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The Purpose of Science Fiction

By Slate

January 31, 2011

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Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, is generally considered the first work of science fiction. It explores, in scientific terms, the notion of synthetic life: Dr. Victor Frankenstein studies the chemical breakdown that occurs after death so he can reverse it to animate nonliving matter.

Like so many other works of science fiction that followed, Shelley's story is a cautionary tale: It raises profound questions about who should have the right to create living things and what responsibility the creators should have to their creations and to society.

Think about that: Mary Shelley put these questions on the table almost two centuries ago—41 years before Darwin published The Origin of Species and 135 years before Crick and Watson figured out the structure of DNA. Is it any wonder that Alvin Toffler, one of the first futurists, called reading science fiction the only preventive medicine for future shock?

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