The Socratic Method in Science Fiction

I recently read James White’s Hospital Station for the first time, thanks to a friend’s recommendation. One of the things that stood out to me very strongly was the similarity to Isaac Asimov’s style. Both White and Asimov approach their protagonist’s respective fields – diagnosing and treating alien patients and troubleshooting the Three Laws of Robotics – much like a mystery novel. We follow along as Dr. Conway or Dr. Calvin work out the solution through reasoning and thought experiments.

However the way the deduction was handled between White’s work and Asimov’s work is also an interesting exploration. In many of the adventures of Conway in Hospital Station, once he has has an inkling of what the correct diagnosis and proper treatment of the patient is, the reader is left in the dark with coy references to a new discovery supporting Conway’s hypothesis. It’s only at the end, when Conway triumphantly reveals his plan to the other hospital staff, that the reader is let in on the discovery. It still makes for an entertaining puzzle, but I personally prefer Asimov’s deductive process.

Asimov does not leave the reader in the dark unless the viewpoint character is in the dark as well. We are baffled alongside poor Powell and Donovan as they encounter yet another loophole for the Three Laws. We get to test our deductive skills alongside Dr. Calvin as she discovers the solution to a robot’s malfunction. And because Asimov is so dialogue-heavy, much of this deduction is done in a dialectic fashion.

If you’ll pardon my use of Wikipedia, the dialectical method is a “discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.” The more well-known Socratic Method is a subset of dialectics, and both are accredited to Socrates. In fact, I’ve discovered that a number of science fiction works utilize dialectics in order to explore concepts further. There could be an argument made that such discourses are lazy writing and exposition dumps, but I think that these have their place in fiction.

Asimov, a dialogue heavy writer by his own admittance, uses this technique frequently, and not just in his robot short stories. Pebble in the Sky has a the antagonist go on a very convoluted stream of logic to connect the wholly-unconnected protagonists three. In The Gods Themselves, all three parts of the book are wrapped up in different dialectic discussions from different viewpoints about the story’s central conflict. Asimov’s most dialectic conversation occurs again within his robot series, namely Robots and Empire. In the previous three books, Daneel the robot is more a sounding board for the detective Lije Baley, but in the fourth, Daneel and his fellow robot Giskard take up multiple pages in discourse discussing the future of humanity and their own identities, and they are both active and equal participants.

Another example of such discourse is found in The Crimson Claw, book two of the Lucasfilm Alien Chronicles by Deborah Chester. Throughout the book the protagonist Ampris and her best friend Elrabin have an ongoing dialogue regarding the merits of fighting for freedom and of surviving in an oppressive regime. While this does tend to edge more towards debate, given the emotional investments of both Ampris and Elrabin, they do work together towards a compromise of both their needs.

Probably the best instance of the dialectical method that I have seen, alongside Daneel and Giskard, is the short story “Night Meeting” in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. “Night Meeting” is an incredibly short story, not even a full ten pages in the 1979 Bantam printing, and six of those pages are simply a dialogue between a human and a Martian who encounter each other in a brief overlap of their timelines. Their discourse is a method of discovery. Together Tomás and Muhe Ca explore what is happening to them by the comparison of notes. It’s simple, almost cozy, and entirely dialectic.

The most notable Socratic Method for me is in Starship Troopers by Rober A. Heinlein. The Socratic Method relies on the use of a student/teacher dynamic in which the teacher plays a sort of devil’s advocate and engages the student to consider moral dilemmas through a series of questions. This is the exact method used by Juan Rico’s History and Moral Philosophy classes. Both Mr. DuBois and Major Reid engage their students in this manner, and they are some of my favorite portions of this book. Now granted, I don’t take every piece of these dialogues as gospel, but I realized that even with an emphasis towards a viewpoint, Starship Troopers feels less like a didactic sermon and more like an invitation. Even the brutal take-down of “violence never settles anything” seems to me as more an opportunity to note flaws in my own beliefs and examine why I may disagree or agree in part.

And here is where I find the importance of the dialectical and Socratic methods in fiction. Fiction can have a wonderful balance of pulling you into the story and making you think about life questions both big and small. These dialogues invite us to join in in exploring the wonder of a fictional world or to reconsider what we believe and apply that to the larger dialogue that happens in our everyday life.

In what other fiction pieces have you seen examples of the dialectic discourse?

How Jodi Picoult Wrote the Vampire Story I Wanted from Guillermo del Toro

When I picked up del Toro’s The Strain, I was ready for some vampire fun and some cool monsters in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth crawling about.

Of course, del Toro and his writing partner Chuck Hogan deliver on the monsters. The Master is especially a fascinating villain, but I didn’t care much for his interactions with the lead Dr. Ephraim Goodweather. The brief moments we had felt bland, generic. Instead, I was far more captivated by Professor Abraham Setrakian and the small snippets of his fight against the Master in the Treblinka extermination camp during the Nazi regime. That was the story that seized me by the throat. I could have read an entire book about Abraham’s struggle in that camp, flanked by human and vampiric monsters alike. Furthermore, the one solid interaction that Abraham had with the Master worked.

The small moment of these two – Abraham’s attempt to slay the Master, and the Master breaking his hands in return – felt like the birth of a true hero/villain dynamic. It was Javert and Valjean meeting at Fantine’s deathbed in Les Misérables. It was the duel of Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. It was the story that I wanted to read.

It was the story that was merely a frame for Ephraim’s, and I truly believe that the book suffered for it.

A year later, I had to select a novel from the genre of Women Literature for a university course. I was not looking forward to this assignment. Women Literature was rarely my genre and of course being a naysayer, I held tightly to the 90% of Sturgeon’s Law. There was no way I was going to find a novel that would capture my interest.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult proved me so wrong (That happens a lot when I step out of my genre box. Go figure).

Like The Strain, the story is told in two time periods, the past interlacing with and affecting the future. The past story also revolves around a Jewish protagonist surviving in a concentration camp.

Just as Abraham’s attempt to kill the Master was a way to save his people, so is Minka’s struggle. Within the camp, Minka begins to write a Gothic book about a pair of upiór brothers, vampires, terrorizing a town. This book, and her chapters day-by-day, help to keep the other captives going. It also catches the eye of the SS officer in charge of the camp, which is where the story connects to the present-day.

There is power in Minka’s storytelling and in her upiór tale. It comforts her fellow Jewish women, it helps a friend pull through an infection, and it allows her to enter the good graces of the camp’s officer. In a sense, it’s both through and against the upiór that Minka finds the strength to win.

The biggest win that Minka’s tale has over Abraham’s is that it is given much more time and breath to be. It’s not just a framing device – it’s a story on it’s own, even if it’s just half of the book.

 

Christian Novels That Don’t Stink

I went through a phase in middle and high school of reading almost exclusively Christian novels. I purchased a ton of Christian fantasy from Barnes & Noble online. I scoured through Ted Dekker and Frank Peretti. As a result, I discovered something – most of it was really, really bad.

Of course, that’s Sturgeon’s Law in effect – 90% of everything is crap. Even books by Dekker and Peretti, who have solid story and writing skills behind them, have released iffy pieces, and their one collaboration read like a Christian version of the Saw franchise. What?

Christian films, games, and books all tend to get a bad rep due to the slimy word “agenda.” There’s an assumption from the seculars that these books are trying to convert people, and there’s an assumption from the Christians that these books should convert people. So any story gets lost in a pile of morals and wagging fingers and symbolism that is as subtle as a thousand anvils falling from the sky.

However there are those novels out there that achieve excellence in storytelling and character development while being imbued with the canon of Christianity. Here are some of my favorites.

Continue reading “Christian Novels That Don’t Stink”

Five Books that Brought Me the Thrill of Wonder

I love books. I devour them. There are books in my life whose covers are worn thin and books that make the English language sing. And then there are the books who fill me with a sense of wonder.

It’s a strange experience. Books have the capability of eliciting many emotions from me. I’ve cried, I’ve been angry, I’ve been afraid, I’ve been impressed. But wonder… Wonder is a strange emotion that occurs rarely in my perusal of fiction. I still can’t describe it fully, but a part of it is that these books are the ones that capture me so fully that I stop processing what is happening in the world outside of the pages.

These books were the ones that devoured me.

Continue reading “Five Books that Brought Me the Thrill of Wonder”