from an interview with Cory Doctorow in Reason Magazine, Cory Doctorow’s ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communist Civilization’: New at Reason
Is it fair to say that science fiction writers are doing the same thing as a good economist or a good political economist in thinking about unintended consequences?
It’s not just unintended consequences, because I think making all truck drivers into desperate xenophobic populists who vote for strongman leaders was not the intended consequence of the self-driving car project, right? And yet that’s the fear that our political moment reflects.
It’s more like the job of a science fiction writer is not to map the territory, but to point out that there’s territory to be mapped. There is a game we play when we argue about policy or tell stories, and the game is What’s in the Frame?
There’s this famous science fiction story [by Tom Godwin] called “The Cold Equations.” It’s taught in engineering schools. It’s about a spaceship pilot who’s piloting a small craft full of vaccine to a planet where there is a potentially world-killing plague. If he doesn’t get the vaccine there, everybody on the planet will die. And there is a young girl who stowed away on his ship and when he discovers her, he is aghast. Because he knows that the ship doesn’t have any extra fuel. It has no autopilot. It can only land if he pilots it. If there’s any excess weight it will crash, and everyone on the planet will die. And that’s why he has to shove that girl out the airlock.
And they spend 15 pages trying to figure out why they don’t have to shove her out the airlock. And then he shoves her out the airlock.
What’s out of the frame is that the author set up the rules of this thought experiment. And the author decided that autopilots weren’t a thing. That reserve fuel wasn’t a thing. That sending colonists with a supply of vaccine wasn’t a thing. All that stuff is out of frame.
Science fiction is about pointing out that there are things that are out of the frame [in real life] that don’t properly belong out of the frame, whose ruling out is arbitrary—or customary, which is another way of saying the same thing.