The True Benefit of Science Fiction

En route to a county fair last weekend, we stopped at the Martintown Grist Mill, both to explore the restored mill and to poke around the farmer’s market that sprouted up around it. While the mill itself was a charming piece of restoration, the real win of the day was in a battered cardboard box, placed carelessly on a picnic table with the word Free Sharpied across its sides.

Larry Niven RingworldIn it, I found a copy of Larry Niven’s Ringworld, which I understand to be a seminal piece of SF writing. I had never read it, so I slipped it into my back pocket.

In a lot of ways, the book is ludicrous. A two-headed, three-legged Muppet recruits a two-hundred year-old wealthy adventurer, a half-ton orange tabby cat with a murder complex, and a twentysomething party girl to discover the secrets of an artificial world with several hundred times the surface area of the Earth. It continues as absurdly as it begins, and I am utterly captivated by it.

The most compelling thing about it for me is the two-headed Muppet, Nessus. A unique creature, to be sure, with a complicated mental health situation, not to mention having a politically untenable position in the little expedition.

Nessus is often deserving of sympathy, and even when he’s a less-than-sympathetic character, he compels compassion because of his complexity.

I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek, which is often regarded as a series of thinly-veiled morality plays. This is absolutely true and leverages one of science fiction’s greatest strengths — an ability to put contemporary issues at arm’s length from the turbulent emotions and complications of today, allowing us to contemplate them and come to conclusions.

Issues, though, are often abstract. They’re worth thinking about, of course, but when we get absorbed in the discourse of the morality play we can lose sight of who’s actually living those issues every day.

The advantage of science fiction, that no other genre truly leverages, is that it teaches us compassion for those who are radically different. If I can spend the length of a novel finding compassion in myself for Nessus —

nessus ringworld larry niven alien

— then I can definitely find it in myself to be compassionate towards human beings, no matter who they are.

Not sympathy. Not empathy. They’re much more closed-off emotions — pangs of feeling which can be powerful, but ultimately are fleeting. Science fiction can teach us compassion: the ability to explore alternate viewpoints, see from another’s point of view, and understand it. Because so much of science fiction demands curiosity from us to find solutions to problems, it leverages this curiosity, feeling, understanding, and problem-solving to guide us to alleviate the suffering of others.

I find myself arguing more frequently on social media, especially with and around people I care about, on this point of compassion. When we live in a world with so much pain in it, it would serve us well to remember those lessons and to apply them before we apply judgment. If you can find compassion for a Horta, a Vorlon, or even a Puppeteer (all of whom are characters with only a fraction of the complexity of a real, live human being), then you’d better damn well be able to summon up compassion for your fellow human beings.

Tangentially, if we can absorb the complexities of entire universes of Republics and Empires and Federations and Leagues, we’d better damn well be curious enough to understand our own small world.

Approach the difficulty of the world from that place of compassion and curiosity that you’ve been taught by the best of the genre. You’ll learn so much more and see so much more good in people than you would have otherwise.

As always, folks, paddle your own canoe.


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