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. —


What Do We Want From Science Fiction?

This month over at the Classic Science Fiction book club we’re reading and discussing Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany, and some of us are enjoying the story and others are finding it lacking.  We all take it for granted that people have different tastes, but do you ever wonder why?  One of the themes of Empire Star is about asking questions, and one of our members, Andreas, found this article by Theodore Sturgeon called “Ask the Next Question.”  Some of us even wondered if Delany had gotten the idea dealing with questions from reading Theodore Sturgeon.  In fact, we found many elements of Empire Star that had been used in other science fiction books – but more on that later.


Discussing Empire Star got me thinking:  What do we want from science fiction?  Did some of the book club members enjoy Empire Star because it contains certain elements they seek out in science fiction?  And the reason other people disliked the story is because it lacks those elements they normally seek?  Jo Walton really loves Empire Star or so she says in her review at Tor.com.

I didn’t just like the book a lot, the way a sane grown-up might like a book, I fell head over heels obsessively in love with it. I made myself a t-shirt of it. I read it several hundred times. I was a one-Jo Empire Star fangirl. I had a sign on my bedroom door saying “Entry for J-O Type Persons Only” which is a quote from it.

Evidently Empire Star rubbed Jo Walton in just the right way if she’s read it hundreds of times.  Really?  I haven’t read it that many times, but I have read it four times since 1968.  I keep coming back to Empire Star.  Why?

I think most of us generally think we read books because we want to be caught up in a good story and characters – and beyond that we assume all books are different.  But what if there are specific fictional flavors we crave like our favorite ice creams?

My all-time favorite books are the twelve YA novels Robert A. Heinlein wrote for Charles Scribner’s Sons in the 1940s and 1950s, and while I was reading Empire Star for the fourth time I noticed many elements in the story that reminded me of Heinlein.  Did Delany include them in the his novel because they were elements he liked and thought they belonged in any novel he wrote too?  Empire Star came out in 1966, so he wrote it when he was 23-24, and still quite young.  Delany and Heinlein don’t seem like they have much in common as people or writers, but there are some common elements in their stories that attract me, and that maybe they do share some things common.

Circular Plots

Heinlein wrote two classic SF stories with circular plots, “—All You Zombies—“ and   “By His Bootstraps.”  In each story one character turns out to be several in the stories.  In Empire Star three characters turn out to be many.  In fact all three stories might be considered Mobius strips.  I love circular plot stories, and repeating loop stories, like Replay and Groundhog Day.  This is definitely a science fiction element that will always hook me.

Alien Pets

Heinlein’s young adult novels sometimes had alien creatures that appeared to be pets but were really something else, like Willis in Red Planet, Lummox in The Star Beast, and Chipsie the spider-puppy in Starman JonesEmpire Star gives us a devil-kitten D’ik, which eventually grows very large like Lummox.  Remember “The Trouble with Tribbles” from Star Trek?  Almost an exact copy of flat cats in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones.  If puppies and kittens are cute, so are alien animal babies.  I guess I’m sucker for alien pets.  And that makes me think about how much fictional mileage J. K. Rowling gets our of her magical pets.

Running Away to the Stars

Now there’s one huge theme that appeals to a lot of science fiction readers, and that’s about a kid who gets to run away to the stars.  Isn’t that the core of science fiction?  My all-time favorite novel is Have Space Suit-Will TravelEmpire Star follows the classic template as Starman Jones about a farm boy who heads out to explore the galaxy.  What that’s you say, didn’t George Lucas invent that motif for Star Wars?  Sorry, but it’s been around a long long time in a galaxy far away – but it’s probably why Star Wars is so successful and so much better than the other five films.  (I hate referring to it as A New Hope.)

Galactic Empires

I’ve written about this before but galactic empires are probably the most loved of all science fiction elements.  Read, “Are Galactic Empires the New Middle Earth” I wrote last June.  I don’t think I’ve really scratched the surface of that theme yet – there’s something deep there, that really needs to be explored.  Empire Star is about a galactic empire that uses slaves, and Comet Jo is going to free them, but after a long epic struggle that will take years.  However, Empire Star is a slight wisp of a novel, really a short novella, and if Delany wrote it today it would be 800 pages, and probably the first in a long George R. R. Martin like series.

Intelligent Machines

Stories about intelligent computers like Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Gerrold’s When HARLIE Was One, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers and the current Wake, Watch and Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer really push my science fiction pleasure button.  So is it any wondered I loved Empire Star with Lump, a computer Comet Jo meets living on the Moon?  And I can’t help but believe Delany was inspired by Mike, a computer living on the Moon in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Other Elements

Delany doesn’t stop with just these five classic science fiction elements.  The whole book seems inspired by the weird humor of Robert Sheckley.  But I also hear from other readers that they see elements in Empire Star that remind them of Theodore Sturgeon – such as the theme about asking questions.

I wrote in “My Kind of Story” that I knew there were certain kinds of stories that appealed to me, but when I wrote that I thought I was dealing with narrative style and writing techniques.  But now I’m thinking that like some people with very specific sexual desires, I might actually crave very specific kinds of science fiction stories, or more precisely, stories with specific elements.  Which makes me wonder why I don’t seek to write stories with those elements?  Did Heinlein and Delany uses the elements discussed above because they believed they would sell more books?  Or because the were pleasuring themselves?

I need to contemplate if I have a limited number of fictional buttons I liked pushed, or are there endless possibilities. I’m really enjoying Once Upon a Time, the new TV series on ABC, and one of the things that excited me most about the story is that it’s told out of sequence, that the narrative double backs over itself, somewhat like a circular plot.  And like PKD, it’s about a town that doesn’t know the real reality of things.  If I kept looking I’d probably find several other story elementals that are my kind of groovy.

Now back to Sturgeon’s idea about asking questions. I’ve only gone one layer deep by asking what do we want from science fiction. If the answer is we love stories with certain themes or ideas then I should go to the next question: Why do I like those ideas? The answers would be too long to put into a blog post, but if you think about it, the question is important. For example, why is running away to go into space so appealing? During my adolescence that was a huge button to push with me. I had alcoholic parents that dragged me and my sister all over the country, so the real answer there is I wanted to escape from my own life. And as I got older and learned what it meant to be a real astronaut and what the right stuff was, I realized I would hate living in space – at least under present conditions.

The point is to keep asking question. Go deeper. Because if I did, I’d learn a whole lot about myself, and maybe stuff I didn’t even want to know. Why do I love the idea of intelligent machines? Is it because I don’t like emotions? Where’s that going? See what I mean?

Well, this blog is over – I’ll have to write more about this in the future.

JWH – 12/8/11

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