Black Mirror, 1984, Dune – these are examples of science fiction (sci-fi) stories that depict grim futures, robot takeovers or the end of the world. Not exactly favourable scenarios when thinking about the future. Yet science fiction can be very useful, according to historian Etienne Augé: "It helps to understand the present."
What is science fiction about?
Firstly, science fiction is not always about science, Etienne explains in a video from Universiteit van Nederland. Nor does science fiction predict the future. In its short history, sci-fi has been more often wrong than right about potential futures. "That's why I like to call it the 'what-if' genre," he explains.
Yet science fiction has a more powerful function: it can invent. “If it’s possible to imagine something, it might also be possible to make it happen.” Furthermore, sci-fi has the ability to prevent events from happening. By warning us of possible dangers lurking in our future.
Sci-fi as a tool to understand the world
The historian is a fan of sci-fi author Philip K. Dick. "His ability to discuss alternate realities and future nightmares is one of his main strengths," he says. ‘Dysrecognition’ is an example of one of Dick’s concepts that is often seen in movies. This is the idea of going beyond the reality we live in to understand what elements have been fabricated.
Movies like The Truman Show and the Matrix use dysrecognition as an idea that the world we perceive is not the real one. "Dysrecognition helps us understand that other worlds are possible. If you think hard about the world we live in and question it, you might understand that there could be an alternative." Still, according to the historian, this should make us careful not to fall into the traps of conspiracy theories that claim powerful organisations are running the world and manipulate us. "Dysrecognition is about being critical. Not about embracing comfortable fairy tales," he emphasises.
Sci-fi as a predictor for the future
In this way, science fiction is a great tool for the present, but also for the future, Etienne believes. "It has the ability to invent and prevent. Many organisations in the world use science fiction to try and understand what the future could be. Or better yet, to design it." Future studies are an example of how science fiction can be combined with a solid methodology to think about the future.
Can science fiction save us from an apocalypse? “Science fiction is not a magic wand, but it can help humankind tremendously at moments when hope seems lost.”