fiction, sometimes called "speculative fiction," has long provided
"thought experiments" which imagine alternative worlds where
current developments -- social, political, scientific, technological,
cultural -- are pushed to their logical extremes. In some cases,
these visions of the future embrace the dominant American ideology
of technological utopianism -- that is, the belief that technological
advances (especially in communication and transportation) will
dramatically improve human social and cultural relations. Other
writers have offered more pessimistic and apocalyptic visions,
linking advanced technologies with concentrations of political
power, coercive mechanisms of social control, or weapons of
mass destruction. Science fiction writers have rarely sought
to "predict" the future in a literal sense. Rather, they have
used their imagined futures to question, challenge, and comment
on changes they observe or intuit in contemporary society. One
notable exception: Arthur C. Clarke,
recognized as a significant influence on the development of
global communications satellites.
As a genre,
science fiction has provided a space for popular debates about
change, including increasingly changes in our media culture.
Science fiction writer Alan E. Norse explains, "The science
fiction reader is encouraged by his reading not to fear or dread
change, but rather to accept it as a fresh and exciting challenge.
After all, science fiction seems to say, the winds of change
-- however violent they may seem -- are of man's making in the
first place, and it should be within man's power to temper them."
Norse argues, provocatively, that science fiction readers may
be better able to adjust to "future shock" because they have
worked through alternative futures in their imaginations and
have come to accept that change is part of all human societies.
the start, the American science fiction tradition has been linked
to the increasingly visible role of communications media in
our national culture. The technological
utopians, a group of late 19th-century
social reformers who wrote utopian fictions about future societies,
often saw improvements in communication as vitally linked to
the restructuring of the social order. Edward Bellamy's Looking
Backward (1887), for example,
included speculations about credit cards and broadcasting.
Gernsback, founder of the American
science fiction tradition, was himself a key figure in promoting
radio as a socially transforming technology, and the earliest
American science fiction appeared alongside articles on amateur
radio and popular science. The writers who contributed to Gernback's
magazine Amazing Stories were technophiles, translating
the ideals of the technological utopians into colorful entertainment.
tradition reached its zenith at the 1939 New York World's Fair,
where corporations and governments sought to construct their
own visions of "the world of tomorrow," based on technological
utopian ideologies. It is no coincidence that the first public
display of television in the United States occurred at the 1939
Fair, in the context of this highly publicized attempt to translate
the visions of science fiction into reality. The World's Fair
moved science fiction's speculations about the future out of
the pages of the pulps and into broader national consciousness,
where it would remain for the remainder of the 20th century.
representations of technology, science, and media in American
science fiction grew darker in the wake of the Second World
War. Science fiction of the 1950s, including works by Henry
Kuttner, Cordwaner Smith, Frederik
Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, offered satirical perspectives
on the rise of television and advertising. Not unlike the radical
cultural critics of the Frankfort School, these writers were
disturbed by the ways in which the mediated culture of the post-War
era seemed to encourage mass conformity and blind consumption.
Yet at the same time, such fiction also envisions characters
that use new media to resist dominant social institutions and
to challenge state and corporate power -- themes that will find
their fullest expression in the cyberpunk
of the 1980s and 1990s. Other science fiction writers have examined
the place of surveillance technologies and information management
in the modern political and economic bureaucracy.
saw the broadening of science fiction to embrace new social
and political visions and to reach new constituencies. Media
theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler embraced science
fiction themes and imagery as part of their attempt to anticipate
change in our technological environment. Their theoretical works
were read alongside science fiction written by and for novels
the counter-culture and helped to shape the images of mediated
culture that ran through the genre. This period also saw the
increased participation of women as both readers and writers
of science fiction, resulting in alternative visions of utopian
futures, grounded in transforming social relations rather than
changing technologies and in alternative conceptions of media.
Some of this fiction deployed a feminist critique of the media's
exploitation of women's bodies and emotions.
Gibson's Neuromancer (1989) and subsequent "cyberpunk"
short stories and novels have dealt with the "digital revolution,"
the expanding roles of multinational corporations, the proliferation
of alternative subcultures, and the centrality of information
management to modern life. Gibson coined the term, "cyberspace,"
and his conceptions of virtual reality have influenced the development
of digital media. Some science fiction writers, such as Bruce
Sterling, Orson Scott Card, and Vernor Vinge, have published
powerful critical essays on real-world media in addition to
their speculative fiction about the future of media.