The Covid-19 pandemic has caused marked shifts in Western thought that just a few years ago would have been inconceivable. The sudden appearance of the phrase “essential workers” came with an almost universally agreed upon definition and the quick realization that half the people that fit that definition are chronically underpaid. This understandably led to questioning of the free market capitalist worldview dominant in the West; if “essential workers” aren’t paid a living wage then surely the “free market” has failed to appropriately value their work. Some are even questioning what has long been held to be the only natural way of structuring a society: meritocracy.
If you’re not familiar with the term meritocracy, that’s okay, because I can assure you that you almost certainly live by it. Meritocracy is the idea that goods (money, resources, etc.) and political power are given to people on the basis of talent, effort, and achievement, rather than on the basis of heredity, wealth, or social class. To most, this seems like the most natural thing in the world. Work hard and you will live a more comfortable life. Good things come to those who lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Meritocracy, put quite simply, is the realization of The American Dream. Because it is so deeply routed in our culture it has permeated science fiction which aims to portray an ideal future. As a result, when Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1987 he turned that shit to eleven.
There is much debate among fans as to whether the Federation from the period of Next Gen on is socialist. (Just Google “is Star Trek socialist” to see what I mean.) That debate is largely irrelevant here, as I’ll show. Whether and how Federation citizens get paid is immaterial to the concept of meritocracy, as the latter only demands that goods be distributed based on merit. As evidence I submit to you the Star Trek: The Next Generation season two episode “The Schizoid Man,” which for me is one of the most baffling episodes of the entire series.
Our episode starts with the Enterprise en-route to answer a distress call from Ira Graves, who is described as “arguably the greatest human mind in the Universe.” Graves and his nurse are the only inhabitants of an entire planet – called Graves’ World – which affords him the opportunity to conduct his research in self imposed isolation. Captain Picard clarifies for the crew that Starfleet considers Graves’ work to be so important that responding to the distress call is a “priority one action.” This command is quickly put to the test as the Enterprise receives another distress call, this time from a transport ship ferrying over two thousand colonists. After a brief debate as to which emergency is more critical, it is decided they will quickly beam down a small away party to assist Graves while the ship continues on to rescue the transport vessel.
Seven minutes into the episode and everything is crazy. We have established that the Federation is a meritocratic nightmare. One man is seemingly so valuable that he is given an entire planet to himself, and is implicitly considered to be more important than two thousand men, women, and children, not to mention an entire starship capable of transporting that many people. “But wait,” I can hear you thinking, “that doesn’t sound like a nightmare.” The nightmare comes twice in the episode, later as the main plot point, but first in the form of the nurse and second inhabitant of Graves’ World. When the away team beams down they are met by Graves’ beautiful young nurse, who is also his assistant. When I say the assistant is young, I mean young. She looks to be maybe twenty years old. Upon seeing Worf (a klingon) she asks him if he is a romulan, which greatly insults him. Graves reveals that his assistant has lived on his planet since her father died when she was very young, and essentially everything she knows she learned from Graves, a dirty old man that doesn’t wait two minutes before hitting on both the vulcan doctor and Counselor Troi. Graves’ work is evidently so valuable that he is not only given an entire planet to himself, but also a young female slave nurse! Not a slave? This woman is terrified of Graves, and knows nothing outside of this old man for companionship. As with any true meritocracy, being a good person is no indication of merit, and Graves in an unapologetic asshole that everyone is all too willing to accommodate because he’s… really smart, I guess.
This characterization is actually critical to the plot (and second nightmare), as Graves is dying and takes the opportunity of meeting the android Data to upload his consciousness into Data’s body. The crew slowly begin to realize what has happened, and Picard tries to convince Graves to exit Data’s body after Graves’ temper and Data’s superior strength has resulted in the injury of several crew members. As is typical of Star Trek, a speech is made as persuasion.
Picard tells Graves, “You have extended your life at the expense of another… No being is so important that he can usurp the rights of another.”
Except… that Graves is that important.
I think this story is meant to say something about accepting death, that death comes for us all regardless of our accomplishments and capabilities. But the very meritocratic nature of the story world makes it a mess. If anything, Graves is the true victim here. For most of his life, Graves has been a man of unequaled skill, considered “the greatest human mind in the Universe.” So great, in fact, that he is given his own planet and live-in young attractive nurse. Along comes this humanoid machine that can let him live forever and continue his Great Works. Sure, the machine is sentient, but so is the girl. Sure, Data is unique, but the Federation saw fit to give him a whole planet that could have supported colonists – like those two thousand that were almost sacrificed just so a starship could find out what Graves’ distress call was about. Graves took Data, because society had told him he was entitled to. In reality this is not a story about morality or mortality, this is a story about what absolute hells meritocracy can create. A starship captain having to choose between one man who is a number one priority, and a ship of two thousand colonists. The hell experienced by a young woman with a dirty old man her only company, who is trapped with him because her government says he needs an assistant. The hell of immense resources devoted to sustain one man on a remote planet while countless others starve. The hell of an entitled man stealing the body of someone who has less right to it than him, Get Out style. Is it any wonder Graves did what he did? Everything about his life and his society told him it was okay. Picard’s righteous indication rings hypocritical because not long before he himself subscribed to the same ideology that trained Graves to take this final action. “The Schizoid Man” is such a baffling episode of Star Trek because it inadvertently decimates one of the core tenets of the franchise: that meritocracy is a natural, and good, thing.
Ironically, the term meritocracy was coined by author Michael Young in his 1958 dystopian satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young meant for meritocracy to be a negative thing, and was dismayed when contemporaries began to extol its virtues. Young was trying to warn us of a system of education that stratifies people. One that takes skills that were once “distributed between the classes more or less at random” but now have “become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education.” Take for example Ivy League schools. Attendance at such schools is considered a key to success, simply because people that attend those schools have been successful in the past. Ivy League schools often employ the most prestigious and accomplished professors from across all fields of study, meaning an Ivy League education has the potential to be among the best educations in the world. In a capitalist meritocracy, those with success have money, and those with money can buy success. This leads to a system where success can have the appearance of being earned, when in actuality it was purchased by the previous generation for their children. Those with success look down upon those who struggle, and those that struggle view those who have success as being more worthy than themselves. In our everyday lives, meritocracy tells us that if we don’t accumulate accomplishments then we are failures. This is one of the many ways that meritocracy makes all of us miserable. We can’t simply be happy with what we have achieved, because if we’re not constantly moving up then we may as well be moving down. Meritocracy can be dangerous, and a supposed utopia that hands out planets and young women to old men who are really good at chemistry sounds like an absolute hell.
I’m one of those science fiction fans that believes that 1990s sci-fi television (and to some extent literature) was a mostly barren wasteland. That didn’t stop me from watching a ton of it as a teenage fan – after all, what did I know? We all have shows we watch knowing that they’re bad, but we still enjoy them nonetheless. For me, Seven Days (or 7 Days) was one of those shows.
And let me tell you, has it not aged well. Like, not in a single way.
Seven Days premiered on 7 October 1998 on UPN. (Are you – like me – old and lame enough to remember UPN?) The premise was wonderfully simple: a secret US government project, based on alien technology recovered from the Roswell crash, is tasked with allowing a single person to travel back in time up to seven days. Why seven days? It has something to do with the size of the reactor we can use that runs of alien fuel, but really it’s because seven days is a week and that’s snappy. So called “Project Backstep” operates out of Area 51 (yup) with the sole purpose of preventing terrorist attacks and safeguarding American interests. Check that air date again, late 1998, but more on that later.
In the pilot episode, Chechnyan Marxists launch an attack on a US-Russian summit, killing the Russian president, as well as the US president and vice president when a plane crashes into the White House where the meeting is taking place. A subsequent attack kills the US Speaker of the House, who is third in line to the presidency. The decision is made to attempt a “backstep,” only problem being that it has never worked before and there are no pilots, a.k.a. “chrononauts.” With only seven days to find, train, and launch the mission, a search for expendable people turns up our hero: Frank B. Parker. This guy has it all. He is extremely physically fit (and jacked) with a high pain threshold, which is necessary to pilot the time machine, as well as a photographic memory which is ideal for retaining all the intelligence acquired from the future. He is also a decorated Navy SEAL and ex-CIA operative. He also happens to be crazy, having been committed to a mental institution after being tortured in a “hot box” in Somalia. But our boy is a true American hero because he never cracked under torture. He also, conveniently, happens to have a best friend that is the military liaison to Project Backstep, which is the only reason he doesn’t think he’s hallucinating the whole thing when he’s told the government wants him to travel back in time to stop the terrorist attack. Jump to the end of the two hour pilot episode, and Frank B. Parker saves the nation’s leadership, and Project Backstep is somehow ready to do this every week for three years of non-network television.
This show is absolute patriotic porn. I didn’t totally realize it at the time, but holy hell is it clear now. The frequent foil of the show’s American heroes are the Russians/former Soviets; it is no coincidence that the terrorists of the pilot are Chechnyan. On the scientific team at Project Backstep is Dr. Olga Vukavitch, the only woman on the cast and thus the love interest of Frank B. Parker. As you can imagine, Olga is subject to frequent unwanted sexual advances by her coworker which are meant to be endearing, and she smiles lovingly through all the playful workplace harassment. (I mean no disrespect to actor Justina Vail Evans, who did an excellent job with the material given her to play Olga.) Dr. Vukavitch, if you couldn’t tell from the name, is a Russian defector that worked on the Soviet time travel program, and I’m pretty sure “Communists with time machines” was on many a Republican’s nightmare list in the late 20th century. Though terrorism features heavily in the show, the term “radical Islamic terrorism” is non-existent despite it being a household term just a few years later. Instead, the focus is on the classic American political myopia of nation-state terrorists. Of course, the concept of Russians with time machines comes up multiple times, in episodes that are honestly among the best of the series.
But it’s not just the use of former Soviets as the show’s primary foil that makes Seven Days a pre-9/11 Conservative wet dream, it’s the overall premise and tone of the series. The US Government can do no wrong, and is not only always on the side of righteousness, but is also on the side of God. American intelligence gathering is so tight, and the US Government’s power so great, that literal time travel is within their grasp. No tragedy is allowed to impact the American people, or interrupt their lives. Here is a small list of the incidents that Project Backstep prevents in various episodes: a terrorist attack on Washington D.C.; a second Korean War; the bombing of an NSA office (yup, that’s enough to necessitate time travel); a Jonestown-like massacre that ruins the press for the president’s human rights conference (I’m not kidding); a Russian Navy submarine accident contaminating the Alaskan coast with plutonium (actually, that’s a good reason to time travel); the death of the vice president’s illegitimate daughter which causes the vice president to commit suicide; an explosion at a Las Vegas casino that kills 1,000 people, including some attending a Defense convention (?!); and a global pandemic of airborne ebola (‘90’s deep cut) that was released by – you guessed it – a terrorist attack. That wild list is taken entirely from the show’s first season!
If it was just the tone and premise of “America can’t loose, baby!” it might be forgivable. But the creators leaned even further in and put America on the side of God Himself. Frank B. Parker is an orphan raised by nuns, and although he’s not a great Catholic, he definitely is one. It’s probably fortunate that Muslim terrorism doesn’t feature in the show because of this, and one of the few times Muslims are mentioned at all is in an episode where time travel is authorized to prevent the Catholic Pope’s assassination because he was negotiating a peace treaty between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia – you know, because that’s something that the Pope would do and that a reasonable person would expect he’d succeed at. (Fun fact, Frank ends up Quantum Leaping into the Pope’s body in that episode for no clear reason.) There are many episodes where being “on the side of the angels” is strongly alluded to, but this all comes to a head in the third season episode “Revelation”, in which a Project Backstep chrononaut from seven years in the future (played by Robert Picardo), arrives with a mission to assassinate a Nobel Peace Prize winning religious leader… who happens to be Muslim. The assassination goes forward with US Government approval but everything goes tits up after that. Frank backsteps seven days to prevent the assassination he carried out in the first place and confronts Robert Picardo’s character who turns out to be none other than Satan himself! No really. He even has a neat tattoo that says “666”. By defeating the Devil, Frank B. Parker is cemented as the right hand of God. That episode is either the low point or high point of season three, depending on your perspective.
Due to low ratings and consistently poor critical reception, Seven Days was canceled and aired its final episode on 29 May 2001, just four months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the show’s protagonists would have been charged with preventing. In the days following 11 September 2001 I thought a lot about Seven Days, part of me wishing it were real to prevent the senseless deaths, and part of me in complete awe at our national hubris to conceive of such a show. Watching the pilot today is nothing short of a mind-fuck. The episode unfolds as patriotic disaster porn, and we are meant to feel that although everything shown is awful, we can watch comfortable knowing that in the end Navy SEAL and CIA agent Frank B. Parker will set all right with the world and God. September 11 changed American culture so much that it is sometimes hard to grasp how different fiction was before that day. Seven Days is an extreme window into a time when suspension of disbelief didn’t include the fact that the CIA was working for the good of the world and was protected by God, just that time travel was real.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine could be considered controversial if it wasn’t so well loved. Star Trek is so universal in American culture that almost everyone as seen at least some of it, and I’ve found that if people have an opinion at all then they either love or hate DS9. The series can be divisive among Trek fans depending on what it is about Trek that appeals to them.
Set outside the domain of the United Federation of Planets, the space station Deep Space Nine resides in a hostile part of the galaxy. Central to the story is the recently ended conflict between the Bajorans (who own DS9) and the Cardassians. The brutal Cardassian occupation of Bajor lasted several decades and ended shortly before the series begins. Themes of slavery, exploitation, pillage of native resources, capitalism, authoritarianism, and war are central to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Unlike other Trek series, these themes are central to the show in that the characters are constantly surrounded by them, rather than passingly encountering them in “primitive” alien civilizations. At a time in the Trek universe when it is said that there is no poverty, hunger, or war, the Bajorans struggle to feed their own people, and mass hunger is the norm on their world. (Why the Federation doesn’t do more to help is perhaps the topic of another post.)
One particularly good scene comes in the second season episode “The Maquis, Part 2.” The multi-episode story introduces the Maquis, a group of human resistance fighters who oppose the Cardassian government. Due to events established prior in Star Trek: The Next Generation, a group of human colonies exist in Cardassian space. Years later, the human colonists claim they are being killed by the Cardassian government. With Starfleet and the Federation unwilling to intervene at the risk of starting another war with Cardassia, the colonists arm themselves and start the Maquis, named after the World War II French resistance fighters. The situation has direct comparison to the occupation of the West Bank, and parallels can be drawn to anyone that questions the “civilized nature” of those living in the territories.
The scene starts with a conversation between station commander Benjamin Sisko and a Starfleet Admiral. The Admiral doesn’t understand why Sisko can’t just talk to the Maquis. “Open a dialog,” she says. “They’re still Federation citizens, I’m sure they’ll listen to reason.” The Admiral leaves, and Sisko’s Bajoran first officer enters his office, interrupting him screaming to himself.
“Just because a group of people belong to the Federation it does not mean that they are saints!… The trouble is Earth. On Earth there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet headquarters and you see paradise. Well it’s easy to be a saint in paradise, but the Maquis do not live in paradise.”
I love this speech as it – and much of the later seasons of DS9 – casts a shadow on one of the core philosophic tenets of all Star Trek, namely that humans are amazing. Star Trek has always portrayed a human utopia, where all humans come together and live in an educated and well cared for world. All creature comforts are met, and as a result there is no crime because everyone has what they need, and are able to earn what they want.
But out here, on the frontier, where basic needs are difficult to meet, where humans go out into new lands to build a home as we have so often done, suffering is waiting for us. On the core worlds of the Federation – Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, etc. – everyone has what they need. Out on the colonies, there aren’t enough omnipotent replicators to provide food and clothing for everyone. Farming is evidently still the most efficient way to get food, and the colonists strive and struggle to work the soil of alien worlds into new Earths. Humans are known throughout the galaxy as they exist in paradise, but take a human out of paradise long enough and these “highly civilized” people of the future look a lot like you and me.
This sentiment is reflected in one of the greatest scenes in Deep Space Nine, from the seventh season episode “The Siege of AR-558,” when the Federation is fighting a grueling war with the Dominion, which is functionally an anti-Federation. The Ferengi Quark tries to open his nephew’s eyes that the human soldiers he idolizes as heroes are not fit to be looked up to.
“Let me tell you something about humans, nephew. They’re a wonderful, friendly people, as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working. But take away their creature comforts – deprive them of food, sleep, sonic showers – put their lives in jeopardy over an extended period of time, and those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty, and as violent, as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”
Granted, this is little more than a sci-fi technobabble’d up version of the saying “every society is just three meals away from revolution” (often attributed to Vladimir Lenin), but what is remarkable is its inclusion in Star Trek. The sentiment that humans of the 24th century are no farther from barbarism than humans of today is generally antithetical to Trek lore. DS9 takes the stance that humans aren’t better than other races, they’re just a bit better at wanting to care for each other. The people that the aliens of Star Trek picture when they think of humans are those humans that live in paradise, and it’s easy to be a saint in paradise.
In each Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta I read three short stories by a classic science fiction author I’ve never read before in order to get a feel for their style.
Jerome Bixby will be familiar to fans of Star Trek The Original Series as the scriptwriter (or co-writer) of the episodes "Mirror, Mirror", "Day of the Dove", "Requiem for Methuselah", and "By Any Other Name", all of which are quite good by the standards of the series. Fans of the original Twilight Zone will recognize our first story which was made into the supremely scary “It’s a Good Life” in 1961, and served as one of the segments in the 1983 anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie. Bixby was a prolific editor of science fiction magazines in the early 1950s, having edited Planet Stories, Jungle Stories, and Action Stories almost simultaneously. He co-created the concept of the 1966 science fiction film Fantastic Voyage, a childhood favorite of mine. He also wrote the screenplay for the excellent 2007 low-budget science fiction film The Man from Earth, which was produced long after his death. Ironically, The Man from Earth stars Star Trek: Enterprise actor John Billingsley, bringing the Star Trek connection right back around. But enough of his resume, let’s see how he writes.
It’s a Good Life
Originally published in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 (1953)
Read in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume One 1929-1964
I’m a huge fan of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone and I’ve followed its many reboots closely. What I think few people realize is that Serling’s “secret sauce” consisted of two simple facts about him. First, he respected science fiction and fantasy as a legitimate literary art form. Second, and more elusively for modern filmmakers, he respected a story that worked on the page before it worked on the stage. Many of the best and most iconic Twilight Zone episodes started life up to a decade prior in the science fiction magazines, including “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “Time Enough at Last”, “Shadow Play”, and too many more to list here. Serling had respect for bringing what was written on the page to the screen with as little compromise as possible. There’s a story that Charles Beaumont told of when he was adapting his short story Perchance to Dream into the episode of the same name. Beaumont had written of a twisted and deformed carnival, and asked Serling if he should change the setting for production. Serling directed him to “write it as you imagined it.” Beaumont was blown away when he arrived on set for filming and saw the nightmarish buildings that set that episode apart from so many others.
This story is appropriate for our discussion of It’s a Good Life because if you’ve seen that episode then there are no surprises in the prose. Serling adapted Bixby’s story almost verbatim, with just a few extra lines and nuances that help translate it to the screen without in any way compromising what Bixby had laid out on the page. As such I found reading the story just a little boring because I’ve seen the episode so many times, but that reflects more favorably on Bixby than anything else; all the brilliance and creepiness of that iconic television episode is due to Bixby’s original story.
Originally published in Space by the Tale (1964)
Read in 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories
If possible, I love to read a flash fiction piece for the Vintage Sci-Fi Trifecta, because I think “short short stories” are an underappreciated art form. To convey a complete story in roughly one thousand words is very hard to do, and I find it’s a great judge of a writer’s ability. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to review a 1,000 word short story without giving it away, so apologies because I’m about to spoil this one.
Trace uses the simple setup of a man who gets lost when trying to take a shortcut. He finds himself on the wooded roads on a hill where every path he takes seems to only go further up the hill, even when he turns around to retrace his movements. Eventually his car blows a tire and while on foot he finds the most idyllic clearing with a perfect little house. Approaching, he meets the home’s smiling occupant. Everything is beautifully perfect; the food, the weather, the scenery, the host. The conversation turns philosophical, and the host pontificates that nobody is fully good or even fully evil, that even evil people must occasionally commit acts of decency and kindness. And without it ever being said, we are clearly led to believe that this man, this gracious host, is the Devil himself, taking a brief vacation from the burden of his works. The man has a truly pleasant conversation with the Devil, and when the tow truck arrives to repair his car we are confident that he will be on his way without trouble. There is nothing sinister here, no veiled threat, simply the idea that even evil people must have some bits of good in them, and vice versa. It’s a great little story, and I was awed by the writing skill that seeded the impression in my mind that the host was the Devil without it ever really being said. This is a story to study to determine how that impression was created.
The Holes Around Mars
Originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1954
Read in Where Do We Go From Here?
This is a classic 1950s “men arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” science fiction story. There is a cute setup revolving around puns, and the final line is definitely a pun, but there is a good deal more to the story than that. The first men on Mars discover a curious series of holes (actually tunnels) about four inches in diameter carved through the martian landscape. These perfectly aligned tunnels are cut through mountains, dunes, and even plants. The bulk of the story revolves around the mystery of how and why these tunnels exist. It’s a fun story, and I won’t give it away, especially since you can read it for yourself on the Internet Archive’s copy of the January 1954 Galaxy, but I will say that the explanation stretches the concept of science fiction so far as to be pure fantasy. Still, I enjoyed this one, though you have to place it firmly in the vintage category. I was about to say that this story couldn’t appear today, but I have read entries in the “men (and women) arrive on another planet in a rocket ship” in recent issues of Analog, so it goes to show you that the classic ideas are still around and people still get mileage from them.
Jerome Bixby was definitely a skilled author and screenwriter, though it’s not hard to see why he’s not more famous today. Unlike his more well known contemporaries, his stories seem to lack staying power. If it weren’t for the Twilight Zone adaptation of It’s a Good Life I’m not sure the story would really stand out in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a classic, but I’m not sure that by itself it would stay in the collective consciousness seventy years later. That being said, I’m interested to read more prose by Bixby, and see what other clever ideas his mind created.
In my readings of science fiction I’ve come across a persistent concept that was very popular in the twentieth century, and that is the future evolution of psychology into a “hard” science. I’ve already said something that is bound to offend lots of people, so let’s take a step back and lower the pitchforks.
The commonly accepted definition of a “hard” science is that it strives to understand the fundamental mechanical workings of the Universe. Some examples are physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. “Soft” sciences use the scientific method to try to understand more intangible human aspects of the world, such as in psychology, sociology, and some aspects of anthropology. (“Biological anthropology” is much more of a “hard” science.) A more practical definition (and one that will serve us in the present discussion) is that “hard” sciences can make predictions based on established physical laws. For instance, if you stand in your kitchen and drop an apple, physic predicts that the apple will not only fall but that it will do so at a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second per second. That is true because you are standing on Earth, which has a known gravitational field per Isaac Newton’s equations (or if you want to get fancy you can use Einstein’s Relativity). Fields like psychology are quite a bit different. Though psychology aims to use statistical methods (i.e. mathematics), it does not truly offer predictions. That is not to say that psychologists can’t make predictions; indeed when people design experiments they often expect it to show a certain result (that’s the hypothesis part of the scientific method). It is more that psychologists tend not to make predictions because their predictions are less grounded in “known laws” than physicists’ predictions are. Of course, once upon a time the field that we would now call physics wasn’t good at making predictions either. That’s because those “known laws” weren’t yet known. Indeed, psychology is at the stage where scientists are trying to uncover “laws of psychology.” Do such laws even exist? Are humans governed solely by complex behavioral laws? The truth is that we don’t know yet, same as physicists didn’t know two thousand years ago how the Sun produced energy. (Basically all the theories back then were indistinguishable from magic because the key physical mechanism of the Sun’s energy production – atomic fusion – was a complete mystery.) Maybe there are laws that govern human behavior, laws that can be written down mathematically the same way we can describe the motion of planets orbiting a star. It’s not hard to understand why such scientific speculation is ripe for sci-fi pickings.
The most prominent science fiction example of psychology as a “hard” science is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is built upon the fictional concept of psychohistory. The laws of psychohistory state that large enough groups of humans behave in ways that can be predicted by fundamental behavioral laws. How large is “large enough”? Tens of billions. Meaning that Earth today could not be predicted by psychohistory, but the human population of the fully colonized Milky Way galaxy in the time of the Foundation books counts humans in the hundreds of billions, meaning that the motions of the Galactic Empire can be predicted with definable precision. And what future does Harry Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, predict for the galaxy? The complete collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by a 30,000 year brutal dark age. Only by establishing the Foundation can they shorten the dark age to merely 1,000 years. That is the basic premise of the Foundation series, and it is entirely predicated on the idea that psychology can evolve into a “hard” science.
Foundation isn’t alone though, and I’ve encountered numerous examples of this concept in science fiction. Another prominent example is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though not a central idea, Starship Troopers explores the concept that psychology (or perhaps more appropriately, sociology) has evolved into a mathematical science. Here it is possible to mathematically prove that certain systems of government are better than others, finding mathematical optimizations. Though not a central concept, this imbues the militarist government of Earth with a moral certainty. “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus.” (Tangentially, if you’ve only ever seen the 1997 film then the book is not what you think it is. The book is essentially a philosophical treatise in monologue about militarism, war, obligation, responsibility, and maturity, with two action sequences as bookends. As such, it’s classic Heinlein and worth a read.)
To leave you with one final example. The television series Lie to Me exploits the idea of biological-based psychology. In the show, behavioral psychologist Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) has invented the science of microexpressions to read emotional responses, which he uses to consult with police departments to solve crimes. (Yes, Lie to Me is yet another 1990’s science-based crime drama.) Interestingly, the character of Lightman is based on a real psychologist, professor Paul Ekman, who has actually created the field that Lightman has in the show. Ekman has consulted extensively with the TSA to develop techniques to screen airline passengers, and if the idea of teaching TSA agents to read tiny muscle spasms in people’s faces to infer suspicious behavior sounds dubious that’s because it very much is. We should be skeptical any time a real world discovery sounds like science fiction, but when governments embrace science fiction sounding psychology to identify “threats” we should all run the other way. Perhaps that’s the moral we should take from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as well: “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus. If the math doesn’t work out then you did the math wrong.”
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.