30
May
10

The utility of fiction

Commenting on the War On Some Drugs, aczarnowski writes:

You’d think the journalists and social busybodies would have at least watched Weeds. I mean, it’s on TV and everything.

Which brings up the question of how useful (or at least persuasive) arguments from fiction really are.  For example, someone might point to Avatar as an example of What’s Wrong With Western Society, while dismissing Alongside Night as absurd and exaggerated agitprop.  The latter has given us a coherent sociopolitical movement; the former has given us furry porn.  (Nota bene: That link does not lead to furry porn.)

Arguing about social issues based on fiction isn’t entirely useless, of course; done right, fiction can make for an excellent and effective thought experiment.  (See, for example, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.)  But it’s important to keep in mind that fiction gets to start from any axioms its author damn well pleases, whether it be that white culture is inherently superior or that a small network of entrepreneurs is all that holds society together.  Furthermore, it’s crucial to remember that the author gets to decide what happens and who wins.

If your arguments-from-fiction are going to impinge upon real life, it’s best to dilute them in a strong solution of alcohol and friendship.  Otherwise you might end up like a friend of mine from undergrad, who was so affected by GATTACA that he felt it necessary to rant at length about the evils of Science — culminating in an impassioned monologue about how it was better that my relatives with multiple sclerosis suffer long and die early than for us (“as a society!“) to unleash the horrors of gene therapy upon a world that’s read far too much hysterical science fiction and far too few biology textbooks.  Poor bastard was sober at the time.

Actually, speaking about the horrors of Science: it turns out they’re mostly fictional.

Better medicines, carbon neutral fuels, cheaper food, and a cleaner environment—who could be against that? Well, quite a few people, as it turns out.

In the above article, Ronald Bailey walks us through the facepalmingly obvious benefits of bioengineering, as well as the facepalmingly obvious countermeasures against damn near every relevant science-fiction plot that’s making you nervous about bioengineering.  But no, you read about that thing in a Michael Crichton novel — that’s cool too.  Have another beer.

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2 Responses to “The utility of fiction”


  1. 1 aczarnowski
    May 31, 2010 at 12:58

    I note your fiction examples are each drastically different worlds while Weeds is set in pretty recognizable modern day CA. Of course, the post’s point is still entirely valid. Fiction is a nice thought exercise and it’s very accessible, especially TV.

    Which is why I threw out the snipe a journalists for not even having the energy to watch Mary-Louise F’n Parker. I mean come on. There’s ALL KINDS of worth while thought experiments there. ;) And I really do think, as a bonus, the some-drug economy is played out pretty faithfully.


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