The Value of Science Fiction

By Hill – Giuseppe Gerbino (Self-published work by Hill) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Science fiction is often given a bad name.  It can have connotations of strange people in jumpsuits or bizarre prosthetics, sprouting technobabble, involved with stories which have no relation to the modern world.  Yet, I believe that science fiction offers an opportunity to look at our world from a different and new perspective.  Your Great Gatsbys or Macbeths may give a deep commentary on the world we live in and human nature, yet they’re inevitably constrained by being stuck within that which they seek to criticise.  Science fiction can remove itself and look down on these issues, which makes it a unique platform for expressing such comments.

This post has been prompted by reading Iain Banks’ Consider Phlebas, which I’ll focus on – although much of this will apply to other science fiction work.  Consider Phlebas covers a wide array of themes and idea.  The most immediately apparent is war; the book is set during a galactic war between two groups: The Indirans and the Culture.  We see a form of total war, seemingly without boundaries, as entire planets are destroyed and races wiped out.  This is the logical extension of human warfare.  During the 19th and 20th centuries we ‘advanced’ from a form of war involving large armies, where the result would usually be decided on the battlefield, to a situation where factions would try to win at whatever the cost.  Wars became more a matter of crippling the enemy’s economy rather than routing their armies which, through aerial bombings and the use of submarines, had a direct impact on the civilian population.  This developed into the utilisation of mass destruction, whether through nuclear weapons, chemical or biological, to achieve a victory.  In Consider Phlebas, Banks pursues this to its logical conclusion.  The destruction of planets is a terrifying concept, but largely because you can imagine it would actually happen if people had the capability to do such a thing.

This commentary is less subtle in places; the final act of the story is set on a proscribed ‘Planet of the Dead’, in this case a preserved world which perished during a nuclear war.  The characters journey through underground bunkers, the only remnants of a civilisation which destroyed itself.  They could easily be burrowing into the bowls of the Earth at some distant time in the future*.

The Indirans and the Culture are fighting almost purely on ideological grounds.  The Indirans are a religiously devout, warmongering race, while the Culture have developed a secular, anarchist, planned consumerist economy which seeks to extend its influence across the galaxy.  Conflicts between ideologies is another fascinating aspect of human nature we’ve seen develop in the 20th century, which Banks captures in his novel.  There’s a brilliant line where the protagonist Horza, fighting on the side of the Indirans, describes a seemingly innocuous bit of technology as “the real representative of the Culture on this planet.”  This line resonates with anyone who has ever drunk a bottle of coke or eaten in a Macdonalds.  Imperialism by commercialism against imperialism by military force are ideas which have conflicted in human history, which Banks shines new light on by portraying in a new scenario.  I found myself siding with the Culture, which is a testament to the realistic civilisation Banks forced considering the story is narrated from a viewpoint biased against them.

There’s another small, easily missed mention to ideologies I quite enjoyed.  After a raid on what they expected would be an unarmed temple was repelled, the crew of the Clear Air Turbulence discover that it was situated on the border between two warring states, one Socialist and one highly religious.  No other details are given, but I love the possibilities for stories that creates.

Technology is another area where science fiction thrives.  The image I chose for this is an artistic rendering of the Culture’s Orbitals which, as you can see, is a remarkable idea.  They serve as artificial worlds for people to reside on, equipped with terrain, climates, ecosystems, etc.  They look utterly bizarre and totally artificial, yet I could imagine how they would actually work.  I’d question the economic viability of such structures when there’s a multitude of planets to terraform and explore, but that’s another issue.  Perhaps the best technological prediction in the book is that of drones, fully sentient machines who are considered individuals – to destroy a drone is tantamount to murder in the Culture’s eyes.  This is explored wonderfully in Consider Phlebas.  My favourite instance was the drone Jase, which develops an infatuation on Fal ‘Ngeestra.  This is never developed, but just the small reference to Jase taking a sound recording every time Fal laughs tells us so much about the depth of these drones’ personalities.

It’s no secret that technological predictions, above all else, have made an impact in the real world.  The main example I can think of is Arthur C. Clarke pretty much inventing the idea of geostationary satellites, a good decade or so before they became reality.  You can see more here.  Today, ideas like space elevators, which have so far been imagined only in science fiction, are perfectly plausible.

These are just a few examples of how science fiction can be immensely relevant to our modern world.  This is why the genre, along with fantasy, has always existed in some form and I expect always will.  There’s never an end to the things it can give insights into, forcing us to see things in ways we might not expect or be prepared for.

*In the epilogue Banks reveals that the events take place in our past, yet the simlarity remains.



HAL 9000’s Motivations

Contains spoilers for 2001: A Space Odyssey.


There are so many aspects of Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey that I love (and also, for different reasons, Arthur C. Clarke’s novel).  I could blog about this film for years – and probably will – but for now I’ll focus on the character of HAL 9000.

Generally speaking, humans find artificial intelligence rather chilling.  I’m convinced this is one reason why our computers, phones and cars are very clearly designed as tools rather than given lifelike features.  While not yet at the levels of complexity envisioned by Clarke and Kubrick, artificial intelligence certainly has come on a long way since 1969 – you can now have a somewhat convincing conversation with a computer, for instance.  But we’re still a long way from the complexities of Hal, of it being necessary to analyse a computer’s motivations beyond it having a short circuit.  I’m sure, with unlimited time and resources, we might one day have artificial intelligence as deep as Hal – we’re evidence that such brains can exist, therefore they can be created – but for now I’ll content myself with the question: why did Hal try to kill the crew of Discovery One?  There are several speculated explanations for his actions:

  1. Hal could not keep secrets.
    This is the reason given by the film and novel.  Hal was tasked with keeping the true nature of the mission – that instead of investigating Jupiter they were investigating alien life – secret from Dave and Frank.  Hal was not designed to actively withhold information from people and so, when required to lie, experienced a major crisis of logic.  Killing the ship’s crew would remove the need to lie to them.  Or alternatively, the fact that Dave and Frank became suspicious put into question Hal’s infallibility, which was a doubt he could not cope with.  A major function of his was to be “incapable of error.”  His ‘mistakes’ regarding the communication equipment were instead deliberate ploys to kill the crew.
  2. Hal simply malfunctioned.
    An error of coding, recurring loop, whatever, caused Hal to mess up his operations and kill the crew.  Nothing more complicated than that – Hal’s user interface only made it appear that more was at work.  Bit of a dull explanation…
  3. Hal malfunctioned then killed for survival.
    Hal genuinely did malfunction regarding the communication equipment, then realised that if this became known then he may be shut down due to unreliability.  If Hal had been designed based on human psychology then survival would be his ultimate priority – beyond that of even the mission – and therefore he became convinced that it was a case of “me or them.”  He opted to kill the crew before they could deactivate him.
  4. Xenophobia
    This is my favourite explanation.  Again, if Hal was designed on the model of human psychology then he was susceptible to human flaws.  Unlike Dave and Frank who were unknowing, and the rest of the crew who were in hibernation, Hal had a long time to ponder on the implications of discovering alien life.  Could they pose a threat?  Would either their intentions or their diseases wipe out humanity?  Or even more subconsciously, the concept of aliens tapped into the human fear of ‘the other’.  For whatever reason this became exacerbated in Hal and he killed the crew to prevent the mission ever making the discovery.
  5. Boredom.
    It’s not easy being stuck on a spaceship for several months with no one of a similar intellect to converse with.  Neither Dave nor Frank had an expert knowledge of computer systems.  Hal may have gone mad from boredom.
  6. Sabotage.
    He was programmed to make the mission a failure.  Unlikely but given the geopolitical situation during the story – it ends with the world on the bring of nuclear war – not impossible.
  7. George Bush.
    Hal found out about George Bush becoming president despite winning fewer votes than his opponent, Al Gore.  This illogical result, and perhaps also the implications of Bush’s presidency, set Hal into a misanthropic fit causing him to lash out at any human beings within his reach.  Actually… that’s rather plausible.

Any other ideas, please let me know!