Dreams are as natural to human beings as breathing. We need to dream to stay sane. Occasionally allowing our minds to wander into the distant universe allows us to wrestle with some pretty awesome questions.
How does science fiction fit into our natural tendency to dream or imagine? Perhaps more than any other genre in recent history, science fiction has altered humanity’s trajectory. For good or for ill is not for me to say.
Let’s visit three early science fiction works and consider serious societal issues in light of their meaning.
Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein in 1818. The book centers on a doctor, Victor Frankenstein, who creates new life in the form of what he later considers his monster. Frankenstein’s initial excitement, obsession even, with his work is based on the fact that he is doing what no one has ever done before. His mind is filled with glorious possibilities. The consequential reality is something much more poignant and tragic, however, as innocent lives are destroyed by his monster creation.
The point of Shelly’s work stands as tall as the mountains that readers cross throughout the journey. Science in general and medical science, in particular, bear a moral responsibility to be careful and not turn a blind eye to unintentional consequences in the face of wondrous possibilities. Today, the US works under the auspices of the FDA, in which the approval of most drugs and medical advancements must be considered under the scrutiny of many eyes, various experiences, and the glaring light of time.
It is a leap to state that the FDA or any medical oversight came about because of a science fiction book. And that would never be my claim. But it would, perhaps, be fair to say that the same forces that impelled Mary Shelly to write her science fiction novel and those who subsequently read it did create an environment where the FDA could be successfully created.
H. G. Wells first serialized War of the Worlds in 1897. In his story, aliens are taken very seriously and met with complete bewilderment by humanity. It’s a look at what “might be” in terms of the universe and how humans don’t know what we don’t know. There is almost a sneering undertone in the book as to our naiveté. The most remarkable aspect of the book, for me, is not the storyline but the fact that readers latched onto the concept of aliens so absolutely. By the late 1800s and into the 1900s, humanity was learning at a faster rate than ever before, peering into a vast universe that held innumerable secrets. This love affair with alien life, albeit with fear and trembling, has sustained many space exploration programs and created an exploding genre of fiction. Would the whole chain of events leading to William Shatner taking a ride into space on Blue Origen in October 2021 have happened if sci-fi writers hadn’t started imagining who might be “out there” back in 1897?
George Orwell wrote and published 1984 in 1949. The basic premise behind his best seller involved the power of a government to manipulate the meaning of words and control whole populations. I won’t go down the political and societal rabbit hole by conjecturing on just how embedded the power of word manipulation has changed our culture today. Just consider the vast amounts of money and the huge influence of lobbyists who use particularly powerful trigger words: reason, choice, honesty, freedom, news…and more. I am not qualified to discern the manipulation of certain words over others, but clearly, words are used in media to push emotional buttons. Click bate, anyone? With bots often directing the merry-go-around, power words beget more power words, not necessarily reason, choice, honesty, or freedom.
In my book, Last of Her Kind published on 2017, the characters reel from a host of challenges. Primarily, humans inability to conceive new life and subsequent world challenges. Humanity must prioritize medical advances and consider—not how did this happen and who do we blame—but how do we handle extinction staring us in the face? Unintentional realities happen. Now what?
Anther major aspect of LOHK relates to the watching alien world that comes into the clearest focus through Cerulean, an alien from Lux who has fallen in love with Anne, the last woman to conceive a child on Earth. Lux has its own problems, as does Cerulean. No matter how different aliens may be from humans, family conflicts beset us all.
Throughout LOHK, news reports, blog posts, international events, family reactions, neighbors’ reflections, marriage fractures, and every imaginable human form of communication lies the corruption of the message. The fact that even when a human being speaks as honestly as he or she can, there is an element of incompleteness. We do not know ourselves. Thus, it makes it impossible to know anyone else completely.
The interaction between humans and Luxonians creates an “illuminating” juxtaposition. As a writer, I had to get outside my own skin and attempt to see the human race from a higher perspective. How might we appear if someone from another planet took a long look at us? We are loveable, certainly, but are we admirable?
Science fiction, in a way, embodies all genres and adds a fresh perspective. That’s why I find it has such power in the human imagination. We see, we act, and then—we look up and dream about the biggest question of all—Who am I?
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Brenda knew that she was awake and that her bed was off the ground. But that didn’t seem to change matters for the better.
With a loud thump, it landed on the floor and pretended like it had never flown in its life.
Sitting up didn’t seem to help anything either. It’s not as if she could get out of bed and investigate. The darn thing was now acting as innocent as pecan pie. Besides, she was too frightened to get out from under her thick covers.
She blinked, and the dark room came into focus. The clock on the cabinet glowed red digits warning her that she’d have to get ready for work in a mere four hours. If she didn’t lie down and sleep now, she’d be a wreck at work. Gosh knows, she didn’t need any sly looks from the high schoolers or their teachers who loved to catch any snippet of gossip and wring the life out of it.
Slowly, she lowered her head to the pillow, her gaze fixed on the closet door. If the handle disappeared from her line of sight, she’d know what was going on. Luckily, the only sight that demanded her attention was the back of her eyelids as they covered her concerns in exhaustion.
Morning came bright and early. The birds sang their merry hearts out and then squabbled in turn. Just like some people I know. Brenda hopped out of bed, remembered the nocturnal flight, and froze in mid-step. She peered at the scene, carefully analyzing the exact placement of each piece of furniture.
Yep. The bed had moved. Normally there was a walkway between the edge of the bed and the end table by her reading chair. Now, there was hardly room for a hand, much less a whole body.
She studied the dresser, the file cabinet, and the bookshelf. They all seemed in their usual place, though upon further examination, the file cabinet had parted with the wall by a good two inches.
Conclusion? Some strange force had been at work in her room last night.
Scampering to the bathroom, Brenda accomplished her necessary morning duties in a fraction of their normal time, skipped breakfast altogether, and ran out of her tiny house with her work satchel slung over her shoulder and her phone clutched in her hand.
Pounding along the leaf-strewn sidewalk, she texted with one hand. A skill she had learned from a student waiting to see the principal.
Jim, we have to talk!
Coffee at the Café in 5.
My sanity hangs in the balance.
Of course, Jim always had coffee at the Corner Café before work, so she wasn’t exactly discombobulating his schedule. But as he liked to peruse the want ads, pretending that he was looking for a property where he’d build his dream house, adopt a puppy, and find a charming wife, he always acted like he was too busy to carry his half of a conversation.
He liked to listen though and grunted or hummed in all the right places.
She bounded along the quiet neighborhood street until she got to the Dividing Line. The high school was on one side and the main university campus on the other. She worked as a secretary at the high school. Jim worked as a maintenance guy on campus. They often thought of exchanging places for a day and see if anyone noticed. But as they hated a ruckus of any kind, they figured they’d just imagine the scene it would make and be content with that.
The Corner Café catered to high schoolers and the college crowd, making it a mainstay for more years than anyone could remember. The fact that it was decorated in the fifties style with movie star posters glittering from the walls, made it attractive without causing competitive friction.
Brenda breezed in.
Jim slouched over a newspaper at the counter. A coffee cup and a cream cheese bagel close at hand.
Brenda nodded at Jamie, the waitress, who didn’t need to ask what she’d have. She knew. In her fifties with a shock of red hair, maybe natural, she meandered about the café and accommodated customers with the pleasure of someone who long since decided that she worked to live not lived to work. It was a truce that offered benefits. Never in a hurry, she always brought what you wanted—eventually.
Brenda slid onto the red-covered stool next to Jim. “I got the scare of my life last night.”
Jim scratched his cheek. “Hmm.”
“My bed rose off the floor and then thumped to the ground.”
Jim turned the page of the newspaper with expert care.
“I could have been killed! How about if I had been sleeping on the edge? I sometimes do, you know. I could have slipped off and fallen under one of the legs, and it would’ve punched a big hole through me.”
Jim slapped his cheek.
Got his attention him at last!
Jim flicked a finger at the headlines. “The Paws Place has gone out of business. And just when I was getting up the courage to adopt one of their critters.”
Brenda shoved the paper aside. “Didn’t you hear me? I might have been killed. And even though it was rather unlikely, I still would like to know what the bed was doing bouncing up and down last night. And the file cabinet, too!”
Finally, Jim looked her way. “You do seem a bit disheveled. Did you even glance in the mirror?”
“Was it a poltergeist, you think?”
Jamie sauntered over and placed a cup of hot coffee on the counter in front of Brenda. Then she slid a plate of buttered wheat toast with two little jam packets on the side.
Starving, Brenda ripped open a creamer and four sugar packets and doctored her coffee. Then she tore open the jam packet and looked around for a knife.
None in sight.
A speedster roared down the street.
Jim looked out the window. “That’s Prof Kilroy. Got a new red one and loves to flash it about town.”
Desperate to get her toast jammed, Brenda squeezed the jellied mess onto its appointed destination. She spread it with a finger and nudged Jim with her elbow. “What do you think?”
“Not a poltergeist. They’ve gone completely out of style. Now, back in the eighties, you could still get away with that sort of thing, but try it now, and you’d be laughed out of town.”
Brenda glanced at the wall clock and took two hasty bites, then talked around her chews. “Aliens?”
Jim shrugged. “Possible but still unlikely.” He stared down his nose at her. “Why would aliens want to play pogo stick with your bed? Or redecorate the furniture in your room?”
“Maybe they were just passing through, and their force moved things unintentionally.”
Jim scratched his head, took a large bite of his bagel, and eyed the last dregs of his coffee. “Doesn’t work that way. Anything powerful enough to make it to this world and stupid enough to hang around would have either conquered us already or been decimated by our transportation system.”
A distant bell rang.
Jim sighed, folded his paper, and offered Brenda a deadpanned stare. “The kiddos will want to know where their late slips go, and your principal will want the agenda for the teachers’ meeting.”
Brenda chomped down the last of her toast and chugged her hot coffee, burning the back of her throat. “And campus security will want to know what to do with the latest vandalized bicycle and where to put the tiles that blew off in the storm last night.”
Parting just outside the door, Brenda waved good bye with a composed smile.
Jim waved back and started across the street. Suddenly he called out, “What storm?”
Knowing that she’d never survive the day if she considered Jim’s remark, Brenda pretended she didn’t hear and ran into the school building, hoping that she wasn’t too late.
That evening, Brenda returned home, flung her satchel aside, unloaded her grocery bag, and headed to the bedroom with her mind made up. She wasn’t going to have her life dictated by some malevolent spirits or mysterious aliens. She pulled off her work clothes, dragged on a pair of rugged work jeans and a warm pullover to fight the autumn chill, and faced her bedroom furniture.
“All right now! I’m putting you all back where I want you, and I expect you to behave properly. I’m the one who bought and paid for you, arranged a place for you in my home, and keep you from falling into total degradation in the dump.”
With concerted effort, she pushed the bed and then shoved the file cabinet into their former positions. Satisfied, she clapped her hands. Her world was back in order, and all was well.
Until approximately 2:00 am.
The bed danced, and the furniture shook.
Brenda jumped out of bed and looked around. She had been having a strange dream about ocean waves roaring into a tsunami.
No ocean and no waves, but the floor was definitely vibrating. Perhaps the bed was not actually off the floor, but it had shifted from its assigned position.
The wind shrieked and pounded against the house.
Scampering to the window, she peered into the autumn night. The temperatures had dropped, and she could see leaves swirling in the wind.
Rubbing her arms, she sent a prayer to heaven for her heating system. At least the house was warm.
Then, silence and all was still. The wind settled down, and the floor becalmed.
With a weary sigh, Brenda climbed back into bed to snatch the last few hours of sleep.
In the morning, her hair uncombed and her shirt on inside out, Brenda slipped into place next to Jim at the cafe and pounded her fist on the counter. “It happened again last night! The whole house went on a rampage, and my furniture went where ever they wanted.”
Jim gave her a once over, pity flooding his eyes. He folded the paper and laid it aside.
In unusual efficiency, Jamie placed toast and coffee before Brenda like a lifeboat to a drowning victim. In the first intimidating act of the day, she stared at Jim.
In acknowledgment of the right thing to do, Jim nodded. “I’ll come by tonight and sleep on your couch. We’ll catch the culprit in the act.”
Relieved beyond measure, Brenda kissed Jim on the cheek before she inhaled her breakfast and headed off to work.
That night, Brenda got Jim settled comfortably on the couch with enough pillows and blankets to keep a petulant maharaja happy.
Since the temperatures had dropped below freezing, Brenda set the thermostat higher. It was an ancient heater that predated the civil war or close anyway, so she wanted to be sure that Jim wouldn’t think she was cheapskate and leave him to freeze during the night.
No chance of that as they both flew into the air at approximately the same moment when the house began to shake, rattle, and roll.
“Good golly, this house has more rhythm than the entire sixties generation!” He flicked on the table lamp.
Brenda scampered into the living room both scared silly and wildly exultant. “You see what I mean? It’s practically alive!” She was so glad that she wasn’t crazy that despite the vibrations making the couch skitter across the room, she actually felt amused.
The house settled down as quickly as it had erupted.
Jim plopped down on the edge couch. Or where it had been and promptly landed on the floor.
Brenda giggled as she helped him to his feet. “Gremlins or aliens, do you think?”
Jim snorted and headed directly for the floor vent. He peered at it, then demanded to see the furnace.
Confused, Brenda led the way to the miniature basement and pointed at the behemoth. “It’s been here as long as the house. Never causes me any problem. Just have to turn the dial a little more each year to get it to respond.”
Jim nodded, grabbed a metal poker off the shelf, and tapped the ductwork.
They tinged and banged in response, echoing throughout the house.
Brenda was charmed. “It’s like they’re singing. Do that again; it’s kind of fun.”
Jim snorted. “Ha! Fun you call it. You didn’t like it when they sang you awake the last few nights.”
Flummoxed out of any recognizable speech pattern, Brenda stared at the ordinary looking pipes that ran throughout her house.
“They’re all loosie-goosy—don’t you see? When it got cold, you set the thermostat to kick the furnace on, and so it did. And it set the duct work to singing—or grumbling—all over the house. Which set the furniture to dance on their vibrations.”
Embarrassment flushed through Brenda’s whole body. “Oh, gosh, I’m such an idiot.”
Jim smiled and tentatively placed his arm around her shoulder. “I wouldn’t say that. You’re a secretary who doesn’t know ductwork as well as a maintenance guy.” He led her back upstairs and nudged her toward her bedroom. “Get a blissful night’s sleep. Tomorrow is Saturday, and you can fix coffee and biscuits in the kitchen while I take look about and see what other wonders this house holds.”
Brenda stared at Jim almost as if he had begun to dance. She turned and headed back to bed. When she climbed under the covers, she knew the bed wasn’t floating off the ground. But her heart was.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 15 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
Make the most of life’s journey.
For more stories like this one, check out One Day at a Time—And Other Stories