This post started life as a digression. I was trying to write a book review of Changing Planes by Ursula le Guin, but found myself thinking about this stuff and about a conversation I had a while ago. Hopefully the book review will follow soon, unless it spawns more digressions.
A while ago, I was talking to an acquaintance about radio listening and about what kind of book we liked to read. She turned out to be a big fan of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time, which considers the history of ideas and goes into each of its subjects in some depth. I like it too, but don’t often hear it as it clashes with rehearsals for one of my orchestras. It gets to grips properly with some very interesting subject matter. (If you want to hear for yourself, you can download the latest episode here.)
We both liked to read factual books–often science ones in my case. I said I don’t read very much fiction, and that when I do, it’s quite unusual for it to be set in the normal, everyday world. I tend to feel there’s quite enough reality happening to me already without inventing more of it. So I find myself reading books like Ella Minnow Pea (see my review), set in a world where letters of the alphabet have been banned, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, where everything works (unreliably) by magic. The more inventive the better. (I generally hate crime fiction, since detective novels always seem to involve the same crime and story: murder committed, idiosyncratic detective solves puzzle, murderer caught, end of book. And there’s plenty of crime in the news already, which is quite depressing enough, thank you very much.)
Anyway my acquaintance said she couldn’t see the point of science fiction or fantasy and never read any. I think she saw it as merely escaping into a fantasy world disconnected from reality; it would be more interesting to get to grips with real issues about the real world. So she found it a bit silly, I think. Fairy tales for grown-ups, with no real content.
I was quite surprised, since that’s not how I see science fiction and fantasy at all. I pointed out that they’re all about exploring ideas, and that Terry Pratchett’s books are full of erudite references if you look for them…
What do science fiction and fantasy do?
There isn’t really a clear boundary between science fiction and fantasy. I suppose the best definition is to say that science fiction is generally set in a more technologically advanced version of this world, while fantasy lives in an entirely invented one. Or maybe, to suggest that if a science fiction book keeps annoying you because the science couldn’t work, you’d be better off thinking of it as fantasy… But the distinction doesn’t really matter here.
It seems to me that both genres use freedom of imagination to create freedom of thought. They do this by stretching or altering reality in some way. Yes, this can be done simply for purposes of entertainment and escapism, as in Doctor Who or Star Wars. But if you’re interested in ideas, creating an alternative reality can be an excellent way to explore them. This is particularly true for deeper ones about the nature of our existence, our humanity, or society and the world around us.
Albert Einstein’s thinking was a good example of this. He developed many of his ideas for the theory of relativity through what he called “thought experiments”. One of these involved imagining what it would be like to ride on a light wave. That’s impossible: nobody can ride a light ware, at the speed of light. But he explored it anyway, gaining deep insights into how the real world works. Einstein’s thought experiments were science fiction in miniature, and inventive science fiction at that.
An example in philosophy involves the use of a teleporting device. It works in the standard science fiction way: a person is disassembled into atoms at one end, and a perfect copy assembled at the other, complete with the same memories, personality etc. Is the person who comes out at the other end the one who went in? What if a copy is made but the original survives too–who is the real one? Why? We’re brought face to face with questions about consciousness and identity. What makes you you? What is a person?
Many things are so familiar to us that it’s hard to think clearly about them. We’re immersed in them. They’re the way they’ve always been. Our thoughts about them form a deeply-ingrained world-view: our society, our own nature, the world around us… It’s hard to notice the assumptions we make about these things and question them; we tend to think everything is the only way it can be.
What I think science fiction does is to create an alternative viewpoint from which we can stand back and see the world from outside in order to think about it more clearly. It does this in several ways:
- Changing some important aspect of reality, in order to explore its nature or its significance to us.
- Placing human beings in situations which can’t exist, to explore more deeply some aspect of human nature as they react to it.
- Inventing a society or world-view very different from our own, in order to highlight our essential human values and why they matter to us.
- Ditto, but in order to highlight and satirise our absurdities and stupidities and why we’d be better off without them.
- Inventing a world in which some aspect of our behaviour or thinking is taken to the extreme, so as to explore the consequences and implications of that behaviour.
When we’ve got only our own reality, we’ve nothing to compare it with. When we’ve got an invented one too, the features of our own stand out and we can do some serious thinking about them and gain some real insights.
So good science fiction, far from being escapist, is actually a challenge: to explore freely with our minds, wherever the ideas lead, to be open to alternative ways of seeing the world, and to question and develop our own ideas about it. And that, I think, is well worthwhile.