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?

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