Is SF ethical? (Editorial – March 2013)

Hello everyone

Listening to the audio commentary on the DVD ‘Doctor Who: The Daemons’ this month, actress Damaris Hayman made a comment that not all Science Fiction is ethical and that made me think. Apart from what is she comparing it to and how well read she is in the genre, not to mention specific examples, it sounds like an awfully grey area for such a blanket statement.

If you mean that good versus evil and you’re not sure which side is which and then the wrong side wins, she might have a point. After all, there’s a lot of SF out there where government with law and order on its side isn’t the good side. That’s even true of other genres, which is a reflection of reality and where often self-interest can hide different agendas. It even applies to our own reality where we see blatant examples in world-wide news on a regular basis.

Even with regular favourite example ‘Star Wars’ that more people would have seen than perhaps read something like Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ books, we aren’t siding with the Empire, which is essentially law and order, albeit by military rule, but with the rebels, who are effectively terrorists if you think about it. They might not go after non-military targets but that would be how their actions would be shown to the general public, who by and large aren’t that affected by the Emperor and his might. The Emperor might be a dictator but he’s clearly not suppressing everything like the ones we have on our own planet far, far away. Probably one of the biggest flaws in George Lucas’ original trilogy is not really demonstrating the oppression they are fighting against. Well, until a Dark Star appears overhead and destroys your planet that is. Lucas had this as being pretty much black and white, as exemplified by how the Force was used and in a similar way to how Alex Raymond had done it with the original ‘Flash Gordon’ comic strips which he claimed as one of his inspirations.

Editorial – March 2013: Is SF ethical?

On the other hand, that kind of example probably laid down the ground roots to look at both sides in any civil war to decide as to who was being suppressive and how the population was looked after, often meaning it’s instigated over one problem than several. One only has to look at the various civil wars and other nations reactions to know that things are never going to be black and white, but a variety of shades in between mixed with self-interest and replacements that are potentially worse.

If Science Fiction has taught any significant lesson, then I would put that at the top of the list that we do demonstrate, at least in the paper fiction, both sides of any conflict even if the strongest message is population oppression shouldn’t be tolerated. You can learn a lot about ethics from our genre and certainly think and look before deciding who causes the most danger to a particular population. This is no way endorses violent action and even democracy carries some dangerous flaws but any subject such as this can be examined in fiction without physically hurting anybody. Well maybe put writers at risk in dictator based countries where messages against the oppressed are hidden in metaphor. Whether any one man or sentient can hold together a galactic empire is debatable and I’ve yet to read a novel of how this can be successfully achieved as much of the time, we tend to join the story as things are falling apart. Even with the ‘Star Wars’ example, Palpatine really took over titular head of an existing organisation governing body and tweaked what already existed than re-built from scratch. If anything, that would show just how little change was needed to change things. It’ll be interesting to see what changes the rebels now in charge after ‘Return Of The Jedi’ and likely to be part of the new Disney film trilogy will show what they would do differently, apart from outlawing Death Stars and allowing Jedi Orders to exist again.

Fantasy depicts things in black and white in an even simpler fashion. Science Fiction can sometimes get that way but mostly, at national level, it can get confusing to the reader to have a three or more parties tussle in democratic or other governmental control. In some respects, you have to ponder on the ramifications of just what a third party has that the other two don’t, other than the main reason of ruling, to sway a population. If you compare to our own reality, there is little difference. Most democratic nations really boil down to two main opposing parties and any third party purporting to have a different agenda ultimately sides with one of the bigger two if they want some of their own policies being put to the vote. It’s no wonder that this isn’t copied in fiction, mostly because it is more a rarity than a regular occurrence. With a greater awareness of politics and how it works these days, maybe there’s less use of it in SF because it would be too easy to spot a metaphor and even question any author’s political persuasion or agenda.

When it comes to ethics at a less governmental level, it is really about making the right decision then fiction really serves the purpose of exploring the consequences of any action as to whether it has any value. With SF, it is often the abuse of technology than politics. The fact that genetically modified crops are bad-mouthed by calling them ‘Frankenstein crops’ speaks for itself, not to mention inaccurate. You don’t see any scientist waiting for a decent thunderstorm to imbue life into a dead body or a field of seed. If anything, all the scientists are doing is jumping across generations of cross-breeding to instil the right characteristics in crops and fulfilling the ‘now society’ in having things presentable crops in a few years than decades of failure before finding the right breed that it would otherwise take.

If anything, Science Fiction has been rather too good at putting the fear of who or whatever into crops as much as any other scientific work in making things better for us inhabitants and advanced technology shows all the negative aspects than positive attributes. As with the news, the worse story sells better than a happy story. In that respect, SF authors can do better and at least balance things out by showing positive advantages of change. Showing some advancement in a positive light but not at the cost of drama isn’t impossible to do. It’s the use of the advancement or technology that can put something in a good or bad light. One only has to look at the use of nuclear power. On one hand, it can be a deadly bomb and on the other can be used to generate the electricity that powers all the gadgets we use. Always remind those who want coal-based power stations that more people have died mining coal than those with nuclear power stations if they want to measure lives.

In contradiction to this, areas where SF didn’t really go into have prospered. People might fear Artificial Intelligence but with computer technology they are fine for the most part, although I suspect many people see it as a magical device and not the work done by humans behind the scenes. Whether that would change when a genuine AI is created remains to be seen. Those who aren’t users are generally technophobes anyway and only better education or adjusting to them will eventually make them or their fears extinct. I find it fascinating that in third world countries, people without any background in computers are mastering mobile phones without any such fear. This goes to show that it isn’t the absence of technology that creates such fears and oddly, not Science Fiction itself.

SF is in the public conscience whether those outside of the genre have dallied with the subject or not. Mind you, they still see SF as being solely the domain of rockets, aliens and robots, so it looks like nothing else has sunk in. If anything, SF should be striving to show that there is more to it than that. At least so it gets into the public eye more. It starts in fiction before moving onto visuals like the cinema and television. Probably the biggest SF success outside of space travel is in cybernetics. Most people, thanks largely to ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Bionic Woman’, even if they never read Martin Caidin’s original novel ‘Cyborg’, see nothing wrong with bionic replacement surgery and it’s gotten a lot more refined in recent years with nerve connecting and more human-looking shapes. Whether we’ll ever see a true bionic superman is hard to say but certainly the price is coming down to think it’s not that far off now. The positive aspects have ruled out and SF led the way.

Ethics invariably relates to misuse of anything but unless the subject is studied, understood and explored in the likes of fictional templates, how do we know if we’ll abuse it or not without some sort of fiction testing the possibilities? Should the likes of time travel ever become possible, you can almost guarantee it would never be attempted or kept quiet simply because of the dangers it represents to our own time-line, mostly because it’s been explored so much in Science Fiction. We might create a divergent alternative reality but would we want to take such a risk?

Showing pitfalls is one of Science Fiction’s greatest strengths. Probably espionage fiction is the only one that even reaches the level of demonstrating ethics, even if much of the time at its peak was between democracy and communism. With SF, anything can be explored, either in realities that resemble our own or in ones that don’t but which people can see the metaphor for our own reality. Even when new SF writers don’t think their fiction is demonstrating anything, you can bet someone will recognise an undercurrent that is open for discussion.

Thank you, take care, good night and right or wrong, think ethical.

Geoff Willmetts

editor: SFCrowsnest.org.uk

December 2012, even though I hadn’t left an active link to my email address, it got solidly attacked and then blocked from everyone, including myself. By necessity, having a form of open contact to me comes as part of the editor’s job, so alternative means have now been set up to contact me. We still seek reviewers and new material so follow the paths through the website and go where no spam-bot dares. I’ve yet to see them write anything. Humans and aliens can apply, providing they live in the UK.

Ponderance: How come the careers of the aliens who played Rigel and Pilot in ‘Farscape’ nose-dived after the series ended?

A Zen thought: There is right and wrong but neither is evil.



Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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