Updated: Mar 13, 2019
While I believe all storytelling helps us examine life, there's one particular genre that stands out to me as the most uniquely equipped to get outright philosophical: science fiction.
What is it about science fiction that makes it so distinctly positioned to be able to tackle philosophical questions? Certainly, other genres manage to get philosophical. I'm not about to deny that. But what I do want to persuade you of is that no other genre manages to be so directly philosophical or tackle openly existential, metaphysical, and epistemological issues that confront the human race.
So, what is it about sci-fi?
1. Sci-fi is Speculative
Central to the nature of science fiction is that its stories are generally born out of some big "what if" question. If time travel is possible, what would happen? If aliens contact us, what will they do to us? If I could know the future, would I change it? If computers become sentient, will they have morality? What if reality is just a simulation? The questions are endless.
The nature of "what if" questions is to speculate. And while a drama can have great speculation about many things (What if your son's killer gets off scot-free?--In the Bedroom), the nature of the speculation in sci-fi often cuts right to the core of what it means to be human. Because of this, a movie like Bicentennial Man can speculate about the essential nature of humanity by offering up a story of a robot slowly becoming human. Contained in this speculation are questions about what makes us human beings in the first place. From there, the movie presents its worldview which ultimately has all kinds of implications for questions like, do humans have souls or spirits? Are humans merely complex biological machines? Should legal rights extend to non-human beings? So forth.
A lot of sci-fi grapples with ethical questions. Minority Report deals with issues of predestination and free will with its plot about beings capable of precognition that allows them to know when someone is about to commit murder. But can we know for sure (epistemology) that someone will commit murder? Do we believe they have free will or not? If we have no free will (metaphysics), are we even morally responsible (ethics) for our actions?
Spielberg's movie is based on the Philip K. Dick short story. Dick was a prolific sci-fi writer who also offered up many interesting examples of philosophical speculations thought Sci-fi. His novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep became the cult sci-fi classic film, Blade Runner. Both that novel and movie deal with questions of truth and knowledge as well as the essential nature of human beings (the need for empathy as a core characteristic of human beings versus replicants).
Most poignant in my mind is Dick's novel, A Scanner Darkly. In it, we are confronted with the tale of an undercover cop so deeply entrenched in a technologically convoluted world of hidden identity and drug dealing that no one knows who the undercover cop is, not even the cops. How deep is too deep? When do we become the very thing we're fighting? Can we lose sight of our own identity?
One of the biggest examples of Sci-fi getting rather philosophical is The Matrix. The central speculation in The Matrix is one of the central questions of epistemology: how do we know the world around us is real? But The Matrix takes it a sept further and actually draws inspiration from one of the essential philosophical texts of the ages, Plato's Republic. Specifically, in book seven of the Republic, Plato discusses what has come to be known as "The Allegory of the Cave" or just "Plato's Cave." Neo's journey in The Matrix to extricate himself from the simulated world of the the Matrix mirror's the journey of enlightenment and freedom the slave in "Plato's Cave" must undertake in order to ascend to the real world. Central to Plato's philosophy is the notion that there is a higher and more essential existence than the physical world, which he compares to shadows cast on the cave's wall. The movie even includes other philosophical references in addition to it's dual theological parallels of Neo as a Christ figure and Buddha figure.
The list of speculative novels, short stories, and movies is long. Think about your favorite science fiction stories? I bet the jumping off point is some big "what if" question that actually has major implications for the nature of reality and humanity.
2. Sci-fi Offers Us Cautionary Tales
Many Sci-fi stories are tales of human greed, corruption, or lust for power run amuck. These can be stories that directly deal with scientific advancement unchecked by ethics (Frankenstein, Brave New World), or they can be a vision of a future in which society, as we know it today, has collapsed (The Hunger Games, The Giver). These could be seen as a category of speculative Sci-fi stories, but the nature of their speculation is quite specific. These are stories that delve deeply into the possible disasters that await us if choose to go down a certain path scientifically or politically.
Gattaca is one example that comes to mind for me. It's one of my favorite films, and its story beautifully captures what life might be like in a world where genetic engineering allows us to have designer children whose traits have all been carefully picked out ahead of time for maximum productivity, attractiveness, health, and efficiency. This kind of scientific power, unchecked by deeper philosophical and ethical introspection, creates in Gattaca a world that unquestioningly discriminates against anyone born by natural fertilization (and thus born at a distinct disadvantage compared to engineered human beings).
Sometimes the ending of Sci-fi cautionary tale is tragic. In other cases it is hopeful. In the case of Jurassic Park the novel, the cautionary tale ends with greedy and overly ambitious park creator, John Hammond, dead and his wonderful creatures and island burned to a crisp. The movie version opts for a different approach and the film ends with Hammond alive and having learned a lesson and the dinosaurs abandoned on the island to exist as the wild animals they once were. In either case, it's clear that the central concept for Jurassic Park's plot came from author Michael Crichton's concern over rapid scientific developments that humanity might not be prepared to handle ethically. He opens the novel by connecting genetic engineering with splitting atoms. Not that these are the same thing, but with great power (like atom splitting) can come great destructive potential (atomic bombs).
Tied closely to the notion of cautionary tales in Sci-fi is also the reality of dealing with our past scientific mistakes. Gattaca certainly draws from the notion of eugenics, the idea of improving humanity through selective breeding. It was a popular idea for a while until the Nazis really ran with it to its logical conclusion. In that sense, Gattaca can be seen as a reminder of the past.
On the other hand, Sci-fi cautionary tales can also draw from the past simply as a means to try to cope with and make sense (even if just emotionally) of the past. In the case of the many Godzilla movies, there's much to be said about how the destructive monster attacking Japan is ultimately an embodiment of the scientific advancement that allowed American warplanes to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
3. Sci-fi Offers Us Hope
While it can be easy to see the tragic and dark in science fiction cautionary tales, it is important to remember that there are many hopeful Sci-fi tales out there. Probably one of the most recent, and elegant, examples of a truly hopeful, though darkly funny, Sci-fi tale is Andy Weir's The Martian.
Weir's novel is more than a hard-science thriller about a lone astronaut stuck on Mars desperately trying to find a way back home. It is a profoundly human story that embodies the very human act of scientific discovery and advancement. It is ultimately quite hopeful about both science and humanity's ability to work together for a common goal. When Drew Goddard adapted the novel into the screenplay for the movie, he said his objective was to write it as a love letter to science.
Star Trek offered up a view of a scientifically advanced future that is quite hopeful. Pixar's Wall-E, while initially having the tone of a cautionary tale, is ultimately the story of love and wonder and rediscovery of our planet. Another example is Interstellar. Even if I have some issues with how it deals with the plot of the abandonment of our planet (click here to read more on that), the film's tone is definitely hopeful about humanity's advancement and survival. And, as I've pointed out above, many cautionary tales do end on hopeful notes.
How is hopeful sci-fi philosophical? It embodies worldviews that see humanity and scientific advancement in a certain light. It often still wrestles with the ethical and moral questions that more cautionary tales dive into, but it's more optimistic view of things leads to a more hopeful conclusion.
4. Sci-fi Offers Us a Grand Scale
As I've written about already, Contact was the first movie I ever saw that really shook me to the core in terms of helping me begin to grasp the scale of the universe. This is the most literal sense in which Sci-fi can present us with a scale not available to most other genres. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and Interstellar do this as well to varying degrees. The movie Gravity never leaves Earth orbit, but you do get a sense of how small and vulnerable one is out in space. Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and Star Wars jump through space and visit various planets as their plots unfold.
But when I talk about the scale being grand, it doesn't always have to be so literal. Sci-fi can also deal on a grand scale in terms of its power and implications. The Time Machine, Back to the Future, Doctor Who, and many others offer us a grand scale on time, allowing for the possibility of time travel and the exploration of its possible consequences. Time travel tends to get philosophical quite quickly. It asks profound questions about whether we have free will. Is it right to wield such power to change the past? Is it even possible to change the past without creating a paradox? Are there multiple timelines or multiple universes? Does the future exist?
Movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Contact, Arrival and similar stories also offer us a grand scale in terms of communication with intelligent life from another planet. Buried within such plots are the age-old questions of whether we are alone in this universe or not. Are we unique? Are we an anomaly? What is our significance compared to the vastness of our universe?
These are my four core reasons for finding in science fiction the genre most readily equipped to tackle blatantly philosophical questions. I love Sci-fi for this reason, as it allows me as a moviegoer and reader to explore big ideas. I also love writing Sci-fi because it lets me express my own worldview in ways other genres doesn't quite allow for so naturally.
It was this very reason that led me to write Unidentified, a novel about a troubled FBI agent and skeptical psychiatrist investigating a case of supposed alien abduction. I loved diving into the conversations the various characters naturally would have in such situations because each character brought their unique worldview to the bizarre exchanges that would not come up had they not been dealing with aliens and UFOs. Within those conversations are hints to their worldviews and questions about the nature of life on Earth.
As for my four reasons I've listed above, I'm sure there are more reasons others might list as well. For one thing, I know there are many more examples I haven't listed here. But I think you get the idea.
Do you agree with my assessment? What did I miss? How have you been affected by the philosophical speculations of science fiction? Comment below and let me know.
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