For all the spirited discussion in online forums and book clubs about reading fiction, one thing often gets lost in the noise: Fiction can be powerful.
When readers pick up a novel or a story their primary motivation might be escape from the minutiae of their daily routines—a way to relax amidst the worries and stress of everyday life. Fiction can be a doorway into a world where those concerns can be ignored, if only for a short while. Even temporary escapism serves its purpose.
Fiction helps us in another way: it can educate us. That may sound counterintuitive, because fiction is, by definition, not fact. If we want to acquire knowledge, logic dictates we would be better served by burying our noses in nonfiction. That’s generally true, but besides being way more entertaining than studying, fiction can be based on truth and research. A fictional story about a love affair set against the backdrop of World War II, for example, can be informative about aspects of the conflict and the impact it had. We may read stories for escapism, but we can get an informal education in the process.
Fiction is even more powerful when it effects change. We may go into a story expecting to unwind after a stressful day of work, we may even be educated along the way, but we leave with something more: the desire to make things better. How can a fictional story accomplish real world change? Stories plant seeds of change in our minds. If, for example, we are involved in a rocky relationship, a novel that shows characters working through their issues may ignite within us the inspiration to do the same.
Even better than changing one life is changing many. Fiction can do this by presenting grand ideas that affect society as a whole. It can present us with a template for making the world better. How can fiction enact social change? Here’s the secret: look to the pages of science fiction. Why? Because science fiction as a genre is uniquely positioned to change humans for the better.
Cognitive Dissonance and Cognitive Estrangement
Let’s take a brief but relevant detour into psychology. The term “cognitive dissonance” refers to the mental discomfort people experience when they are presented with a worldview different than their own. They may see and understand the opposing ideas and values presented to them, but they have difficulty reconciling them with what they believe to be true. When faced with such conflict, humans usually try to reduce their level of discomfort in one of three ways: by ignoring the new data altogether, by acquiring new data that outweighs the discomfort, or by altering their core beliefs to fit the new data.
Literary critic Darko Suvin took the idea of cognitive dissonance one step further when he posited the notion of “cognitive estrangement,” which specifically deals with thinking about society itself in new ways. Cognitive estrangement is the process by which we are able to step outside of our reality and see it from the outside. As a bonus to that mental exercise, we leave behind our assumptions about that reality. By removing ourselves from the anchors of our assumptions, we can do great things.
How does all this relate to science fiction?
Science Fiction Goes Beyond Escapism
If we’re considering fictional narratives as a vehicle for looking at society from the outside, then there is no better genre to do it than science fiction. Science fiction is the most effective genre for eliciting feelings of cognitive estrangement because it routinely deals with changes in society. Science fiction shows us what dystopia might look like. It shows us the devastating effects of climate change. It teaches us what happens when we increasingly live our lives online at the expense of privacy. It examines the implications and dangers of convenient new technology, forcing us to ask ourselves ethical questions along the way. It shines a spotlight of objectivity on our own behavior simply by casting groups of people who are different than us as “aliens.” It gives us reason to explore life beyond this single planet. Science fiction is simultaneously a teacher, a warning, and a menu of options to make life better for everyone.
These are capabilities that usually fall outside the purview of mainstream fiction. Even when mainstream fiction is concerned with exposing the more questionable sides of society, it often lacks the scope of science fiction, which gives us the ability to step outside of our current reality. It’s a difference of perspective. Contemporary mainstream fiction is life inside a snow globe. Science fiction is a giant warehouse full of different types of snow globes. There are endless possibilities that can inspire us to enact change and live better lives. Science fiction is rewarding because it offers us more than escapism, it offers us hope for a better future.