications of this technology in his book The Forever War, in which elite soldiers retain their youth by traveling at near-light-speeds throughout the universe, chasing an elusive enemy.
In the book’s conclusion, the soldier protagonist, Mandella, finally returns to his planet of origin, where he finds out that “the war ended 221 years ago.” An even bigger surprise is that Mandella’s lover, a fellow soldier who was separated from him by space and time during the war, left a note for him 250 years ago. However, the note includes detailed instructions on how his lover is manipulating space and time to try to meet him while they are both still alive and young.
So I’m on a relativistic shuttle, waiting for you. All it does is go out five light years and come back . . . very fast. Every ten years I age about a month. So if you’re on schedule and still alive, I’ll only be twentyeight when you get here. Hurry!
However, some Science Fiction and Fantasy writers avoid the issue of time travel altogether and choose to simply begin their stories in the future or past.
Salvation and Destruction
From the very beginning of Science Fiction, most writers have expressed one of two diametrically opposed ideas concerning the development of science and technology—it will save humanity or it will destroy it. Many of the works that have received favorable criticism or which reign as “classics” fall into the latter group. Perhaps it is because of their darker qualities that these works stand out from the others; Science Fiction has always been strongest when it issues warnings. Readers need look no further than Verne and Wells. Verne’s “Extraordinary Journeys” novels tell predominantly positive tales about man’s use of the machine to explore and conquer the unknown. However, it is Wells and his dark tales of scientific progress gone bad that most later Science Fiction writers claim is the stronger influence. This focus on dark, sometimes apocalyptic visions had its heyday in the years after World War II, following the advent of the atomic bomb, when the end of civilization was a distinct possibility.
One of the most chilling expressions of the global destruction idea takes place in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Throughout the novel, a genius child trains, using military war simulation games in space. At the end of the story, after he has successfully completed a simulated mission in which he obliterates the alien enemy’s home planet, both Ender and the reader learn the last battle was real. Without his knowledge, Ender has coordinated an interstellar attack on the aliens’ home planet. The sense of despair in Ender, as he comes to realize how the military tricked him into launching a weapon with a destructive power exponentially greater than nuclear weapons, is almost palpable: “they were real ships that he had fought with and real ships he had destroyed. And a real world that he had blasted into oblivion.” This is the dark stuff of which some of the best Science Fiction is made.