Dr. Christopher Menadue (Ben) is a social psychologist at John Cook University who researches the intersection of Science Fiction (Sci-Fi), science, and culture. I interviewed him in October 2021 about his thoughts on the impact of dystopian literature on society, and the connection between cyberpunk and class consciousness. Dr. Joseph Hurtgen (Joe) assisted with the questions and analysis. Section headers in italics are paraphrased summaries and not direct quotes.
Sci-Fi is a cultural phenomenon whose impacts are often hidden. It creates entire sub-cultures of beautiful escapism. It allows people to view the human condition from new perspectives, as space and its multitude of races allow for an infinitude of societies to be created and explored without limitation. It provides a roadmap to our culture, detailing its social evolution over time (Menadue, 2017, Menadue & Jacups, 2018). It also provides an epidemiological awareness of the level of discourse that exists surrounding public health crises (Menadue, 2020).
Science fiction and real science share a complex relationship.
Sci-Fi influences public opinion to be more open to scientific advancements, and can direct the progress and funding of real scientific research (Menadue & Jacups, 2018). It also bridges the gap between the sciences and the humanities (Schwartz, 1971). When complex theorems and fantastical technology inspire fiction, it jumpstarts the imagination, which creates an interest in science and improves learning. However, Sci-Fi may also provide unrealistic expectations of science, and can bias cultural narratives (Menadue & Cheer, 2017).
Cyberpunk details our relationship with both ourselves, and God.
Cyberpunk is a distinctive sub-genre that will once more hit center stage as The Matrix Resurrections releases this month. Movies like Blade Runner make us question what it means to be human (Menadue, 2017, Geraci, 2007). Beyond our humanity, cyberpunk’s take on artificial intelligence represents the sublime in an existential way that impacts even our concept of God. William Gibson’s work is crucial in this regard since it balances technowrath and technoredemption (Geraci, 2007), but even before Gibson, the connection between technology and religion had been made in the proto-cyberpunk short story I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison. The strong impact of these narratives warrants closer examination.
Interview with Dr. Christopher Menadue (Ben):
Mark: In your research, you found that science fiction often reflects events of great concern, such as pandemics (Menadue, 2020). From the threat of war, to the fear of new technologies, the dystopian nature of Sci-Fi enables it to capture these concerns. As a sociologist, the idea of social release valves in society interests me, in other words, the ways society relieves itself of pressure.
How does dystopian science fiction act as a safety release valve for society as it expresses this pressure building within it?
Dystopian literature helps us rehearse how to respond in an actual disaster, putting us at ease.
Ben: …The anxieties and stresses that cause conflict and aggressive behaviour through fear and uncertainty are reduced when the population has been able to ‘rehearse’ their responses to dystopian real-world situations in advance. Consider the irrational reactions to mandates for mask wearing, vaccination and other scientifically logical actions to reduce the impact of the pandemic, for example. The way we can do this is through exposure to forms of entertainment that incorporate what-if scenarios derived as thought experiments about similar eventualities, but which are less confrontational as they are fictional.
Exposure to fictional versions of traumatic and life-changing scenarios may have the effect of conditioning us to expect to ‘survive’ the experience – we come out of a film about a global pandemic or finish reading a book on environmental disasters without being physically harmed, but having been exposed to many of the same perceptual and cognitive triggers that we might experience in the real-world version of events. The degree to which dystopian futures exaggerate the reality may also offer some reassurance when things do not seem to be quite as bad in the real-world version of these scenarios.
Science Fiction continues to offer us glimpses into not only our would-be futures, but the complex socio-cultural evolution that has driven society to its current state. The only aliens in Sci-Fi is our own alienation amidst the threat of the unknown. Sci-Fi is less about conquering other planets than conquering that which is uncertain as we rehearse how to respond to adversity in a safe environment that frees us from preexisting biases. Sci-fi is freedom from fear.
Dr. Menadue continues to instruct and research at James Cook University. His research may be viewed here.
For further conversation on the value of dystopian literature, see my interview with Dr. Paul Graham Raven.
Fox, Kevin. (2021). Blade Runner: Black Lotus and the Perpetual Relevance of Cyberpunk.
Available at URL: https://www.pastemagazine.com/comedy/blade-runner/blade-runner-black-lotus-preview/
Geraci, R. M. (2007). Robots and the sacred in science and science fiction: Theological implications of artificial intelligence. Zygon, 42, 961-980.
Geraci, R.M. (2012). Apocalyptic A.I.: Visions of heaven in robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Oxford University Press.
Gibson, William. (1993). Virtual Light. Penguin.
Goffman, Erwing. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday Anchor.
Hofstede, Geert. (2001). Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations. Sage Publications.
Hofstede, Geert. (2021). Compare Countries. Available at URL: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/product/compare-countries/
Menadue, Christopher Benjamin. (2017). Trysts tropiques: The torrid jungles of science fiction. Etropic, 16, 125-140.
Menadue, Christopher Benjamin, and Cheer, Karen Diane. (2017). Human Culture and Science Fiction: A Review of the Literature, 1980-2016. Sage Journals. Available at URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244017723690
Menadue, Christopher Benjamin, and Jacups, Susan. (2018). Who Reads Science Fiction and Fantasy and How Do They Feel About Science? Preliminary Findings From an Online Survey. Sage Journals.
Available at URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2158244018780946
Menadue, Christopher Benjamin. (2020). Pandemics, epidemics, viruses, plagues, and disease: Comparative frequency analysis of a cultural pathology reflected in science fiction magazines from 1926 to 2015. Social Sciences & Humanities Open, 2: 1.
Available at URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590291120300371?via%3Dihub
Schwartz, Sheila. (1971). Science Fiction: Bridge between the Two Cultures. English Journal 60:1043–51.