Illusion and Empathy in Science Fiction | ALA 2013

“The mixing of factual and counterfactual is not singular to sci fi and fantasy,” Timothy Zahn (“Thrawn Trilogy”) began. Zahn and Brandon Sanderson (“Mistborn”), Cory Doctorow (Homeland), David Brin (“Uplift”), Elizabeth Bear (Shattered Pillars), and John Scalzi (“Old Man’s War”) were charged with talking about the probable and improbable in science fiction (and, to a certain extent, in fantasy too). Organized by the Library and Information Technology Association and with help from Tor, the Saturday, June 28 panel was packed.

Though he pointed out that all fictional genres employ, well, fictional means—Zahn emphasized science fiction’s ability to do more. Where writers of any genre can create new characters or situations wholesale, sci-fi writers “get to create worlds.” Zahn himself falls on the on the more realistic end of the sci-fi spectrum, emphasizing the importance of making sure fictional technology makes sense. Science fiction at its best, he said, gives “readers a feel for how science and technology work.”

Brin was the panel’s resident mystic, calling writing “the one form of indisputable magic.” Elaborating, he said that writers “create chains of black squiggles on pressed vegetable matter,” and readers then “decrypt the incantations.” Science fiction authors, moreover, create a kind of “industrial grade magic”—the fantastical act of reading is intensified by the fantastical aspects of the genre.

While you can’t get a rosier view of reading and writing, Brin emphasized his love of dark, dystopian stories. Citing Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Dr. Strangelove as examples, he argued that the pessimism so inherent to those books in fact pushes readers to imagine a better future, “to lead people to the belief that we might make it.”

Scalzi, who also spoke (to many cheers and laughs) at Friday’s Movers and Shakers luncheon, followed Brin with a meditation on failure. “1984 got it completely wrong,” he said, to many audience hoots, “I know, I was there in 1984.”

“Given time, everything in science fiction tends towards failure,” he explained. Sci fi is not about the specific, but rather the general. “We still read Frankenstein not because it is about the stitching together of body parts, but because it is about the stitching together of the soul.” We need stories about a man who not only becomes a kind of god, but a failed god. This, ultimately, is more important than whatever technology (fictional or not) made him so.

Next, Bear talked about the need for a kind of specificity in science fiction. While the actual science of it can be fantastical, the characters themselves require realism. “Show me a specific human being with a specific problem, and I will identify with that person,” he said.

She also celebrated the increasing diversity of science fiction, pointing to Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Samuel Delaney as forerunners of a new generation of science fiction writers and readers. Still, she noted how much work there needs still to be done. There need to be books available, she said, that show readers “their own faces.”

“Today I will be your fantasy man,” Sanderson said as an introduction. (Bear piped up in response, “I’m bi-genre!” He talked about the power of books like Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane both in turning him on to science fiction and to opening his world up to other experiences, other lives. The novel is essentially “about a middle-aged woman experiencing a mid-life crisis about her career and family”—except her career happens to be wizardry. Fantasy “makes the strange familiar, and adds a new level of strange.”

“When my mother said [to me], ‘Be realistic,’” Sanderson would respond, “I am being realistic. I don’t want to be a wizard, I want to write books.”

Doctorow concluded the presentation by talking about how difficult it is to predict the future. 1984 is not a kind of forecast, he maintains, but a diagnostic test. Orwell took a sample from the culture he lived in, placed it in the petri dish of his novel, and allowed it to grow. “The salient facts of the future are so difficult to put your finger on. It’s only when you do this world-in-a-bottle exercise” that you can figure out what is going on.

Doctorow concluded on a note about how counterfactual all fiction is. “The only interiority we experience is our own,” he said, and as such the experiences readers have with the characters in a book—feeling like they are truly inside another person’s head—are inherently false. Still, this is a beautiful fiction. This “illusion of empathy,” Doctorow said, “is one of the great wellsprings of kindness in the world.”

Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.