Why scifi?

Today on Twitter I was talking about writing science fiction and fantasy when this guy came along to criticize:


I gave up on arguing with him after awhile, but it’s been lingering on my mind all afternoon. How can people not get that a robot book isn’t just about robots?

Take the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Measure of a Man.” A robotics specialist wants to take Data the android apart and see how he works. Data doesn’t want to be taken apart, of course, and there’s a whole legal battle about whether he has the right to refuse. Is he a person in the eyes of the law, or a machine?

Picard goes through the philosophy of what exactly gives a person human rights, and then points out that eventually there will be lots of androids like Data. When history looks back and asks how we treated the first androids, we don’t want to be embarrassed that we treated them as subhuman if they weren’t. There’s a little nod to slavery there, as we are reminded that history is full of people deciding other people didn’t count as human enough to have rights.

I could list other examples: The Murderbot Diaries, Ancillary Justice and its sequels, Asimov’s robot books. All of them ask if it’s possible for us to miss the personhood of a being we’ve created, and what would happen if we did. Could there be a more important moral question?

Of course that relates to a homeless guy on the street, or starving people in another country, or people in prison or detention. It relates because failing to recognize the personhood of others is a perennial problem which we need to read about and write about and think about from as many angles as possible.

Now it’s not only a symbol. As technology advances, we’ll have to be answering questions like “Is a genetically modified human a person?” or “Is an alien a person?” or even, yeah, “Is an artificial intelligence a person?” We don’t yet know what’s possible. That makes it all the more vital that we think about it ahead of time, that we put ourselves in the shoes of all the characters in the drama and ask ourselves how it feels.

Recently I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, which is mostly about driving around the Martian landscape in rovers but also addresses the questions of who owns Mars, do we have the right to terraform it, who has the right to mine it or profit off of it. That wasn’t an urgent problem in 1993, but today Elon Musk says he’ll get people there by 2050, complete with jobs there for them to do to work off the cost of the ticket out. We need to be thinking now if he should be allowed to do that, and what will happen to the people who take his promise of a new world. Thinking about it when he’s landed a million people there and set them to mining it will be much too late.

Science fiction can also be inspiring: like A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, which imagines a human race that’s been forced to get beyond war and learn to coexist after Earth has become uninhabitable. You find yourself asking: is that possible? Is that what I would like to see? How could we do that before the earth has been destroyed? Or Star Trek, which came out in 1966. The moon landing wasn’t until 1969! Generations of astronauts have been inspired by Star Trek to pursue space, the final frontier. Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti even wore a Starfleet uniform in space. Fiction sows these dreams in our minds, and what exists in our minds, we can bring into reality. Some futures are worth making happen.

Fiction of any kind is morally important. I hear reading fiction is associated with greater empathy, and no wonder: seeing the world through different eyes makes it possible to imagine much better the consequences of our own actions. And of course fiction lets you walk through moral choices ahead of time, and wonder whether you would have chosen any differently from how the characters do. It doesn’t have to be a moral tale for us to do that; any fiction will do. But I think writing about robots, and aliens, and spaceships is a vitally important kind, because it allows us to imagine things it’s hard to wrap our minds around any other way–things we need, as humans, to imagine.