Sunday, August 07, 2005

Baby is Three

Two weeks ago, the humanist radio show Equal Time for Freethought (on WBAI in the New York City area), for which I'm on the staff as a researcher, celebrated its third anniversary. Given that tonight's show featured science fiction author David Gerrold, I think a reference to Theodore Sturgeon's famous short story is appropriate.

Given how marginalized the show's philosophy of "secular humanism and scientific naturalism" is in our society and (especially) the mass media, I'm proud it's been on for so long. In fact, when I started listening to tonight's show I suddenly got a gut reaction of surprise to this — hey, humanism is coming from the radio! It may be a relatively small step towards getting the message out (especially in the constraints of a half-hour format) but it's still significant.

Tonight's discussion was interesting, since I'm a longtime science fiction fan (as, of course, is interviewer Barry Seidman). Some of my favorite SF is directly relevant to secular humanism. Fritz Leiber's Gather Darkness! and Robert Heinlein's If This Goes On— are excellent depictions of future theocracies. Leigh Brackett's The Long Tomorrow shows the characters' emotional reaction of both wonder and fear to the re-introduction of science in a post-nuclear war world where the scientific worldview has died out. The interview captured well some of the spirit of science fiction's attitude of taking social change as well as technological change as a given, and its optimism towards such change being progressive as Gerrold noted was the case with one of his novels, even post-disaster SF often maintains an optimistic tone, concentrating on the characters' ability to persevere through reason in adversity. This attitude is well captured in the following quote:
Is it the only kind of literature displayed in county drugstores in which young readers are invited to cast off their ethnocentrism and consider the possibility that there are alternative hypotheses about human nature and society?
—Reuel Denney, "The Astonished Muse", quoted in "The Role of Science Fiction" by Ben Bova, in Science Fiction: Today and Tomorrow, ed. Reginald Bretnor, 1974

Another example that comes to mind is Carl Sagan's observation in Pale Blue Dot that it would be expected that people living their whole life in, say, a space colony on an asteroid to have mores very different from any of those existing on Earth. I've been influenced by Eric Frank Russell's charming inventions of future alternative societies, with their anarchistic distrust of social hierarchy and their ability to repel invaders nonviolently. However, I'm not sure that I agree with Gerrold's statement that SF is ten years ahead in dealing with social issues before they're widely discussed by the general public. Only ten years? ;)

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