Thinking About Reality Through Unreality

“Big Brother” mural, Belfast (photo by Albert Bridge) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

By definition, speculative fiction deals in non-realist settings. On a basic level, as philosophers Johan de Smedt and Helen de Cruz explain, “[t]he advantage of such radical departures from reality is that they allow a detailed examination of states of affairs very different from our own” (62). That is to say, speculative fiction allows both creators and audiences to experience not only strange and fantastical worlds, but situations and circumstances far removed from everyday experience.

Screenshot from Deus Ex: corporate leader Bob Page explains how he bribed a Senator

However, these departures from reality do not mean that speculative works have no bearing on the real world. According to speculative fiction author and critic Rjurik Davidson, “by developing [a] sense of estrangement, science fiction asks us to think back upon our own society” (“Writing” 38). In many ways, dealing in the unreal allows audiences to reflect more critically upon their real world circumstances than in a strictly realist setting. This is due to the fact that “speculative fiction can aim at, and to varying degrees will be successful at, distilling the essence of what is to be focused on in a way that realistic fiction by its very nature cannot” (Cameron 33). By removing aspects of society — whether they be politics, cultural norms, or morals — from their real world and historical contexts, the object under examination becomes much easier to objectively deal with. It is not enough to critique corporate corruption as it is seen in America today: audiences will often be either put off by the dreariness of coming to terms with real world corruption, or put on the defensive, denying the critiques in favor of their existing world view. But ask audiences to consider, as in Deus Ex, a fictional near future America, one in which corporate corruption is rampant and plays a significant role in the plot, but in which these corporations are fictional, and audiences are much more likely to find interest in this imagined future world and to be receptive to the critiques being presented.

“Are You Ready?” by Luke Roberts is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It is the same principle as using aliens or other non-human creatures as stand-ins to examine humanity’s treatment of the “other” (Lichfield et. al 373). It’s much easier to get audiences to think critically about racism and other forms of marginalization of non-conformist groups by depicting alien refugees as in District 9, for example, than through a realist examination of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and the UK. Why? Because you can have fun with aliens in a way that you cannot when considering circumstances that real people are living through.

In this manner, speculative fiction can be seen to operate in much the same way as philosophical thought experiments. A thought experiment asks you to consider a theoretical situation, to evaluate moral choices, and to come to a realization about real-world morality through the consideration of a scenario that is removed from the context of reality and the accompanying biases people have towards a real-world equivalent of that scenario. The problem with thought experiments, however, is that they encourage a logical, objective thought process when considering the choices in the scenario presented. This may work fine in a clinical, experimental sense, but the real world has an emotional context that is often absent from these thought experiments. That’s where speculative fiction comes in: by expanding the scenario of the thought experiment, fleshing out the world in which it takes place and populating it with emotionally driven and complex characters which audiences can relate to and sympathize with, speculative fiction creates a much more engaging and morally convincing argument: “The good author, attuned to empathy and skilled in communicating the inner consciousness and deliberations of their characters, can often “sell” a moral truth in a more convincing way than any impersonal thought experiment” (Cameron 31).

Screenshot from Deus Ex: Helios explains its purpose as benevolent dictator

To sum up, it is exactly by “creating an extreme world [that speculative fiction] can help convince us of some moral claim by isolating and exaggerating the relevant features” (Cameron 32). Whether it be an examination of the evils of a totalitarian regime as in 1984 or the question of security versus freedom as in Deus Ex, non-realist worlds and settings have a way of inviting audiences to think critically about reality in a more effective manner than realist fiction. Philosopher and science fiction author Eric Schwitzgebel eloquently explains his own interest and purpose in writing about the moral status of robots and simulated beings and how his work connects to moral and ethical questions regarding humanity:

One issue that really interests me—and which I think still has much more potential to be explored in science fiction—are the moral relations between beings in simulated worlds (“sims”) and the beings who run those sims, who have god-like power over the beings inside the simulated worlds … These issues connect with issues in theology (if we consider the sim-managers to be gods—as I think we should, taking the perspective of the sims), in animal rights and human enhancement, in the nature and value of personhood, and also in connection with the fundamental ethical question of what kind of world we aspire to live in. (De Smedt and de Cruz 72)

Screenshot from Deus Ex: Morpheus contemplates man’s need for worship