I love Dick.
Don’t worry, this article is not a Rick Warren-inspired cry for help for gay conversion therapy. The reference is to Philip K. Dick, quite possibly the greatest science fiction author of all-time.
If you are not familiar with Dick, you probably have seen a movie or two inspired by his brilliantly warped imagination: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, to name but a few. (If you have never read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, you really should. The Man in the High Castle, too.)
Sometimes when I am having difficulty wrapping my head around a philosophical or political issue, I conduct a thought experiment based on Dick’s personal definition of science fiction.
If you asked the average person to define science fiction, he or she might suggest a futuristic story with an X-wing or blue Police Box backdrop.
Dick could not have disagreed more. He penned an essay about the definition of science fiction in 1981:
“I will define science fiction, first, by saying what SF is not. It cannot be defined as ‘a story (or novel or play) set in the future’ … It is a society that does not in fact exist, but is predicated on our known society—that is, our known society acts as a jumping-off point for it; the society advances out of our own in some way, perhaps orthogonally, as with the alternate-world story or novel. It is our own world dislocated by some kind of mental effort on the part of the author, our world transformed into that which it is not or not yet.”
In other words, according to Dick, science fiction is a transposition of reality that ultimately allows us to see our present world more clearly.
My mind has been grappling with a few political subjects of late, and it seems as good a time as any to throw a little Dick at the wall to see if any clarity sticks.
What follows below is nothing more than thought experiment. Feel free to play along at home. Just you, me, Dick and an alternate reality crystal ball. Take it as seriously as you please.
Obamacare (BlueCross BlueWalmart vs. Jedi Prosthetics)
I am unaware of any science fiction author who has been bold enough (or daft enough) to make health care the central theme of a novel—though I wouldn’t be surprised if Newt Gingrich’s next novel is entitled Donkey Death Panels. However, we are all familiar with the common dystopic theme where Big Brother or The Company controls our every future decision.
The prevailing theme in such fictions is a fear of loss, or ultimate control by another, of self. If I am Progressive SF Author, my novel would depict a futuristic health care system controlled by BlueCross BlueWalmart. If I am Conservative SF Author, I would paint a cosmos with an Intergalactic Empress Barbara Boxer who whips her flail and denies citizens the right to indulge themselves with penile or mammary enhancements. (Actually, this book probably would make the bestseller list.)
Either way, there is a common fear on both sides of the political spectrum of a decision-making body too big to comprehend or attend to individual needs. The difference: one fears corporations, the other government.
Both are poignant fears. No one wants humanity to morph into an insect collective—which is why we cannot get enough of the Star Trek Borg.
Hopefully the future holds something other than a cataclysmic post-nuclear Mad Max dystopia. If, however, we are headed for planetary reboot (as some think), my need for a cortisone shot is going to be far outweighed by the fact that the planet itself is fighting cancer. What is worth noting from the great corpus of science fiction (books and films) is that generally, no matter how bad things are—Death Stars or alien huggermuggery—the technology exists for the average patient to show up and receive immediate treatment for Procedure X. Even the cash-strapped Rebel Alliance had no problem replacing Luke’s severed hand. And no red-uniformed member of Star Fleet was ever denied medical bay access.
Deep in my soul, I am convinced that our imaginations are convinced that technology will ultimately render health insurance companies futureless—unless that same technology buries us in radioactive snow.
Drones (Buggers vs. Tonsured Monks)
Drones make me mad. Downright bursting with righteous anger. This bleeding mad.
I simply cannot posit a more cowardly way to engage in militaristic solutions—which I deny are “solutions” given my personal pacifism.
Then again, I have read ultraconservative author Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic Ender’s Game. So I guess I can imagine an even more immoral way to “engage the enemy,” and that is tricking children into being soldiers of slaughter.
The world is about to embrace this next evolutionary stage of drone killing via Hollywood just a few months from now. Ender’s Game will rack up hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office before one can blink. And the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff will be oh-so-grateful for this holiday season celebration of indirect soldiering.
Before you gobble popcorn and libate the silver screen with mega-gulp colas, please consider the following cautionary tale:
In February 1944, an unknown U.S. airman by the name of Walter M. Miller participated in the bombing of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, one of the most sacred religious spots in all of Europe. This monastery is—or sadly, was—the birthplace of the Benedictine Order in the early sixth century.
Certain Allied leaders insisted that German soldiers were occupying the monastery. Yet the resulting airborne annihilation of this consecrated place resulted in the death—no, murder—of several hundred civilians who were seeking refuge within its walls.
Airman Miller spent the rest of his life grievously regretting his part in this World War II atrocity. He converted to Catholicism and, in what is probably the most dramatic Catholic guilt trip in history, wrote the singular masterpiece of dystopian science fiction, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
What does this have to do with drones?
To my mind, Miller’s life story demonstrates that if human beings are ever compelled to take human life, they should be forced to do so in as direct a manner as possible. Yes, this requires greater risk “for the good guys.” But if Miller and his fellow soldiers had been on the ground that day, they would have seen for themselves what their leaders could not. And innocent blood would not have been shed.
The automation of human-killing devices makes killing easier. But, then, you don’t need science fiction to tell you that. Just take a trip to Newtown.
(The World According to) Abortion
I was torn whether or not to include this section, as I prefer not to write on the subject of abortion unless I have 600 pages at my disposal. Thankfully, novelist John Irving did in his masterful 1985 work, The Cider House Rules.
While not an intentional work of science fiction, to my mind, The Cider House Rules passes Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi litmus test by its power to cause the reader to emerge from the pages on the other end of the pro-life/pro-choice spectrum no matter where he or she began. I can think of few greater accomplishments by any other contemporary author.
If this doesn’t strike one’s science fiction fancy, then consider the Texas conservative’s dream of a future where Tom Cruise appears out of nowhere wielding a PreCrime badge and arrests hapless women for terminating pregnancies before they’re even pregnant.
As stated above, it is difficult to imagine a future where medical technology does not render the concept of the unwanted pregnancy moot. Again, it’s the half-century or so of pain to get there. Also, sometimes we forget that The Pill has only been around for just over a half-century. For now, it’s almost science fiction comedy to consider that 21st-century humans still cling to a prophylactic device that originated with the idea of strapping animal intestines to one’s genitals. The human experience can be really weird when you tilt your perception a bit.
If science fiction is indeed more about powerful imagination than laser cannons, then I highly recommend Irving’s unlikely candidate of a novel. Abortion becomes a stale subject given its polarizing history, but the story of orphan Homer Wells should bring renewed thought to anyone’s chosen position.
Personal Privacy (Star Fleet Snoopers vs. the Orwellian Panopticon)
With the little space remaining (and we all know that space is the final frontier), I wanted to briefly call out Trekkies (Star Trek devotees) on the subject of personal privacy. The theme of the Orwellian Panopticon—the all-seeing eye that eliminates the privacy of the individual—is one of the most explored themes in science fiction. Yet personal privacy is a theme rarely directly explored in one of the most prolific of science fiction cosmoses.
I find this odd, as the typical Trekkie would seem to be progressive in his or her political beliefs. Why have the numerous writers of this series balked at this common theme for decades?
I realize I’m being a bit stereotypical when I tag Star Trek fans as progressives. But we’re talking about people who translate the Gospel of John into Klingon; this might be the last subculture in the country one is permitted to pigeonhole. (Also, I happen to be one of them.)
As I thought about the subject of personal privacy, it dawned on me that one of the essential technologies of any Star Fleet vessel is the ability to engage in nearly unfathomable information gathering—or what we accuse the NSA of: spying. The U.S.S. Enterprise saunters on up to a Romulan warbird or planet with billions of citizens, flips a switch, and suddenly knows everything down to the tiniest molecular detail about everybody in the path of its sensors.
And since the pilot episode aired in the 1960s, no one has blinked an objection.
Then again, the Borg, a collective cyber race that spreads throughout the Milky Way, is the show’s archenemy—because “It” is hell bent on eliminating individualism in favor of promoting a galactic Hive Collective.
Each Borg knows absolutely everything there is to know about all other Borg. Viewers find this alien and despicable. Yet no one pitches a fit when Jean-Luc Picard builds a panty database of everyone on Vulcan.
Apparently our collective imagination doesn’t mind a little hypocrisy now and then.
We seem to find it inevitable that technology will someday reach a point that it is possible to map every iota of information about a single individual. Yet even in such a world, we believe it will be important to preserve our individuality.
I have yet to arrive upon a firm personal progressive position on privacy. But when I do, I’ll make sure I post it on my Facebook writer page along with photos of this fabulous lasagna dish I baked last Tuesday.
Back to present reality. All of the above is just a reminder that our collective vision of the future can help us make sense of the political present as much as history. Both are imaginative fields. Now and then, it’s good to take a little walk on the alternate reality wild side with Dick.
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