Why I read science fiction

November 6, 2016

When I heard Barry Ritholz and Bill McNabb, CEO of Vanguard recently discussing how much science fiction they read, it made me smile. Listen to it - they talk about covering the entire genre till only the obscure titles are left. Outside of topics related to my job, science fiction is the largest genre of books that I consume.

Why? To open myself for the future. Not to predict it, but to be flexible about how much stranger it might be, than I expect it to be. To have experienced possible versions of the future before they happen. The fact that science fiction is ideas wrapped in stories is important. Chuck Klosterman, in But What If We’re Wrong? says:

Storytelling .. (is).. a flawed process without a better alternative. We are socially conditioned to understand the universe through storytelling, and— even if we weren’t— there’s neurological evidence that the left hemisphere of our brain automatically organizes information into an explainable, reassuring narrative. This is how the world will be understood, even if we desire otherwise.

When I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t want it to feel like work. But I still love the feeling of ideas, of exploring something new and it feeling like an adventure. Scientific American focuses on facts, not stories. My brain will only really retain and structure these ideas if they can put them into a story. History books are narratives about what happened, written by the winners. This is how WWII began and ended. This is how Robert Moses made New York City. This is how Lincoln reunited the country.

History is reduced and concentrated over time.

Each story begins with a wide array of circumstances, randomness, and perspective… and over time are reduced down to a single, simple narrative. Even the most broad books like Guns, Germs and Steel and Sapiens seem overly reductive.

They use so much history to speak of the future, without learning the most important lesson: the future is really really hard to predict.

The fact that you know how the story ends means you aren’t experiencing history with the blindness and concern than we have for the future. With hindsight, the past seems inevitable. I will have to live in the future.

So if I want to be ready for the future, to have mental models of how things will work in the future, I need narratives about the future. I want to have the story of ubiquitous information, or costless robot labor, or perfect virtual reality, or genetic engineering, or interest rates at near-light speed. So how does science fiction accomplish this?

This is just part of the preface to Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness:

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the Second World War; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…
The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrödinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future— indeed Schrödinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted— but to describe reality, the present world. Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

What are the ‘what-if’s’ science fiction is asking? Here are key ones from books I’ve read over the past two years:

  • How would you communicate with an intelligence that is really different than you?
  • How does our genetic, individual, family or species organization make us more or less likely to survive on a cosmic scale?
  • How is our consciousness a handicap?
  • What are the assumptions you don’t realize you have?
  • How does technology change us in fundamental ways?
  • What is the nature of intelligent life in the universe? Is it kind, cruel; brave or scared?
  • What do we really care about? Life, wealth, family, pride?
  • How do our senses and world help us see, or make us blind to, truths about the universe?

Did you notice that most of those questions are about us, as much as they are about others?

There are not definite answers, but they make you thoughtful and avoid being too confident in your predictions. Some of the best new science fiction is coming from outside America and the UK, and being translated into English. That’s great, both for us, and them. We can learn a lot from “aliens”… be they real or imagined, legal or illegal.