Search SFE    Search EoF

  Omit cross-reference entries  


Entry updated 15 April 2024. Tagged: Theme.

Everyone is familiar with C P Snow's 1959 lecture on "The Two Cultures", incorporated into Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (1959), wherein he expressed alarm over the perceived separation of the communities of the sciences and the humanities; but few have noted his stated reason for the called-for reconciliation of the two divided communities: the need to address the growing divide between the rich nations and the poor nations of the world. In other words, he was calling for a concerted expression of altruism on the part of the two communities, working together, to give assistance that would benefit both impoverished individuals and their societies. While it has become commonplace to advance "science fiction" as the bridge between the sciences and the humanities, then, the question Snow would raise is whether the genre has brought about or advocated any concerted effort to improve the lives for the least fortunate among us. This question divides into two questions: whether the community associated with sf has been altruistic toward others, or whether the genre as a whole has promoted altruism in its stories.

Regarding the first question, the sf community has a fairly good record of being altruistic. One example is a a group of fans (see Fandom) in Washington state, IKV T'Mar, which is (as its website states) "dedicated to establishing a positive presence in our community through volunteer service and fund raising activities. We make ourselves available to visit hospitals, schools, movie premiers and book stores – anywhere we can help." The novelty is that while doing these good deeds, members are usually dressed as Klingons. In 2005, when much of southeast Asia was devastated by a tsunami, several prominent sf writers, including Brian W Aldiss, Joe Haldeman, and Larry Niven, raised money to help victims by donating stories to an Original Anthology, Elemental: The Tsunami Relief Anthology (anth 2006) edited by Steven Savile and Alethea Kontis. Other anthologies that attract the services of sf writers for charitable causes include the Drabble anthologies of short-short stories, beginning with The Drabble Project (anth 1988) edited by Rob Meades and David B Wake, that give their profits to the Royal Institute for the Blind. As a tradition launched by Robert A Heinlein, every Worldcon has a blood drive, and the Heinlein Society's charitable efforts include college scholarships and efforts to provide military personnel with books.

Yet much of the community's charitable energies are aimed at others in the community: the Arthur C Clarke Award gives the author of the best science fiction novel of the year a substantial cash award; there are fund-raising drives to enable fans to attend distant Conventions (see Fan Funds) or to assist writers having financial difficulties; Worldcons grant space and time for authors and fans to promote their works, and are dedicated to accommodating persons with disabilities; and it is commonplace for Worldcons to donate their profits to sf-related causes.

Regarding the second question, there is a long tradition of Utopias that offer a variety of suggestions to improve societies and make everyone's life better, and these could be said to reflect a spirit of altruism, as authors undertake to propose social changes that could benefit citizens. Some utopian authors have had, or attempted to have, a real impact on society: thus, the publication of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888) inspired the creation of "Bellamy Societies" seeking to make Bellamy's utopia a reality; H G Wells met with world leaders to promote his campaign for a world government; and billionaire H L Hunt self-published his utopia Alpaca (1960) and sent copies to various heads of state, hoping to influence them.

Yet in modern sf, the usual idea promoted is to make the world a better place by means of vigorous investments in the space programme (see Space Flight), which would purportedly yield massive sums of money and spur the development of beneficial new Technology. G Harry Stine was perhaps the most passionate advocate of space travel as a panacea for all the world's problems, promoting it in nonfiction published under his own name and in novels as Lee Correy. For example, in Correy's Manna (1983), a fictional African country similar to Kenya achieves singular wealth and freedom for its citizens by establishing a busy spaceport. In contrast, Bruce Sterling's "Green Days in Brunei" (October 1985 Asimov's) argues that Third World countries would be better off if they were to reject modern technology and adopt a lifestyle of living in harmony with the environment. Another suggestion for improving Africa's lot came from Mack Reynolds, who in Black Man's Burden (1972) and its sequels describes the continent becoming prosperous after it is united by a benevolent dictator.

There is the broader matter of proposed altruistic initiatives that address problems of global concern. A recurring theme in sf stories of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is a Mad Scientist who endeavours to employ some horrific Weapon to force nations to end War and thus impose permanent world peace (see also Pax Aeronautica), a typical example being Hollis Godfrey's The Man Who Ended War (1908); later variations on the theme include The Peacemaker (1934) by C S Forester and Ground Zero Man (1971; rev vt The Peace Machine 1985) by Bob Shaw, whose Inventions respectively disrupt the working of Machines and of nuclear weapons. Two stories by prominent writers suggest that a disastrous nuclear World War Three might be avoided if someone in the country being attacked declines to retaliate: in Theodore Sturgeon's "Thunder and Roses" (November 1947 Astounding), the non-respondent is from the United States; in Arthur C Clarke's "The Last Command" (November 1965 Bizarre! Mystery Magazine), he is from the Soviet Union. An implausible solution to the problems of Overpopulation and the resulting lack of resources – people choosing to make themselves smaller – is presented in Colin Kapp's Manalone (1977) and the film Downsizing (2017). Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future (2020) proposes the establishment of a group to represent the interests of future generations that takes action to address global warming (see Climate Change).

It is a continuing theme of James White's Sector General saga – centred on the titular multi-species hospital in space – that one of the best means of establishing First Contact with a new Alien society is the successful treatment of a sick or injured member of that race; the same trope appears in White's non-series tales of sf Medicine. Variations on medical altruism in Sector General include the insectile series character Dr Prilicla, whose extreme niceness is compelled by its ESP power of empathy, making it reluctant to say or do anything likely to generate hurtful "emotional radiation"; and the vampiric alien entity in Major Operation (fixup 1971) which heals certain conditions by draining the patient's blood and returning it minus Poison or other harmful content – a seeming altruism which proves to be the mindless reflex action of a gigantic sessile creature's equivalent of a leucocyte. In Philip E High's Blindfold from the Stars (1979), aliens who take care of Earth's orphaned children in the wake of planetary Disaster argue that their altruism is not a pure virtue since they derive pleasure from giving help.

An instance of supreme altruism is found in Edmond Hamilton's "The Dead Planet" (Spring 1946 Startling), with the surprise ending that the race that sacrificed itself to protect the galaxy against a cosmic threat is humanity, their actions revealed by Aliens visiting a deserted Earth. In J-H Rosny aîné's La Mort de la Terre (1910), the Last Man on Earth willingly dies to assist humanity's "ferromagnetic" successors. In Clifford D Simak's City (coll of linked stories/fixup 1952; exp 1981), the Dogs and the other intelligent animals in Earth's future decide to leave Earth to live in another Dimension because they do not want to follow a human's suggestion that they kill the intelligent ants who are competing with them. Two Clarke stories – "Rescue Party" (May 1946 Astounding) and "No Morning After" (in Time to Come: Science-Fiction Stories of Tomorrow, anth 1954, ed August Derleth) – feature aliens seeking to rescue humanity from impending doom, their efforts thwarted in each case: in the former story, the aliens find that humans have rescued themselves; in the latter story, aliens cannot employ Teleportation to save humans because the man they Telepathically contact to assist them is a bitter drunk who refuses to cooperate. The titular Martian aliens of Ray Bradbury's "The Fire Balloons" (April 1951 Imagination as "In This Sign"; vt in The Silver Locusts coll of linked stories 1951), though initially avoiding Communication, directly demonstrate altruism by refusing to allow human visitors to come to harm (including self-inflicted harm). And in Octavia E Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy, beginning with Dawn (1987), an alien species saves humanity by merging its genes with human genes.

There is the common Uplift theme of intelligent beings helping to elevate other species to intelligence, as in City, where humans make Dogs intelligent, and they in turn do the same to other animals. In David Brin's Uplift novels, it regarded as the duty of advanced species to raise lesser animals to their level, and humans have done their part by transforming chimpanzees and dolphins into capable companions. Clarke's "Encounter in the Dawn" (June/July 1953 Amazing Stories; vt "Expedition to Earth" as title story of coll 1953) describes an alien visitor to a prehistoric Earth who meets with primitive humans and tries to help them advance; the alien was replaced by a more impersonal (and enigmatic) monolith in the film and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), loosely derived in part from the story. There are constant suspicions expressed in works of supposed nonfiction that aliens provided assistance to ancient humans, as theorized by Erich von Däniken (whom see) and in the series Ancient Aliens (2009-current).

Considering individual acts of altruism in sf, there are obviously far too many instances to list; but a few prominent examples might be cited. In Wells's The Time Machine (1895), the gift of a flower from the far-future's Weena gives the Time Traveller a concluding feeling of hopefulness while contemplating humanity's bleak future. Heinlein's "Common Sense" (October 1941 Astounding) concludes with a Mutant sacrificing his own life so that his companions can escape from their Generation Starship. In Ursula K Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), the Gethenian Estraven sacrifices everything – eventually, his/her own life – to assist the alien envoy Genly Ai in escaping captivity; in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Mr. Spock famously gives up his own life to save his crewmates; and Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the probably-to-be-fatal Hunger Games in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008), filmed as The Hunger Games (2012). A standard scenario in near-future space adventures is an astronaut facing limited supplies of oxygen who commits Suicide to allow his cohorts to survive, as in Clarke's "Breaking Strain" (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder) and the film Marooned (1969), while a recurring development in Star Wars films, beginning with the original Star Wars (1977), is an individual who professes to care only about himself or herself but finally resolves to fight against the evil Empire to benefit others. Unfailingly altruistic Robots are featured in many stories like Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" (December 1938 Astounding), Isaac Asimov's "Robbie" (September 1940 Super Science Stories as "Strange Playfellow"; vt in I, Robot coll 1950), Simak's City, and Ray Bradbury's "I Sing the Body Electric!" (August 1969 McCall's), based on his 1962 Twilight Zone episode of that name. Jeremy Adam Smith's article "Altruism in Space" (1 June 2007 Greater Good Magazine) views altruistic acts as a recurring theme in the second series of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009).

A cynical form of altruism figures in Butler's Kindred (1977), in which a time-travelling (see Time Travel) African-American woman must repeatedly rescue her racist white ancestor in order to ensure her own existence. Some works also raise the issue of acts of altruism that must be resisted for a greater good – as in the Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" (1967), written by Harlan Ellison, in which Captain Kirk must be prevented from saving a woman from death in order to ensure a favourable outcome in World War Two, and in Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" (August 1954 Astounding), wherein a Spaceship captain cannot save a young stowaway's life because it would endanger his important mission to save many lives. More debatably, Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" (April 1969 New Worlds) involves a young man in a Post-Holocaust society who saves his telepathic Dog's life by allowing him to eat a young woman, a story filmed as A Boy and His Dog (1975).

All forms of literature depict notable acts of altruism, thus promoting its value, and sf probably does so no more or no less than other genres. The special thing about sf is that it regularly describes future Utopian worlds in which virtually everyone is nice to their compatriots – usually as a result of improvements in government, but it comes about as a result of gas from a visiting Comet in Wells's In the Days of the Comet (1907), bringing about a "great Change" in people's personalities that makes the world a harmonious place; while in John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), it is discovered that a mutation has eliminated aggression in the people of an African country. Brunner returned to this notion in The Stone that Never Came Down (1973), featuring a virally replicating compound that enhances human Perception and makes it harder to turn a blind eye to misery and injustice, with altruism presented as an inevitable side-effect. Another empathy-promoting compound or Drug is propagated on Earth by an Alien emissary in Damon Knight's "Rule Golden" (May 1954 Science Fiction Adventures). A downside to this approach is suggested in Stanisław Lem's sardonic "Altruizine" (in Cyberiada, coll 1965; trans as The Cyberiad 1974), with horrific scenes as those rendered unable to ignore others' suffering take brutal measures to stop the pain by any means. David Brin's "The Giving Plague" (Spring 1988 Interzone) posits another altruism-promoting virus, with the story's narrator determined to avoid or resist any such intrusion upon his Identity. Earlier, Ayn Rand was well known for opposing altruism on ideological grounds.

Often the possibility is raised that humanity might someday be supplanted by a kinder and gentler species, like the dogs in City. One of the dreams of sf is that altruism will someday become a universal trait, not an occasional feeling that demands celebration. [GW/DRL]

further reading


previous versions of this entry

This website uses cookies.  More information here. Accept Cookies