“Good science fiction is intelligent. It asks big questions that are on people’s minds.” – Nicholas Cage
The Search for Truth
Thinkers have always sought answers to big questions in life. What is God? What is consciousness? Do we have a soul? What does it mean to be human? Matters beyond the realm of science are the preserve of philosophy and religion. And for the last fifty years, sci-fi and fantasy have also been insightful in probing such issues—not through logic or faith but by speculation—by assuming a hypothetical premise to be true and exploring its implications.
The clue to its success is in the name. Speculative fiction is a genre of invented worlds where anything is possible. And since it is unconstrained by reality, theory, or dogma, it illuminates from angles that philosophy and theology never can.
Speculative fiction tackles philosophical themes by staging dramas that put the abstract in a context an audience can relate to. Take the question of deities. In Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel, American Gods, deities from the old world battle with gods created by people’s modern desires: technology and the internet, media and money. Nowhere does Gaiman try to prove that gods exist; he presupposes they do. The story explores how humanity created its gods—how we personified natural forces to explain them. Gaiman conjectures that this instinct is embedded in the human psyche, and he speculates how it might cause people to personify and deify forces of today’s consumer-driven digital economy. American Gods is no mere escapism. It is a journey into the nature of deities and our belief in them, which leaves us asking whether we are god-made or whether gods are invented by our imagination.
The phenomena of consciousness and what it means to be human are frequent themes in speculative fiction. A classic trope is the blurring of lines between biology and technology through the rise of artificial intelligence. As differences become obscured, sci-fi speculates that androids might one day develop self-awareness and emotions, like Rachel in Blade Runner. Perhaps they might dream, as in Isaac Asimov’s Robot Dreams. But what could robots teach us about the human condition?
In the HBO series, Westworld, human clients of an adult theme park act out their depravities on sentient androids. It’s a world where robots are indistinguishable from humans and yet clients act inhumanly towards them. The plotline raises questions about being human: If a machine can think and feel pain, is it a lesser being? Then there’s the moral dimension: What does the story say about people when we abuse individuals we consider less than human? Westworld uses androids as a mirror to society, forcing us to confront the consequences of our capacity for cruelty toward one another.
The immortal soul is another recurring theme in speculative fiction. Some religions claim humans have souls that live on when we die. But if the body is just a biological machine and the body and soul are separate, could mechanical machines one day develop souls? Is a soul even necessary to experience eternal life? Rapid advances in robotics already help us escape the physical limitations of our bodies. What if you could upload your consciousness to the cloud? Might this technology one day help us cheat death in a way religion cannot guarantee? In the “USS Callister” episode of the TV series The Black Mirror, a disgruntled programmer creates sentient, digital clones of colleagues who he intimidates and tortures in the everlasting purgatory of a virtual reality game. The show raises sinister consequences of creating sentience and warns us to be wary of technology. But like Westworld, The Black Mirror serves as a commentary on the human condition by suggesting the problem is not technology; it’s the people using it.
There’s Nothing Like a Good Story
Speculative fiction depicts the unknown in a setting we can understand. And it makes abstract concepts accessible by showing how three-dimensional characters deal with such situations. What’s more, as Steven Spielberg said, “It’s easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we’re preaching to them.”
Sci-fi and fantasy have never shied away from tackling big ideas. But their role is not to persuade or provide us with answers; it is to make us look at questions from different angles—and all through the medium of a thumping good story.
Stephen Chamberlain is the author of the fantasy novel Graëlfire. He draws inspiration from the impact of landscape on myth, and the association of liminality with the supernatural and magic. Stephen lives in Switzerland.