Overturning Established Convictions

BIS Space: Odyssey - Out of This World

Bertrand Russell’s foreword considers the real purpose of science fiction. Published by Blackie & Son Limited 1960.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell was one of the most significant mathematicians of the twentieth century.  His three-volume Principia Mathematica, published between 1910 and 1913, written with Alfred North Whitehead, tried to establish a logical basis for all mathematical truths.  This was a truly ambitious goal, and it subsequently turned out that it could not be achieved due to the consequences of Gödel’s incompleteness theory, as presented later in the 1930s.  However, the importance of the Principia to the philosophy of mathematics is pretty well undisputed.

In fact, Russell was not afraid to turn his attention to many areas of intellectual activity in addition to philosophical logic (a term which he himself invented) and the scope of human knowledge.  And his work as a prominent campaigner for world peace got him into considerable trouble over the years.

But what is less well known is that he also considered the importance of science fiction to our understanding of our world and the cosmos.  As might be expected given his political outlook, he argued back in the 1920s that science would most likely be used for the advantage of those already in power, rather than to help the average person, so unsurprisingly his thoughts could sometimes be rather pessimistic.  Some of his stories in his 1953 collection Satan in the Suburbs, or in Nightmares of Eminent Persons from 1954, show the human race in a fairly poor light.  Similarly, his 1959 short story Planetary Effulgence describes a future society on Mars which has failed to learn from the problems that mankind had previously encountered during Earth’s history – sadly, one might conclude that that is a highly likely outcome given what we see in the world around us today.

On the other hand, Russell wrote the foreword for the first of the Out of This World series of 1960s science fiction anthologies edited by Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen, which comprised significant collections of the short stories of the time.  In this, he emphasised the importance of imaginative thinking: “It is with an invigorated mind that we should confront the fundamentals of our time – scientific, technical, conceptual and moral.”  We certainly wouldn’t argue with that.

He maintained that the imaginative writer should “transcend possibility”.  We look to our myths and fantasies for support “when confronted with the terrors, immensities, absurdities and paradoxes of the universe.”  That’s something that the human race has always done through history – it enables us to make sense of what is happening in our world, or maybe going to happen in the foreseeable future.  So one can only agree – when considering humanity’s future in space, we should turn to science fiction in facing up to those very issues.  At the very least, it gives us a head start.

And it is notable that the very first short story in that first anthology of the Out of This World series was Arthur C Clarke’s Breaking Strain from 1949, which is a tale that exemplifies precisely what Russell meant.  As I described in a previous post,  Survival of the Ruthless, the issues raised by that story are just the sort considerations that will affect humans as they venture into space.

The overall message is that we should use our speculations to prepare us to face reality when assessing what is yet to come, and not rely on the assumptions that may have helped us previously.  They might have seemed a good idea at the time, but their time may well be past.  As Russell himself said in Dreams and Facts, from his 1928 collection Sceptical Essays, “Every man, wherever he goes, is encompassed by a cloud of comforting convictions, which move with him like flies on a summer day”.  But just because a conviction is comforting doesn’t make it a valid basis for facing the future.

One thing that better science fiction can do is to help us think outside the box.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: 

Figure It Out | Limited Understanding

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