What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 1, 2015

Science fiction has always thrilled me with far out ideas, giving me a life-long sense of wonder. Science fiction constantly reminds me that reality is immense and my everyday life is just one limited view. For the most part, science fiction has been entertainment, yet, I often find myself solving problems in everyday life by applying a concept acquired from my reading.

I’ve been reading SF for over fifty years, and it has programmed my thinking just as much as any Bible thumper has been influenced by their good book. Science fiction has tinted my view of reality, even though I know most of its ideas are far from scientific. When I was young science fiction fueled my hopes for the future, but now that I’m old, I’m curious what useful knowledge I actually acquired from this genre I love so much. For example, when I look back on high school, I see that a six-weeks typing course helped me get more jobs than anything else I studied. Now, I wonder if I found anything in science fiction that has been equally useful.

My favorite science fiction growing up was Heinlein’s twelve juvenile novels he wrote for Charles Scribner’s Sons.  Heinlein worked to teach his youthful readers to prepare for the future by studying math and science. Yet, when I look deeper, I got my best lessons about reality from two stories from Samuel R. Delany, the short novel Empire Star and the novella, “The Star Pit.”


Delany taught me three useful concepts in these two stories. I’ve expanded them with my own interpretation, as all readers do. But I credit Delany with presenting me with these three philosophical observations:

  • People think in three modes: simplex, complex and multiplex
  • No matter how original you feel you will always meet people who have already discovered everything you did
  • We all live within barriers we can’t escape, like fish in an aquarium, and we’ll always meet other people who can go beyond our barriers

In Empire Star, a boy, Comet Jo, from a backwater moon is thrust into a galaxy spanning adventure. Before he leaves home, he is warned that he has a simplex mind, and once he goes into space he will encounter complex and multiplex thinking. I was a young teen when I first read this story, so I was in a transition phase between what my parents taught me and learning to think for myself. This was the 1960s, and so it was a very complex time. We like to assume we’re all working from the same page, have equal thinking ability, and the standards by which we judge reality are the same standards by which other people see the same reality.

Simplex thinkers believe everyone should convert to their way of seeing things. Complex thinkers understand reality is very complicated, and there’s a certain amount of negotiating and compromise involved with coexisting in reality. Multiplex thinkers often let simplex and complex thinkers be themselves, and work around them. Take for instance religion. Fundamentalists are simplex, ecumenical believers are complex, and our Founding Fathers were multiplex.

Ever since reading Empire Star I always ask myself if the person I’m trying to communicate with is coming from a simplex, complex or multiplex thought process. It does no good to use complex or multiplex logic on a simplex thinker. And it’s all relative. If we ever encounter an alien civilization, no matter how much commonality we can find, our parochial humanness will make our initial approach to them simplex. We’ll have to progress through stages that involve complex and multiplex thinking.

When dealing with individuals or cultures, using this concept will help understand various social realities. People can be simplex, complex and multiplex simultaneously on different beliefs. Just watch the news. People who refuse to negotiate are coming from a simplex take on reality. Willingness to bend reflects an understanding of others. Multiplex thinkers will come up with King Solomon like solutions that can satisfy both simplex and complex thinkers.

Comet Jo begins his travels feeling everything he discovers is unique to him. He feels special. Then he meets Ni Ty Lee who has done everything Comet Jo has, and even has the ability to predict what he will experience. This shatters Comet Jo’s ego. I’ve always wondered if Delany was a child prodigy who wrote this after meeting older child prodigies.

Finally, in “The Star Pit” we meet Vyme, a man with a long tragic past who owns a starship garage out on the edge of the galaxy. In this story, humans have discovered that travel between the galaxies is impossible except for a very few people who have a special psychological makeup. They get labeled The Golden. Vyme takes in a street kid named Ratlit who hates he’s not Golden. Between the two characters we learn how each discover the limits of their aquarium, and how they learn to deal with the barriers in their life. I’ve written about his before – “The Limits of Limitations.”

The older I get, the more I realize that humanity is probably confined to living on Earth. And for the most part, we each evolve through the same stages as those who came before us, and like King Solomon observed, there’s nothing new under the sun. Finally, nearly all our conflicts are due to the failure of simplex, complex and multiplex thinkers not being able to communicate. I’ve often wondered if simplex and complex beings are two different species, and Homo Sapiens have already forked, and we’re already seeing signs of Humans 3.0.

Yet, I still have hope because of one concept I got from a science fiction movie written by Robert A. Heinlein.


When the astronauts in Destination Moon discover they don’t have enough fuel to return to Earth after making the first Moon landing, their solution is to throw out enough mass to make their rocket light enough to match their fuel. Throughout life I’ve had moments where I couldn’t take off, and I realized that I needed to jettison the extra weight. Now that I’ve gotten older, and my body isn’t as energetic as it was, I’m learning to get further in my social security years, I need to throw out the past, all that extra mass is holding me down.

If humanity is ever to take off it will have to jettison a lot of mass from its past. To reach the next stage, whether Humanity 2.0 or 3.0, we need to give up religion and most of philosophy. Their mass keeps us from launching. Even on an individual level, I realize I have my own mental baggage that weighs me down. Much of it comes from reading science fiction.

Learning that I have limited mental fuel offers all kinds of philosophical parallels to rocket travel and Newton’s famous laws. And it’s not just energy, but cognitive ability. We all love the idea we have unlimited potential, but we don’t. Science fiction taught me that too.

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar came out in 1968, and was about the world of 2010. I read it in 1968, and I’ve lived through 2010. We can never know the future, but some science fiction writers can make us seriously think about the possibilities. I remember being a kid reading this book and horrified at the terrorism that takes place in the story. I wasn’t savvy enough then to know that terrorism is common in all times, or that in 1970 there would be over 450 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Since 2000, there’s been less than 50 a year. What science fiction teaches us is to understand our fears, even when it’s wrong.

To value science fiction I also need to know its limitations.

Stand on Zanzibar and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! scared me into thinking the future would be an overpopulated nightmare. What’s funny, our world is suffering horribly from overpopulation, but not how science fiction imagined. Science fiction failed to see climate change and the Internet. It also failed to see we’d never leave low Earth Orbit for 43 years. Nor did it imagine The Hubble Telescope and renaissance in astronomy.

It’s strange to credit science fiction being a success for failing to predict, but that’s also a valuable lesson.

The Long Tomorrow - Leigh BrackettOn the Beach - Nevil ShuteAlas Babylong - Pat Frank

The real question we should ask: Does science fiction warn us away from following paths into bad futures? Did all those 1950s books about nuclear war keep us from blowing ourselves up? Or is it just another case of science fiction being bad at predicting the future? I’d like to think science fiction made us wiser in this case. I can’t help but believe Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great lesson in how not to govern. Yet, if you study how Republicans use rhetorical trickery to dispute science, you can’t help but wonder if Orwell’s story isn’t coming true. Dystopias are handbooks on how to avoid certain futures.

Using multiplex thinking science fiction can predict and fail to predict the future and still be a success. It’s much too simplex to assume a specific future will come to pass. It’s complex to think we should look at all the possibilities. It’s multiplex thinking to perceive how science fiction is both wrong and right at the same time.

— If you have the time, post a reply about how science fiction has been useful to you. —


14 thoughts on “What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?”

  1. Interesting ideas, Jim. I don’t think the job of science fiction is to predict the future, per se. For one thing, there’s only one future, and millions of choices along the way.

    On the other hand, I think science fiction certainly can help us choose the most desirable/avoid the least desirable of the myriad options.

  2. I’m rather fond of The Martian for opening my mind up to the myriad dimensions of duct tape. lol

    Seriously, I think Sci-fi can open the minds of scientists (and everyone interested) to possible things to work for -or to avoid, like robots or uses of computers, stuff like that. It can also open up the whole socio-economic-political (etc) to explore the multiple human ramifications of scientific breakthroughs or science breakthroughs to deal with contemporary issues – eco-disaster -computers, etc. What social issues are generated by scientific breakthroughs?

    And I like to find out how sci-fi authors deal with various specific issues – environmental disasters, time travel – in the olden days it was nuclear disasters. – sorry – I can’t think right now, am coming off anesthesia from a procedure.

  3. Well Jim I would say science fiction had been entertaining, enlightening and escapism for me. In the end, I think the past is distorted, the future unknown and the present all we have and you know I have been reading a lot of post apocalyptic stuff lately. I need some water purification stuff. Lol

  4. Excellent topic.

    I could probably think of more concepts learned from sf than these, but these come to mind immediately. They are more lessons made memorable by sf than solely taught by sf.

    Non-violent resistance only works in societies already fairly decent: “The Last Article” by Harry Turtledove.

    We are all dying already. Only the final hour is undecided: The Immortals by James Gunn.

    “Men are not potatoes”: Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein.

  5. Well one thing I know for sure: science fiction taught me to love science fiction.

    I’m just getting ready to leave from a wonderful weekend of attending the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, offered by Mike Brotherton (Spider Star) at Wyoming U in Laramie WY. I attended with a great group of science fiction authors, editors, game designers, comics writers, etc.

    The workshop reminded me of a lot of things I learned from SF (Hohman orbits, black holes, event horizons,…) and reconfirmed some ideas. But the primary focus was this:

    Our future can be a positive one, but we have to work at making it so.

    (Galactic: SF doesn’t predict the future, but it does offer us insight into possible futures – ones we may want to avoid, and ones we want to bring about.

  6. What did science-fiction teach me?

    Remember to wear clothes when leaving the house and MI takes care of its own.

    Oh and the meat carries the console cowboy, but if we could we would dump it because the Matrix is so much cooler than meatspace.

  7. I started reading SF in 4th grade, but my mother sent me to a Catholic school. So I encountered the ideas of atheism and agnosticism in science fiction books. I hardly remember the cognitive dissonance the situation created. I presume I wasn’t intensely religious but I guess I took for granted that adults knew what they were talking about. But the SF books made more sense than the real live adults so I guess I began ignoring a lot of what I was told.

    So here we are in the post-2000 future. The problem is not enough people paid enough attention to the GOOD SF back then. The Space Merchants by Pohl was probably the best for being prophetic. Maybe our problem is too many Simplex Minds.

    The Global Warming problem is too many people doing too many dumb things with technology. Planned Obsolescence was happening in the 60s. What happened to turbine cars? There was a movie with Doug McClure about them:


    A turbine car almost won the 1968 Indy500. But I have never heard an engineering or economic explanation of why they disappeared. I remember a radio announcer saying they were banned from the Indy500 because they were too fast. What sense does that make for a car race. But if they had become the standard in car racing wouldn’t that be free advertising and consumers would want them. But now turbines are expected in planes but not cars. But an engine with a single moving part lasts a log time.

    What Robert Heinlein wrote about the auto industry in The Door into Summer portraying the year 2000 has always been memorable for me.

    1. I find your wonderful writings while trying to figure out the name of an old SF title. Any help appreciated. It was a story in which babies were assigned to different cultural communities, becoming members of those communities regardless of race distinctions. I believe the ending involved a community receiving word that someone’s genetic distinctiveness would be preserved elsewhere. Lovely thoughts swirling around in my head, given recent news stories…any clues? Thank you.

  8. Hi, Mr. Harris

    My name is Tianluo_Qi and I come from China. I am the representative of a student organization in Southwest Jiaotong University devoted to speculative fiction/TV/Movie. We are running a non-profit newsletter concerning this field.
    Led by the article “When Is Forgetting Natural or Dementia?” posted by you the other day, I find this much older post, and think it’s very educative for us student. So can I translate this article and post it through our newsletter?
    We will stress in our post that you are the original writer and what we do is just translating it into Chinese.

    Looking forward to your response!



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