Platform for Debate and Illumination

“Dystopia” by Jason is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

There’s no real question that speculative fiction is fun, both for creators and for audiences — but speculative works are often so much more.

Because of the wide appeal of non-realist genres, speculative fiction is primed as an accessible, wide-reaching platform “to debate key, current social and political challenges” and “to explore the impact of technological development, for good and ill, before we have to tackle these things in reality” (McKenna). And because speculative fiction by its very nature is so well suited to such pursuits, it’s no wonder that, as speculative author China Miéville points out, “the best of speculative fiction [has] a kind of radical, critical, questioning, alienated edge (in a good way)” (qtd. in Davidson, “Writing” 42).

“If” May 1955. Cover art: “Technocracy Versus the Humanities” by Kenneth Fagg

Part of what makes speculative fiction so effective as a tool to get people thinking critically about important social issues lies in large part because speculative “writers [do] not ‘preach’ or reduce their fiction to politics or allegory. Rather, their politics provided the world view, the horizon for their works. They [the works] had, if you like, a political unconscious” (Davidson, “Imagining” 28). Speculative works are, first and foremost, stories meant to be enjoyed. Why else would so much of popular fiction utilize the genre, unless audiences found it entertaining? But there is inherently built into these works, through the construction of new and novel worlds and societies, an opportunity to use these fantastical worlds to think about our own. Miéville believes that “we need fantasy to think about the world, and to change it” (qtd. in Davidson, “Writing” 42), and many it would seem, based on the proliferation of speculative works, agree with him.

It’s not just that critical thought is secondary to (and innately built into) the telling of a good story, however. One of the things that fiction in general — and speculative fiction in particular — does best is that it “can make us put aside theory, and encounter the scenario in a frame of mind that is more willing to be convinced” (Cameron 43). What this means is that audiences “can approach a novel less invested in [their] prior beliefs and prejudices, and hence more open to moral persuasion” (Cameron 32). Especially in the case of non-realist works, the ideas and scenarios under consideration are so far removed from their real contexts that audiences are not put off by a sense of the work trying to persuade or promote any particular social or political view. Instead, audiences approach the work with an open mind, expecting to be entertained by a good story, and along the way they are encouraged to think critically and analytically about the themes as presented in the piece of fiction.

Screenshot from Deus Ex: VersaLife HQ — “We make tomorrow look like yesterday”

Deus Ex is a game designed to be enjoyed for its innovative gameplay mechanics and engaging dystopic storyline. However, many of those game mechanics and plotlines simultaneously serve to generate a critical reflection upon the game’s themes and even the player’s gameplay choices. At the time of its release, Deus Ex was one of the first games in which player choices and gameplay styles had a direct impact upon the game and its storyline. Players can choose to accomplish the game’s goals in different ways, and the game’s story and characters will react to those choices accordingly. Should the player choose to disregard the lives of civilian hostages and even the conventions of enemy surrender, opting to murder their enemies indiscriminately, other characters will react to that and reprimand the protagonist, JC Denton, whom the player controls. This prompts players to think about the choices they make as they play the game, as those choices have real consequences upon the lives of the characters and the direction of the plot.

Screenshot from Deus Ex: Paul explains JC’s choices

This idea of player choice culminates in the ending sequence, in which players must choose between three world-altering scenarios:

  • Overthrow the antagonist’s corrupt organization and reinstate the Illuminati as secret governors of the world
  • Destroy the technological systems which interconnect the globe, initiating a new dark ages
  • Merge with the AI Helios to instate a benevolent dictatorship


Screenshot from Deus Ex: Paul questions the idea of total freedom

The underlying concern in all three of these world-altering choices is the issue of freedom versus happiness and security: how do we balance these ideas in the practice of government? How much of one are we willing to sacrifice for the sake of the other? Players are asked to critically evaluate each scenario and the implied consequences, and choose whichever presents as the most favorable to their understanding of the world. In so doing, the game encourages players to extrapolate these thoughts onto the real world and to think critically about the potential consequences of similar real world scenarios.

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson explains that “there is a long tradition of utopian science fiction actually influencing politics in America … there’s a place in the public sphere and in people’s political thinking for imagining how the future could be better” (Davidson, “Writing” 38-39). This ability to influence politics — and, more broadly, how people think about and approach the world — is inherent to all speculative fiction. Its part of what makes the genre so compelling and so enjoyable for both creators and audiences, but also serves to illustrate how important speculative works are to a critically thinking society.

“Apocalypse The Day After” (uploaded by Kai Stachowiak)