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.
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?