tech figure with fist

A new book argues that science fiction’s fascination with characters in suicidal crisis has been a part of the genre from the beginning.

A few examples: A husband persuades his wife to commit a “pretend” suicide, only to have it turn real (Inception). A scientist recalls his wife’s suicide while investigating that of a colleague, and is driven to consider taking his own life (Solaris). A cyberthief subjects himself to temporary brain death in an effort to liberate an artificial intelligence (Neuromancer). A young boy training to combat aliens is driven to suicidal battle strategies (Ender’s Game).

At its heart, Suicide and Contemporary Science Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 2015), identifies a theme shared by many of the most famous sci-fi authors: Faced with radically changing environments, humanity’s most compelling prospect for adapting entails rebooting itself—wiping away entrenched habits of thought through acts of creative self-destruction akin to what an addict experiences in “bottoming out.”

Dealing with change

In approaching science fiction this way, author Carl Gutiérrez-Jones, a professor of English at University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that these tales may play a kind of therapeutic role as they help audiences imagine adaptation in times of traumatic upheaval.

“Sci-fi really came into being at a moment when the cultures that were consuming it needed some way to mediate radical changes that were going on,” says Gutiérrez-Jones, who teaches courses on science fiction. Ever since the dawn of modern science, and the challenge it presented to the existing ways of perceiving the world, he adds, science fiction writers have been trying to come to terms with humanity’s shifting status.

New threats: evolution, nuclear war, AI

In fact, for virtually every major scientific or technological revolution, science fiction has responded with a host of contemporary stories in which protagonists face self-directed violence in an attempt to adapt to, or compensate for, the traumatic developments.

H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau wrestles with humanity’s “new” relation to animals in the wake of Darwin’s work. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris responds to the advent of nuclear warfare, focusing on the all-too-human impulse toward violence when it is not possible to control or to comprehend new phenomena.

Meanwhile, William Gibson’s Neuromancer imagines the arrival of artificial intelligence, suggesting that only creative self-destruction can foster kinship between AIs and humanity, and thereby avoiding the spiral into warfare subsequently presented by the series of Terminator films.

“Faced with changes of this magnitude, it is easy to see why the artists might be inclined to explore the radical rebooting of humanity,” says Gutiérrez-Jones. “As dramatic shifts in science and technology remake the worlds imagined in these texts, the artists throw a spotlight on how humans must wrestle with their place in the world, and with their assumptions about this fit.

“For a genre often defined by its exploration of other worlds, this turn toward the inner workings of the mind is quite telling. It invites audiences to see science fiction in a new light.”

‘Deep-seated fears’

Gutiérrez-Jones notes that the general difficulties people experience in discussing suicide may help explain why very little science fiction criticism has engaged the topic to date. “Suicide is often very difficult to talk about. Even so, science fiction, as kitschy as it can be, has a long history of tackling difficult topics and exploring deep-seated fears,” he says.

One thing is certain: In a world that is seeing accelerating, even radical advances in robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology, humanity’s need to wrestle with its shifting status in the world will only grow more pressing.

As Gutiérrez-Jones says of his science-fiction classes, “It is little wonder that the students are invested in these classes; what once seemed far-fetched is now looking like a map to their future.”


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Sonia Fernandez-UC Santa Barbara
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