Science Fiction and How Values Shape Communication

As regular readers may have noticed, I’ve been posting a little less frequently lately. I’ve been busy working on a personal project that I’m very excited about. It’s still in progress, but hopefully I’ll be able to share it with all of you soon. (How’s that for mystery?)

In the meantime, today I have a guest post by the talented Andrew Knighton from Andrew Knighton Writes. If you haven’t visited Andrew’s blog, you really should — Andrew provides helpful writing advice on his blog as well as incredibly well-crafted flash fiction stories.

Over to Andrew…

Communication is never a neutral act. We use it to shape the world the way we want, from a little kid asking for a cookie to a propagandist selling a political party line.

It’s also a common theme in science fiction. The struggle to communicate with aliens was a feature of classic science fiction, while the growth of communications technology brought communication systems to the forefront of Earth-bound sci-fi. Science fiction stories highlight how, whether intentionally or not, one of the main roles of communication is enacting our own values.

Failure to Share Values – The Sparrow

One of the most haunting and unsettling depictions of first contact with aliens, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is an account of a mission to an alien world, crewed by a mixture of scientists and Jesuit priests. From the start, we know that something went horribly wrong, and the narrative of the expedition is expressed within another narrative, about a struggle to get the lone survivor to communicate.

Among the many themes and ideas in this book is the difficulty of communication, and the way that cultural assumptions can stand in the way of understanding. The explorers constantly seek to understand the society they find, but there are some gaps in values so huge that they fatally undermine their ability to communicate and comprehend.

In a way, our ordinary, everyday communications enact that same challenge in miniature. Our values are usually different, if only in subtle ways, from the people we communicate with. Making assumptions about those values can lead to miscommunication, and it’s only by opening up to the values of others that we can really understand them.

Communications as a Battlefield – Neuromancer and the Cyberpunks

Cyberpunk science fiction has, from the very start, shown people taking the opposite approach to communication and values. From its popularisation with William Gibson’s Neuromancer, cyberpunk has depicted futures in which communication is conflict.

A lot of this lies in the recurring use of hacking and information technology. The heroes are often hackers, trying to break down the barriers to free communication and the flow of information. Their opponents’ power lies in controlling the flow of communication and knowledge, hiding awkward truths and corporate secrets. Those enemies throw up defences, blocking the information lines through which the hacking takes place. No-one here is trying to achieve the sort of two-way understanding that leads to successful coexistence – they want to understand their opponents to thwart them.

hackers

In our everyday lives, it can be easy to become drawn into treating communication this way. Instead of opening up and discussing our ideas and values we start defending them, and in doing so attack those of others. Communication becomes a battlefield. That lets another value slip in unseen. If we act in this way then we’re implicitly valuing conflict over cooperation, and making the world a less cooperative place.

Communication as Heaven – The Galactic Milieu

Of course, communication can also be used to enact more positive values. In Julian May’s Galactic Milieu series, shared communication becomes an ideal in the form of Unity. This state of mental connection, sharing ideas and feelings, is an almost heavenly state toward which the galaxy’s races aspire. The defiant struggle against it, the throwing up of barriers between people, brings about destruction.

In the Galactic Milieu, communication is depicted not just as a carrier of positive values, but as something of value in itself, bringing people closer together. It highlights why good communication is so important in every sphere of life, reducing conflicts and allowing us to achieve more together.

Think About the Values in Your Communication

Next time you’re talking or writing, take a moment to think about what values you’re enacting in the way you communicate. Are you listening for the values behind what other people are saying, to try to understand them better? Are you letting conflict become part of how you communicate? Or are you using communication to achieve cooperation and closeness?

It may not quite be heaven, but communication needn’t be a cyberpunk dystopia either.

***

Image from the movie Hackers

I hope you enjoyed Andrew’s post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it below. And I’m curious – what books have you read where communication was a major theme? Are there any that you’d recommend adding to the reading list?

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41 thoughts on “Science Fiction and How Values Shape Communication

  1. I think I’ve read more books involving the lack of communication rather than communication itself. This usually leads to gross misunderstandings and mishaps, which can make for interesting conflict in fiction, but just like every other tool, it can be overdone, and soon the reader is asking themselves, “Why don’t they just talk to each other already?” Something it would be nice to see politicians do too. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I second you on politicians! Too bad we’re not in charge, Carrie. 😉

      I find that lack of communication ends up being a huge driver of romance plots, and sometimes you just wish you could shake some sense into the characters’ heads. It can work for a while, but in books where it gets drawn out too long, I find myself gnashing my teeth.

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    2. I totally agree with you Carrie. Conflict is vital to plot, but when the miscommunication is done badly it just becomes annoying. I think that’s part of why I enjoy the Galactic Milieu books so much – when communication becomes a problem it isn’t down to miscommunication, it’s ideological differences that shape the what the characters are saying.

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  2. I think conflict is the essence of all writing. Even in Self-help. There’s an assumed conflict – a or problems – that need to be solved. There are personality defects that need to be ironed out and tons of advice; advice on how to blink the right way in order that people “get” you. Living in a challenging environment in terms of communication, I relate better to plots with conflict. I haven’t read anything lately, sorry I can’t suggest anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t thought about self-help books being about conflict, but that makes total sense! And of course your point stands where fiction is concerned – without conflict there is no plot. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing, it’s that what makes a good story is very different from what makes a good time in real life.

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      1. Yes Andrew, in terms of fiction, if there’s no tension there’s no (sustained) attention – for me, anyway. And I agree with you, “what makes a good story is very different from what makes a good time in real life.” Great post 🙂

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      1. I had to take a different angle. All I read are kids books, lol. And one could argue there’s a lot going on in terms of communication and transmitting values in children’s literature. This is the most vulnerable phase where little humans are learning the “building blocks” and often focus is on teaching that it’s good to do a,b, and c and subsequently bad to do d,e, and f (good to share, bad to be greedy).

        Amy Krouse Rosenthal has written 3 very clever, reverse psychology books on transmitting values. She uses humour to shift the child’s attention away from the nagging messages that parents usually hound their children with, but in doing so she actually solidifies what children already know is the best course of action.

        There’s “Little Pea”, “Little Hoot”, and “Little Oink.” This quote is from amazon.ca: “Oink is a neat little fellow. Clean, clean, clean, that’s all he wants to do. But Mama and Papa won’t have it! They say in order to be a proper pig, he has to learn to make a proper mess. Don’t come out until your room is a pigsty,” says Papa Pig. “I won’t have any child of mine going out looking so neat and clean. It’s just not acceptable,” says Mama Pig. Readers who hate to clean up will love this humorous twist on a universal dilemma.”

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      2. I love it! It sounds like Amy Krouse Rosenthal is on the right track. Thanks for sharing those books.

        And I know exactly what you mean about reading kids books. I remember a time when that was pretty much all I read, too. Of course, getting the time to read much of anything can be a struggle. 🙂

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  3. This is a great post, informative not just on a writing front but in understanding the world we live in today. The control and manipulation of information has always held a great fascination for me and it’s often only years after the events that we get to find out just how accurate, or not, our understanding of what’s happening in the world really is.
    Control of communication has become a key battle in both local and international politics. While the multitude of communication routes should, in theory, give a broader perspective on particular issues and events, the reality is that most people select the message or carrier that meets their already fixed ideas and ideology, rather than looking at all sides and using that information to form their own ideas or ideology.
    While Gibson’s ideas may be nearly thirty years old now, many observers already believe we’re living in a cyberpunk reality. As an author, it provides fertile ground for story development.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Dylan! I just got around to watching the first episode of The Newsroom and it brought home for me all the issues we are having with media and the struggle to gain any kind of balanced perspective on events. Elements of cyberpunk are certainly with us, and I don’t see them going away anytime soon.

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    2. I’m starting to think that this huge array of communication channels, and the behaviour they encourage, may transform our understanding of how we decide what to think and believe. We’ve often assumed that access to more information would lead to more open mindedness and questioning of authority, but what’s really happening is far more complicated. As we come to understand modern behaviour and our processing of this informational tangle, will we also re-interpret how we dealt with ideas in the past?

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  4. Communication, or lack thereof, can be such a great way to build up tension in a story, but it really needs to be used lightly — I’ve gotten frustrated after a time by characters just not talking to each other clearly. Makes you want to reach into the book, knock their heads together and tell them to get over it!

    I haven’t read Neuromancer (it’s on that never ending TBR list) but I hadn’t realised it was the novel that sparked the cyberpunk genre (or did I misunderstand?) Withholding and controlling information has always been a powerful way for the powers that be to exert control (Whether it’s 1984 or China) – it’s often a recurring theme in dystopian novels, isn’t it? It’s also interesting when information isn’t withheld, but people don’t want to know.

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    1. I have read Neuromancer (which yes, is credited with kicking off the genre, although I don’t know how accurate that is) and to be honest it’s not my favourite book, simply because the writing style doesn’t appeal to me. However the concepts in it around cyberpunk were certainly ground-breaking. I love your point about situations where information is not being withheld, but people are avoiding it anyway. Having to confront uncomfortable truths can create a lot of tension within a story, which makes for great reading!

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      1. That discussion of uncomfortable truths reminds me of another series I recently finished Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. It’s very odd, lying out in the weird fringes of genre and literary fiction, but a lot of what drives it is the way people retain information for the leverage it gives them. In the face of something incomprehensible and otherworldly, they still cling to their secrets as an anchor, a way of retaining some control.

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    1. Thanks Patrick. May’s Galactic Milieu and Sage of the Exiles series are among my all time favourite books – there’s a depth and breadth to them, both in their emotion and their ideas, that’s seldom matched by others. Amazing work.

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  5. Great post! The first work that comes to mind for me is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. The focus is less on cultures communicating and more on two individuals *from* different cultures learning to bridge the gap and accept the differences between their cultures in order to communicate.

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    1. That’s a great example Brenna, and one that I think really highlights the importance of assumptions in communication. Though it’s years since I’ve read it, I seem to remember assumptions around gender roles being one of the key barriers to understanding between those cultures. Ideas and values like that can be so embedded in our language and thinking that they’re very hard to overcome.

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  6. Great post, Andrew. I liked the defining of cyberpunk from the angle of communication, as my recently published work was called “cyberpunk” and I didn’t *really* grasp what it meant until now. Science Fiction definitely allows for some really interesting narratives on communication, maybe because the increased availability of it (over narratives that take place in a fantasy world) make the erasure of it more nefarious.

    Sue, you’ve got me so curious about your secret project! Can’t wait!

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    1. Good point Alex, I hadn’t considered how much more accessible and integral communication is in sf compared with fantasy, but you’re quite right. It encourages us to explore communication through this particular genre. Is that something you’ve explored in your cyberpunk?

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      1. Cool. If you’re planning on writing about hackers then you may well know that side of life well already, but if not then a couple of Tom Scott’s videos on computerphile are good introductions to how hacking actually works:

        As a relative ignoramous on computing, I’ve found Tom’s stuff incredibly useful and accessible.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post! Communication or the failure to communicate makes for good conflict. I can’t help thinking of the failure to communicate in War of the Worlds. But in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, Ransom tried to communicate with the beings he met when he landed on Malacandra and Perelandra.

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