An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2010

Does science fiction suggest futures for news?

Loren Frank Ghiglione

Loren Ghiglione, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2004, is the Richard A. Schwarzlose Professor of Media Ethics at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University; from 2001 to 2006 he was Medill's Dean. He was the owner and Editor of the Southbridge (Mass.) Evening News and ran its parent company, Worcester County Newspapers, for twenty-six years before entering academia. He served as President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1989–1990 and President of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2006–2007. A regular commentator for national news outlets, he is the author or editor of eight books about journalism, including cbs's Don Hollenbeck: An Honest Reporter in the Age of McCarthyism (2008).

If at first an idea does not sound absurd, then there is no hope for it.
–Albert Einstein

I long dismissed science fiction as fairytale foolishness banged out by hacks for barely literate adolescents. Such fiction was aimed at pimply teenage boys who purchased or purloined their sci-fi paperbacks from the bus-station racks next to displays of romance novels and the hardcore men’s magazines in brown wrappers.

My doubts about speculative fiction echoed the reservations of philosophers, poets, and scholars, ancient and contemporary. Aristotle warned that no one can narrate what has yet to happen. John Donne dismissed as perverse those who undertake “to write a chronicle of things before they are done.”1

A more contemporary commentator, the English literature professor Tom Shippey, described the revulsion by otherwise open-minded, sophisticated academic colleagues toward science fiction: “They ‘never read science fiction, just can’t read science fiction, don’t see how anyone gets anything out of science fiction.’”2

The presence in science fiction of many bits of hard-to-digest information that Shippey calls “not-true, but also . . . not-unlike-true, not-flatly- (and in the current state of knowledge) impossible” annoys those academic readers.3 They are troubled by technological gimmicks and fanciful otherworldliness. They are perplexed by intentionally confusing narrative and references to an unfamiliar, futuristic device, concept, or circumstance that the author has not fully explained.

They also may be bothered, I suspect, by science fiction’s subversiveness–its attack on reality and fact. Science fiction suggests illogical, counterfactual possibilities. A future based on those possibilities may threaten logical people who have thought of the future as something that can be rationally determined.

But, as I will try to make clear, science fiction, like a giant July 4th fireworks pinwheel, throws off flashes of potential futures for news that readers are not likely to encounter by reading the predictions and prefigurements of scientists and other scholars. However rational, however commonsensical, the scientists and scholars may fail precisely because they are rational and commonsensical. The writers of speculative fiction choose instead to explore ideas that, while not demon- . . .


  • 1Paul K. Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 3.
  • 2Tom Shippey, ed., Fictional Space: Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 3.
  • 3Ibid., 9.
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