By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, November 8, 2014
The other day I was talking with my science fiction reading friends about whether or not science fiction can change public policy or opinion about the future. On one side of the argument, we had the belief that science fiction is only entertainment, on the other, some believed science fiction can enlighten people. I was on the side of science fictional enlightenment, but when asked to produce a list of books that actually changed public thinking, I was stumped. My only example was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I think Orwell produced a number of memes about life in a totalitarian state that it has shaped political thought ever since. Just think how often his book was referenced during the recent NSA scandal.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, two science fiction novels were bestsellers that warned people against the atomic war apocalypse – Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank, and On the Beach by Neville Shute. Neither are much remembered today, but then again, few people today worry about WWIII anymore. Did reading about Armageddon help us avoid it?
Despite the success of some of the new climate fiction (cli-fi) novels, I’m not sure they’re making an impact. Nineteen Eighty-Four is something Republicans can understand and embrace because it resonates with their political thinking, but how many conservatives have read Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson, or the brilliant The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi? There’s a good chance that most people don’t read books that don’t match their current thinking.
After the mid-term elections it’s pretty obvious that the majority of Americans want Republican leaders, even if Republicans are against their personal interests. For example, Obamacare is proving most successful in red states. Republicans are extremely united in their opposition to climate change politics. Their denial of reality is amazing. And they’re absolutely consistent by siding for profit over environment. Nor do we see conservatives showing any signs of moving in new directions. Is there any book or movie that could make red state voters change their minds?
This is where I wonder about the power of science fiction, or just the power of art. Can any novel or movie actually change people’s minds if they already believe differently? Over my lifetime I feel I’ve constantly evolved because of my empathy with fictional characters. My own life is not as diverse as the life I see on TV, the big screen or in the pages of books, so I honestly feel I know more about people from art, than from just knowing them. I feel art expands my view on reality and changes me. But that could be an delusion.
Do I read liberal books because I’m already liberal, or because previous read liberal books made me liberal? Do conservatives read conservative books because they are conservative, or have conservative books made them conservative? If I read conservative books and conservatives read liberal books, would we change our views? I don’t know. Maybe genes override outside input.
Personally, I think the United States is making a fatal mistake by ignoring climate change and by choosing to destroy the environment. I could be wrong, and I’ve been wrong plenty of times, but on this issue, I think I’m right. Is there any way I could present my views in a novel that would convince people who don’t think like me to change their minds? Can anyone write a Nineteen Eighty-Four type story that would inspire millions to change their votes and avoid the future we’re racing to meet?