The View From Atop The Monkey Bars

The View From Atop The Monkey Bars

by Bruce Bethke

When considering the ethical underpinnings of science fiction, there is but one principle to keep in mind:

Science fiction is the playground of ideas.

We SF writers aren't just allowed to stack the deck: we're required to do it. We can sidestep the laws of physics, invent ecologies to order, create new systems of magic, religion, and metaphysics---and yes, postulate new definitions of ethos as needed.

Therefore, it would be a serious mistake to use science fiction as an ethical blueprint for real life. To prove this point, I've grabbed a half-dozen books at random off my reading shelf, and I now present to you summaries of the core ethics of each story, along with a few of the drawbacks of applying these ethics to reality.

The Cyberpunk Ethic

Basis: the world is corrupt, all authority is suspect, and techno-anarchists are the only ones plugged into The Truth.

Drawback: it's darn hard to have ethics without morals. The belief that only just laws need to be obeyed (once "just" is defined in entirely self-referential terms) quickly slides into believing only laws you like need to be obeyed, and you wind up spending a lot of time sitting in your friends' apartments, sucking on a bong, listening to depressing music, and whining about how badly the world treats you. In between getting fired from minimum-wage jobs.

The Generic Fantasy Ethic

Basis: the world is poorer off without magic, and There Are Powers Unseen that move us, if only we could tune in to them.

Drawback: pure shamanistic silliness. You start out buying crystals, charting your horoscope, and correcting everyone's spelling to "magick," and end up watching "Sightings" with the same reverence usually reserved for "The 700 Club."

The John Birch Bushido Ethic

Basis: the world is an unforgiving place full of Cold Equations, where heroes are routinely forced to make ethical decisions and choose paths they know lead to Certain Doom. But they choose those paths all the same, because, "We may be dead, but dammit, we'll be right."

Drawback: real life doesn't offer many opportunities for dramatic choices like this. People living this ethic spend their lives wandering around looking for hopeless causes to embrace and last stands to make, eventually winding up voting for Pat Robertson because, "We may lose the election and destroy the party, but dammit, we'll be right."

The Ultra-Libertarian Ethic

Basis: the world could be paradise, if only we lived in a society based entirely on mutual respect for each other's rights and mutual consent in all relationships, backed up by everybody carrying really really big guns.

Drawback: real life in any modern urban environ does not permit this kind of prickly self-defensive posture. People practicing this technique develop a compelling urge to stockpile MRE's, apply for concealed carry permits, and go to work for the Post Office.

The All Values Are Relative Ethic

Basis: there is no evil, only misunderstood good, so if it feels good, do it.

Drawback: Ack! Ick! Ugh!

The Star Trek Ethic

Basis: standard-issue SoCal 12-Step EmpowermentSpeak

Drawback: oh, how can I possibly begin to critique this load of fuzzy-minded claptrap?

Or should I just stick to describing the episode in which David Ogden Stiers plays an elderly alien scientist: gifted, intelligent, warm, humane; but it's his 65th birthday, and in this culture, when you turn 65, they chuck you into the volcano. Stiers isn't sure he's ready to croak, so the crew of the Enterprise gets involved, and in the end they decide he should go into the volcano, because that's what is culturally correct for these people?

I leave it to you, as any time I think critically about the Cult of Trekkism, I fall speechless.

About the author: Bruce Bethke is currently writhing on the floor, struck apoplectic by the thought that otherwise intelligent people take Star Trek seriously. His latest novel, HEADCRASH, a comedy about life on the Internet, is a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, a finalist for the Minnesota Book Award, a LOCUS best-seller, and a nine-time nominee for the Nebula Award. In spite of that, it's not half bad.