Expanding Our Empathy Sphere Using F&SF, a History

(with thanks to Jo Walton for innumerable examples)


One metric of human progress, which fantasy and science fiction have done much to advance, is the expansion over time of our empathy sphere. By this I mean the range of beings that we consider coequally a person with ourselves, deserving of the same rights, dignities, and protections. We are all familiar with the legal expansion of rights over time, the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to marry; this is a parallel expansion of attitudes, what beings fall inside or outside our sphere of empathy, a change most visible in, and often advanced by, literature, especially science fiction and fantasy.

Many genre readers have had the experience of reading older fiction, perhaps More’s Utopia, and his description of the ideal state is chugging along, but then he mentions slavery, or details about the role of women, and it stops feeling utopian even if you yourself are not in the categories being subjugated. Utopia felt utopian and radical to Thomas More’s readers in 1520, as did Robert Graves’s Seven Days In New Crete (US title Watch the North Wind Rise) in 1949, though we cringe seeing his attempt at a matriarchal utopia define ‘free love’ as requiring all women to be sexually available to all men. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey aimed to present a positive future, but when exclusively male astronauts make video calls to their housewives on Earth, it stops feeling positive to us. Nothing can feel like a utopia to us if beings we consider coequally people with ourselves are being oppressed or treated as second-class members of society, and the number of beings in that category increases over time. When we watch 1950s American TV, it is a mark of progress that so many people now feel uncomfortable seeing scenes with Black women cast repeatedly as maid characters, whose scripted parts reinforce stereotypes and subjugation; in this we feel how America’s empathy sphere has moved. If, when we watch The Jetsons (1962-3), we feel similar discomfort seeing Rosey the Robot in the same maid role, we experience how science fiction has expanded our empathy sphere to AIs even though they do not yet exist.

This development was shaped by thousands of genre fiction stories, many responding to and critiquing each other. As trailblazing works took More’s Utopia head on—such as Samuel R. Delany’s Empire Star (1966) which examines slavery’s legacy through a grand space future is built on the grief of the enslaved alien Lll, and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia (1974) which asks if utopia can be utopia if even a single being suffers—the questions they advanced transformed living-room conversations about Star Wars films and Jetson’s reruns in ways which, year-by-year, expanded empathy by raising audiences’ standards for how many and what kinds of beings must be free and happy for us to call a world or future ‘good’. Today, no imaginary world or future can feel unambiguously utopian if it depicts the oppression of person-like AIs, aliens, or artificial or magical beings, and a long tradition, from today’s powerful own-voices authors like Ken Liu and N. K. Jemisin back to eighteenth- and nineteenth- century political radicals like Voltaire, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne’s social satires, have tapped the power of such empathy-expanding conversations to tackle real-world issues of prejudice and exclusion.

One of science fiction’s oldest tools for expanding empathy is its exploration of alternate forms of intelligent life: robots, AIs, androids, aliens, clones, artificial or genetically engineered organisms, etc. Robot rights and personhood have been explored by authors like Asimov (Bicentennial Man, 1976), Sarah Zettel (Fool’s War 1997), Ken MacLeod (Corporation Wars, 2016-17), and early-on at great length by Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy 1951-2) whose comics, films, and novels used robots and aliens to address the roles racism and xenophobia had played in WWII in the post-war decades when censorship in Japan prevented direct discussions. Science fiction has been so effective at crystalizing AI rights as an issue that we now have think tanks and policy seminars dedicated to real-world AI rights, much like those which study gender equality or racial and environmental justice, even though we still don’t have any actual science fiction-level artificial intelligences. Even if we never do have them, we still have empathy for their possibility, and are thoughtfully considering their rights and our potential relationship with them. Cloning too was raised by SF as a civil rights issue long before it became real. It appeared as an object of discomfort and strangeness as early as Brave New World (1931), but over time the consensus tipped steadily toward clones being fully human and deserving of rights, as we see in the contrast between Kate Willhelm’s 1976 Hugo-winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang which depicts cloning resulting in imperfect, cognitively-degraded sub-humans incapable of continuing human civilization, and C. J. Cherryh’s 1988 Hugo-winning Cyteen which depicts clones as full people capable of emotion, creativity, and citizenship, and uses them to explore issues of consent and slavery. The numerous moments in iterations of Star Trek that address race and rights via aliens, androids, hybrids, even holodeck characters, reflect how early active engagement with the empathy sphere became and remained an expected signature of science fiction.

Counter-intuitively, the fact that aliens, AIs, clones etc. also appear as monsters or objects of fear in science fiction has often advanced, not weakened, this expansion of empathy. Science fiction’s most influential founding text, Frankenstein, had issues of inclusion and prejudice at its heart, and every SF author since has understood the narrative power of the moment when a being which has been an object of horror in a story is suddenly made sympathetic. Every story which repeats that narrative arc reinforces versions of Shelly’s lesson that we should look deeper at.

Every time a Frankenstein arc from horror to sympathy repeats, it leaves a reader/viewer more prepared to question the monstrousness of the next science fiction creature we see. It is not the case that science fiction never depicts monstrous aliens or evil robots today, but the burden of proof is now on the writer to establish that said beings do not have personhood, or the reader/viewer will sympathize with robots, clones, and aliens by default. Just as modern directors of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, or authors of Wars of the Roses fiction, know to deal carefully with the famous moment when the Kingmaker Warwick kills his own horse before a battle to prove he will not flee, an act which makes modern audiences repelled not impressed; similarly contemporary SF readers and viewers will sympathize with and mourn the death of a robot, clone, or alien by default unless work is done to establish their sinisterness or non-personhood. Writers today have to work hard to keep readers from sympathizing with non-human species right away, as Yusuke Kishi did in his novel From the New World (2008) giving his Queerats a grotesque mole-rat-like appearance and off-putting reproductive politics in order to postpone empathy and achieve the slow-burn of his reverse-Frankenstein narrative. The average reader’s empathy sphere has so thoroughly absorbed aliens, robots, and other inhuman species that we now require them to be firmly established as ‘bad’ for their deaths to be acceptable.anything presented as inhuman or subhuman. Inhuman threats especially in movies like The Mechanical Man (L’uomo meccanico, 1921), The War of the Worlds (1953, from H.G. Wells’s 1887 novel), or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, from Finney’s 1954 novel) enormously increase the power of narratives which reverse them, such as Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956) whose transition from servant through that of monster to that of self-sacrificial hero so impressed audiences because his personhood contrasted the un-person-like SF threats 1950s audiences were familiar with. The reversal of horror and empathy from The Terminator (1984) to Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) in which the same robot which was monster in the first becomes sacrificial hero in the second, Godzilla (started 1954) transitioning from threat to defender, even the Alien franchise (started 1979), which aimed to make the most monstrous aliens ever depicted, moved in its sequels to gradually depict moments of empathy and even hybridity between humans and aliens— these stories are powerful precisely because of the monstrousness of the original. The many iterations of Star Wars (started 1977) are inconsistent over time about the disposability and person-ness of clones and droids, partly because the popularity of R2-D2 and C-3PO helped increase the personhood of robots in the popular imagination, and science fiction over these decades moved heavily away from clone disposability toward clone personhood, eventually pushing Star Wars to humanize both clones and storm troopers.

One major tool for expanding empathy lies in changing or reversing point of view (POV). The personhood of computer simulated consciousnesses was not explored as early as that of robots or aliens, and remains less resolved. Prominent treatments include the 1995 Ghost in the Shell film, and the Star Trek the Next Generation Moriarty episodes “Elementary, Dear Data” (1988) and “Ship in a Bottle” (1993) the latter responding to fans’ debates over whether switching off a sentient computer being counts as murder. Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994) begins in the point of view of such a being, a copy of a person running on a computer, and that beginning immediately takes away any doubt on the reader’s part about the personhood of computer copies within that story world. The question of consciousness, and what differentiates the human from a biological machine, has been explored similarly, from La Mettrie’s explosively radical Machine Man (1747), to the ethics of implanting beliefs explored in Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, to Project Itoh’s Harmony (2008), one of the most influential Japanese SF novels of the 21st century, which asks whether all members of the human species suddenly losing self-awareness, but continuing the same activities without consciousness, is or is not the end of the world. Ageism is also common in fiction, with agency even in adult fiction usually resting in the hands of teens or younger adults, but genre fiction’s speculations about cognition can put the spotlight on the very old or very young, as in Theodore Sturgeon’s baby and child POVs in his collection A Touch of Strange (1958), the old and young figures in Katsuhiro Otomu’s acclaimed Domu: A Child’s Dream (1980-1), the reality-bending old-age dementia in Jo Walton’s My Real Children (2014), and the examinations of growing up influenced by science fiction’s promised futures in Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys (1999-2006) manga and Brian Fies’s graphic novel Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? (2009). All fiction can use POV to make a reader feel close to a character, increasing empathy, but genre fiction can take it father, whether through Hoffmann making a toy soldier into a romantic character in The Nutcracker (1816) or Ann Leckie putting the story in the mouth of a rock in The Raven Tower (2018).

Science fiction also lets us experience the POV of imagined aliens, which can push the limits of personhood even further. In Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (1972) one core section gives us the point of view of triple-gendered aliens who, after they have reproduced, their three parts merge to become one much more intelligent consciousness. Cherryh’s Pride of Chanur (1981) and Cuckoo’s Egg (1985) tell stories in which a human is present but uses alien POVs, immersing us in alien culture and expectations and making the aliens our lens for seeing humanity, very much in the tradition of Montesquieu’s groundbreaking Persian Letters (1721), one of the texts which kicked off the Enlightenment, using an imagined Persian narrator’s perspective on Europe to voice criticisms and calls for change. Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep (1992) plunges us into the POV of Tines, aliens whose consciousness exists in multiple bodies at once, and whose collective selfhood will survive losing a body and replacing it with another. Tiptree’s “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (1973) even makes us sympathize with insectoid aliens that eat their mates—a very horror-y type of alien—by using their POV. Hybridity, species mixing, and the possibility of friendship across species are also frequently explored. As early as Ray Bradbury’s “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed” (1949) Bradbury used the POV of humans transforming slowly into Martians but makes that experience positive, attacking and rejecting common ideas of racial purity which in the 1940s would usually have presented a transformation into something inhuman as negative if not horrific (as in Argentinian genre writer Julio Cortázar’s 1956 POV horror short “Axolotl”). Engagement with hybridity increased over the decades, from the various Star Trek stories which engage with Spock’s hybridity, to twenty-first century own-voices treatments of becoming or befriending the other in works like Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti novellas (2015-18), Niky Drayden’s The Prey of Gods (2017), R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War (2019), and N. K. Jemison’s use of Hoa’s POV in her Broken Earth trilogy (2015-17). Hybrid and monstrous POV has also long been a tool in horror writing around the world, used in works like Amos Tutola’s Yoruba-influenced weird tales (earliest 1952), Premendra Mitra’s Bengali fairy tales and SF, Jamaica Kinkaid’s weird horror tales like “My Mother” (1978), and Andrea Hairston’s Will Do Magic for Small Change (2016), all of which use myth and folklore elements to touch or transform POV bodies and challenge ideas of purity and the contamination of the self. Thanks to the rise of film and manga clubs in the 1950s-80s, Japanese horror was one of the earliest non-western genre traditions frequently translated into English, exposing western F&SF to genre works shaped by the early hybrid POVs of Shigeru Mizuki’s Graveyard Kitaro (1960-69) and Kazuo Umezu’s Cat-Eyed Boy (1967-9), via later international successes like the film adaptations of Junji Ito’s Tomie (1997-2000), Q Hayashida’s subtly radical-feminist Dorohedoro (2000-2014), and the stunning POV change in vols. 33-34 of Kentaro Miura’s Berserk (1990-2020, vols. 33-34 2008-9), an acclaimed deconstruction of the tentacle-horror genre examining sexual assault and survivor empowerment. Much of the work that gets us from the pure horror of the first Alien film (1979) to Ripley weeping for the hybrid in Alien Resurrection (1997) and beyond happened via POV, much of it in dialog between SFF and horror, as ever-iterating Frankenstein narratives push more and more challenging imagined beings into our POV experience and empathy sphere.

An even earlier development in empathy beyond our species came with animal points of view, popular in fantastical stories and especially children’s literature in the decades around 1900. The sympathetic point of view of a horse in Anna Sewell’s 1877 Black Beauty led in turn to anthropomorphic animals in works such as Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), which paved the way for more complex animal POVs such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), Richard Adams’s Watership Down (1972), Brian Jacques’s Redwall (1986), and even actively progressive projects such as Jan Needle’s The Wild Wood (1982) which inverts the POV of The Wind & the Willows to challenge class prejudices. In addition to offering tools for allegorizing human experience, as aliens and robots do, fantasy with thinking animals engages with what we may call the fringe of the empathy sphere, i.e. beings we feel deserve some protections due to being near personhood, for example dogs or dolphins. When we look at how mainstream it is today to debate the ethics of factory farming, it is easy to forget that a recently as the 1700s recreational torture of cats and dogs was considered a normal form of children’s play (see Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre), and figures like Descartes and Bentham debated whether animals experience pain at all. That we have moved so quickly from that to organized animal shelters, farm ethics certification, and a population so uncomfortable with animal pain that we created to let one look up whether films show harm to animals, is testament to how far and how fast the literary path from Black Beauty and The Wind in the Willows to All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989) and Finding Nemo (2003) have expanded our empathy sphere to include more and more kinds of animals.

Fantasy has also done much to expand empathy, using POV and other tools. Tolkien triggered a major expansion by giving deep interiority to elves, dwarves, hobbits, and even orcs, something which had been extremely rare in earlier fantastic fiction which tended to present elves and other non-human beings as eerie and othered, objects of wonder or fear not empathy, as in Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924) and Hope Mirrlees’s Lud in the Mist (1926). In an older but familiar example, modern audiences of Shakespeare’s Tempest are fascinated by the interiority of Caliban and Ariel, but the text gives them much less internal development than the human characters, and no resolution, without even giving Ariel a single final line to tell us how he feels about his liberation or his (now-former) master at the end—directors of post-Tolkien Tempest productions find audiences are unsatisfied unless supplementary non-verbal development is added to meet this appetite for the interiority of magical creatures. While there were a few pre-Tolkien examples which dove deeper into the interiority of fantasy races, it was in the wake of The Lord of the Rings (complete 1949) that fantasy writers took Tolkien’s deeply-worked inhuman characters like Thorin and Elrond and ran with them, much as SF writers did with robots and aliens. Tolkien’s depictions of magical races certainly reflect his prejudices, but by examining the interiority of fantastic creatures he opened up the road to many radical empathy expansions, including stories responding to the problematic parts of his, such as Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll: A Love Story (Finnish 2000, English 2003), Daniel Abraham’s The Dragon’s Path (2011), Sarah Monette’s The Goblin Emperor (2014), as well as to Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban (2016) and many other modern versions of The Tempest on page, stage, and screen.

Another of fantasy’s big tools for empathy expansion, especially popular among female authors, is unexpected changes and reversals of POV in familiar tales. Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October (1993) uses the point of view of a dog to interrogate Lovecraft, while Ruthanna Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy series (2014-18) goes further, using the POV of the Deep Ones to explore antisemitism and the WWII internment of Japanese-Americans. Reversing POV in fantasy exploded into mega-popularity in 2003 the with the Broadway musical adaptation of Gregory Maguire and Douglas Smith’s 1995 Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, a trend which escalated to the current Disney villain films, but already had a long tradition, in works such as Rumer Godden’s A Breath of Fresh Air (1951 Caliban-POV Tempest looking at the Philippines & colonialism), John Gardner’s Grendel (1971), Susan Palwick’s “Ever After” (1987), Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” (1994), many of the stories in Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s fairy tale anthology series starting with Snow White, Blood Red (1993), and Jo Walton’s “On the Wall” (2001) which expands empathy even to an inanimate object via the POV of the magic mirror. Reversing POV in fairytales, myths, and other popular narratives, especially to create feminist or otherwise re-empowering deconstructions, is also a major tool of filk music (folk music produced within the SFF community) used by artists such as Mary Crowell (“Pomegranate Tango” 2006, “Galatea (and Pygmalion)” 2003), Heather Dale (“Mordred’s Lullaby” 1999, “Sedna” 2004, Queens of Avalon collaboration with S. J. Tucker 2016), Leslie Hudson (“Carving Knife” & “Sisters & Sinners” 2016), Seanan McGuire (“Wicked Girls” 2008), and Kari Maaren “Being Watson” (2013).

These are only a few of numerous ways fantasy and science fiction have helped push audiences to question the boundaries of our idea of who is or is not a person coequal with ourselves, aiding the rapid expansion of our empathy sphere in recent decades which makes Robert Graves’s 1950s utopia feel almost as uncomfortable as Thomas More’s 1520s one. When we revisit older works we often find content which now makes us uncomfortable, (the Racism, Sexism or Homophobia Fairies have visited works which tried to be progressive at the time like Heinlein’s “Delilah and the Space Riggers” (1949), Tezuka’s MW (1976-8) or Alabaster (1970-1), and indeed Tolkien) that discomfort is proof that our own personal empathy sphere has moved, often thanks to the very works that bother us now. H. Beam Piper’s positively-intended space empire future Little Fuzzy (1962) was progressive for the sixties by writing about a struggle to protect indigenous aliens from human mining (comparable to Osamu Tezuka’s 1961 Captain Ken, whose US-dominated Mars colony setting also treated diaspora and the cultural assimilation pressures affecting Asian Americans). If we are made very uncomfortable by Little Fuzzy’s supposedly-happy ending being, not independence, the institution of a human-run paternalistic colonial government effectively treating the alien Fuzzies as pets, our ability to see the problems with Piper’s ending and instantly propose a better one depends on SF having explored the assimilation theme repeatedly, the clumsy tales enabling better ones. Little Fuzzy and its imperfections—partly by pushing other writers to want to do better—were part of the genre conversation which advanced through the space opened by Bradbury in 1949 by addressing the US genocide of indigenous people in “Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed,” which, expanded by Delany and Le Guin and many more, helped the genre move via works like Octavia Butler’s Survivor (1978) and Sheri Tepper’s Grass (1989) toward Rebecca Roanhorse’s brilliant and nuanced “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” (2017).

In 1979 audiences were stunned by the horrificness achieved in the first Alien film, but by 2014 the Doctor Who holiday special “Last Christmas” had the Doctor declare, “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive!” Sometimes the empathy sphere expands slowly, and sometimes it moves by leaps and bounds, as it has in recent years with the explosion of diversity and own-voices fiction, bringing us so suddenly to a moment when the brilliant disability representation in William Alexander’s “A House on the Moon” (2018) is not even unusual. By extending personhood to so many kinds of beings—to frogs and robots, elves and goblins, clones and mirrors, cyberspace duplicates and tri-gendered aliens—science fiction and fantasy have helped keep the edges of our empathy sphere in a state of constant and rapid expansion for over a century, and never faster than today. Let’s keep it up!


Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s acclaimed Terra Ignota series (Tor Books) explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations; its fourth and last volume Perhaps the Stars is due out September 2021. She teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and radical freethought, and is currently working on a book on censorship and the impact of information revolutions on censorship methods. She composes music including the Viking mythology cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, studies anime/manga, especially Osamu Tezuka, post-WWII manga and feminist manga, consults for anime and manga publishers, and blogs at

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