Humanism, Science Fiction, and Fairy Tales

By Marsalek, Kenneth | Free Inquiry, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Humanism, Science Fiction, and Fairy Tales

Marsalek, Kenneth, Free Inquiry

Humanists have adopted a rational, scientific worldview that has no place for supernatural or magical thinking. What role then does fantasy have in the lives of humanists? Albert Einstein considered imagination more important than knowledge. Psychologist Jerome Singer calls imagination a vital human function. He claims that fantasies and daydreams may be the foundation of serenity and purpose in our lives, playing a basic role in healthy human development. A well-developed fantasy life seems to be partly responsible for independence, tranquillity, and realism. Studies indicate that those who are less apt to use fantasy to enrich their experiences, to solve problems, or as a substitute for aggression are at greater risk for problems such as delinquency, violence, and drug abuse. Perhaps ironically, Singer found that children with active fantasy lives appear to have a stronger grasp of reality and facts than those with undeveloped fantasy lives.(1) Science fiction and fairy tales are fantasies that can excite our imagination.

Science Fiction

Paul Kurtz has charged that science fiction is "forever flirting" with the realm of the transcendental. It nourishes "quasi-religious probings" of unknown universes, creating new mythological beings such as "psychic superstars" and "semi-divine creatures." Finally, he says that science fiction stimulates belief in the paranormal and pseudoscience, leading to a basic confusion between "the ideal and the actual, the possible and the real."(2)

While Kurtz's misgivings about science fiction are justified, he focuses on only its negative potential. I wish to further examine his claim that science fiction flirts with the transcendental, which I agree with, and to present the positive case for science fiction. In my opinion, humanity's transcendental temptation owes more to cultural conditioning than to our genetic makeup. Isaac Asimov said that we are so surrounded by tales of the supernatural, and those attempting to convince us of their truth that we are all susceptible to its influence.(3) Long ago, I recognized that I myself satisfy my transcendental temptation through science fiction rather than religion.

The science fiction history The World Beyond the Hill - Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence by Alexei and Cory Panshin focuses on the transcendental nature of science fiction. The following is largely based on this book. According to the authors, the origin and evolution of science fiction can be understood as the re-establishment of myth based on science rather than the supernatural. From the start, science fiction has been the mythic literature for the rational, scientific, technological, and materialistic culture that has arisen since the Renaissance. The transcendent powers of science fiction are scientific rather than magical. It is populated by aliens, androids, and mutants from other planets and dimensions rather than by spirits and demons from heaven and hell.

In the seventeenth century, Shakespeare wrote of witches, ghosts, and magic and Milton wrote of heaven and hell. But by the end of the century, the last witch had been executed in England and, with the growth of scientific rationalism, literature concerning the supernatural became increasingly implausible. Science fiction evolved to fill the void. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, published in 1818, was one of the earliest attempts to present transcendent power in scientific form.

Science fiction literature coincides with the technological revolution of the nineteenth century as science began serving as a new foundation for belief. Jules Verne, perhaps the father of science fiction, expressed the awe of new scientific discoveries in the fields of geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology. H.G. Wells, a student of Thomas Huxley, was totally committed to science. The soul and the spirit had no place in his scientific universe. Wells believed that, in order to survive, we must change our nature, become scientific, and assume control of our own destiny.

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