Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The value of science fiction

I adore science fiction. I have a huge horde of it stashed away, covering authors from the late 19th century through to the current day. Anything with even the broadest science fiction concept on television is worth at least a shot (although the genre has more or less been abandoned on TV now). At it's best I consider it the most enthralling type of story telling.

I had a superb discussion on Twitter today about the impact different science fiction concepts could have on defence/attack. We came to the conclusion that the Death Star was the equivalent of the cannon, in that it utterly defeated previous forms of fortress style defence (planetary defence). That planets are inherently "downhill" and offer the attacker all the advantages. Planetary based societies should focus on limiting their "noise" (radio etc) to hide from attackers, and make the transition to artificial non planet based habitats as quickly as possible.

By happy coincidence I was then provided with this, a writeup of the 2012 Cumberland Lodge Conference.
Daniel Nexon of Georgetown University kicked off the programme with a discussion about the importance of science fiction/speculative fiction to the discipline of international relations. He argued that science fiction provides a space for cognitive estrangement that allows us to think through political concerns using the notion of laws of counterfactuals. He stressed that international relations scholars need to do speculative fiction if they are going to be able to help guide us in a world where linear projections based on current trends suggest massive changes in the basic ways that the world works. These changes might or might not render theories we have developed about the nineteen or twentieth century completely, possibly or partially irrelevant hence the need to engage in counter factual reasoning.
The speakers seem to have addressed some of the best science fiction concepts and I'm extremely jealous of anyone who was able to attend.

This hits right on the nub of the most important aspect of science fiction, the ability to extrapolate forward from current events toward a meaningful future. The best science fiction tends to explore a philosophical concept (e.g. The Culture series by Iain M Banks as a metaphor for Utopia), or the outcomes likely to be generated by a meta trend in the environment (e.g. Climate change and bioscience in The Windup Girl). These books are written by synthesists.

So what are the best books out there? There are dozens, but a few of my favourites (I've tried to steer away from the classics, such as 1984. Partial credit also goes to Cameron Schaefer from this post):
  • The Culture Series - Iain M Banks - Explores concepts of Utopia and what a post scarcity human society might look like, and require
  • The Algebraist - Iain M Banks - Probably one of the best books on what interstellar war might look like
  • Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card - A truly sinister and troubling book, asks the question of whether we can truly understand an enemy and how far we will go to defeat the
  • The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi - Beautifully written, elegant and simple, concerning what it is to be human
  • Daemon/Freedom - Daniel Suarez - What happens when humanity has free will stripped away by another, benevolently dictatorial, entity?
  • Avogadro Corp - William Hertling - Similar to Daemon/Freedom, albeit from a very different angle, the accidental emergence of AI and what it might mean to mankind
  • The Lensman series - E.E 'Doc' Smith - The books which went on to inspire the Green Lantern books, gloriously entertaining and light hearted. Written between 1948 and 1954 they reflect their time
  • The Authority series - Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch - A comic book series about a group of superheroes who decide that the world isn't being run right, and set out to correct it. At it's core it's a story about the unintended consequences of meddling with international affairs
  • Blindsight - Peter Watts - Examines what conciousness is, what it's value might be, and what it's relationship with intelligence is.  
This only touches on some of the best. These books aren't selected because they're the best for strategists, but I think they're some of the best in terms of how they draw on multiple threads of ideas and theories.

I'll try and add more as time goes by, but I would imagine anyone who would read this blog would enjoy reading any of these.

UPDATE: As has swiftly been pointed out to me, there is no mention in this post of the superb Grand Blog Tarkin, which regularly addresses this exact topic. Thanks to blogfriend Brett Friedman for putting me straight.


  1. Thanks for endorsing Avogadro Corp! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    You might also like The Killing Star by Charles R. Pellegrino and George Zebrowski. It's based on this idea that radiating noise into space is a Really Bad Idea, and many of the concepts in it were based on thinktank research done in the 1980s.

    Very good and very scary.

  2. Thanks William, really did enjoy it, great read. Highly recommend Blindsight if you haven't read it. I've just ordered a copy of The Killing Star.