I was about to start this post with a quick mention of the origins of science fiction. Then I realized that’d be a great way to potentially kick off a raging debate that was completely tangential to what I actually wanted to talk about. Suffice to say, whether you’re of the mind that science fiction as a literary form began with the much beloved Mary Shelley and her excellent Frankenstein (or, the Modern Prometheus), or that its roots stretch all the way back to that ancient work Epic of Gilgamesh, or that its Official Beginning was somewhere in any of the many works that fall in between, for the sake of this post, I think we can all agree that science fiction has a long and celebrated history, and is awesome, and we’re all very fortunate to have it.
Okay, so maybe not quite the end just yet. But I think it’s worth noting that both Frankenstein and Epic of Gilgamesh contain some similar elements; both, for example, explore life, death, and mortality, and in many regards what it means to human.
Shelley herself of course described Frankenstein as a horror story, but rather than being founded on supernatural elements, she chose to base it on perhaps the most natural element of all: the human desire to know (and the lengths we’ll go to to find out).
My newest book Outriders is a military science fiction novel about a small team of death-proofed special operations soldiers trying to prevent the first interplanetary war. It’s a book with space ships and power armor and cloning and space stations and Lunar and Martian colonies and all sorts of fun toys. So obviously, technology is a central component of the book. But while Outriders is a fun spec-ops-in-space novel first, that world offered me the opportunity to explore some bigger questions as I worked on it.
I’m not sure what the very first piece of technology was, whether it was fire or a pointy stick or a rock, but whatever it was, somewhere back in our history someone had the great idea to use a thing to make life a little better, and we’ve been off and running ever since. But as we can see from Epic of Gilgamesh, as far back as we can go, we’ve been thinking about life, death, and the implications of mortality. It was inevitable that we’d turn our creative energies towards making tools to overcome that (thus far) invincible enemy.
And science fiction has often been a place to explore and to inspire and to ponder big questions about life, and humanity, and the boundaries of our knowledge. Questions like can technology be used to create life? And if so, can it be used to create humans? Is a copy of a human still a human, or is it something else instead? How much of a human’s natural body can we replace with technology before it becomes something other than human? Can we dilute the humanity right out of a person, or is a person still human even if they’re a consciousness in a machine?
Even ideas that seem to have nothing to do with the essence of humanity stray into such philosophical questions; Star Trek’s transporter technology is great for getting people from place to place, but it also sparked a conversation about whether or not a person was still the same person after they’d been reassembled. Are you the same being you were before you left, or are you just a copy? Does it matter?
Naturally, not every science fiction story has to tackle Big Questions. But science fiction has always provided a place to explore such things for those who choose to do so. And very often, those stories have real life impact.
If you look at the recent rise of drone warfare, for example, there’s a very real and important debate about having a human operator as part of the decision chain when any sort of armed remotely-piloted vehicle is involved. It’s a safety check, we believe, to have a human operator at the trigger; surely the morality of the human can prevail in those final moments before a weapon is fired, and lives are taken. Asimov was thinking about these issues long before such a scenario was plausible. And indeed, others were certainly thinking about it long before he codified his Three Laws of Robotics.
But if all the data collection is done by machines, and the decision to pull that trigger is based on an algorithm sorting through all of that data, is the human really making use of humanity? Or have we reduced that human to a mere organic mechanism for squeezing a trigger? These are valid questions with important answers, and are exactly the kinds of questions that science fiction has been asking since its beginning.
Outriders explores some similar ideas about warfare, the effects of merging technology with humanity, and the impact of having overcome (to some degree) the fear of death. I’m not sure there are any real answers in the work, but I do believe there is real value in asking the questions anyway. Often the quality of our lives is dependent on the quality of the questions we ask; ask a better question, get a better answer.
As technology continues its advance, and we continue to integrate it into our every day lives, it’s critical that we also think about the far-reaching implications of the direction we’re headed. Science fiction has long provided a valuable test bed for meaningful thought experiments, and has a rich history of being inspirational as well as cautionary. The genre has been a long-running conversation, and it’s one I hope to be able contribute to meaningfully.
For real this time.
Outriders by Jay Posey
Mass Market Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: Angry Robot (May 3, 2016)