Science Fiction and Human Nature

By Milam, Michael C. | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview

Science Fiction and Human Nature

Milam, Michael C., The Humanist

Some time back, I heard a radio interview with a famous science fiction writer. He is the author of numerous novels, several of which have been turned into successful films. Now he is rich and lives in a mansion in some quaint little country in the Asian Pacific region.

Although he is now in his seventies, this science fiction writer is still as lively as can be. He pointed out in the interview that he was communicating on a telephone that bounced rays off of a satellite so that his voice could get back to the radio audience instantaneously, and commented on how wonderful that was and how astonishing technology in general was these days. In fact, the science fiction writer was so caught up with technology, rocket ships, and outer space that he made some remarkable statements which could only be understood as errors of enthusiasm. Speaking on the topic of the Apollo moon mission, he said, "The point of mankind is to be eternally astonished." Then, after being asked a question about the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe, he stated: "If we do meet intelligent life somewhere out there, hopefully they will not be violent and predatory. That worries me."

At one time or another, everyone has had the sad experience of hearing an "expert" in one field talk about something of which he or she knows absolutely nothing. Even though everyone thinks they know something about human nature, some never really learn much. Now, although science fiction can have something to do with human nature in an anthropological sense--that is, with speculating about those things which have been (and will continue to be) common to the human race throughout our existence on this planet--nothing is as bothersome as listening to a sci-fi writer in his seventies recite optimistic platitudes concerning the "point" of human kind, especially when one so readily understands how little the speaker has learned in his many years. Human life is certainly not all bad or all good, but one hardly gets any sense of its nuances or true worth by hearing uncritical superficialities. In fact, these platitudes about humanity are "science fiction" in the comic book, fantasy sense, and invariably get in the way of our ability to understand anything at all about human nature.

According to our sci-fi writer, the point of human life is to be "eternally astonished." On the upbeat side, one may interpret this statement as suggesting that humankind strives to perform acts of creativity in order to astonish itself. In this view, the point of life is creation; human value is measured by human vision and human activity, and so one is astonished by (for example) the triumph and accomplishment of space travel to another planet. This "astonishment" celebrates human life in this world and the human ability to envision and carry out a project of immense complexity which draws upon thousands of years of human industry and accumulated knowledge. How far we have come from the caves and forests to the stars! Unfortunately, there are other forms of astonishment that our sci-fi guy does not mention.

Humanity's creations are not always good and uplifting things. Actually, human creativity is a neutral term; the words them selves are not automatically associated with "good" or "evil" A creation can be either beneficial to humankind or horribly destructive. "Astonish," then, can take on a quite different connotation in a context in which humanity is the creator of weapons of mass destruction and the perpetrator of terrible crimes. One should never forget, while swooning over space exploration, that, at precisely the same point in history that a man was placed on the moon by the Apollo mission, much more effort in terms of money, material, and human resources was going into creating and using miraculous weapons of human butchery so technologically advanced that even a science fiction writer would be hard-pressed to imagine them.

One of the most astonishing things about our species may be the calm and routine manner in which we have produced--and continue to produce--these instruments of mass destruction. …

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