So, here’s a fun fact: it appears that no one really knows who started National Science Fiction Day, or when. It appears to have just happened. Though, in all likelihood, the holiday was started by a publisher looking to boost sales, the idea of a celebration spontaneously appearing seems like a decent jumping off point for a science fiction story: millions of people develop a shared partial consciousness that coalesces in a wordlessly agreed upon date of celebration.
The date chosen—whether by an enterprising publishing house, by a collective consciousness, or by interdimensional beings trying to communicate with us—is, fittingly, Isaac Asimov’s birthday. Or, at least, his presumed birthday: when his family immigrated to the United States from Russia, no one knew exactly when his birthday was, so they chose to declare January 2nd his birthday on the immigration paperwork. Asimov would go on to be such a prolific writer that even he lost track of how many papers, articles, pulp stories, and books he authored. Though those numbers include nonfiction, fantasy, and mystery, Asimov is best known for his work in popular science and science fiction.
While considered little more than an embarrassingly prolific genre writer by some, Asimov’s impact on the science fiction genre has been profound. He basically pioneered a fully developed concept of robotics within the genre to the extent that he is the progenitor of a code of ethics for robotic development. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data and—depending on the particular story arc you’re reading—Vision from The Avengers are direct science fiction descendants of Asimov’s concept of a positronic brain. He received a screen credit as a science consultant for Star Trek: The Motion Picture after developing a productive rapport with Gene Roddenberry, having originally been critical of Roddenberry’s brainchild. His Foundation series would go on to directly or tangentially influence countless science fiction screenwriters and authors, giving us different imaginings of galactic empires and the liminal planets existing in the empire’s periphery.
Far from being a source of escapism, a genre in which to sidestep uncomfortable reality, science fiction—at least, good science fiction—has a profound role in how we imagine our current state of affairs and our possible futures. This is true of super tech-driven hard science fiction, social issue-oriented soft science fiction, and of dys/utopian speculative fiction. Good science fiction takes circumstances with which we are familiar and reorients them, by changing the time or the place or the characters or even the species involved, so that we can put a certain amount of distance between ourselves and the issue at hand. The genre takes the things we understand as “just the way it is” and, in placing them elsewhere, provides us with the distance necessary to look at them from another perspective. That distance and those alternate analyses have provided us with the impetus and the inspiration to invent, to solve problems, and to anticipate future issues and how to mitigate them. As we move forward into a brave new world of increasing technological innovation, technologically-mediated relationships, and rapidly changing dynamics that can have as of yet unimagined long-term impacts, it is worth taking the time to celebrate the genre that revs so many folks’ imaginations.
My original plan to celebrate National Science Fiction Day was to watch Star Wars but, in light of Carrie Fisher’s recent passing (rest in power, Space Momma), those plans have since changed. Instead, I’m going to watch Alien, so that I can still get a solid dose of a badass shero, and finally check out Asimov’s Nightfall! Those plans, though, are not nearly as important as what I hope they help me achieve: to learn something new, or even to learn something I’ve already known but in a new way. And though I am no big fan of new year resolutions, I think that goal—to learn something—is a pretty good one to shoot for every day this year. I hope you’ll join me!
How do you plan to celebrate National Science Fiction Day? What do you want to learn? Tell us in the comments!