As a genre, sci-fi is par excellence concerned with culture. What would it be like to visit an alien world? How would its inhabitants operate, and how would they differ from us?
In a way it’s a kind of theoretical anthropology. Think of Ursula Le Guin’s inquiry into a culture of hermaphrodites in The Left Hand of Darkness, or of Iain M. Banks’s series of novels in which he explores the political permutations of a culture that has abolished scarcity – a culture provocatively named ‘the Culture’. Think of Mary Doria Russell’s creation of a world with two intelligent species – one with the kindness of humans, but lacking human drive, the other consonant with human ambitions yet utterly ruthless.
The alien world visited by sci-fi can, of course, be our own. Think of the work of Philip K. Dick. Paranoid and overwrought, his other world is none other than this one, if only you can avoid THEIR brainwashing. His robots have human feelings while his aliens, the alienated, are us.
Moreover the futurity of sci-fi is a trope. By the time you read these words, you are already living in the future, while I am not. So by moving the reader’s imagination explicitly to the future sc-fi is unleashed to say something about our present. As William Gibson has said, the future is already happening, but is unevenly distributed.
The traditional, and obvious typologies of sci-fi have drawn contrasts between the utopian and the dystopian, or between oppression and freedom, between alien and human or between good and evil. These are not wrong categorisations in themselves. After all, it would take a strong stomach to side with the Alien of the eponymous movie. In space at least it is clear where evil lies.
However, some of the best treatments of the genre allow for a more nuanced other worldliness. The either/or split, the choice of two and only two paths does not describe the whole of reality, even in a fictional universe.
Take one of the most popular science-fictional universes of our age, that of the Star Wars series. All the standard dichotomies are true enough. The dystopian, oppressive Empire versus the utopian, freedom-loving Rebel Alliance; the moral choice to side with the Force (good) or against it (evil). But what gives the series its strength, its credibility as a depiction of a viable galaxy, however far away, is its recognition of The Four Cultures.
Part 2: The Four Cultures of Star Wars