The age old saying “history repeats itself” is as cliched as it is true. Ask any historian and they’ll tell you all about how some of history’s most notorious characters often follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, usually to devastating consequences. Age old tales of human hubris repeating itself over and over again have plagued our literature since the days of Icarus, as authors from different centuries try to articulate what it is in humanity that causes the same mistakes to be repeated throughout. However if after your visit to the historian you go to see a statistician, he’ll tell you all about how important it is to forecast behaviour in the future based on past events.
I’m sure the historian would agree with the statistician, but in his jargon he’d say something about how fundamental it is to understand history to prevent its mistakes from recurring. Literary minds grasped this concept a long time ago, and performed an exercise akin to what a forecaster does every day; take the past and extrapolate it into the future. They called this exercise science fiction.
To me, this is why science fiction is essential. By opening a window into a hypothetical future, be it near or far, we are taking our collective humanity and history and placing it years ahead to see where it will land us. Good science fiction has always been about humans (or humanoids) fulfilling their usual, flawed lives and seeing the fallout from it. Far too many modern science fiction novels often forget to perform this exercise but it’s important we don’t dismiss science fiction as a genre, as way too many readers and often even critics do (with some obvious exceptions like 1984).
“It’s an anthology in which each chapter tells a different short story about humans on Mars”
To illustrate this, I’ll take one of my all time favourite books, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. In essence, it’s an anthology in which each chapter tells a different short story about humans on Mars through time, from their arrival all the way to their (spoiler alert) eventual abandonment of the planet. Nearly every short story has new characters, a new setting and tells a widely different story, with the only thing connecting them being that they are all in Mars (except for one) and that they deal with similar themes: namely, what it means to be human and what separates us from other life forms.
“Such literature becomes even more essential when reality catches up with the realm of fiction”
In this book, Bradbury fabricates years of fictional history, but through it all he is cleverly commentating on some very real tendencies, so much that we really could see history playing out this way if ever we got to Mars and met Martians. And such literature becomes even more essential when reality catches up with the realm of fiction. Humans descending on Mars in the next few decades is an increasingly likely possibility, with a number of private companies like Virgin (with their Galactic program) investing in what has been called a “second space race”. One can only sit and wonder if humanity will really prove itself better than the picture Bradbury paints when we do reach the new planet.
“A grieving family rejoice after seeing their dead son reappear at their front door after years”
My favourite story from The Martian Chronicles is one called “The Martian”. In it, a grieving family rejoice after seeing their dead son reappear at their front door after years. Unbeknownst to them, their son is in reality only a Martian who reflects in the eyes of everyone who witness him the person that is most in the beholder’s mind. The family does not understand why their son is afraid to go to town and take him anyway, despite him being against it. He soon disappears, and shapeshifts into as many people as there are observers. A family with a lost daughter see in him their daughter, a policeman sees in him a criminal, and so on. Eventually, the Martian melts and dies.
“It’s important to notice how Bradbury depicts obsession and the strain it can cause”
I know I don’t need to explain the message behind the short story as it’s very apparent, but it’s important to notice how Bradbury depicts obsession and the strain it can cause. This is a very negative view of humans, but it’s also incredibly faithful to the reality of how humans process loss in very unhealthy ways. On the flip side, some of the stories show a more positive side of human nature, such as “Night Meeting”, where a human converses with one of the last Martians amicably, before they realise they are both ghosts to one another and part ways, representing the marked differences between the two species despite their very courteous conversation.
“All Bradbury does is depict humanity”
Overall, all Bradbury does is depict humanity, whether it’s good or bad, in a futuristic and other-wordly setting. He then watches years and years of history play out in the same way that a statistician watches data progress through a time series, until it reaches it’s slightly tragic yet seemingly unalterable ending where the last humans on Mars look at their reflection in a canal and reflect on how they are the last Martians.
“The magic of science fiction is that we read about some of the most unimaginable things”
And such reflections are essential, in a more general way, to us readers. The magic of science fiction is that we read about some of the most unimaginable things yet come out of the experience with more knowledge about ourselves. Like the characters reflect on their status as Martians, we reflect on our status as humans, and what this can mean.
What the author does is akin to the statistician, but what we end up realising as readers is closer to the historian’s age old saying; history does repeat itself, but it’s up to us how we repeat it. Science fiction can help us in this regard.