Rather than bore you with our perspective alone, today we have invited a guest to rant and muse about science fiction with us. My brother, Seth Brake, has his own blog at http://thesoapboxguild.wordpress.com/ Go check it out!
It would cause most people either unhealthy pride or deep shame to be able to explain the dates and important figures involved in the completely fictional “Galactic Civil War” from the Star Wars Universe. Knowing trivial bits of information about real history is questionable enough, but fictional history has to be an almost immoral waste of mental storage. I have been asked why on earth I know all of this meaningless information. My answer could easily have been that I was a nerdy middle schooler and I can’t forget, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. I still occasionally “nerd out” about fictional universes because it is one of the best tools for thinking about the real world.
It is hard to find someone who is willing to have a debate about just war or political legitimacy; most people aren’t interested in abstract political thought, yet when I begin a conversation by asserting that the CIS was the just side of the Clone Wars, even a part-time nerd can be tricked into a discussion about political philosophy. Similarly, philosophy bores people. Very few people will be interested in a conversation about stoicism or romanticism, but if I offend sensibilities by arguing that the Jedi were just as evil as the Sith, all of a sudden I have instigated a serious philosophical discussion that many more people are interested in. Why is this? Because science fiction offers a unique method for discussing big ideas: by removing the trappings of the real world we can isolate important issues and discuss them while having fun at the same time. It is a win-win situation.
Falling into fascinating discussions is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Science fiction opens doors to hypothetical scenarios in ways that no other forms of literature can. This is why works of philosophy sometimes read very disturbingly like science fiction. When Plato imagines a society in The Republic, it reads like bad science fiction. When Thomas Moore spins his perfect world in Utopia, it could almost be shelved next to Asimov. This is because science fiction allows big ideas to be grappled with in ways that do not carry accidental connotations as easily as the real world. When we talk about civilian bombing campaigns, we get distracted by Hitler, Uncle Sam, Pearl Harbor, and other details. In science fiction we can isolate principles from details and discuss the Centauri bombing of Narn or the Death Star. It is also simpler emotionally; no one’s father died in the Clone Wars. No one’s uncle fought to defeat the Emperor. Thus, one can have a discussion refuting the Jedi philosophy without running the risk of alienating your Jedi friends.
Furthermore, the more abstract a discipline, the more difficult it is to test. In scientific analysis, researchers identify a variable they want to study and isolate it. But in fields such as philosophy this is either impossible or immoral. This is where science fiction fills in the gap. Does tightening your grip really cause more start systems to slip through your fingers? Can fear really keep the local systems in line? Is our future more like Star Trek’s human perfection or Dune’s near-complete evil?
Science fiction is often criticized for having lower-quality control than other genres, but this criticism fails on two counts. First of all, there have been some amazing science fiction authors and film makers, but more importantly, science fiction always puts the idea before the quality because it is about the ideas primarily. Science fiction places supremacy on the concept presented: I accept the occasionally awful acting and lines in Star Wars and Star Trek, not because I am blind to quality, but because they open the door to a beneficial story. Anyone can attempt to write science fiction and if they have something to contribute to the discussion they are welcomed.
So embrace the strange lands and deeds of science fiction. They may come with foreign environments, clumsy exposition, and awkward discussions about Anakin’s hatred of sand, but they open the doors to meaningful discussion and the closest thing philosophers can get to ethical experimentation. So indulge the occasional opportunities to “nerd out” every now and again. In the words of Ben Kenobi in Star Wars, you may find it “more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”