Using Sci-Fi to Tinker with Mankind

June 30, 2014

Science fiction and fantasy are broad genre labels. There are no boundaries to their fantastic natures—they can encompass all variety of settings, times, and narrative structures. As a result, sci-fi and fantasy can be prime petri dishes for experiments on the human condition. How will a human being act when confronted by aliens from other planets, elf and dwarf worlds, benign robots, or the prospect of having superpowers?

“Redefining Humans from the Past to the Future,” a LITA-sponsored panel discussion held June 28 at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference and Exhibition in Las Vegas, explored such experiments by talking to some of the genres’ best-known authors.

V. E. Schwab’s book Vicious (Tor, 2013) examines what happens to two college friends who discover they can induce superpowers under the right conditions. Over the years, their abilities drive the characters to opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Schwab devoted her portion of the program discussion to man’s struggle with our oldest foe: death. She said it’s a fight with no victory. Everyone eventually dies, but there is a universal desire to survive at all costs. However, science fiction can subvert that and offer a chance at immortality. And by creating such scenarios in which man can be immortal, an author can explore its consequences.

“When we don’t fear death or pain, we don’t notice its absence,” she said. “Our mortality makes us human.” Removing death from the human experience would destroy humanity, she said.

Douglas Preston, author of the new techno-thriller The Kraken Project (Forge, 2014), said he takes an anthropological approach to the genre. He opened his talk by recounting a tour he took of a private museum located inside CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

There Preston saw a mechanical dragonfly that the agency had developed in the 1960s for espionage purposes. Amazed, he decided to research what the government is currently doing in such areas, leading him to uncover mechanical spy drone rats and insects that operate on artificial intelligence software. This discovery blew his mind even further, he said, and provided the thesis for his segment of the panel talk.

“Our challenge as writers is not reinventing humans but (dealing with) our paleo-programming,” Preston said. “The challenge is to fill novels with paleo-characters dealing with more evolved things that they can’t handle, placing them in complex technological situations to see what they can do.” Authors can create any kind of situation to see how humans will behave within its constructs, he said.

Jo Walton, author of My Real Children (Tor, 2014), echoed Preston’s message. She touched on Roman author Suetonius, Enlightenment-era philosopher John Locke, and Freudian psychology as she described creating situations that test how people act when faced with the fantastic and then observing how they change. Conducting these experiments in genre settings bears more fruit than straight literary fiction. With sci-fi, “you have more kinds of answers about people and how they can be,” she said.

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