Why sci-fi is the last great literature of ideas: My latest Wired magazine column

In the current issue of Wired magazine is my latest column — and this one’s about why I love speculative fiction: Because it’s the last remaining literature of big ideas! Check it out on the Wired site for free, and an archived copy is below.

Note to fanboys/fangirls/fanthings: I know I’m using the phrase “science fiction” imprecisely here. Technically, I’m talking about all forms of speculative writing — science fiction, fantasy, realist utopian/dystopian writing, science-fantasy, etc. But since most Wired readers probably aren’t familiar with these distinctions, nor with the term “speculative fiction” as a genus that contains many species, I used “science fiction” in its place … even though this usage is imprecise and basically inaccurate. (BTW, the graphic above is a crop of the nifty illustration accompanying the piece, by Rodrigo Corral.)

And away we go …

Take the Red Book
Why Sci-Fi Is the Last Bastion of Philosophical Writing
by Clive Thompson

Recently I read a novella that posed a really deep question: What would happen if physical property could be duplicated like an MP3 file? What if a poor society could prosper simply by making pirated copies of cars, clothes, or drugs that cure fatal illnesses?

The answer Cory Doctorow offers in his novella After the Siege is that you’d get a brutal war. The wealthy countries that invented the original objects would freak out, demand royalties from the developing ones, and, when they didn’t get them, invade. Told from the perspective of a young girl trying to survive in a poor country being bombed by well-off adversaries, After the Siege is an absolute delight, by turns horrifying, witty, and touching.

Technically, After the Siege is a work of science fiction. But as with so many sci-fi stories, it works on two levels, exploring real-world issues like the plight of African countries that can’t afford AIDS drugs. The upshot is that Doctorow’s fiction got me thinking — on a Lockean level — about the nature of international law, justice, and property.

Which brings me to my point. If you want to read books that tackle profound philosophical questions, then the best — and perhaps only — place to turn these days is sci-fi. Science fiction is the last great literature of ideas.

From where I sit, traditional “literary fiction” has dropped the ball. I studied literature in college, and throughout my twenties I voraciously read contemporary fiction. Then, eight or nine years ago, I found myself getting — well — bored.

Why? I think it’s because I was reading novel after novel about the real world. And there are, at the risk of sounding superweird, only so many ways to describe reality. After I’d read my 189th novel about someone living in a city, working in a basically realistic job and having a realistic relationship and a realistically fraught family, I was like, “OK. Cool. I see how today’s world works.” I also started to feel like I’d been reading the same book over and over again.

Here’s my overly reductive, incredibly nerdy way of thinking about the novel: Consider it a simulation, kind of like The Sims. If you run a realistic simulation enough times — writing tens of thousands of novels about contemporary life — eventually you’re going to explore almost every outcome. So what do you do then?

You change the physics in the sim. Alter reality — and see what new results you get. Which is precisely what sci-fi does. Its authors rewrite one or two basic rules about society and then examine how humanity responds — so we can learn more about ourselves. How would love change if we lived to be 500? If you could travel back in time and revise decisions, would you? What if you could confront, talk to, or kill God?

Teenagers love to ponder such massive, brain-shaking concepts, which is precisely why they devour novels like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, the Narnia series, the Harry Potter books, and Ender’s Game. They know that big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.

Adults and serious intellectuals used to love ruminating over this stuff, too. Thought experiments formed the foundation of Western philosophy — from Socrates to Thomas Hobbes to Simone de Beauvoir.

So, then, why does sci-fi, the inheritor of this intellectual tradition, get short shrift among serious adult readers? Probably because the genre tolerates execrable prose stylists. Plus, many of sci-fi’s most famous authors — like Robert Heinlein and Philip K. Dick — have positively deranged notions about the inner lives of women.

But the worm is turning. For whatever reasons — maybe the reality fatigue I’ve felt — a lot of literary writers are trying their hand at speculative fiction. Philip Roth used a “counterfactual” history — what if Nazi sympathizers in the US won the 1940 election? — to explore anti-Semitism in The Plot Against America. Cormac McCarthy muses on the nature of morality in the Hobbesian anarchy of his novel The Road. Then there’s the genre-bending likes of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Susanna Clarke, and Margaret Atwood (whom I like to think of as a sci-fi novelist trapped inside a literary author).

Those aren’t writers whose books are adorned with embossed dragons. But that doesn’t mean they don’t owe that dragon a large debt.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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