Fiction is the telling of what wasn’t, but perhaps could have been. From the realism of Robinson Crusoe to the wild fantasies of Doctor Who, fiction asks a question—a question rich with mystery and excitement, a question full of fear and anticipation, a question with infinite answers and unbounded potential. Fiction asks the question, what if? What if an airplane full of passengers were to crash land on an unknown island? What if a certain wardrobe were a door to a land full of talking animals? What if we had space ships that could explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before?
Pursuing the what if question can lead to the exploration of countless philosophical topics, challenging us to think in new ways. For example, forcing the characters into moral quandaries can help us better understand right and wrong. If Batman were to kill the Joker, he would doubtless save hundreds of innocent lives in the future. But Batman is a hero, and he wants to stay a hero. If he kills the criminals he hunts, then how does he know he is any better than they are?
Minor spoilers: The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss
Fiction can also make us question our own ways of thought. To see this, let’s take a look at the Adem in The Wise Man’s Fear, by Patrick Rothfuss. The Adem live secluded in the mountains, away from lands of “barbarians,” as they call everyone else. They believe themselves the pinnacle of civilization. Yet their elitist mindset is not based on technological advancement or verified knowledge and understanding, but arises from their traditions and belief system. Most notably, they view emotional expressions as rude and childish, as a sign of low self-control. Since all other cultures show their emotions freely, the Adem see others as hopeless, overgrown children, not worth too much time, and certainly not to be taken seriously. However, there is one more little detail about the Adem I haven’t mentioned yet, one that truly cements them as a backward people. It is this: they are so free with their sex that after the hundreds of years since the founding of their culture they have not developed the concept of a father. Sex is literally so commonplace that the Adem have had no chance to correlate it with childbirth. When the main character tries to explain it to them, they laugh at him. That this arrogant culture does not know something so common, so central to human existence, shows us that they are the real barbarians.
We can shake our heads at the stubborn ignorance of the Adem, but there is something deeper to be learned here. We ask the question, “could anyone really be that ignorant?” If you look around, you will see that the answer is definitely yes. Terry Goodkind sums up humanity’s tendency toward cognitive bias in Wizard’s First Rule, claiming that people will believe any lie, either because they want it to be true or they are afraid it is true. Goodkind claims that all people can fall victim to this rule, even if they are careful. So we really have to ask ourselves if there is any ignorant belief we are stubbornly clinging to, like the Adem’s disbelief in fathers. I personally have broken away from one such paradigm, but that does not exempt me from having a new ignorant belief. So you see, asking “what if the Adem” leads us to think about philosophical questions that are present and relevant to us as readers.
For me, the special draw of fantasy and science fiction above other fiction is that it ramps up the what if to the extreme. Stargate Universe, my favorite TV show, is a prime example of this. Its premise: a group of fifty to a hundred people with more or less arbitrary personal skill sets is accidentally sent to an abandoned traveling space ship on the other side of the universe, billions of light years away from any sign of humanity, with no way to get home. The writers did a magnificent job in realistically portraying the characters’ reactions and attempts to adapt and form a community. Each character is different and has their own story, and each contributes to the show in a unique way. Add to this a wide range of fantastic sci-fi challenges thrown at them, and Stargate Universe becomes a melting pot of philosophical ideas and questions.
Philosophy is by no means the only reason I love fiction, but to me it is the first major division of the good from the mediocre. Through fiction, great ideas can be communicated to average people, and can help us to have a better understanding of life, the universe, and everything.