Whenever we find ourselves living in interesting times, someone is likely to make the assertion that “you can’t make this up,” implying that people who create novels, television shows, or political propaganda could never invent something as bizarre as real life. The Trump administration has offered daily examples of people who seemingly would cause a novel to be rejected as absurdly unrealistic if they were to appear as characters, reiterating the claim that truth is stranger than fiction.
But is this an accurate observation about a supposed distinction between human behavior generally and the specific art of storytelling? Conventional wisdom also informs us that life imitates art which in turn imitates life, and herein I find more truth than what is available in the previous declaration. The pragmatic — as opposed to aesthetic — value of art of all kinds, be it written or visual, is in its lasting conversation with the creator, the readers or viewers, and the succeeding generations of people who are influenced from then on by the discussion.
As a reader and writer of science fiction, I have heard the claim that this genre imagines technology that tinkerers go on to bring to the real marketplace. This is taking too much credit if treated literally, though it is true that Arthur C. Clarke, for example, proposed a geosynchronous satellite network as a means of facilitating global communications. Clarke worked as a radar specialist for the Royal Air Force during World War II, so how much we divide this idea up to various aspects of his professional lives is not clear, but we do like to claim his proposal as a point for our team. Jules Verne’s adventure stories, collectively known as Voyages Extraordinaires, earn him a nomination for being the father of science fiction, but mostly, what he wrote took the various sciences of his day and pushed them a bit past their current development — much as his successors generally do now. The Martian continues his tradition, both by describing in detail how survival on Mars might work, but also in taking seriously the notion that we not only can survive “out there,” but can achieve as well.
In recent decades, the entire body of work that is Star Trek has been a major voice in the conversation between fiction and technological growth. While the idea of a cell phone did not originate with Federation communicators, the form that they have taken — flip phones upon maturity and tablets in later generations — draw on the show’s aesthetic. James Doohan was told over and over how he inspired someone to become an engineer, and Nichelle Nichols continued her role as Lieutenant Uhura after Martin Luther King, Jr. said that she must not leave, his concern being over the lack of roles for black actors as capable leaders, rather than only as background characters. And then there are the astronauts who work for NASA and other space agencies because they wanted to experience what they saw as children on television.
Okay, one more curiously prescient case before I move on to bigger matters. Chris Carter, the creator of The X-Files, made a name for himself with his glossy and often goofy show — though Millennium and Harsh Realm deserved much more attention — that worked speculations regarding aliens and what today is called the Deep State for more than they are worth. His attempted spinoff show, The Lone Gunmen, however, had one moment of inadvertent prophecy in its pilot episode, aired on 4 March 2001. The intrepidly nerdy heroes, the eponymous staff of a magazine promoting conspiracy theories, discover a plot — by rogue agents of the U.S. government — to hijack an airliner flying out of Boston and crash it into the World Trade Center and then blame the attack on terrorists so as to start a new conflict after the loss of Cold War profits for military contractors.
That is a lot loaded into one episode, and I do not wish to imply that 9/11 was a false-flag operation. What I find interesting in this is the ability of the creators of fiction to contemplate things that are inconceivable to mundane minds. As Inigo Montoya might say here to people in positions of power, what you cannot bring yourself to contemplate is exactly the space in which our imaginative enemies are operating.
Nichelle Nichols’s example is the one that deserves the most attention here. Will we ever have phasers and warp drive? Who knows. But the more important discussion going on in these made-up worlds is about how human beings treat each other in a variety of contexts. While I have focused on my home genre of speculative fiction, by “made-up worlds,” I do mean any fiction — in print or on the screen — since writers of any type are the creators of universes. And by “human,” I mean all characters. We may try to invent fully realized new species, but as Kirk says to Spock in Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country, “You want to know something? Everybody’s human.” The rabbits of Watership Down, the elves of Lothlórien, and the Cylons who attacked the Twelve Colonies are expressions of who we are.
In stories, we explore possibility. We also learn how to understand others, as a number of recent studies have found. Participants who have read broadly in what is called literary fiction — fiction in which characters and their development drive the story — have better perception of the emotions of others, a better theory of mind, the recognition that other people have their own internal existence that is akin to but separate from our own. I have discussed speculative fiction here, and I would suggest to the researchers that they seek out its literary examples, but in general terms, a work of fiction provides its audience with the opportunity to think through questions such as “How would I act in this situation?” and “What would others around me be going through?” And beyond those, “With these conditions, where could we go from here?”
Those who say you can’t make this up are discounting the human potential for creativity. Yes, we can make up worlds, and many of them have bearing on the one that we all share. Claims to the contrary have the problem of fulfilling themselves by limiting our imagination, whereas accepting possibility opens up reality.