Beware the Lifeboat

Thought experiments are tools. Some thought experiments are like power saws with no blade guards: you can see what someone wanted to do with them, but they’re still a terrible idea and likely to get blood everywhere.

Science fiction has a history of loving thought experiments not wisely but too well. A “hard choices” narrative brings high drama and deep emotion. But as models for approaching the world, the embellished lifeboats made into spaceships too often replicate the worst of human history in their carefully designed social constraints. Thought experiments for finding out how we think ethically—paring down to the supposed essentials of a situation—can just as easily expose places where our thinking about the world and its essentials is deeply flawed. When this is conscious, great! Sadly, the ethical deficiencies baked into these approaches have often been replicated rather than critiqued.

As we look around at harsh and closed-off reactions to political refugees from Syria or Guatemala, can we really separate them from the science fiction that has backed us into carefully constructed corners about how limited the world is, how tiny our lifeboat—and how crucial it is for the “captains” to brutally throw “non-contributors” overboard? When cozy catastrophes steer our imaginations into a world where the able and the demographically privileged are the ones who can best contribute to the world, how can that not affect how we imagine the contributions of those around us—and shape policy thereby, as their land heats and disappears out from under them?

This is not just about “The Cold Equations,” because we’ve talked about that before—and because if it was only “The Cold Equations,” what a beautiful world this would be. Still, though, we really have talked about that before: James Davis Nicoll thoroughly drags the story, noting its needless cruelty and how it goes out of its way to close off options solely for the sake of herding its audience toward its murderous point. Cory Doctorow comes in for the killing blow, pointing out how the contrivance of the story is set up to encourage the reader to sympathize with murder—that the entire setup is to justify murder, to put the reader in the murderer’s shoes and make them feel that nothing else could have been done. Every step of the story, every piece of its engineering, is in place to avoid questions of why this murder was necessary, and to encourage readers to avoid those questions as well—not to see the story as a systemic failure, poor planning on anyone else’s part, but to put the moral failing on the girl alone. She failed to notice the physics. She died. Not: she was killed, but: she died.

Doctorow notices that the moral hazard goes further in SF/F, into the loathsome Farnham’s Freehold, but there’s more, a lot more of this. The entire sub-genre of cozy catastrophe tends to treat racist, patriarchal norms as the human default, our natural state, rather than as terrible ideas that we can choose not to accept. In times of crisis, Farnham’s Freehold and most of these stories fall into arguing, someone’s worth is easily judged by their role, not by their individuality, and the patterns of who is likely to have a valuable role are all too clear. It’s useful to have the insight that Earth’s resources are not unlimited—they’re not, this is fact. The dangerous part is when the presence of limitations is used to deny basic compassion for marginalized people, framing it as “necessary.” Science fiction writers have the power to shape these narratives and undermine the discourse that deems people less likely to be worthy based on the color of their skin or where they’re from—or worth only what their uterus can provide, if they have one. Instead too many of these narratives underscored those concepts—just as climate change puts us in a situation where the limited, “lifeboat” nature of the planet is clearest. When we look into the faces of climate refugees, how we react will depend greatly on what responses to lifeboat problem stories we’ve internalized.

Nor is it just older work that falls prey to this pattern. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is only one of the recent post-apocalyptic works that excludes disabled people from its messages of hope and rebuilding community, but it’s one of the more striking ones. Both physical and mental health issues are treated as insurmountable obstacles—their characters literally seek death—because limited resources are treated as an absolute rather than something a community can address together. The disabled are treated as literally worth less—worth enough less that they need to die. This ties the idea of the lifeboat Earth even more firmly to the real world and the real people we face—and gives permission to shove some of them out of the lifeboat. It is recent and massively popular. We can do better.

No show has brought to life the vivid thought experiments of philosophy more thoroughly than The Good Place. Its gore-spattered enactment of the Trolley Problem illuminated the characters’ ethical thinking, but also exactly how horrible the Trolley Problem is. By taking the Trolley Problem seriously in an afterlife where no actual life has to be risked, the show milks the situation for all the gore (and laughs) inherent to the idea, but also points out to us how flawed this kind of framing is.

The message in the context of the show is clearly not “don’t think about ethics,” but when a particular approach to ethics can be used as a demonic torture device, I think it’s not unfair to suggest that it fits in the show’s larger suggestion that the system the characters are working with is broken, inadequate to the needs of their actual ethical dilemmas. The ways that Michael presents Chidi with the Trolley Problem underscores the idea that people matter as themselves, that individuality, specificity, and compassion are how we parse the world—and how we should.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut books provide a lighthouse for this genre’s lifeboat fantasies to come to a more welcoming harbor. They recognize that lifeboat thinking is already culturally endemic—so it’s something some of the characters do in a time of crisis. And it’s something other characters recognize as a big, big problem. Kowal doesn’t ignore the legacy of this kind of philosophical tool in her books, she confronts it head-on. She gives us the flaws and biases of humans indoctrinated in this approach, how to recognize and counter them, all as an organic part of character. Because this is what people do—but it’s not all of what people do. It’s not inevitable, and it can be changed.

Kowal’s heroine, Elma, is not perfect. She has places where her upbringing, her personality, or her own struggles make her oblivious to the suffering of others. But when her attention comes to these topics, she learns with as much kindness as a person can muster. Compassion is not presented as the first piece of dead weight to be thrown out of the lifeboat. Other humans continue to matter. When we write the rules, we don’t have to choose to write them to say anything less.

Stories teach us how to imagine—they help to set the scope of our dreams. When we write and read fiction about hard choices, we’re rehearsing those choices for ourselves. Which factors are crucial? Which scenarios matter the most and which aspects of them can be ignored as irrelevant? When we present kindness and inclusion as irrelevant in story and in the characters’ actions in that story, it’s too easy to think of those elements as garnish—as gifts that the important people who really make society function can bestow once they’ve got the trains running on time.

But when hope and empathy are not built into the structure of everything we decide to do, we get tunnel vision for a cruel expediency that isn’t even “the laws of physics” or “what reality requires.” We start to see lifesaving regulations as extras, and we look up and find that clean water is not something we can assume. We vote for lifeboat captains who won’t let sentiment change their hard choices, only to find that their assessment of whose skills are valuable and who is expendable was definitely shaped by their sentiments. It is only by starting with the premise that we are all in this together that our imaginations can expand to a world where the hard choices we have to make for our difficult and imperfect future can, as Kowal shows us, be choices that we make compassionately, together—with our eyes open to the real skills and possibilities presented by a full range of humanity.




Marissa Lingen

Marissa Lingen is among the top science fiction and fantasy writers in the world who were named after fruit. She has many opinions on Moomintrolls. She has been known to cross international borders in search of rare tisanes. Her personal relationships with bodies of water are intense though eccentric. She lives atop the oldest bedrock in the US with her family, where she writes, if not daily, frequently.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment. You can register here.