When Fiction Becomes Fact: Sci-fi and the Fate of Humanity by Ken Liu (Singapore Writers Festival 2017)

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Ken Liu. Photo Credit: Li Yi Bo

If science fiction is almost always wrong, why read it in the first place?

That is a position that author Ken Liu often finds himself defending to the sci-fi skeptics. And certainly, one the Harvard Law School graduate does so beautifully in his entertaining and eloquent lecture on the power of science fiction last Sunday at the Arts House Chamber. Having won multiple Hugo Awards, alongside the prestigious Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, Liu has fast established himself as one of the foremost modern science fiction authors in the world, his stories and novels pulsating with sensitive portraits of the human condition amidst a rapidly changing world.

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With a slideshow of 1930s French art, sci-fi movie stills and even photos of vintage cars, Liu took us on a brief but informative journey through the history of science fiction and in fact, the world. Even for the layperson unexposed to ides of sci-fi, Liu easily brings up and crushes myths such as the story that Star Trek Communicators inspired the modern cellphone, convincingly explaining how sci-fi is not predictive but speculative. “If we sci-fi authors really could accurately guess the future, wouldn’t we all already be billionaires by now, having invested in all the right industries?” he quips.

One of Ken’s most fascinating segments is one where he brings up how, at one point, how petroleum cars only made up a small fraction of the total number of cars, while the market was instead dominated by electric and even steam-powered cars (“Steampunk is real!”). Yet, no one could have expected the least likely outcome to have eventually become the norm. Is the future of private transport then the flying car, or has it already presented itself in the form of Uber? Could we ever have imagined that we now live in a time where we willingly give up our privacy to websites such as Facebook and Google?

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Ultimately, Liu argues that sci-fi as such, can never be expected to give an accurate image of the future; rather, it creates possibilities of the future. Especially in dystopian novels such as 1984 (“Which obviously didn’t happen.”), gives us a future to actively avoid. In addition, by providing us the new, imaginative vocabulary that has since entered common lexicon (e.g. Big Brother, thoughtcrime), a new means to see and understand the world around us and tell stories of change. In a world as terrifying as ours currently is, perhaps it is the vast imagination that science fiction authors possess that we turn to in these times, offering the hope of infinite possibilities, or at the very least, the comfort that things could be so much worse.

The 2017 Singapore Writers Festival runs till 12th November. To book tickets to other Singapore Writer’s Festival Events, visit their website here

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