While reading Slashdot the other day, as one does, I ran across a story about what the modern military can learn from BSG (specifically thinking about all the electronic systems that need to link together for optimal battlefield awareness). Of course I just read the abstract (again, as one does, especially when one has better things to do with one’s time), and of course, after that, despite my better judgement, I glanced down at the comments. The top comment (modded 0: Troll), said something to the effect of “the military can’t learn anything from BSG because it’s fiction and has no basis in reality,” which, obviously, I took offense to. However, per Prime Internet Directive 1: Do not engage, I did not wade in, though I have, in essence, a degree in arguing why this person is wrong on a grand scale.
While I can’t speak to the specifics of the article, I can answer the question of what we can learn from fiction.
Simply, an awful lot.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke, for example, was so influential in his fiction that he has an entire region of space named after him (the Clarke belt, where all our GPS satellites float in geo-synchronous orbit). The world would not be what it is today without such imaginations telling us not just about what is but what can be.
Fiction is essential–story is essential–because it allows us to connect with each other, to identify those hidden pieces of ourselves that we guard most closely, and to feel a little less alone. To say that fiction has no worth is to deny yourself an essential part of our shared humanity. Maybe, as the troll suggests, the police can’t learn anything from NCIS, and NASA can’t learn anything from Star Trek, but that doesn’t mean that those shows are worthless. There’s a generation of people at NASA who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, who never lost that spark of wonder with the universe, that essential “what if?” that we get from fiction. Would we have robots the size of dune buggies driving around the surface of Mars without Star Trek and Star Wars? Maybe? I don’t know. Is the world a richer place for these fictions? Absolutely.
The fiction that we love, whatever form it comes in, strikes some chord with each of us. I love Terry Pratchett’s work because he makes me laugh and then he makes me think. I love “Lights” by Stuart Dybeck for the sheer joy of the moment he captures and the way that he and I both revel in his language. I love pulpy Resident Evil tie-in fiction because it’s never self-conscious about how bad it is, and neither am I. I love Tolkien because The Hobbit gave me my first proper glimpse of another world and showed me what fantasy could be. I love fiction, speculative or otherwise, because it asks “what if?” (If you don’t believe me, think about any story that you love and ask yourself what question, at its very core, drives the story; it may not be the sort of big “what if?” that one thinks of when thinking about spec-fic, it could be a small question, a little personal question that is shared between two people, but it will be there.) I love that we don’t just settle for the answers that authors give us to the questions we ask; we are always making our own answers. I love that finding our own answers is part of our very nature.
Can fiction tell us anything useful?
Yes, but we must let it.