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Traces of the Future: Biotechnology, Science Fiction, and the Media

Sheryl N. Hamilton
Science Fiction Studies
Vol. 30, No. 2, Social Science Fiction (Jul., 2003), pp. 267-282
Published by: SF-TH Inc
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4241173
Page Count: 16
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Traces of the Future: Biotechnology, Science Fiction, and the Media
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Abstract

When media report on biotechnologies, they almost inevitably invoke science fiction. We often hear reporters musing that "the stuff of science fiction became science fact today," or scientists hastening to reassure a potentially nervous public that the latest technology does not herald sf-style horrors for the human race. These sorts of references are rarely to specific sf texts and generally do not assume a prior knowledge of science fiction as a genre. Rather, they are a generalized reference to an imaginative and imagined future, whether positive or negative. This essay takes up this rhetorical practice and what it means for our understandings of both science and sf. I consider a corpus of print-media treatments of biotechnology in North America from 1990 to 2001. Drawing upon risk theory and its consideration of the ways in which scientific expertise is being questioned in late modernity, I draw out two overarching tendencies within the media coverage. Both posit a relationship linking science, the imagination, and the future. The first, which constructs science as the stuff of science fiction, works to reenchant science, adding to it the wonder and optimism of sf: the imagination of science fiction fuels science as a future-looking knowledge. The second, which constructs science fiction as bad science, disenchants science, marking the imagination of sf as dangerous to the pure knowledge of empirical research. Interestingly, however, in both, sf works as a figure to legitimize biotechnological science and reinvest it with credibility in a risk society otherwise increasingly critical of scientific expertise.

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