When I was a kid, my Dad let me go through his box of science fiction books from the 70s, and a love of that genre was born. I spend a good portion of my free time reading and watching science fiction in many forms, and I believe that it has taught me a lot of life lessons. Here are ten of my favorites!
1. The future may come quickly, but never that quickly.
What I mean here is think about 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1984, and the Eugenics Wars of Star Trek from 1993-1996. Essentially, as far thinking as science fiction is, we still tend to underestimate how long it is going to take for certain kinds of technology to emerge. Essentially, I’m not expecting flying cars or holodecks in my lifetime. I wouldn’t mind being pleasantly surprised though!
2. Do not time travel, unless of course you have to.
Time travel is one of those concepts that is rarely done well. There are a number of theories on time travel, infinite universes, time paradoxes, and the only concept that works effectively: the it already happened and it will happen again concept. Excluding the final concept, time travel has proven to be more likely to cause problems than fix them, and Star Trek is a fabulous example of such insane uses of various time travel that they felt the need to invent the Temporal Police to clean up the time travel messes they couldn’t explain. Really? On the other hand, Babylon 5 was able to effectively use a complete time travel story to truly explain and augment their overall story line, the catch was that the time travel was predestined. Although, if you really want your mind blown by a time travel story, try reading The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Imagine a poker game of the same guy from different times all playing together. Either way, if someone offers to let me change the past, I’m going to politely decline.
3. Smart people are important in the future
This is something I think I learned very, very early on being an extremely intelligent child. I placed in a gifted and talented program in first grade, and that’s about when I started learning that in today’s world, smart kids get picked on. However, in science fiction, smart people saved the day. My crushes on both Jonathan Brandis from SeaQuest and Wil Wheaton were probably related to this concept, but really, everyone in science fiction is smart. Even Captain Picard knew engineering and physics and archaeology. I still believe that science fiction creates lots of opportunities for intelligent role models, and that is the best way to encourage kids like I was.
4. Do not underestimate technology.
We cannot control the computers. Someday they will become smarter than us and unless we play nice with them now, the outcome will not be good. I realize the first thing most people will be thinking is Skynet, but for the classic readers out there, the David Gerrold book When Harlie Was One is an excellent AI read. Also, the short story by Harlan Ellison: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and most of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov are all excellent reminders. If we ever succeed in even a very tiny AI, we need to treat it like a human, and let it grow and learn and treat it well, and stay on its good side at all costs!
5. Everything you know about the world can always change.
The “Fi” part of Sci Fi stands for fiction, and often that means that things are not purely scientific and appear to be impossible by normal standards. However, look at the pace at which knowledge and technology moves in our own world. Things are changing all the time, and often things we thought to be true. The Earth is not flat. Pluto is not a planet. There are particles smaller than electrons. Time reversal is a real thing. Organisms can live in near boiling waters and in ice. In science fiction, amazing discoveries, such as moving faster than the speed of light or creating artificial intelligence, drastically change the characters world. I have always kept an open mind that similar discoveries in our world could always change mine.
6. Love comes in many forms.
We can start with the obvious romantic love, and the memories of Kirk and many an odd looking alien, sometimes with green skin, getting it on on a foreign planet. One of my favorite couples was always Delenn and Sheridan on Babylon 5, and they had all kinds of troubles uniting their races to pull it off! Although it seemed a little silly then, the fact is that I really believe that I learned not to limit myself through my science fiction experiences. True love and true friendships can grow out of the strangest of combinations, and if that is true for aliens and humans, than between any two humans should be a breeze! Also … smart, geeky guys make the best guys to have around!
7. Aliens are rarely friendly.
Or as my husband says: “We come in peace” is a crock of horseshit. This is just basic. Sure, alliances can be formed for mutual improvement, but we need to be wary. Never, never, never, assume a visiting alien race has only our best interests and none of their own interests in mind. In worst case scenarios, you have the Vogons destroying Earth with barely a warning or the Aschen from Stargate slowly making humans infertile. In best case scenarios, we have the Vulcans taking control over our ability to do space travel research. We should try and be friendly, sure, but always stay careful and consider that only we really care what happens to our race.
8. Consciousness can exist beyond flesh and blood.
When I was young, I adored Q from Star Trek. The concept of existing beyond a body as pure energy and consciousness made absolutely perfect sense to me. This concept comes up over and over again, Babylon 5 and Stargate are more obvious examples and Arthur C. Clark’s Childhood’s End puts an interesting perspective on the idea. Essentially, keep thinking and learning, and we can expand beyond these limiting bodies. This also implies the idea that we find consciousness in interesting places, such as in androids and gas clouds. Never assume you have to be humanoid to have consciousness.
9. There is always a loophole.
Robots were meant to be controlled. The Three Laws of Robotics seemed to be a good way to do that. That is, until a further set of reasoning created the Zeroth Law, thereby superceeding the other three laws. It became a loophole, an unexpected way into a troubling situation. In science fiction it is often the case that what you least expect will happen and cause everything to go wrong. Asimov’s psychohistory in Foundation was able to predicts thousands of years of the future of the Galactic Empire, but one single person was able to change everything. Essentially, nothing is perfect or covers all bases. Always assume something you didn’t plan for will happen. This is a fabulous life lesson. Even if I can’t solve the problem, at least I am never really surprised by everything going wrong because of one, tiny, unpredictable action.
10. Knowing the answers isn’t always half as important as knowing the question.
The answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. However, you can’t fully understand the answer until you understand the question. This in my opinion is one of the most important lessons of all science fiction, but it only becomes obvious in the science fiction parody series. The lesson is not to look for answers, especially not quick and easy answers, but to understand the problems, the issues, the questions, and the points of view surrounding it. We say that hindsight is 20/20. Well, science fiction is our glimpse into the future, and so we should look at what might happen, and determine if that is the direction we are heading. What questions do they answer, and do we need to answer, to become a better society?
So what do you think? Can we learn from science fiction? Should it be required reading? What other lessons have you learned?