I love science fiction, and I’ve consumed quite a lot of it–books, movies, comics, and more–in my day. And as much as I love an epic quest or a final showdown where the hero defeats the villain in some spectacular way involving super powers and futuristic technology and lots of flying colors, there’s one thing I’ve been noticing lately about sci-fi. It’s that good sci-fi is not necessarily about technology or the future or quests to save the world from evil madmen. Sure, those things are great, but they shouldn’t necessarily be at the heart of the story, and sometimes they can even distract from the main focus. Rather, the best sci-fi is about human nature and what real people would be likely to do with a particular technology or science.

Of course, this principle may sound basic; an understanding of human nature is essential to any good fiction. But it’s something I’ve been noticing especially in science fiction lately. A friend of mine recently showed me a couple different short stories he was working on. Both took place in mostly normal worlds, but each had one thing that was different–one new technology or one new law that changed things for the way people lived. And the stories were not necessarily about the technology itself, or the government that built the technologies or put the laws in place, but they were about ordinary guys living in these worlds and using these different technologies as they saw fit–usually for personal pleasure or gain.They were about how human nature reacted to new developments in the world.

I don’t want to publish my friend’s ideas without his permission, so I won’t say specifically what twists and gimmicks his stories contained. But I’ll give you another example. I tried to emulate this same principle with a story I recently wrote on this blog, a five-part installment tentatively titled “Parallel.” In this story, a regular, flawed, unhappy guy finds a way to travel to alternate dimensions, but there’s not a big epic quest where he has to find his way home or battle evil parallel versions of himself. In fact, the narrator even makes the point directly to the reader that he’s not battling an evil alternate version of himself (okay, maybe I’ll be a little more subtle in my revisions). Rather, he just uses dimensional travel as a way to escape his failing marriage and unpleasant home life–and it works about as well as it ever does when normal people without interdimensional travel try to run away from problems in their lives and their marriages. The technology is a fun gimmick that helps make the story work, but it’s not the focus or the main point. The story is about this guy and his life and his marriage and the choices he makes.

Another good example is the film Inception. In the movie, there’s a technology that lets people enter each other’s dreams

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

and be in control of their actions within the dream world. Very little attention is given to how the technology works or why it was developed, because that’s not the point of the story; it’s basically just assumed that, in this fictional world, dream travel is possible. But again, dream travel alone isn’t the main point of the story. One could say that there is a “quest,” or at least a convoluted heist that the protagonists work to pull off to achieve a certain goal, but there’s more to it than that. The story is about the main character, Cobb, and his life, and his guilt over a past relationship with his wife. The existence of the technology in this world allows for the plot events to play out the way they did, but it’s not the main point of the story. It’s about how the technology affects the lives and the psyche and the character development of realistic people. It’s about what human nature does with the technology.

I think I’ve made similar points to these in my previous post about dystopias, because a good dystopia, while often futuristic or post-apocalyptic, requires a focus on human nature as well. And speaking of post-apocalyptic dystopias, I’ll also use The Walking Dead as an example–both the comic books and the TV adaptation. Despite all evidence to the contrary, The Walking Dead is not about the exciting or gory action of human good guys killing zombie bad guys. No, it’s about how the need for survival changes people over time, how the breakdown of civilization brings out the worst in humanity. It’s about how, as Nietzsche warned, he who fights with monsters should be careful not to become a monster himself. Author Robert Kirkman stated in the introduction to the first collected volume of the comic series that he wanted the story to be more about realistic character development over time than just about zombies scaring people, and I for one believe he’s achieved that goal well. He doesn’t just deal with zombies, but with the effect that zombies have on human nature.

Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Image taken from Flickr Creative Commons

Your challenge, then, next time you’re lacking inspiration or need a new story idea, is to think about science fiction–and not just sci-fi itself, but about how sci-fi affects human nature. Come up with a technology or innovation that could exist in speculative fiction. If you can’t think of one that hasn’t been done already, then just come up with a new law or government regulation that could possibly be put in place. Then ask yourself: what would real, flawed, human beings do or act like in a world where this exists? What would you do with it? What would your friends or enemies do with it? Or what about that guy you met on the street with everything to gain and nothing to lose? Be creative, think about the implications that a certain innovation could have on human nature and behavior, and write the most real and natural story you can. You may be surprised at what you find.

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One thought on “Science Fiction and Human Nature

  1. I’ve believed for a long time that sci-fi is more of a setting than a genre. The setting often allows exploration of different themes (how else could you explore the morality of fundamentally changing human nature by human hands?), but the core of the story in good sci-fi has been, pretty much from the beginning, an exploration of human nature and what it really means. Alien races often just mirrors to hold up to humanity. New technologies are only tools to unlock new questions (Can an android be human is really just what does it mean to be human).

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