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.


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?

How to Communicate With Your Dragon

This week on DBW, I am featuring a guest post by Andrew Knighton. Andrew writes fantasy, science fiction, and steampunk, and shares my passion for clear communication. Welcome to DBW, Andrew!

Communication isn’t easy, which is a shame, because it’s vital to human life. The ability to tell someone else how to grow crops, or how to read and write, or that you love them – these are fundamentals of human life.

Fortunately there are lessons on communication, as on everything in life, in that greatest source of human lessons – children’s animated fantasy films. Kids’ films get away with what adult films can’t, both in wild flights of imagination and in teaching us, gently but firmly, lessons in how to live. So today we’re going to learn from How To Train Your Dragon.

Set patterns – a communication problem

One of the greatest barriers to communication is that we each tend towards a single way of communicating. My way might not be the same as yours, but it’s my way and I’ll default to it every time. The same way of expressing ideas, the same mannerisms of speech, the same way of writing. Yoda doesn’t start using good grammar when Luke’s back is turned – he’s just being himself.

We can learn different ways to communicate – it’s a huge part of teacher training, as well as many management courses. But working out which style to apply in which situation? That can be far trickier.

How to train your humanHow to Train Your Dragon

This is where the wonderful How To Train Your Dragon comes in. You know that scene in the middle where… wait, you don’t know that scene, you haven’t seen the film, you thought it was just for kids? Well, you should probably fix that, because How To Train Your Dragon is a great slice of imaginative modern fantasy. A story of Vikings and monsters, of ambition and misunderstanding, of having your view of the world turned on its head.

Oh, and communication. The film is full of problems with poor communication and solutions that come from people communicating. No more so than in a scene where Hiccup, our teenage protagonist, tries for the first time to communicate with Toothless the dragon. The two have no language in common, no shared frame of understanding. How will he manage it?

The answer is trial and error. Hiccup uses gestures, speech, touch, even dirt drawings and piles of food. When Toothless seems wary of his raw fish dinner, Hiccup himself takes a scaly, slippery bite. No tactic works perfectly the first time, but by trying different approaches, by persisting not with his own preferred communication style but with everything he can think of, he eventually gets through.

Trial and error

I’m not suggesting that you bring raw fish to your next meeting, or try to resolve family conflicts by doodling in the dirt. But approaching the same act of communication in different ways can reap rich rewards.

I used to work in process improvement. As part of that job I often had to persuade managers to take risks in changing working practices. I tried using statistics. I tried using diagrams. I tried impassioned speeches and promises that I’d do all the work if they just let me fix this damn thing. Then one day, through endless trial and error, I discovered the tactic that worked on the worst of them – tell them my idea, shut up, and wait six months for them to think the idea was their own. Then they’d be all over it.

This was not my preferred way of persuading people. It was not what any of my training had taught me. But trial and error, not persisting at things that didn’t work, taught me how to do it. Like Hiccup, I had trained my managerial dragons.

Just keep trying

So go forth and try different ways of communicating. Don’t persist with what doesn’t work. Don’t even persist with what half works. Keep trying new things in new situations, and sooner or later you’ll find the right approach to each one.

And while you’re about it, you should go see How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is out now. Because what could be better than Vikings fighting dragons? That’s right – Vikings riding dragons!


If you enjoyed Andrew’s post, you should check out his blog or his wonderful short story “Surprise Me,” which was recently published in Daily Science Fiction.

This is the first time I’ve had a guest post. I’d love to know what you think, so please feel free to comment below. I like the idea of hosting occasional guest posts from my blogging community. If you’re feeling inspired by DBW to write about communication within your favourite sci-fi/fantasy story universe, please write to me and we can chat about it!