Biographers, historians, ego-psychologists, interpersonal neurobiologists, affective neuroscientists, and others who mine human experience have often observed that the circumstances of our early years—play events especially—stay with us as a lifelong reference point. And this remains true even if we recall them only dimly. I remember two opposite influences vividly, though. In grade school, for me, fall became football season. But as I was too short for basketball and too fidgety for baseball, I gave over my winters, springs, and summers to a second enthusiasm: reading. Not much for schoolwork, I became a demon for books.

About twice a week, a sturdy Schwinn American coaster took me some distance to a respectably stocked branch library. I’d ride home with a briefcase full and threaded through the handlebars. During that period, a school project turned me on to science fiction—tales of aliens and monsters, perfect futures and perfect nightmares. Fast as I could, I read through two long library shelves dedicated to the genre. Since then, I’ve kept up reading speculative, futuristic stories—steadily though, not as studiously or as exclusively, but profitably—since science fiction is the American literature of ideas.

The Strong museum
Source: The Strong museum

The ideas stuck. In fact, I’m playing with them still—most recently in an online exhibit developed with my colleagues from The Strong called Aliens and Monsters: Playing with Creatures from the Deep.

No kid sets out to learn by recreational reading any more than he or she plans to burn calories by running and climbing. But for me, these playful novels paid a dividend in nurturing a philosophical approach that developed into an adult worldview. To look back on them now seems like a spiritual autobiography. “In the Kingdom of the Blind,” an H.G. Wells story, for example, became especially sticky in my memory. It detailed the misfortunes of a sighted explorer in a dystopian Shangri-la and taught a lesson about cultural relativism. Wells’ famous novel The War of the Worlds instructed me about (literally) invasive species. I learned about propagandizing from George Orwell’s 1984 and about social engineering from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series got me thinking about history and impermanence. Alan Nourse’s empathetic novel Star Surgeon followed a storyline about overcoming institutionalized racism. Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human sparked a fascination with collaborative thinking. Anthony Boucher’s short story “The Quest for St. Aquin” explored artificial intelligence and the scientific explanations behind the apparently miraculous. Phillip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” thought through the classic “problem of evil” by positing a deity that was both omnipotent and wicked. And William Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz imagined precisely which aspects of civilization could survive in a post-nuclear dark age.

Millions in my preteen generation watched the original Twilight Zone television series, and those episodes shaped their sensibilities similarly. Even in an age where censorship reigned, the show took on serious and still strikingly modern political and psychological themes, recruiting us to think about bright prospects or channeling our fears of the dark potential within us. Between 1959 and 1964, Rod Serling and a talented group of writers filmed weekly half-hour morality plays about individual vs. social rights, intolerance and prejudice, pernicious government control, perpetual war, anti-intellectualism, conformity, gambling addiction, relative notions of beauty, and many other topics. And then, of course, Serling traded in the bread-and-butter themes of science fiction—temporal paradoxes of time travel, alternative histories, space colonization, alien invasion, nuclear war, mass hysteria and superstition, artificial intelligence and personhood, humanity’s hope for survival, teleportation, invisibility cloaks, and others. The show remains fresh and popular in reruns precisely because the themes from deep space and the ones drawn from deep within the human psyche reverberate with us still.

Science fiction has resonated so well over the years because writers, filmmakers, and now game designers guessed what audiences had on their minds and dramatized these preoccupations allegorically. So to understand how we feel about aliens, for example, is to begin to understand how we feel about ourselves or how we regard the rest of the planet’s people. To empathize with a conquered civilization is to explore both our vulnerabilities and our past attitudes toward our nation’s role in conquest. To watch an atomic monster trample the built landscape and set it afire is to wonder why we have made nature so angry with us. And to witness the extraordinary expansion and subtlety of female characters in science fiction is to appreciate the breadth of cultural change within the last sixty to seventy years.

Science fiction authors always mean to open readers’ eyes wider, intending to broaden their perspective. And thus, they also seem to remind us of our parochial viewpoints, including how limited we are by time, place, and conventional assumption; how tiny we are in a vast universe; and how much we have yet to learn. These provocateurs, however, don’t always mean this kindly. I once spent an afternoon with William Gibson, a towering figure in science fiction and the inventor of the sub-genre cyberpunk; he is a cosmopolitan, a strikingly original thinker, and a tough critic. When I asked him a question he’d been asked before, wondering which author he was reading currently, who was writing the best prose in his opinion, and  whose work in his field I should be reading next, he leaned down, and in a tone that to me seemed close to menace, he whispered, “in English?

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