Exploring Fears and Anxieties

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” lithograph created by National Prtg. & Engr. Co., Chicago.

One of the advantages of utilizing the fantastic, non-realist settings of speculative fiction is that it provides a safe place for creators and audiences to express and explore and their fears and anxieties about the future. Where realist settings force audiences to confront the reality of these fears, non-realist settings allow for the displacement of the object of fear from its real context. This in turn allows for the examination of the object of fear without eliciting the accompanying fear or anxiety in a “risk-free exploration of what-if scenarios or hypothetical situations” (de Smidt and de Cruz 59).

“Night of the Living Dead” (1968) theatrical poster

At the same time, speculative fiction provides a space for the serious consideration of unrealistic or impossible scenarios. Whether it be a more straightforward and clearly plausible fear, like the violation of privacy and human rights in the name of national security, or more implausible anxieties concerning zombie plagues and AI take-overs, speculative fiction can tackle it all and carry these examinations through to their logical conclusions. Either realistic or abstract, speculative fiction allows creators and audiences alike the chance to safely engage in their fears and anxieties about:

  • The death of the human race;
  • The loss of basic humanity;
  • Global catastrophe;
  • Social deterioration or collapse;
  • Encountering (or creating) other forms of sentient life;
  • Human manipulation of genetics;
  • Incurable plague;
  • And much, much more.

This also means that speculative fiction can examine fears concerning new or developing technologies or situations: by envisioning a world in which some new or upcoming development is fully realized, a speculative work can explore and express potentially unforeseen consequences. One that speculative fiction has been considering for decades is that of the consequences of artificial intelligence — something that doesn’t exist yet in reality (though we are getting ever closer), and so cannot be effectively tackled by realist fiction.

Screenshot from Deus Ex: the AI Helios argues the case for its benevolent dictatorship

The main plot of Deus Ex centralizes around a choice the player must make via the actions of protagonist JC Denton. With three different powers fighting a secret war for control of the world, JC must choose which power to align himself with, each choice presenting different consequences for the fate of the world and the way in which people will live moving forward. One of those choices revolves around a burgeoning AI named Helios, which claims that it can provide a benevolent dictatorship over people. Helios argues that people are too inherently corrupt to effectively rule themselves; if JC will merge with Helios’ systems, they will be able to guide humanity and provide an objectively just and fair system of government. The problem faced by JC (and players through him) is whether he is able to trust that Helios can actually be fair and just as it claims. This plot point zeroes in on one of the aspects of AI that is troubling, and thus anxiety producing: Would an artificially created sentience conceive of the world and think in a way that is recognizable to us? Would an AI value human life in the same way that humans do? Would an objectively fair and just AI be a better ruler for the human race then ourselves?

While Deus Ex doesn’t envision a hostile AI rebellion or take-over as is explored in other speculative works (e.g. The Terminator; Horizon Zero Dawn; The Matrix; I, Robot), this plot point does explore another, perhaps more terrifying route in asking the question: could we potentially choose to give up our freedom and be ruled by an AI?

Screenshot from Deus Ex: one of three possible ending quotes