Ask ChatGPT why you should read fiction and it will spout literature’s many benefits: entertainment, increased empathy, cognitive stimulation and learning about different cultures, historical events and social issues. All very general and abstract; not very profound or compelling.
But if we turn the question around and ask what novels, in this case science fiction, can tell us about artificial intelligence, the answers are far more weighty.
Science fiction is the genre that allows us to imagine the future—not just future technologies, but the future of society and human life. Will it be better culturally, ecologically, economically, ethically, politically and socially or, instead, a dystopian hellscape? To paraphrase a quotation with many attributions, science fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.
Science fiction, like other forms of utopian fiction, has two sides: it can imagine the future as a place of perfection or, alternatively, as imaginary, illusory, impractical and fanciful or, even worse, as an Orwellian nightmare.
Among the many philosophical questions that science fiction raises—a topic that has taken on renewed interest in the face of AI-driven text generators—is whether technology can, in some sense, be considered sentient. Not conscious or creative in a human sense, nor capable of self-awareness, emotions, feelings and cognition or able to experience subjectivity or physical or emotional pain, distress and pleasure—but nonetheless alert, responsive, reactive and receptive.
Philip K. Dick’s dystopian 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, asked what, if anything, distinguishes a human from an android. Today we might well ask if human intelligence differs fundamentally from what a text generator does: absorbing and synthesizing vast quantities of information, then abstracting and distilling conclusions—and communicating according to a set of implicit rules.
As New York Times film critic A. O. Scott recently pointed out, science fiction novels, short stories and films—above all, those that described robots, androids and thinking machines—anticipated a host of philosophic, moral and political issues that we are grappling with right now: about the nature of sentience, consciousness, intelligence, cognition, intentionality, understanding and humanness. Those works also pose telling questions about the responsibilities of technology’s creators and the potential displacement of knowledge workers.
Certainly, engineering and technology students would do well to ponder those issues.
To me, the implication seems obvious: Shouldn’t we offer more courses in the humanities and the arts that align literature, film, theater and other forms of creative cultural expression with the urgent issues of our time? In addition, shouldn’t those of us who don’t teach in a lit department use more fiction in our classes?
I was struck by how few courses at my institution or elsewhere dealt with pandemics and the arts: with Boccaccio’s Decameron, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year, Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Albert Camus’s The Plague and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. A few years earlier, I was similarly struck by how few classes dealt with terrorism from a literary perspective, featuring works like Sergey Stepnyak-Kravchinsky’s Underground Russia, Jack London’s “The Enemy of All the World,” Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, and John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl.
Some timely topics, to be sure, do get more serious, sustained attention through a literary lens, including works about colonialism—from The Tempest to Heart of Darkness, Kim, A Passage to India, Burmese Days, Things Fall Apart and beyond; and slavery—especially Twelve Years a Slave, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, My Bondage and My Freedom, Beloved, The Underground Railroad and many more. But what about chronic illness, disability or aging?
I don’t know about you, but I turn to the world of culture not for information but for insight and understanding or transcendence or to transport myself to other worlds and see life through different eyes.
I take the view that works of fiction, whether novelistic or cinematic, generally offer the most searching and incisive psychological, moral, philosophical and intensely human insights into topics that I care about. To take one example: I am a specialist on the history of childhood and am widely read in the anthropology, ethnography, psychology and sociology of children, but I don’t know of a more penetrating glimpse into the mind of a child than the Spanish films The Spirit of the Beehive and its more recent reworking, Pan’s Labyrinth. No work of psychologist, sociologist or historian that I am familiar with comes close to what Víctor Erice or Guillermo del Toro do or that Henry James did in his 1897 novel, What Maisie Knew.
Which brings me to Brown’s 82-year-old specialist in comparative literature, Arnold Weinstein. He is one of the regrettably few prominent literary scholars who treats literature as I prefer as a naïve reader: as a vehicle for sloughing off one’s skin and entering into subjectivities not my own, a portal into other times and cultures, a medium for moral, ethical, psychological and spiritual reflection and as an instrument for deepening our imagination, our empathy and fellow feeling and, yes, for understanding the “operations of power and ideology that help shape subjectivity.”
Weinstein once asked an expert on Shakespeare how much she knew about the bard. Her reply: not as much as he knows about me. We read, Weinstein wrote, because “important books shine a unique beam on human behavior, thought and feeling.” Or as the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn put it: “When your father dies, your accounting degree is not going to help you at all to process that experience.”
So, what has literature taught Weinstein? That literature is an “alternate way of knowing,” an alternative to positivism, empiricism and scholarly pragmatics. That literature lays bare the problematics of interpersonal relationships (including the “frenzied drive for control” of others) and of selfhood (and the “prophetic turn inward” beginning in the early modern era and the heightened emphasis on identity that followed) and of the meaning of life’s stages (from growing up to growing old).
Weinstein’s approach to literature—discursive, meditative, reflective and highly subjective and anything but scientific—may strike some critics and reviewers as dated. Kirkus Reviews likened one of his books to a motivational speech, a vocabulary lesson for those no longer challenged by the Reader’s Digest quiz, a florid paean to art and literature and “an aw-shucks populist bath for the great unwashed in a bottomless pool of allusions.” A New York Times reviewer echoed those concern, describing one of his books as “an overheated swamp of abstractions, mixed metaphors and the occasional startling confidence.” In stark contrast, Booklist praises another book as offering “sobering reflections that free literature from the lethal grip of academic theorizing by connecting it again with real life.”
To be sure, Weinstein writes (and lectures for the Teaching Company) largely for a lay public in “the language of everyday speaking.” Neither a postmodernist nor a new historicist, he juxtaposes books from very different eras and locales and minimizes contextualization. His approach, though rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis, is not especially theoretical and insofar as he does draws on thinkers, he’s highly eclectic.
He views literature as a source of timeless wisdom and fears that the rigors and jargon of modern critical theory and of scholarly criticism imply that lay readers lack the tools needed to grasp literature at a serious level. In response, he defends what the author and journalist Merve Emre calls “bad” reading: “reading fiction and poetry to be moved, distracted, instructed, [and] improved.”
Weinstein sees nothing wrong when readers identify with fictional characters. Indeed, he considers that identification reading’s true essence and the source of literature’s power. When he writes that “Art makes life visible” or that novels offer “instructions for living,” he gives pointed expression to a point of view that is now often dismissed as archaic: that literature offers profound glimpses into the human condition, offers essential and enduring life lessons, enriches self-understanding and gives us intimate access to an astonishing variety of other lives, experiences and places across the ages.
Weinstein’s vision is unblinkered and, on one level, profoundly bleak. Literature reveals that life is full of pain, suffering, cruelty, greed and narcissism. The young are selfish and heedless and misguided in their passions; the old are forsaken, embittered and betrayed by their minds and bodies. And yet, on another level, “art and literature help us share our private agonies and feel less alone.”
In his magnum opus, A Scream Goes Through the House, Weinstein strives to “show that the bookshelf is as basic a resource for body and mind, especially the body and the mind in pain, as the medicine shelf.” In successive chapters, he shows what literature can teach readers about life—about the psychic toll of loneliness and isolation, the fraught relationship between the body and the conscious mind, the incommunicability of pain whether physical or mental and the terror but also the “mix of pluck, humor and radiance” that can accompany the dying process.
The book examines an array of topics, from plagues and pandemics to rituals of mourning and the experience of mental depression. Great works of literature, art and film, he maintains, take “locked-in, hidden” feelings of pain, powerlessness, misery and disappointment, render those emotions public and make it clear that in our hurt, we are not alone. Literature offers “a reservoir of shareable human feelings and experiences.”
It is in the free-floating world of imaginative literature that we encounter certain elemental truths, existential realities and primal human experiences in their most vivid and most chaotic, convoluted and complex form. Novels and drama remind us that human beings vary profoundly in their motivations, behavior, emotions, personalities and mindsets—and defy simplistic psychological labeling and are irreducible to crude social science models or ideal types. It’s the complexity and diversity found in fiction that makes literature all the more valuable as objects of analysis. Life, after all, is messy and, as the novelist Ian McEwan observed: “The infinite variety of the human condition precludes arbitrary definition.”
So, let me urge you, whether you teach anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, philosophy, psychology or sociology, to include works of literature in your classes. Literature reveals the human truths that go beyond the purely factual, quantifiable, empirical or theoretical. You may not be a teacher of literature, but literature has much to teach you.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.