A lot of science fiction incorporates medicine—be it realistic, fantastic, futuristically life-enhancing, or horrific. A new project at Scotland’s University of Glasgow, dubbed “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities,” aims to study creative visions of medical care, and one crowdsourced aspect of it needs your help.
Anna McFarlane, one of the academics working under Dr. Gavin Miller at the university’s Medical Humanities Research Centre in its School of Critical Studies, contacted io9 to see if our readers—who are, you know, slightly obsessed with science fiction—would lend a hand. “I think it will be interesting to some io9 readers, both those who are interested in [scifi] as critics or academics, and more casual readers who might be interested in making sure that some of their favorite medical science fiction media makes it into the database,” she writes.
Here’s more from McFarlane about the project, which is still very much in its early stages (as of this writing, it only had six entries under “motion pictures”).
In less than two years we’ll find ourselves celebrating the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein a novel that, in the view of many science fiction authors and critics, started the genre that we now know as science fiction. Shelley’s mash-up of cutting-edge medical technology with age-old philosophical concerns struck a chord with readers and has never gone unread for long. But what does this close relationship between medicine and the birth of science fiction tell us?
In recent years looking at the connections between medicine and humanities subjects, like literature or film studies, has become relatively common. Some university medical programmes recognise that the study of the humanities can have an important role to play in training people to become doctors or nurses, as the Narrative Medicine course at Columbia University shows, or the University of Edinburgh’s Literature and Medicine module which allows medics-in-training to look at how illness and treatment have been described in literature, both fiction and non-fiction.
However, despite science fiction’s close relationship with medicine there hasn’t been much of an effort to explore the connections between science fiction and the medical humanities. In 2002 science fiction academics Gary Westfahl and George Slusser did produce a collection called No Cure For the Future that catalogued the ways in which medicine has appeared in science fiction literature, but apart from this there has been very little exploration and analysis. In the Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities project, funded by the Wellcome Trust and based at the University of Glasgow, myself and Dr Gavin Miller have been doing our best to redress this oversight by asking not just what science fiction can do for medical practitioners, but what it can do for our engagement with the medical establishment.
Studying science fiction can help doctors to face ethical issues, such as the possibility of reanimation in Frankenstein. Science fiction asks the question ‘what if?’ which can help to think about ethics in a more humane way: what if we could give someone super powers by depriving them of oxygen, as happened to Deadpool? Or by feeding their mothers LSD like Eleven in Stranger Things? What if wealthy people had perfect and complete access to healthcare while the 99% suffered as in Elysium? All of these questions can help people involved in the medical industry to think about the consequences of their actions, and how medicine might develop in the future.
But science fiction studies can also be enriched by taking the skills of a science fiction scholar and applying them to the practice and social reality of the medical establishment. We can discuss what’s happening when a pharmaceutical company draws on utopian language to promote its endeavours. We can read the political objectives implicit in the direction of medical provision. We can ask whether medical technology is helping the disabled community or treating them as subjects that need to be ‘fixed’, as Kathryn Allen and Djibril al-Ayad do in their short story collection Accessing the Future. Through this kind of critical thinking science fiction writers and scholars can do what they do best; challenge the status quo by asking ‘what if things were different?’
To make this project as successful as it can be we’re asking for help from the whole science fiction community. We’re building a database of science fiction novels, short stories, films, and television shows that deal with medical issues and we’ve opened it up to contributors so that we can crowdsource as complete a list as possible. In the future we hope that this database will be used as a resource for academics to find information about medical science fiction texts, but hopefully it’ll also be an inspiration to non-academics, a place where anyone can come to see the ways that science fiction has tested the boundaries of medical technology and medical ethics. It will hopefully add to a conversation that has to include us all since the field of medicine is the place where we come most intimately into contact with the future and its technologies.
Contributing to the database is easy—just head to the “Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities” site, register, and start adding away.