Science fiction can be used as an allegorical medium, allowing ideas to be taken out of their familiar context and shown in a new light. A great example is the classic Star Trek episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, which involves two races, both of which are half black and half white. The dominant race are black on the right side, white on the left. They are at war with their slave race, who are white on the right, black on the left. This is an obvious allegory for racial conflict in the 1960s (the first episode aired in 1969).
Allegory can be interesting, but in my opinion, a higher form of science fiction is the “what if” story. In this subgenre, the author takes a single idea and explores what its implications would be if it were true. For example, the movie In Time explores the implications of the idea that, after age 25, each person has a year to live, but can either earn more time, or spend the time they have.
Again in my opinion, the highest form of science fiction is the milieu story. What I mean by this is a story that explores the larger question of what the future might look like. A great example of a milieu is Frank Herbert’s Dune. In such a story, the author tries to conceive of an entire universe. You can think of it as a whole series of “what ifs”, stitched together. At its best, its seamless, and you are transported to a possible future, at least for a time.
I’ve written “what if” stories in the past, but I’ve always wanted to write a science fiction novel with a fully imagined future, and have even started one a couple of times. For example, here is one beginning, a dystopian future in which the world has fallen into an ice age, and has become largely depopulated outside the equatorial belt. How would technologically modern humans live in such a world?
Andros pushed on through the blowing snow, his carbon fiber snow shoes keeping his bulky form from sinking into the deep powder. This early in the summer, the temperature was only ten degrees below freezing, but with the wind chill, it was bitterly cold. He monitored his body temperature, making sure that his core temperature wasn’t falling. His suit could keep him warm, but he was loath to use his batteries unless he needed to.
This far north, the Rocky Mountains were treacherous. Their slopes were heavily glaciated, and they were uninhabited. If Andros wasn’t certain that there was valuable salvage to be had here, he would never have come. He checked his position. The entrance to the old silo should be close. He took off his pack, removed the shoes and tied them to it, then took out crampons and attached them to his boots. He free climbed an icy rock fall, carefully picking his holds, then hauled himself up onto a level ledge.
The mountainside rose shearly from the ledge, which was about six meters wide, and ran for twice that distance along the cliff. Andros took a collapsible shovel from his pack and began to dig down into the snow piled at it’s base. The drifts were meters deep. By the time he reached the base of the cliff, he was breathing hard, his breath smoking in the chill air. The sun was low on the horizon. Andros searched along the mountainside, and finally found what he was looking for: a door, buried in the snow.
The ancient lock had long since lost power, and was probably frozen solid. Andros took out his acetylene torch and began carefully cutting through the metal. While he worked, the sun set behind a neighboring peak, and the air temperature dropped even further. Despite the fact that if he didn’t take shelter, he would likely freeze to death on the mountainside, he worked calmly. Satisfied at last, he stowed the torched, took hold of the door handle and pulled. The door was frozen shut, but his strength was more than a match for the ice. He swung the heavy steel door open on its stiff hinges and passed within.
The bunker was dark. Andros used his torch to search for the emergency lights. The place was without power, but its builders had provided it with multiple levels of backup. The government had doubtless drained the vast diesel reservoir before abandoning the facility, but throwing the switch, he discovered to his relief that the battery backup remained operational. In the dim glow of the emergency lights, he descended past the control room and into the silo.
His prize, a pair of nuclear missiles, remained untouched. The silo’s shaft to the surface was blocked, but the open space was still very cold. Andros gathered as much flammable material as he could, lit a fire, found another switch, and turned off the lights to wait for morning. He lay back on the hard concrete floor and let himself drift off to sleep, warmed by the small blaze.
* * *
When Andros woke, the fire had gone out. He expended some power to warm himself, turned on the emergency lights, and got to work disassembling the missiles. While he worked, his suit fed him nutrients. As soon as he had the multiple warheads contained in each of the missiles removed and wrapped in heavy leaded fabric that would protect him from the radiation escaping from the fissionable material, plutonium and deuterium, inside them, he carefully carried his bundle back up to the door and out into the cold late morning sunshine.
The climb down took longer than the climb up had. His prizes were awkward, and he took his time descending the fallen rubble that had been the bed of the access road that had once led to the silo. When he reached more level ground, he hiked to his snow mobile and its stash of precious gasoline. To his relief, they were both where he had left them. He loaded the warheads into the back of the snowmobile, and was soon riding across the desolate country, following his own tracks back to the off road vehicle he had left parked just off the nearest access road.
Hours passed as Andros slowly descended into the western foothills of the Rockies and made his way toward the place he had left his all terrain vehicle camouflaged, some miles from the old interstate highway, which remained a route traveled between the south and the hunting grounds and mountaintop arcologies of the resource rich north. As night fell, he checked his position and found that he was within a mile of the jeep.
He pulled the snowmobile under an overhanging bush, cut the engine, and set off on foot to get the ATV. Though there were few permanent settlements left this far north, he was cautious. If the vehicle had been discovered, scavengers may have stayed with it, hoping to ambush him on his return. Though his instincts told him it was unlikely, the years had taught him to be cautious.
At 500 meters, Andros paused and examined the site, his night vision giving him a clear view of the site, despite the minimal light cast by the stars and a quarter moon that hung low near the horizon. The camouflage covering the ATV looked intact, but it didn’t match the image he’d captured as he left the site two days ago. The disturbance could have been due to the wind, or to wildlife. There were no tracks to be seen, but fresh snow had fallen on the site, which would hide any such trace.
He scanned the trees surrounding the site. There was motion in the woods to the west of the ATV, so minor he’d almost missed it. He zoomed in on it. A man, wearing a heavy hunting jacket, lay in wait behind a well camouflaged hunting blind. He was holding a high powered rifle, and was paying fairly close attention to the site. Andros looked for others, and found a second man to the southeast, perched in a spreading maple, similarly armed and watching the site through binoculars.
Reaching into his pack, Andros drew forth his weapon. He activated the laser site, pointed it at the man behind the blind, and painted the man’s head with a dot of ultraviolet light. To Andros’s enhanced eyes, the dot shone brightly. He waited for a moment, listening to see if anyone had been alerted by the ultraviolet light, then fired. The man slumped to the ground, a smoking hole burned through his head. Andros expelled the spent slug from the gun. The gun was completely silent, but he reloaded quickly, knowing the man’s companion would notice he’d dropped before long.
With his second shot, Andros killed the man in the tree. Unfortunately, the man’s body fell from the tree with a noisy thump. Any others who were lurking would now doubtless be aware that he had returned. He ejected the slug from the gun and reloaded while silently circling the ATV. Finally, satisfied that the two men were the only ones waiting in ambush, he went down to the ATV, disabled its defenses, removed the camouflage, opened the door, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
The engine started with a growl, and Andros checked the sensors, making sure that there were no other warm bodies near his position. Satisfied, he got out of the ATV, walked to the first of the bodies, and removed the man’s gun and clothing, leaving his corpse for the wolves. Returning to the ATV, Andros drove over to the second man and gave him the same treatment. He then drove to where he’d left the snow mobile and loaded it into the ATV. Satisfied, he shut down the engine, turned on the security system, and lay back to get some sleep before dawn.