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Back in November -- last millennium, if you index from 1 -- we heard from Jen Larsen about how her love for speculative fiction gently dragged her away from what one might call mainstream culture, and led her to unconventional opinions and choices. The electoral season being over (finally!) I would like to reflect on another way in which we SF fans seem to differ from the rest of the world: how we think about politics.

Politicians frequently rattle off some oversimplified summary of a scientific theory, or spout a string of statistics in support of a point they are trying to make. More often than not, what they say is misleading, if not outright wrong. My current favorite example is the claim that gun violence takes more lives in areas with stricter gun control. While this is true, it neglects to note that states with major urban centers have stricter gun policies, while rural areas have lower crime rates in general. The reality is, areas with stricter gun control have lower rates of gun violence as compared to similar places.

When our opponents are the guilty parties, we ask ourselves how their supporters can be duped by such faulty logic. When those we plan to vote for pull such stunts, we grin and bear it as a political necessity. But why should it be? Why do we just accept that a large segment of the population, even those who agree with us, even people whom we love dearly, are scientific ignorami?

The fact is, the vast majority of people do not have a firm grasp of the basics of science and mathematics. They are accustomed to having science confirm things they've been told since they were children; even intuition-defying things, like "The world is round." Though modern faith-statements happen to be a little more accurate than those of centuries past, they are still taught to children with just as much zeal and just as little proof.

Perhaps more disturbing than the prevalance of innumeracy is the equally widespread lack of understanding of the implications of ideology. The politician making his point with "fuzzy math" may be fudging not only his numbers, but also the policies and goals he's trying to promote. Most people have never tried to think through the consequences of the political positions to which they claim to subscribe. They believe what they believe, and will brook no rational argument to the contrary, even if the subject at hand clearly has some room for subjectivity.

Thus, as has often been noted, democracy seems a somewhat difficult notion. People may know what they want, but if most of them don't know how to get it, or how to determine who does know, the idea of voting seems a bit futile. Unfortunately, as has equally often been noted, democracy is still better than any known alternatives. Until somebody comes up with a better idea, I for one can only conclude that what we really need is some way to make people into better citizens -- to make them more inquisitive and skeptical, and more interested in thinking about consequences.

I respectfully submit that exposure to speculative fiction -- science fiction in particular, but some fantasy and magical realism as well -- does just that. One of the most common features of SF is the extrapolation of trends. Kim Stanley Robinson would have us believe that allowing the concentration of corporate power will lead (or perhaps has already led) to the abuse and near-enslavement of entire nations. Robert Heinlein, on the other hand, felt that private industry was our best bet for reaching the stars and achieving immortality. In addition to telling stories, SF authors often want us to believe that the future they depict is actually coming, and that we should take some action based on our foreknowledge.

At least one author springs to mind as a rather forthright practitioner of both politics and storytelling. Bruce Sterling has put most of his writing on hold to pursue the Viridian Design Movement, which pushes an environmental and social agenda. (Visit their Web site for details. The short version is, global warming is going to make our planet very uncomfortable, and we ought to stop that from happening by socially stigmatizing fossil fuels and other greenhouse pollutants.) Sterling's futurism has always permeated his fiction, and it seems reasonable to believe that he wants his readers to believe that his predictions, even if they are exaggerated, are essentially credible.

Just as SF provides alternative models of how individual decisions may affect our private lives, it shows us how our decisions as a society may affect the lives of many. From the anarchy of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed to the militarized state of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, SF gives us an entertaining way to start thinking about how we ought to run civilization. Once you start thinking about such things, it's only a short step to the extrapolation of your own beliefs -- and thinking critically about politics instead of voting the party line.

This is a recurring theme in Strange Horizons: Exposure to alternatives makes us question our beliefs. It has already appeared in our articles, editorials, fiction, and reviews. To hold myself to the standard I set at the beginning of this essay, I must confess that I cannot cite any statistics that support this point, but I think many anthropologists and psychologists would agree with the theory. We can never completely extract ourselves from our native cultural context, but we can learn that what we think of as "natural" or "obvious" is not necessarily so, and that there are other ways of doing things.

My other claim -- that questioning dogmatic beliefs will lead to better decisions -- is tautological. If you honestly think that absolute faith in dogma is superior to reason, then no argument based on reason is going to move you, and I shan't bother to try.

We want a well-run government. We believe that skeptical voters make better decisions about who should govern. We believe that heterogeneity of ideas leads to greater awareness of possibilities and more skepticism of dogma. We know that SF provides a cornucopia of ideas. I submit that there is an obvious implication here: We ought to be out lobbying school boards to include more SF in grade school education. It's our civic duty!


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R Michael Harman is New Media Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archive.

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