Sci-Friday: Why Science Fiction and Fantasy Matter
Spaceships, lasers, dragons, and princesses apart, there's something profound in speculative fiction that makes it a treasure for all readers.
Science fiction and fantasy are among the most popular genres in speculative fiction and fiction overall. However, they often face criticism from some “serious” writers and readers who consider them too fantastical, or even silly, lacking the depth of the more realistic literary works.
When you label yourself a science fiction or fantasy writer, some may perceive your work as mere entertainment, not sufficiently profound. It doesn’t help that some of the highest-grossing movies, novels, and TV shows belong to these genres, leading to the perception that they primarily offer cheap entertainment. But this is far from true. Speculative fiction can, and often is, as deep as any other literary genre.
As a reader and now an aspiring writer, I consider science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction in general as genres with the potential for tremendous depth. They enable writers to address some of the most profound questions in unique ways, which can be challenging in other genres. And they provide readers with unique chances to explore their own philosophical stance on some of the most crucial topics.
So, in honor of this week’s Sci-Friday, let’s explore the potential of science fiction and fantasy to ask the deepest questions.
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Asking the deepest questions
Let's get something out of the way first. Creating a fictional setting where you have the creative freedom to explore concepts like spaceships, aliens, and robots (or elves, vampires, and more) is undeniably very cool. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying sci-fi or fantasy just for the entertainment value.
But while these genres contain many tropes used purely for fun and engagement, they offer something much deeper for the writers willing to walk the extra mile. Science fiction —and speculative fiction in general— allows for thought experiments in richly detailed, immersive worlds. These thought experiments can explore complex philosophical questions, such as the nature of the soul, individuality, the meaning of life, and morality. These genres provide a unique platform to engage readers in philosophical discussions.
Academic philosophers often use thought experiments to illustrate the consequences of philosophical stances on topics like morality, ethics, and meaning. Probably the most famous thought experiment is the trolley problem. It asks you to imagine an impossible situation in which the action with the objectively best outcome seems the most immoral for many. In doing so, this thought experiment raises questions about consequentialism and asks us to reconsider some of our most strongly held positions.
The problem with academic philosophy is that these thought experiments can be dry and unengaging for the average reader. This is where science fiction and fantasy shine, making it much easier for readers to get involved in these topics. The best sci-fi and fantasy stories are deeply philosophical, even though they can be enjoyed at the cool superficial level as well.
One of my favorite examples is "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury. This is a classic dystopian novel that raises deep philosophical questions about censorship, intellectual freedom, mass media's influence, individualism versus conformity, the significance of literature, the power of memory, government control and surveillance, and the moral imperative of resistance and rebellion against oppressive systems.
It highlights the dangers of a society that suppresses books and independent thought while emphasizing the value of preserving knowledge and culture through literature and memory. It is also a deeply intriguing story, with some visually shocking scenes, that can be enjoyed just for the cool factor. However, if you’re willing to read below the superficial layer, it is one of the deepest discussions on these topics you will find outside, or even including, academic philosophy.
Some other examples
Bradbury is just one example, but off the top of my head, I can mention other great, widely read speculative fiction stories with deep philosophical arguments at their core.
"Dune" by Frank Herbert: This epic work delves into themes of power, religion, and environmentalism. It raises questions about the consequences of absolute authority, the relationship between religion and politics, and the ecological impact of human actions.
"The Lord of the Rings" by J.R.R. Tolkien: Tolkien's masterpiece explores the nature of good and evil, the hero's journey, and the importance of preserving cultural memory. It questions the allure of power and the moral choices individuals make in the face of great challenges.
"Foundation" by Isaac Asimov: Asimov's series raises questions about the predictability of history, the role of science in shaping civilization, and the ethical dilemmas of playing a long-term game of societal control.
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams: While known for its humor, this series tackles philosophical questions about the meaning of life, the absurdity of the universe, and the search for ultimate knowledge.
"1984" by George Orwell: This dystopian novel raises questions about government surveillance, individual freedom, and the power of language to control thought. It explores the consequences of totalitarianism and the loss of privacy.
"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley: Huxley's work examines the implications of a society driven by technological and scientific advancement. It questions the price of happiness and the limits of individuality in a world of conformity and artificial pleasure.
"Neuromancer" by William Gibson: This cyberpunk classic addresses the merging of humans and technology. It explores the consequences of a hyper-connected world, the blurring of reality and virtual reality, and the ethical dilemmas of artificial intelligence.
"Ender's Game" by Orson Scott Card: This book raises ethical questions about child soldiers, the moral cost of war, and the nature of empathy. It explores the blurred lines between heroism and villainy.
"Blade Runner" (based on Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"): The story delves into the nature of humanity, consciousness, and empathy. It asks whether artificially created beings can possess the same qualities as humans and whether we can draw clear lines between artificial and organic life.
"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood: This novel addresses themes of gender, reproductive rights, and theocratic rule. It raises questions about women's autonomy, theocracy, and the consequences of a male-driven dystopia.
"Stranger in a Strange Land" by Robert A. Heinlein: This novel addresses questions about the nature of humanity, the influence of culture on individuals, and the potential for a more enlightened and empathetic society.
"Childhood's End" by Arthur C. Clarke: One of my all-time favorites, this short novel raises questions about human evolution, transcendence, and the role of benevolent “super beings” in guiding other “lesser” beings. It explores the consequences of achieving a utopian society.
All of the above are well-known classics that can be enjoyed just at the entertainment level. But they also provide that second layer of discussions, demonstrating how science fiction and fantasy can serve as vehicles for exploring profound philosophical questions while captivating readers with imaginative and thought-provoking storytelling.
But why any of this matters?
Why does philosophy matter? Hold my beer! Philosophy is so much more than that boring subject you barely remember from your college major. It is the art of critical thinking, of questioning everything that everyone has ever said and digging as deep as possible for the answers to the most fundamental questions regarding the human condition.
Practicing philosophy, beyond any form of academic work, just for fun, is hugely beneficial for you as an individual. It gives you tools to sharpen your thinking and makes you much more resilient to bullshit in general. But, most importantly, a widespread practice of philosophical thinking contributes to a more thoughtful and engaged society.
And this is why speculative fiction is so important, beyond the mere entertainment value —which, again, entertainment is valuable in itself. Sci-fi and fantasy are like soft entry drugs to the world of deep philosophical thinking. The best stories will capture your imagination with the coolest settings, plots, and characters, yes, but before you know it, you’ll be deeply engaged in a philosophical discussion, and you will grow as a thinker and as a human from that experience.
This is my first serious entry for Sci-Friday. If you enjoyed this piece, please check out all the other amazing authors who often participate in this series. Follow for an up-to-date list of all the crew.
Huge thanks to for inspiring this piece with a question last week.