Is "Science Fiction Humanism" A Contradiction In Terms?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

People talk about science fiction as the literature of humanism. But actually, science fiction's explorations put it into conflict with humanism's tenets. The best science fiction questions the nature of humanity, and whether the universe will let us stay human.

It's easy to think of science fiction and humanism as going hand in hand: Science fiction is about, or else informed by, science, which is empirical and rejects "a priori" beliefs and superstitions. Both Isaac Asimov and Kurt Vonnegut served as honorary presidents of the American Humanist Association.

According to Wikipedia, other famous secular humanists include Arthur C. Clarke, Terry Pratchett, Joss Whedon, Carl Sagan, and not surprisingly Philip Pullman. (A side note: I love the fact that the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)'s symbol is the Happy Human. Which sounds like a fast-food chain for cannibals.)


More than that, science fiction and humanism came of age around the same time — even though humanism arose in the Renaissance and flowered in the Enlightenment, the kind of skeptical, heavily secular form of humanism that we know today really game into its own in the mid-19th century. And it rose in popularity on the same wave of enthusiasm for science and technology that carried science fiction into the mass consciousness.


Note: For the purposes of this article, I'm defining humanism as a school of thought that emphasizes the dignity of humans, the free choice of the individual, and the importance of rationality. I'm aware that there are many different traditions of humanism, and many different definitions of the term, and feel free to offer your own in the comments.

But is science fiction really humanist? Much of science fiction turns out to be about exploring our vast cosmos, and expanding our being. From this quest, one of two outcomes often arises: 1) We meet something greater than ourselves. 2) We become something greater than our current selves. It's rare, and becoming rarer, to find science fiction that rejects both mysticism and posthumanism. You could even argue that if the journey doesn't change us somehow, then what's the point?


And if the journey does change us radically, are we still the mere humans that humanism purports to celebrate?


Image: "My Scream" by Shorey Chapman, via Alexi Panshin's The Abyss Of Wonder.

The Temptation Of Transcendence

Influential humanist thinker Paul Kurtz wags his finger at science fiction in his book The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique Of Religion And The Paranormal:

Science fiction can easily degenerate into a dream world of sheer fantasy and madness, and in the process it can help defeat the impulse of discovery and creation. It is with the realm of the transcendental that it is forever flirting.


Kurtz also describes the religious impulse as a "Hydra-headed monster within ourselves" that can only be defeated by "Occam's Razor, honed by reason and science."

Kurtz is right — it's very easy for science fiction to embrace transcendence, which might be viewed as one of the heads of that inner hydra. Just look at Wikipedia's list of famous humanists, and you'll notice Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan.


Clarke, of course, is a pioneer of the "big objects in space" subgenre of SF, and his work often leans towards transcendence. In Rendezvous With Rama, we never quite learn the purpose of that massive spaceship's arrival in our solar system. And in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowman utters the famous phrase: "This thing's hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God — it's full of stars!" He then travels outside our galaxy and becomes a new kind of entity, a Star Child, that wields almost unimaginable powers. In the movie version, he becomes the poster-child (literally) for acid-trip mysticism in science fiction:

As for Sagan, his one work of fiction, Contact, flirts with spirituality in the novel version — Eleanor travels across the galaxy and meets mysterious aliens who give her "transcendental numbers," which may contain a message from the universe's creator. And when she returns to Earth, among the few who believe her is Palmer, a preacher who tells her that her experience may make humanity seem very small, but it "makes God seem very big." We end with a fairly woo-woo epilogue, in which we're told "The universe was made on purpose." And in the film version, it's even more sherbet-y:

This interest in the transcendent often goes hand in hand with humanism's faith in our evolution beyond our current limited states — but at what point are we no longer human? That's the crux of the matter.


Gods And Cyborgs:

Often, humanism in science fiction appears in opposition to something that wants to deny, or erase, our humanity and dignity. Think of it as a spectrum: At one end, you have gods and godlike entities, who want us to return to an earlier state of development and revert to idolatry. At the other, you have cyborgs and artificial intelligences, who want us to abandon our humanity altogether and become something unrecognizeable.


"Humanist" science fiction either proves that we're no longer barbarians, and we can achieve greatness on our own without needing some proscriptive deities to tell us what to do, or it upholds the fact that we haven't become machines yet.


Philip K. Dick's protagonists are frequently flawed — as representatives of the dignity of humanity, they're not as impressive as, say, Heinlein's libertarian over-achievers — but there is something essentially humanist about their struggle, as Jason P. Vest argues in his book The Postmodern Humanism Of Philip K. Dick. Similar to Borges, Calvino and Kafka, Dick presents flawed protagonists grappling with alien forces that threaten their "autonomy, agency, and identity," and their struggle is humanistic whether or not they "win." (This includes godlike intelligences, as in Eye In The Sky, or superior artificial intelligences.)

But here's the thing — at some point, the struggle against those external forces does change us. And maybe we're destined, no matter what, to turn into cyborgs and/or gods in our own right. Just look at Star Trek, which many people would uphold as the most quintessentially humanist sagas in the universe.


Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was an avowed humanist, who joined the American Humanist Association in 1986 and told Humanist Magazine in 1991 that the philosophy was the logical culmination of all his studies. (He also talks about fighting to keep a Chaplain off the Enterprise, and to keep Spock from having a Christian funeral in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.) In fact, the rivalry between Star Wars and Star Trek can be seen as a clash between mysticism and humanism.

Roddenberry also said, in the 1991 interview, "We are a young species. I think if we allow ourselves a little development, understanding what we've done already, we'll be surprised what a cherishable, lovely group that humans can evolve into." This is a theme that the original Trek pushes quite hard, as various all-powerful entities harangue Captain Kirk about the youthfulness of the human race and our amazing potential to evolve.


In fact, if you think about that spectrum of humanism, with gods at one end and cyborgs at the other, you can see a progression across the entire Star Trek saga. The original series is very much about rejecting barbarism — the Enterprise crew is constantly meeting godlike beings, including the Greek god Apollo, and Captain Kirk always makes a huge speech about how far humanity has progressed, and the fact that humans don't need to worship a tribal god any more. (There are evil computers, too, but they mostly take the same role as gods, and often even pretend to be gods.)


But as Starfleet's technology progresses and becomes more miraculous, the concern shifts. The first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation is very much a re-run of the original series' "meeting godlike entities" episodes. But the most memorable adversary the TNG crew meets is the Borg, who represent the opposite extreme — they've abandoned barbarism to such a great extent, they've lost their individuality and personhood.

It seems almost inevitable that the human race will wind up becoming like the Borg — but we fight to be able to do it on our own terms. In the very first Borg story, Guinan even tells Picard that eventually, the human race will be able to deal with the Borg (because our technology will have advanced.) For now — for right now — the Borg only see humanity as raw materials, but eventually, Guinan says the Borg might see us as equals. (Which does imply, on some level, that we will be like them.) Meanwhile, another frequent theme of Star Trek: The Next Generation is Data's search for his humanity.

By the time Star Trek: Voyager ends, the journey to becoming Borg-like has progressed to the point that the crew has an ex-Borg member, and the ship is enhanced with Borg technology. Janeway and Tuvok have been assimilated at least once, and thanks to a visit from Janeway's future self, their technology is now more magic than ever. The embattled starship Voyager only survives its journey through the Delta Quadrant by becoming more Borg-like than any Starfleet ship we've ever seen.


You get the sense that Star Trek can't go much further into its own future than that, because the Federation's technology will become so advanced, we'll no longer recognize its characters as being like ourselves. A kind of Star Trek Singularity is on the horizon, after which storytelling will be impossible. (And indeed, ever since Voyager ended, Star Trek has been all about its own past.)

The Singularity Is Coming!

Okay, so let's talk about Joss Whedon. Here he is, accepting an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, and preaching about humanism from an actual pulpit:

Here's the thing, though — Whedon's heroes don't tend to be human.

Take Buffy Summers, who spends seven seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer struggling with having a normal life (and hence, being a normal person) while also being the super-powered savior of the world. She goes to the prom, she has Thanksgiving dinner, she works at a fast-food joint. Etc. Until she finds out, towards the end, that she's actually part demon, and her power comes from the demon essence inside her. The reason she can't have a normal life isn't just because she's superhuman — it's because she's not fully human at all.


Angel, of course, is a "vampire with a soul," which is a type of posthuman, I guess. And then both River Tam and Echo are enhanced humans, who've had experiments done on them to the point where they're almost like living computers. The amount of information Echo can store in her head, and the number of skills she can hang on to, is literally not humanly possible. Even though we're not supposed to jump on Alpha's bandwagon when he claims he and Echo are the next stages of human evolution, it's obviously true, to some extent.

In Whedon's stories, we humans can't save ourselves. We need our posthuman saviors to do it for us.


And the marvelous posthuman is a figure who appears more and more often in space opera and other wide-scale science fiction epics, from John Varley to Iain M. Banks to Charles Stross. There is a tendency, in recent space opera, to write about characters who have left off-the-shelf humanity behind.


As Alan DeNiro puts it in his review of the New Space Opera anthology, which is well worth reading its entirety:

In many of these stories, Earth-like physiology has mutated to a point of no return; virtual realities give way to virtual bodies and vice-versa. The anthology has a general inhuman pallor-to put it another way, humanity has been emulsified against the backdrop of far-flung space.


Reading a lot of space opera published in the past couple of decades, you do emerge with the sense that space is just too big, too weird, for regular humans to make a go of it. We can't possibly survive out there without tons of upgrades. Characters in space opera novels often seem to live for millions of years (partly thanks to suspended animation and travel at relativistic speeds) and it's not unusual to see characters who can inhabit different types of bodies, depending on the situation. (Like the character in Stross' Glasshouse, who was a tank at one point.) I can't remember off the top of my head which Varley book has the female pilot who jettisons her legs whenever she's in space, only to reattach them when she makes planetfall.

It's an article of faith among many geeks that our own Singularity is coming — usually defined as a point after which society and technology will have changed so radically that our own era will look like the Stone Age to the people of, say, 2050. This makes writing near-future science fiction problematic, because it's impossible for us to imagine the world of a few decades from now. So you don't even have to venture into space for humans to start warping into something almost unrecognizeable. You just have to hang around on Earth and wait for Moore's Law to reach its inevitable conclusion — the birth of artificial intelligence, and the elevation of humans into something altogether new.


I guess in the end, it depends how you look at it — is our posthuman future the culmination of humanism's promises? Or is it a transformation into something that's no longer human, and makes humanism irrelevant? Or both?

Book cover images by Cadwalader Ringgold, Calamity Jon, Digital Sextant and MarkBult on Flickr.