In 1926 Luxembourgian-American inventor Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Amazing Stories, a magazine that would go on to inspire the millions of books, films, graphic novels, and video games we now describe as “science fiction.” Indeed, Gernsback was so passionate about this new mode of storytelling that he prophesied it would be “an important factor in making the world a better place to live in… educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life…. If every man, woman, boy, and girl could be induced to read science fiction right along, there would certainly be a great resulting benefit to the community. Science fiction would make them happier, give them a broader understanding of the world, make them more tolerant.”
I often wish I had a time machine to go back to 1926 and talk with Gernsback about the similarities between his dream and Georgia Tech’s mission to solve twenty-first century problems by innovating at the intersection of science, technology, and the arts. Better yet, I’d bring him forward in time to see how many of us are contributing to that mission today by engaging with science fiction across media. I think he would be tickled pink—but not surprised—to learn about all the different ways we use science fiction as a focusing lens to examine the world’s most pressing scientific and social issues and to imagine better futures for all. As we like to say here in LMC, science fiction is a truly global language that allows people to communicate their experiences with science and technology across centuries, continents, and cultures.
Of course, science fiction isn’t just for faculty at Georgia Tech. Rather, our students are partners in wonder who help us develop clearer pictures of science fiction as the premiere story form of modernity.
The notion that science fiction is a global language drives all my research activities. For instance, in The Self-Wired: Technology and Subjectivity in Contemporary Narrative, I explore how authors and filmmakers we don’t associate with science fiction use characters such as “the cyborg” and story types such as “the utopia” to make sense of changing relations between science, society, and the self. In a related vein, my book Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction shows how women writing science fiction after World War II used their chosen genre to contribute to culture-wide debates about women’s work as homemakers, activists, scientists, and artists—and how, in doing so, they changed the face of science fiction forever. Consider, for instance, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park: In the middle of the movie the female lead turns to a male scientist and says “the only thing that matters now is family.” As a science fiction fan, I can’t help but think the only thing that would really matter in that situation would be getting away from the human-eating dinosaurs. But ever since I wrote The Self-Wired and Galactic Suburbia, I’ve also been able to appreciate how Spielberg draws on the history of the genre he loves to get viewers thinking about the impact of science and technology on our most fundamental social units. And so by doing science fiction studies, I get to double my pleasure in science fiction stories themselves.
Another reason I do science fiction studies is that I get to use my expertise to collaborate with colleagues across disciplines. A few years ago I worked on a National Science Foundation grant with two public policy professors and a nanoscientist to determine how new ideas about nanotechnology circulate through the American imagination. Initially we assumed that scientists develop these new ideas, public policy makers create laws that regulate their application, and then finally writers and filmmakers “translate” them for the public. Much to my delight, however, we learned that we had it backward: authors have been speculating about the possibilities inherent in small-scale engineering ever since Jonathan Swift published Gulliver’s Travels in the eighteenth century, while scientists and public policymakers have, since the middle of the twentieth century, shaped their own ideas about this subject in relation to science fiction! It was an exciting insight that made us realize science fiction is a lot like oxygen: invisible, everywhere around us, and something we breathe in without a second thought.
My students and I like to remind people, science fiction is both serious work and serious fun. We aim to convey this message to both the greater Georgia Tech and the greater science fiction communities.
Of course, science fiction isn’t just for faculty at Georgia Tech. Rather, our students are partners in wonder who help us develop clearer pictures of science fiction as the premiere story form of modernity. For instance, I begin my class on global science fiction with a brief history of American science fiction. I then draw on my own research to show students how African-American and women writers have generated their own rich traditions of speculative fiction, thereby challenging the clichéd belief that science fiction is ”just about white boys and their toys.” After students learn about American science fiction, they team up to research and teach their own units on science fiction around the world. This is my favorite part of the class because I get to learn so much. Did you know that South American authors have been writing science fiction since the 1830s? Or that manga was a trivial art form in Japan until the government partnered with artists to export it to the United States in the 1980s? Or that the 2011 science fiction-superhero film Ra-One holds the record for the largest international theatrical release of an Indian film? Neither did I—until my students unearthed these facts. As it turns out, the story of science fiction is even more, well, amazing than I thought.
Finally, as my students and I like to remind people, science fiction is both serious work and serious fun. We aim to convey this message to both the greater Georgia Tech and the greater science fiction communities with our Sci Fi Radio Lab, a variety program dedicated to “the best in everything science fiction” that airs on WREK 91.1, Georgia Tech’s student-run radio station, every Thursday at 7 pm EST. The mad labsters, as I like to call them, engage in a variety of on-air activities that include interviewing science fiction artists, producing science fiction dramas, and developing original segments such as “two minute madness,” where listeners have—you guessed it, two minutes—to weigh in on the topic of the week. We also celebrate the joy of science fiction through community collaborations such as our current Rite of Passage project, in which we are partnering with local media companies to produce the first ever full-length African American alternate history film. This project enables Georgia Tech students, staff, and faculty members to get involved in every aspect of independent filmmaking, from fund raising and location scouting to costume design and acting. Taken together, these research, teaching, and production activities illustrate how we here at Georgia Tech are realizing Hugo Gernsback’s dream of using science fiction to build a happier, more equitable, and more enlightened world.