Fantasy and science fiction are often considered two sides of the same coin, but Jason Sanford has another theory about both, and in today’s Big Idea, he shares that hypothesis with you, and why it’s important for his novel Plague Birds.
Is fantasy the end result of all science fiction?
I’m not talking about the marketing categories separating those two genres, both of which I deeply love. Instead, I’m talking about how people approach our world’s advanced technologies even as these technologies change who we are as humans. I’m talking about the anti-science attitudes that are spreading across our world using the very tools resulting from our understanding of science.
It is impossible to separate humanity from our tools and technology. Our species has been shaped by our tools for countless generations. Fire, stone tools, agriculture, written and printed language, metal smithing — these are merely a few of the tools and technologies that altered humanity to massive degrees. And some of these tools were used by humans for incredibly long periods of time. For example, various species of humans used Acheulean stone hand tools with relatively few changes for well over a million years.
And just as these earlier technologies helped shape who we are as humans, today’s technologies will do the same.
I’ve long been fascinated by Arthur C. Clarke’s third law, which says that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While Clarke’s law is frequently used to discuss possible futuristic technologies such as the teleporters of Star Trek fame, the law actually has greater relevance in how we approach the impact of current technologies on our lives.
I fear we’ve reached a point in our history where technologies have outpaced humanity’s desire to understand them. Many people in our world don’t seem to understand or care about the science behind how the touch screen on their smartphones works, how blockchain technology enables bitcoins, or how algorithms decide what they see on social media. Yet these are merely three of a number of technologies that are now reshaping our lives.
All of these technologies started out as science fiction, but they may as well be fantasy — may as well be magic per Clarke’s third law — based on how many people today approach them. If the technologies powering our modern world were actually based on magic instead of science, I suspect far too many people wouldn’t care as long as their cell phones and other gizmos worked.
This returns me to my thought experiment that perhaps fantasy is the end result of all science fiction. By this I mean that even though people accept the advanced technologies and tools reshaping our world, they approach these technologies as if they were some type of magic instead of actual science. As if the science behind these technologies is merely opinion, or wrong belief, or fake news that can be argued against.
This results in two problems for humanity. One, it makes it more difficult for people to understand how new and emerging technologies might deeply change our societies and lives. Second, this lack of understanding also appears to be spawning an anti-science attitude around the world, a belief that it doesn’t matter how science actually works or what the results presented in scientific studies actually say. That the science behind our modern world can be ignored or discarded if you simply disagree with it.
You see this attitude in how many people are refusing to get the life-saving COVID vaccines because they don’t trust the science behind them (even though they also believe an unproven horse dewormer is an effective treatment). All of this is happening despite humans knowing about and practicing forms of vaccination for centuries and the science around vaccines being extremely solid and relatively easy to understand.
You also see this anti-science attitude in how the severe threat of global warming is ignored or discounted by far too many people, merely because what needs to be done to save our planet may not be politically expedient to them.
In my writings I’ve continually explored the conflict presented when people are surrounded by advanced technologies yet don’t attempt to truly understand them. This is also the big idea around my novel Plague Birds, which is set in a science fiction world where artificial intelligence and genetic manipulation are not understood by most people even as that world’s societies resulted from those very technologies.
While Plague Birds is science fiction, it reads like fantasy and is weird and dark because I fear that’s the future we’re rushing toward.
I don’t know what the answer is to people not understanding the technologies reshaping our lives. Obviously education is part of it, especially science education. But I’ve also seen engineers and physicians and other highly educated people who fail to understand the technologies around us, or who practice science with one hand and discount it with the other. After all, just because you understand one aspect of something doesn’t mean you understand everything.
Perhaps there is no single answer. Perhaps all we can do is try to be humble. To accept that none of us understands everything. To listen to others but also remember the vital difference between sharing opinions and facts. To remember that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.
And most importantly, we need to always remember that the science behind the technologies shaping our lives doesn’t care if we fail to understand it. But we may end up caring a lot about what our lack of understanding science eventually does to both humanity and our world.