Can Science Fiction Help Us Understand How to Live in a New Present?

By Jennifer Levasseur

It may seem obvious to state that all science fiction at heart engages with the question of what it means to be human. Even so, it seems worth saying again. Beyond all the gadgets and the new means of interaction and the cyborgs and chimeras and the cool toys, the bald question remains: Who are we? (In other words: what is a human?) Not regardless of our setting but through it and our interactions with what we’ve created.

But, you might ask, isn’t this the question at the center of all fiction? Aren’t we all continually trying to understand ourselves and others? Why does science fiction get singled out as a location for this most existential of questions? The debate on this is endless—and better served by those more adept and more engaged in the reading and writing of science fiction than I, a mere cautious dabbler—but what I’ve found in my recent reading of a genre I’ve long not understood is that it’s at once simpler and infinitely more complex than I had imagined. Science fiction asks over and over again: What is human? What does being a human mean? But these books seek to answer that question by stretching boundaries, excising what we imagine are universal human truths or certainties, adding new and never-before-experienced conflicts, pushing against scientific and biological boundaries that we never thought we’d have to consider.

We—and by we, I mean those of us more attuned to fiction in the realist mode—might find some of science fiction’s tropes, well, unbelievable and unnecessary. Even silly or immature. But to be fair, those derogatory adjectives can just as easily be applied to every other kind of art, literary novels included. One of the things that science fiction can do because of its central focus is make us extremely, necessarily uncomfortable. Which is how I often felt—alongside being excited, impressed and fearful—as I read Alexander Weinstein’s recent story collection, Children of the New World, in which he offers thirteen possible outcomes of our increasing dependence on technology and our inability to stop destroying the natural world in order to fuel our obsession with energy and technology production.

Now, I’ve read Brave New World and 1984 and We. I’ve laughed through Gary Shteyngart’s apocalyptic dystopia Super Sad True Love Story, in which the United States is a shell of its former self, people no longer read and personal wealth is the sole measure by which to measure humanity. (That doesn’t sound so funny anymore, does it?). Part of the fun in reading these novels is the smug superiority that we understand the dangers but know—we just know—that it will never come to this. We won’t let it. Because we’re human. This isn’t how humans behave. Sure, a selective few do behave this way, but they’re outlying radicals who have lost their humanity somewhere along the way. They have forgotten what it means to be human and are therefore in the process of leaving their own humanity. Of becoming something other than human. Forget cyborgs and animal-human hybrids and artificial intelligence. This is scary.

It’s amazing how easily we can dismiss these stories as unbelievable or impossible, until they begin to come true. But that’s the science fiction writer’s brief: create an amplified version of what might happen to our world and to our humanity if we follow this path.

(An aside: When I watched the first season of Man in the High Castle, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, in 2015, I enjoyed the unlikely premise that the Allies lost World War II and that the Nazis and Imperial Japan split America into controlled outposts. It was unbelievable and therefore escapist. But I recently screened the second season and though the arc of the show didn’t change fundamentally, my understanding of it has. An authoritarian takeover is terrifying and possible. The series has morphed into a practical instruction about how to protect the identity of our nation when its foundation and values are forgotten. How easy it can be for people to reject “the other” when they’re sure they are the chosen, special ones. How dangerous untried certainty can be.)

The stories in Alexander Weinstein’s Children of the New World take the world as we know it and move us slightly into the future. His worlds advance technology by increments and push us further into the problems inherent in how humanity changes as we interact more with machines than other humans.

In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” a device intended to comfort and educate alters a child’s reality and the notion of mortality. A couple adopts a child from China, in response to a devastating earthquake and in rejection of the more normal form of reproduction, cloning. But neither speaks Chinese or knows much about the culture. They want to honor the child’s heritage but know that with their jobs and other responsibilities, it will prove difficult, so they buy a Big Brother: a robot that appears human. Theirs, Yang, is programmed with extensive knowledge of Chinese history, with the equivalent of kindergarten through twelfth grade education in China, the ability to care for and educate a child. He makes their lives easier, but there’s a hint of the uncanny. Their daughter looks to him as a real brother, but they cannot emotionally connect with the robot that dutifully joins them eating peanuts at a baseball game and looks human but is still utterly not human.

His delivery of … info was a bit mechanical—a linguistic trait we attempted to keep Mika from adopting. There was a lack of passion to his statements, as though he wasn’t interested in the facts. But Kyra and I understood this to be the result of his being an early model, and when one considered the moments when he’d turn to Mika and say, “I love you, little sister,” there was no way to deny what an integral part of our family he was.

When Yang suffers a major malfunction, the family is thrown into disarray, stuck between a fix (who will look after Mika while they’re at work?) and how to mourn the object their daughter sees as brother and they know is conscious-less machine.  

In “Heartland,” there’s little work left to do, few ways to support yourself. You can win money preforming embarrassing stunts for TV or try to get your baby in a diaper ad. Or sell your furniture piece by piece online. Or sell your topsoil, but then your neighborhood becomes a wasteland. At which point do you stop pillaging your family just to keep them fed?

In story after story, reality becomes confused with virtual reality, which usurps it. As couples chase intimacy and solutions to their human problems, they isolate each other and become an extension of the devices they plug into.

These stories are not diatribes or polemics against progress, but they do offer portals into possible dystopian futures, ones we can already glimpse in the technologies we use every day. They ask us to consider what we want to become in the face of what we’re creating, to look at these advances as moves on a chessboard, each of which opens a variety of outcomes that may not become clear until much later (too late?).

It’s a mistake, though, to imagine that these stories are dour or killjoy. Because they seem just a little too far-fetched, their inventive scenarios remain exhilarating. We can look at them and see the dangers, but we can say with confidence, in a variation of the characters in Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934) who reject the possibility of a second world war, that these things will never happen because we’ll never let them.

Until we do. 



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