I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.
Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.
Here are some of them…
SF taught me to seek adaptationist and functionalist accounts of behavior – to see individual action as coping patterns for environmental pressures, to see societies as adaptive machines, to see species as situated within entire ecologies and causally linked to the entire ecosphere.
By speculating on alien nature, SF taught me that there is such thing as human nature, that it is biologically grounded and rooted in the evolutionary history of our species. When sociobiology and evolutionary psychology began to emerge from the scientific study of human and animal behavior, only a few details surprised me; SF had already trained me to think in that direction years before.
SF taught me that the universe has neither malice nor pity. It is what it is. Its laws are inexorable; but clever sophonts can learn to use them rather than be used by them.
SF taught me a particular kind of duty to ourselves, to our neighbors, to all intelligent life: to be rational. To seek truth and face it squarely, because clear understanding of how things actually work is the most powerful tool and the sharpest weapon and the greatest wealth.
Philosophy taught my forebrain that I should never stop questioning my premises – that rigidified belief systems are more dangerous and limiting that mere ignorance, and that evidence always wins over theory. SF taught me to live that kind of rational skepticism with my whole self, not just my forebrain; it taught my gut and my reflexes, too.
Science taught me to know intellectually the immense scale of space and time, the myriad levels of complexity between subatomic particle and universe. SF taught me to feel these things.
SF taught me to value intelligence and competence and honest dealing wherever I might find it. SF taught me not to care even about the number of limbs on a sophont, or whether it breathes oxygen or fluorine, or whether it runs on a carbon or silicon substrate. After that, how could I hold any prejudices based on silly trivia like skin color or the shape of genitals?
I didn’t need SF to teach me to love and value freedom, but it reinforced that value by showing me that political power is the natural enemy of the future.
In his poem Little Gidding T. S. Eliot famously wrote: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” SF taught me what Eliot meant by that, long before I actually read it.
SF taught me to collect skills and competence rather than possessions. SF taught me to want to be a polymath, showed me significant parts of how to achieve that goal, and helped me decide that the only interesting game for polymaths to play is “change the world”.
Most importantly, SF taught me what is variously called “systems thinking” or “holistic perspective” – to be suspicious of neat monocausal models, to always be looking for the next and more inclusive level of explanation, to be unsurprised by emergent behaviors, to favor cross-disciplinary approaches and unusual perspectives.
Most of what is good in my life has proceeded from these habits of thought.