The only way to find the limits of the possible is by going beyond them to the impossible.
– Arthur C. Clarke
During much of my childhood, I lived in the realm of possibility: machine intelligences, aliens, mutants, future worlds, alternate pasts. Infinite possibilities.
My first science fiction book was Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I was 10 when I found a copy at a Temple Sinai rummage sale. It opened the universe to me. Soon, I was wandering over to the adult section of the library every week, taking out as many science fiction books as the librarian would permit. I also haunted the local pharmacy’s rack of science fiction and mystery novels, trying to figure out how best to allocate my 50-cent allowance. By my early teens, I had amassed a collection of several hundred science fiction books and had read many more.
Around the time I discovered Asimov, I decided I wanted to be a “space scientist,” a dream that carried me all the way through my first year of engineering school. By then, I had stopped reading science fiction – I’d put away childish things – but my love affair with it never really ended. Twenty years later, I was in a PhD program in English, and to take a break from the dry, abstract, literary theory that English Studies had devolved into, I revisited the stories I had read as a boy.
It was like starting a new romance with an old lover.
I was one among many boys and girls whose interest in science was catalyzed by science fiction. The list of inventions and discoveries that came into being because science fiction writers imagined them – and children who read their stories or watched them on television became engineers who built them – is long.
Star Trek alone inspired cell phones, video conferencing, speech recognition, tablet computers, medical imaging, hyposprays, memory cards, biometrics, wireless earpieces, 3-D printers, machine translators, flat-screen televisions, and directed-energy weapons. Other contributions of science fiction include space flight, scanning for habitable planets and alien life, biodomes, computers, robots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the multitude of products derived from these technologies.
At least as important as its technological influences is science fiction’s re-imagining of human potential. In the introduction to her gender-bending novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin describes how science fiction can expand our ideas of human possibility.
“If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. Thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.”
Rod Serling’s ’60s series The Twilight Zone is one example among many whose thought experiments explored sociopolitical realities and possibilities that conventional media suppressed. To bypass the censors, Serling migrated scripts about bigotry, gender roles, government oppression, politics, and war to distant planets, future times, or alternate versions of the present.
Although it has its share of “escape” fiction, the science fiction genre also contains some of the most thought-provoking works in all of literature. On a scale more ambitious than most conventional fiction, science fiction not only asks but also posits answers to the largest questions: How did this universe come into being? How will it end? Where does consciousness come from? What is its purpose? How will we end? Who will replace us?
Science fiction inspires us to reach not only for the stars, but also deeply within. In this way, it overlaps with psychotherapy, another vehicle for us to boldly go where we have not gone before.
In today’s insurance-managed world, psychotherapy has been categorized as just another medical modality. But as science fiction is more than space operas, robots, time travel, and aliens, psychotherapy is more than “behavioral health.” Psychotherapy, too, is about making the “impossible” not only possible, but probable, through acts of imagination. The psychotherapy treatment room is a laboratory for a different kind of thought experiment. Clients ask: What if I were to test this limit, take steps down that path, plunge into these waters? Over time, they become emboldened to do what their parents, teachers, or peers had convinced them was impossible.
Christopher Reeve, the actor who played the omnipotent Superman, once said, “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.” You don’t have to be Superman, a therapist, or even a science fiction fan to actualize your possibilities. All you need is an act of imagination and the will to sustain it.
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