Reading science fiction in an age of political turbulence

Lately, I’ve found myself reading more classic science fiction. I went through Asimov’s entire Foundation saga, and am currently reading Clarke’s Odyssey series and his Rama series. The science fiction of old reflected a time of general optimism for space travel and colonisation. One day, we’d escape our cradle, Earth, and settle throughout the galaxy. We may or may not encounter other intelligent life-forms; even Asimov thought humans would be the dominant space-faring species in the Milky Way (but he hinted, at the end of Foundation and Earth, that Andromeda may host a new form of life we’ve yet to encounter).

The main enabler for us to engage in space travel would be technology. As we sailed the seas with ships and aircraft carriers, so too will we travel the stars in advanced starships like the USS Enterprise. At this moment, we’re taking baby steps towards the development of space technology, slowly and clumsily crawling towards that dramatic breakthrough or “revolution” that would propel us into the future. But, Asimov’s dreams of humans establishing a galactic empire tens of thousands of years into the future maybe under attack.

The emergence of turbulent post-truth politics has usually been attributed to an increasingly hostile attitude towards science. Anti-vaxxers blame Big Pharma for injecting us with poison; “green food” activists cry out against scary-sounding chemicals in food and agriculture; the denial of evolution; and perhaps the most ludicrous, globe earth deniers. It would seem that rigorous, scientific research can easily be supplanted by emotive reasoning, or the “I feel it’s right, therefore it must be true” stance. Especially in an administration where the President can get away with remarks such as “global warming is a fabrication made up by the Chinese” and cutting NASA’s earth science budget due to fears of politicised science.

I would like to think that science can operate independently from politics. It is lovely to think of a utopian setting where scientists can continue to do research unaffected by politics, that the research budget will remain constant (or increase) regardless of the political climate, and that politicians will heed the advice of scientists and craft policies based on scientific evidence. However, a simple reality check reveals that politics has more influence on science than science can have on politics. The research budget is prone to be cut because results come too slow, too little, or simply because the person in power thinks scientific research can impede short-term policies. Scientists that are simply trying to do their jobs and progress research are harassed, especially if what they do is considered controversial.

Which brings me back to the dreams of space travel. Ever since I was a kid, I was fascinated by space travel, yet I don’t have the aptitude for astrophysics. I could only imagine how cool it would be in the future, where mankind would settle across the galaxy.

If we’re ever to leave this cradle and escape this gravity prison, we’d need to invest heavily in space-faring technology. It would require the combined effort of humanity to craft a spaceship that can establish colonies on other planets, and even more so if we were ever to achieve the creation of a Dyson sphere which would propel us into becoming a Type 2 civilisation and possibly beyond. But if we were to continue acting in a hostile fashion towards science, through policies that constantly attempt to undermine progress and research, we risk delaying our departure from this cradle by decades if not centuries.

This post is merely an idle reflection on reading science fiction and contrasting it to the pitiful state of affairs we have today. We rely so much on science; for trivial things such as stalking your crush on Facebook to prolonging our lifespans through modern medicine. Yet, not everyone appreciates what science has done for us. If Asimov were still alive, he might be shedding tears of utmost sadness. The following quote by Carl Sagan leaves a lot to think about, and I find it apt to end this post.

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. – Carl Sagan, Why We Need to Understand Science

Featured image: Civilization Beyond Earth art, copyright of 2K Games

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