The horrific and hilarious “back” of science fiction

Renowned science-fiction writer Eric Hobsbawm once argued that “the job of science fiction has always been to raise us above our immediate problems. Its main task is to convince the human race that our problems are problems of the same order of magnitude as the very great challenges of human life: the survival of our species.”

That “ethic of return” has become so firmly ingrained in the literary imagination that the majority of short stories, novels and science fiction stories have to some extent an unspoken subtext that asks us to consider the gravity of human problems and what we can do about them. Just take the recent dystopian HBO series Westworld. But this basic principle hasn’t always been applied so enthusiastically. At the beginning of the 20th century, authors such as HG Wells and Isaac Asimov mostly avoided mentioning social problems in their work – despite the fact that many of their contemporaries were clearly grappling with them.

First up is Elizabeth Holmes, the Silicon Valley magnate who founded a revolutionary biotechnology company, Theranos. Theranos was a company that gave many a skeptic pause for thought about the future of medicine: their devices required a wide range of liquid samples to be drawn before treatment could be administered. Holmes and her team believed their method was so revolutionary that only the sickest patients would suffer major side effects from the tests – the vulnerable, say. But while her claims to the contrary seemed largely without substance, a series of government investigations which found the company to be bogus never let the case rest. By 2015 Holmes was forced to pull the plug on her company, her reputation in tatters.

All of which sounds fairly depressing. But this isn’t the case, because Elizabeth Holmes, as this video shows, appears pretty bright and sunny in real life. The multi-millionaire entrepreneur appears downright giddy talking about her future successes – presumably as far away from the spectacles and hoodie as we will ever get.

Part of the allure of that glee, possibly, is her determination to raise a family with Theranos, despite the fact that she was already 34 years old when she launched her eponymous company. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for her to set off as a 30-year-old, defying the government, taking a big risk and taking on huge risks. A little of that excitement – the “Ethic of Return” – has made its way into our everyday storytelling.

This week she appears on BBC2 and the independent television channel Quest Red, in her first public appearance since Theranos was revealed to be a fraud. Join us on Tuesday as she returns to the stand at one of the world’s biggest science fiction conventions, Guelph Calling, and finds out exactly how “back” she really is.

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