Making Science Fiction Sentient

Charles Ogg —

The editors of Wise Guys invited me to write an article on science fiction (sf) and an online magazine I am planning to start called Sentient Fiction. Currently Sentient Fiction exists as a closed Facebook group that I administer. When I first considered using “sentient” for the magazine, I was surprised to discover the general use of this word is different from sf. Sentience is the ability to feel emotions, to be self-aware, to be able to perceive or experience subjectively. The original concept emphasizes how non-human animals experience reality much like humans. Yet the problem faced by early sf writers was how to differentiate aliens from other non-human animals when they are as self-aware and intelligent as humans. So sf writers started using the word differently.

startrek 443A great example is Star Trek: The Next Generation, where humans puzzle over whether the android Data should be treated as a person. Does he/it have the same rights? Fortunately for Data, Captain  Picard comes to his rescue. This follows the tradition of the classic Little Fuzzy (1962) by H. Beam Piper, reworked delightfully by John Scalzi in Fuzzy Nation (2011). Also check out Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It (1991), a brilliant attempt at cyberpunk, a subgenre of sf that combines themes about advanced technology and science with societal breakdown or radical change. I love both meanings of sentience—in some sense animals are “people,” too, with the line between animals and humans blurrier than we think. And so Sentient Fiction seemed like an appropriate name for a magazine promoting a more “aware” kind of sf.

Sitting down to write this article also got me thinking: Why do I love sf? What makes it so appealing? To answer, I feel I should share my personal story. Travel back with me in my time machine to an earlier, perhaps more naïve era. It’s 1963, I’m nine years old. It’s a time of tremendous optimism, we Americans won World War II, the world is our oyster. John F. Kennedy is president; it’s Camelot, a rare moment when liberalism is dominant. The majority of Americans believe science ushers in a new era of progress, a future of monorails and jet packs. We’ve sent stuff to the moon, our human-made objects, and are preparing to send men. The universe awaits us. The only dark cloud is the cold war, with its potential for nuclear annihilation. Duck and cover…

Luckily I’m growing up in a reading household. My mom sits on one side of the couch, devouring mysteries. I’m camped out on the other side, reading Hardy Boys. Then I discover Tom Swift and sf. I can never go back to the mundane, or as followers of Harry Potter would later put it, be a Muggle. Mostly I’m in it for the fun of Tom Swiftadventure, traveling to strange planets and distant galaxies. But I’m also hoping to discover the mysteries of the cosmos. Mom says I am searching for the Holy Grail. I’m also excited by what a number of writers have pointed out, science fiction is unique. Ideas play a key role, not just characters—whether it’s sentience or as in Star Trek, “bravely going where no one has gone before”—through space, time, or to another dimension. I realize science changes everything; it’s today’s magic. The telephone. The automobile. TV. The power of the atom. Today it’s computers; life as we know it would be impossible without them. Yet few understand these wonders. Scientists are today’s wizards.

It’s 1965, I’m 11… While other kids dream of being doctors or firefighters, I’m planning on inventing a perpetual motion machine. As it turns out, dreaming the impossible plays a big role in pushing the frontiers of science (see Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible [2008], a great book for those who want to understand how far physicists have pushed the envelope of science in the direction of sf that’s also useful for “hard” science fiction). For a long time I want to be a physicist.

AsimovThen I read the mind-blowing Foundation series. Isaac Asimov offers a sprawling story of a human society spanning the galaxy and centuries, shaped by the mathematical science called “psychohistory.” This may have encouraged me to become a historical sociologist later—to look at the big picture, believing that social science can be used to improve society. I’m also growing up in a political household. My mother is a liberal in a conservative suburb. Some of my neighbors are part of the original Tea Party, believing public libraries to be a socialist plot. On TV  dogs and fire hoses are turned on black children protesting for basic human rights. We cheer Martin Luther King. Racial progress is coming.

MoonIt’s 1966, I’m 12… I’m digging Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966), his libertarian dream of revolution, aided by a sentient computer. I come to understood how sf, set far away from “reality,” can critique or satirize society more profoundly, revealing deeper truths. For Heinlein, it was recognizing all government as oppressive and individuals as fundamentally selfish. Only revolution could liberate us. This was very different from Asimov’s liberal view, where technocrats solve problems through planning, designing a better society based upon human goodness. Which view of human nature and change is correct? Again I was pushed toward social science, I thought it might provide the answer.

StrangerIt’s 1968, I’m 14… Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, assassinated. Eugene McCarthy, the Bernie Sanders of his day, loses the nomination. Hope for peaceful change dies, revolution is in the air. I come of age during a time of protest, human be-ins, and sexual exploration. I read Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) before it’s hip, can you grok?

In the early 70s, I become radicalized, knowing I might be drafted to fight in Vietnam. My cold war view of reality shatters. We are not the good guys? Who really killed Kennedy? Is the Pentagon at the center of The Lord of the Ring’s Mordor?

It’s 1973, I’m 19, at college… Many of my social-science instructors are Marxists. I’m studying behavioral psychology, hoping B.F. Skinner will answer my question: Is it human nature to be selfish? I join “the movement.” Like many, I feel the democratic impulse inspiring the American revolution has been corrupted by monopoly capitalism, large bureaucracies, and patriarchy. We’re supposed to find happiness in the utopian bliss of consumerism. My hope lies in social movements organizing for the rights of workers, women, people of color, gays and lesbians, the poor, urban communities. My optimism lies in the growing counterculture, as chronicled and interpreted in Theodore Roszak’s The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1969).

I study alternative belief systems animating earlier radical efforts at social change, including democratic socialism and anarchism. Like liberals, both “isms” see human nature as fundamentally good. To realize our human potential, their followers believe we must make radical changes to society, free ourselves from a government captured by large, monopolistic corporations.

In the late 70s, I discover that some of the best sf writers think along these lines, like Ursula Le Guin in The Dispossessed (1974). Her anarcho-syndicalist utopia is critical and subversive. Syndicalism is based on the idea LeGuinthat industrial society should be organized primarily around the workplace. Emile Durkheim, the “founding father” of sociology, thought syndicalism was inevitable and government should be based upon this principle. But anarcho-syndicalists, like libertarians, see all government as coercive. Unlike libertarians, they believe a larger, industrial society can be organized by consensus, not on the myth of the free market’s “invisible hand.”

In The Dispossessed, when Le Guin’s revolutionaries fail on their capitalist planet, they migrate to their moon, much larger than ours. It’s livable but has a more hostile climate. There they create a system of governance based upon cooperation. Unlike much utopian writing, Le Guin does not see this new society as even close to perfect; much of its strength lies in its characters wrestling with new problems being created.

The Dispossessed is what Tom Moylan calls a critical utopia. There is a long literary tradition of imagining a perfect society. Democracy itself is a utopian idea, the “city on the hill” being the original American dream, something we’ve moved steadily toward—despite obstacles like the rising inequality of two Gilded Ages, the first a century ago, the second happening now. Likewise the notion of progress inherent in science is utopian if we believe it makes the world better.

imagesMuch great sf calls attention to the dangers of progress, beginning with Frankenstein, moving to nuclear Armageddon, and continuing with The Walking Dead, zombies infected by a virus invented in a lab. In its broadest sense, we call this dystopian fiction, no accident becoming popular in the 1980s, the era of Ronald Reagan and backlash against 1960s movements. The subgenre known as cyberpunk was born then, a dark view of a matrixfuture ruled by powerful multinational corporations, technology gone awry, and environmental destruction. William Gibson’s masterpiece Neuromancer (1984) inspires much cyberpunk. For something more accessible, check out Bruce Sterling’s Distraction (1998) and Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash (2003). Films like Bladerunner and The Matrix follow this tradition—do you want to live in the fantasy world created by the corporate media where everything is groovy, or take the blue pill and discover the harsh nature of reality?

ecotopiaBut calling attention to the dangers of science alone isn’t subversiveit must also offer solutions, far more rare and difficult. The Dispossessed doesn’t just give a blueprint for a better society, it also captures a dilemma of revolutionary movements: How do we create a new society within the womb of the old? How do we create new values, norms, practices, organizations, institutions—while still being forced to deal with the dominant society? The answer seemed to be preserving the movement by building a semi-permeable wall separating it from the larger society. We had to “do our own thing” while still recruiting “outsiders” and influencing the larger society. In The Dispossessed the wall was real, tangible. In Ernest Callanbach’s fascinating Ecotopia (1975), the revolution occurs in the northwestern part of the U.S. To maintain the revolution, they must seal their border to stop the contagion of the larger culture—made possible only because they also have a nuclear bomb.

As many movements faded in the 1980s, the environmental movement grew. In the 1990s scientists reached a consensus: global climate chaos is real and created by humanity. Many avatarscientists bridge the gap between science and spirituality, the New Age movement being another artifact of the 1960s. The Gaia hypothesis emphasizes the interconnectedness of social and natural worlds. This has been expressed recently in simplified form in the popular movie Avatar, where indigenous people literally bond with each other and nature, and in so doing defeat the evil corporation seeking to exploit and destroy the planet. People love the optimism of Star Wars, which evokes a sense of wonder by linking spirituality and science with “the force.” We are given a choice: give in to anger, surrender to the “dark” side of the force, or go to the “light” side—defeat the fascist Empire and help create a more utopian world where technology serves humankind rather being its master.

Unfortunately, Star Wars is also elitist and arguably racist since only a few have a strong connection to the force, it being a genetic trait. This contradiction reflects a central problem I think we face in as a society: we have to give up our illusion that the answer lies in powerful individuals. While I loved Obi-Wan, we can’t wait to be rescuedobi by Jedi Knights (or goddess forbid, Donald Trump or even Bernie Sanders). Rather we must rethink and rework our understanding of the relationships between the individual, the larger society, and the natural world which is our home. Arguably our survival depends upon us becoming sentient as a species, in both senses of the word. We need to come up with new narratives exploring these relationships and offering utopian alternatives both critical and subversive. The best of Star Trek achieves this, seeking peaceful solutions not war. SF can, in Captain Picard’s words, “make it so.”

Unfortunately, in the late 90s, just as I was about to enter academia, I had to give up my full-time career due to physical challenges. The silver lining was having time to go back to an earlier love, writing sf. Unsuccessful at publishing (I seem to be better at expository writing), I recently decided to give back in a different way to the genre that has given me so much pleasure. The goal of the online magazine is to promote sf that is more sentient. We will do so by paying sf writers for such work and by reviewing existing work. By applying my skills as a movement organizer, I hope to catalyze this effort. Recognizing my disability, I will succeed only if I can bring others together and inspire them.

While I think there are reasons to be optimistic in terms of politics—including Black Lives Matter, the surprising Bernie Sanders campaign, the enduring environmental, feminist, and LGBT movements—I also want to make clear that the magazine will NOT just be about politics, although this remains one of my interests (for more about the intersection of politics and sf, see my article, originally written in the late 1980s and revised in 2016, on my blog Science Fiction and Society. I also envision the magazine as covering a range of subgenres including steam punk, space opera, speculative fiction, hard sf, fantasy, military sf,  social sf, and others—the list keeps growing because sf’s popularity keeps growing, something that also makes me optimistic.

If you share my utopians dreams, I invite you to join our Facebook group and/or contact me directly at We can become like the Odonians of The Dispossessed, forming a workers cooperative where there are no bosses. How utopian is that?


2 Comments on Making Science Fiction Sentient

  1. I really enjoyed reading this essay. I haven’t read lots of science fiction, but I have read some. I taught introductory philosophy for a number of years. One of the basic questions in moral philosophy is, “Who belongs to the moral community?” Most responses to this question involve, on some level, the topic of sentience. It is interesting to me that I first encountered this topic as a young person when I saw an episode of the “Twilight Zone” in which a prisoner is sentenced to live out his life alone on a rocky outer planet in a far away solar system. The ship captain who brings him supplies about once a year takes pity on the prisoner, and on one supply run, brings the prisoner a female android companion. She appears to be human in every aspect, except that she is, in reality, a machine. After several years, the prisoner is pardoned for his crime and the supply ship returns to the planet to take him back home to earth. The only problem is that the ship only has room for the prisoner and not for his android companion. It is at this point that the question of sentience and membership in the moral community come into full play in the plot of the story.

    I have never forgotten that episode of the Twilight Zone. But I can’t remember the name of it. Perhaps a Twilight Zone aficionado can recall it.

    All of this is to say that philosophical issues are frequently addressed by science fiction. Your mention of “The Matrix” reminds me of the short story, “The Yellow Pill” by Rog Phillips. The story, perhaps a precursor to “The Matrix,” concerns the nature of reality and perceptions. Taking the yellow pill opens the doors to reality and accurate perception of the world as it is. Except, in the story there is a conundrum that doesn’t appear in “The Matrix.” Taking the pill issues one into another reality, but is it the real one?

    This theme reminds me of Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time.” Many reviewers read this work as an analysis of schizophrenia. I have never read the story that way. The protagonist switches almost at random between alternate realities (sort of like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut’s “Slaugherhouse Five”). One of her realities is a kind of hell on earth. The other is a utopia in which human relationships have evolved to a higher level than exhibited by our contemporary society.

    Thanks for posting this fascinating article. I much enjoyed it.


  2. Ron Berger // June 23, 2016 at 8:25 am // Reply

    I remember hearing a story about Gene Roddenberry trying to pitch the initial Start Trek series to TV network executives. At first they didn’t get the concept. Then he described it as “Wagon Train” in outer space. If you recall, “Wagon Train” was a popular TV western series that first aired in the late 1950s. After hearing the comparison, the executives understood the concept and greenlighted the project.


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