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Cautionary tales: a reflection

One reason why I love science fiction is that it is often regarded as a thought experiment on human nature and our future. And, as a theoretical physicist, I love thought experiments!

Sci-fi stories can tell us a lot about human behavior and the possible consequences of it in unexpected but plausible situations. For this, it's not surprising that many sci-fi stories are set in the future – this bright place where technology leads us to greatness.

Although, is the future really that bright?

Despite people's abilities to make fairly-accurate predictions in the short term, the future remains unknown. Thus, it's only wise to proceed with caution. Storytellers explore this fear of the unknown through cautionary tales, stories about what could go wrong for us in our journey ahead in time. A thought experiment on our failures as a society.

What can we learn from cautionary tales? Can we take them to heart? Is it possible to be too cautious? Let's explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of cautionary tales.

Before we dip our toes into these shark-infested waters, a disclaimer. I will consider any story that warns us of the unwanted consequences of our actions to society in general. The unwanted daddy issues coming from breathing life into a creature composed of dead bodies do not count as a warning, as it affects only Victor, his family, and a few unlucky individuals who crossed paths with the monster.

The good

Can science be used for evil?

If you are a science fiction fan, you are well aware that science is a tool that can be really dangerous in the wrong hands. The most recent threat of a nuclear war doesn’t let me lie.

But scientists acknowledge this. In science, the proper conduct to submitting an academic paper is to sign an ethical statement, which includes spelling out the potential misuse of any information gathered or created by the research.

Cautionary tales often take advantage of those potential misuses to let us know how things could go wrong. Consider, for example, the dangers of constant technological surveillance and how data could be weaponized against the individual (remember the Facebook scandal a few years ago?). The tv show Mr. Robot deals with this trope, warning us how scary things could become.

Technology is not the only thing we should be cautious about. Political tales of authoritarian governments can be even scarier than technological exploitation. Dystopian stories in which political power is used to control the masses for the benefit of a wealthy elite are so close to home that we are constantly wondering if it is already happening. The most famous examples in the science-fiction community gotta be 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, right?

I’ve noticed that climate fiction is today the most-wanted type of cautionary tale. It’s on the wish list of many sci-fi magazines. That's because it's a tale of trouble that demands a coperative solution that sometimes seems impossible to achieve. Climate change is both a scientific prediction and a political issue, combining both examples mentioned above into one. It’s a tale of trouble being told by scientists for decades, but some still refuse to see it.

A few months ago, I wrote about another cool example of how fiction helped to improve our scientific practices. Influential book: Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

The bad

Fiction can warn us about how the abuse of power, be it political or technological, could play out for our demise. However, sometimes the caution becomes panic – an ominous fear of a situation we don’t fully understand.

I’m not gonna lie, the first time I heard of a vaccine for the coronavirus in this pandemic, I thought of zombies. Of course, I did my research on the topic, and my fear disappeared. But, let’s face it, studying a subject before forming an opinion is not in vogue.

This isn’t to say that the anti-vaxx movement was caused by movies like Twelve Monkeys or Train to Busan. I’m just saying that cautionary tales could reinforce pseudo-scientific beliefs.

But you can see more punctual examples out there. For example, the fear that the LHC would create a micro black hole that would destroy the world led to several protests asking for the supercollider to be shut down before its inauguration. In her book Particle Panic! How Popular Media and Popularized Science Feed Public Fears of Particle Accelerator Experiments, Kristine Larsen traced this concern to early science fiction about micro black holes devouring planets; in particular to the novel The Krone Experiment by J. Craig Wheeler, an American astronomer. (Was this a spoiler?)

So, yeah. Stories can make us think and reassess our choices to prevent a looming future. But they can also create panic and prevent us from taking steps toward progress. Could it get worse? I’m glad you asked.

The ugly

Two words: conspiracy theories.

Ah, the grueling fan fiction of reality!

There are extreme cases when people get super creative with cautionary tales, twisting facts so intensely that they become no longer recognizable.

One conspiracy that is old-fashioned these days but was massive a few decades ago was the U.S. hiding knowledge about extraterrestrials in Area 51. Curiously, when the conspiracy was made into a tv show, it lost strength. People started to associate it with the very fictional world of The X-Files.

More recent conspiracy theories are about the 5G causing the pandemic and about a society mind-controlled by the Neuralink tech. Both are reminiscent of cautionary tales about government control through technology. (And the fact that Elon Musk acts like a famous superman villain does not help.)

So what’s the moral here? Cautionary tales can alarm us of dangers, but they can also create panic to the point of becoming a conspiracy.

There’s no way to stop fiction, and we don’t want to stop fiction! We know the pitfalls of banning books. Let all reasonable, unreasonable, and outrageous stories come to us. So I say that we are the ones who should learn how to assess them.

Reflect and research on a topic that make you worried. That is the point.

So tell me, which is your favorite cautionary tale? Let me know in the comments.

I’ll mention briefly that the first story in my anthology Artificial Rebellion is a cautionary tale. Check it out if you enjoy them.

See you next post,



Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night.

You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.

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