Eternal Verities in Science Fiction

A reader asks:

Why do you like science fiction, despite your strong moral positions?

Note: this is not a misprint. The reader wrote “despite” in that sentence rather than “due to.” Let us read on.

I am an avid reader of your blog; I’ve derived great joy from reading your perspective on things. Even though you’re a Christian, what makes you so interested in science fiction? Science fiction is the literature of change; it supposes that there are no eternal human verities, and examines what impact various technologies can have on human social organization. It is inherently opposed to any sort of moralism, religious or not, since an unforeseen technology can render a given situation obsolete. I’m not saying that being religious is bad, I’m just wondering what draws you to science fiction.

My Answer:

You say science fiction is a literature of change, and that is well said, and I agree with the concept. But then I must ask: what is change?

Myself, I would have thought that change can only be measured against a standard, which, by definition, cannot change, for then it is not a standard.

Even in physics, the changes in the measurements of timespace as one approaches the speed of light could not be measured unless the speed of light were a constant to all observers.

You say science fiction presupposes that there are no eternal verities. This would, unfortunately, expel nearly all science fiction writers from the canon.

Most science fiction stories, for example, take place in a universe where the rules say things like “reality is objective” and things like “valid conclusions following from true axioms are true” and things like “A is A.” All such statements are eternal verities.

But even if this were so, your statement would be what philosophers call a self impeaching statement: this is, the statement that there are no eternal verities, if it were always true, would itself be an eternal verity; and if it were not always true and ergo did not cover all cases, then there would be some cases were eternal verities did exist.

You say science fiction is inherently opposed to ‘moralism.’ As before, you would exclude from science fiction every story which has a moral or makes a moral point, and that is nearly all the stories which exist. Even the most cynical, dark and gritty detective story has no drama unless the story portrays implicitly that betrayal and murder is bad.

Just to take two examples with opposing moral points, imagine writing STARSHIP TROOPERS from the point of view the patriotism is bad and war is madness, or, again, imagine writing FOREVER WAR from the point of view that jingoism is good and all war is noble.

Even a yarn as allegedly pragmatic Asimov’s FOUNDATION makes no sense as a story without the underlying moralistic assumption that civilization the Seldon Plan intends to restore is better than the Dark Ages which otherwise would be permanent.

As above, to denounce moralism is once again a self impeaching statement, because it is the statement that moralism is morally wrong.

You say that an unforeseen technology can render a given situation – by which I assume you mean a given moral maxim – obsolete. This is what philosophers call a category error: you are conflating means and ends.

Technology is tool use. The tools selected do not change the ends for which they are used. Burning that same man to death with an atomic raygun is a technology unknown to Code of Hammurabi. The invention of the raygun might change the mechanism of the homicide, but not the elements of homicide. In each case, it is the intent, the cause-and-effect, the harm, and the lack of lawful justification which makes homicide a crime, not the tool used. The end sought, murder, is the same. The means used or the tools used differ.

I do agree that new tools and new technologies open up to human temptations a potential for evil and good unknown to our ancestors, merely because they lacked the ability. Our ancestors did not have to deal with the morality of cloning humans, because they lacked the ability; in the same way we do not need to deal with the moral conundrums of time travel or mind-control rays.

But from this we cannot conclude that the moral standards by which to judge these things, and to know which is a use and which an abuse, do not exist. Moral truths are the one thing no man, and no rational being in the universe, can expel from his knowledge. We lack the power to doubt these things.

If you doubt me, put it to the experiment. Can you, by an act of will, make something that seems morally wrong to you, such as race-hatred or child-rape, seem morally right? Can you do this merely by imagining the crime performed by means of different tools than what is now used?

Can we indeed concoct a new moral code once a new technology exists? If someone invented the mind-control-ray tomorrow morning, would there be any doubt in your mind that it would be wrong of me to use it on some toothsome schoolgirl and make her my love-slave? If I raised the objection that there are no eternal verities, would you actually be persuaded that such an act of teen rape and brain-rape was licit?

So I can only answer with the caveat that the premise on which the assumption is based is not only wrong, it is illogical. That is, your premise is not only happens to be not the case in this particular time and place and under the conditions in which we find ourselves, it also must be wrong in all times and places and conditions.

My answer is that I like science fiction because of its moralistic character, combined with its imaginative character and its logical character.

I need not overexplain what I mean by imagination and logic, I hope. The nature of speculation, of any story that asks “what if?” is to carry out the logical consequences of an unreal assumption: if pigs had wings, pigsties would have roofs. If Martians landed on Earth, and drank our blood, the bacteria to which our ancestors by natural selection developed an immunity would kill them.

Now, the science fiction I read when I was growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s was almost all the output of the John W Campbell Jr stable of writers from the 1930’s and 1940’s, so whether or not modern science fiction retains the energy and strength of its moralistic Golden Age roots I leave to you to decide.

But every story upheld a strong moralistic message vaunting the power of man’s reason to understand and ultimately to command nature. These were not crime-drama stories or “true confession” stories showing us in the imagination the negative consequences or fraud and murder or betrayal and adultery. These were science fiction stories showing the benefits of technological progress and emphasizing the utility, beauty and necessity of the power of thought and reason.The moralizing comes in where all the stories demand of their heroes and demand of the reader that we think. Thou Shalt Reason.

Even in the more purple-prosed pulp of Campbell’s predecessors, the moral was clear. In the LENSMAN series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, alien beings who otherwise would be utterly reprehensible from the human moral point of view, such as the bloodthirsty callousness of the Valentians, the cowardice of the Palainians, the bovine communism of the Rigelians, are shown to be not only worthy allies but heroes of sterling worth because and only because of their reasoning powers. I cannot think of a more blatant moralizing statement vaunting the human power of thought and the duty to be openminded, rational, and indeed ruthless in the pursuit of reason, than when Mentor of Arisia telepathically contacts the Gray Lensman from across the universe and demands of him: “Think, youth! Think!”

Again, not every story is a yarn glorifying science. Many a tale is a cautionary tale against the misuse of science, or an eerie little horror story emphasizing man’s littleness in the grand scheme of things. I do not see how anyone can interpret these as not having a moral point: NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR has a moral and a warning about the misuse of language as clear as Aesop’s fable about the boy who cries wolf; BRAVE NEW WORLD has a moral and a warning about the seductive allure of dehumanizing luxury as clear as Aesop’s fable about the eagle who grants the tortoise his wish to fly (by dashing him from the clouds down against a rock).

Robert Heinlein’s ‘Lifeline’ just as much as A.E. van Vogt’s ‘The Black Destroyer’ (merely to take the first tales published of two of the authors who defined the Golden Age of SF) both have the same point: a warning against hubris, overweening pride, a caution that the universe is a stranger place than one might think.

Nearly every science fiction story disagrees with nearly every other as to what the eternal verities are. Science fiction readers, after all, like foxhunters, are more interested in the process of the hunt for truth, the excitement of finding out, to your awe, that the Earth is not the center of the universe as the pagan Ptolemy thought, but is whirling about the sun at unthinkable speeds as the monk Copernicus taught. But nearly all science fiction stories agree, in theme and mood if not explicitly as a moral, that the hunt for truth is an imperative, and that reason is the means.

“Check your Premises” and “Question Assumptions” are moral imperatives. The reason why science fiction has a greater appeal for me than for mainstream stories, is that science fiction is the only literature explicitly vaunting the moral imperative of the philosopher and scientist and scholar, where my personal primary interest lies.

Let me in closing mention the one assumption behind the question I did not address.

I am so baffled that anyone would write the sentence “even though you’re a Christian” and then ask about a type of literature, the scientific romance or science fiction adventure novel, which historically sprang out of nowhere but Christian culture and civilization, and which logically can exist nowhere but where the assumptions and axioms of Christendom, particularly those axioms dealing with Western natural philosophy, hold sway, that I confess I cannot answer that part of the question because it makes no sense.

It is like asking why a Christian can like science fiction when all Christians hate science.

Only those very easily duped by Politically Correct bumper stickers, and very ignorant of science and its history and its metaphysics and its meaning, can think of scientific progress as taking place outside Christendom: scientific institutions are of the West, as are the metaphysical assumptions about the fixed qualities of nature, or are of Eastern lands that have adopted or had forced upon them Western institutions, the Western world view.

Science is much a part of Christian civilization as the notation of diatonic music, as the institutions of the University or the Parliament or chivalric Knighthood, as Christian as perspective drawing, as the architecture of the Gothic Cathedral. And the Romance or novel is a unique product of the Christian worldview as Science is. So a scientific romance is the quintessential Christian cultural product.