Take a Look, It's in a Book

A professor of mine recently posed an interesting thought-experiment. Imagine, she said, that you are thrown back four hundred years, to the early seventeenth century. For the sake of not having you simply die in a ditch, assume that you can speak the language and communicate with those around you. How do you live? There were a variety of ideas put forwards, though several of them were immediately discarded because the person answering missed that it wasn't some hypothetical Renaissance man being thrown back, but you, yourself. The others were fairly similar in tone. Become a prophet. Invent something. Marry a nobelwoman. Join the military.

To be fair, they'd apparently take anyone.

Notice something? Pretty much all of these ideas are based entirely on the idea that you have access to several hundred years of infrastructure, whether it's physical or social, technological or ethical or cultural. If you're dropped back four hundred years with nothing but your wits, what are you going to have to offer a noble for his daughter's hand? If you're not a captivating public speaker with a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of early seventeenth century religious trends, and possibly things like the exact timing of earthquakes or eclipses or floods and the like, how are you going to become a successful prophet? If you're not already a noble, joining the military (assuming you can find a standing army to join in the early seventeenth century) isn't really going to get you very far, because there is literally no method for advancement and no real way to earn a living except while you're actually at war with someone.

But it was 'invent something' that really floored me. People talked about discovering electricity, or inventing the lightbulb or the cannon, or four-stage crop rotation. But this is a class of social scientists, a third-year Political Science course. There aren't a great deal of mechanics and engineers here, nevermind knowledgeable agriculturalists who are familiar with pre-industrial methods of production. And yet person after person seemed convinced that, if thrown back four hundred years, before most of the Western world had paved roads nevermind a relatively educated populace with excess capital, they could invent some modern piece of technology without understanding the decades, or even centuries, of development between now and then.

Ash is the exception, people, not the rule.

And that's where science fiction literature comes in so handy. Most of the non-genre literature out there deals with people in established social settings, safely bound up in relatively affluent social circles. And of the rest, much of it deals with people who are used to a different way of life, so used to it that certain fundamental aspects simply aren't discussed. But science fiction literature routinely uproots protagonists, lifting them from one circumstance and depositing them somewhere very different, then leaving them alone to get on with their lives. It doesn't really matter whether the transition is from the past to the future, or from a spaceship to a planet, or from the opulence of a post-scarcity imperial centre to a colony of back-to-nature subsistence agriculturalists. The details aren't what's important, but rather getting one into the thought-space of visualizing other times and places. It's no surprise that science fiction has been identified as the literature of the immigrant and the colonist alike, because time and again it is, at its core, about dislocation. Whether it's the dislocation of immigration, or of colonialism, or nationalist or imperialist expansion, or of some sort of expulsion from society, the function of dislocation remains central to much of science fiction literature. What does a character do, novel after novel asks and at least tries to answer, when they are no longer where they're used to being?

That's not to say that other literature can't do that, or even that it doesn't. There is some. But if you look at the big-selling books in various genres, in the general fiction and the romance and the thriller and the mystery sections and all the rest, time and again it's about people in their own comfort zones dealing with issues they're at least generally familiar with and have both personal and institutional supports available to deal with. The dislocation is far and away the exception, and not the rule, when it comes to non-scifi literature. And given how disconnected the average modern person is from any kind of physical or unskilled labour, where would they learn about these things if not through the books they read (and the shows and movies they watch, of course)?

Some options are more informative than others.

So, read science fiction. Learn to expand your horizons. Learn to think outside the box. Imagine yourself in the past and the future, in elite social circles and on frontier planets, fighting slavering bug-like aliens or dueling with other cyber-wizards through a jack in the back of your neck. All of these things, and more, are out there. And reading about them is useful, not because they'll prepare you for those specific experiences, but because they'll prepare you to think about preparing for unusual situations. Sure, sometimes it's 'what would I do if aliens/zombies/robots attacked', but other times it's as mundane as what would happen if the power went out, or you were stranded somewhere, or you had to get along without the kind of basic conveniences you take for granted. And that, that is the true value of science fiction literature.

And for the record, my own suggestion? Start off as a manual labourer, and leverage your understanding of fundamental social organization (sanitation, roads, reasonable taxation to prevent revolution, the careful balance of church and state and the population, etc) to be a solid adviser to whoever's in charge. I've spent years studying the social sciences, after all, what else would I do?

 "Listen, I'm telling you, supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, 
not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.  And yeah, I totally thought that up myself."

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