So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Socrates (470-399 B.C.), who is referred to as the father of western philosophy, and in particular ethics, indulged in a little speculative fiction himself. Plato, Socrates’ student, records a debate between Socrates and a Greek named Glaucon, in Book II of The Republic. They tell the story of a fictitious man named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible when he turns it a certain way on his finger. When he realizes the ring’s power, he arranges to become one of the king’s messengers. In this position, with the help of the ring, Gyges is able to seduce the queen, murder the king and take over the kingdom.
H.G. Wells turns this story into his science fiction account of The Invisible Man, in which Griffin, a scientist who specializes in optics, invents a way to change a body's refraction so it doesn’t reflect light and becomes invisible. Like Gyges, Griffin is motivated by greed for power and prestige.
Tolkein also used the story of Gyges’ ring when he created the ring of power that turned its wearer invisible to all but the power of evil.
Socrates’ response to the story of Gyges is, in essence, that even though Gyges is able to escape all negative social repercussions of his behavior, immoral actions themselves have negative effects upon a person’s spirit, or soul, making one’s soul sick in the same way one’s body can become sick if not given exercise and healthy food. He would, I believe, be fascinated by both Wells’ and Tolkeins’ renditions of his story, because they each ask slightly different ethical questions. Wells examines the effect on a man—in this case a brilliant, egotistical and power-hungry man—of being invisible and therefore able to do whatever he pleases. However, Wells throws into the mix the fact that Griffin cannot turn off his invisibility, so the question also becomes, what if a man who already fancies himself above common humanity is totally cut off from social interaction with others?
Tolkein looks at the question from the other side. His protagonist, Frodo, is a humble, self-effacing character who does not want the ring or its power, but is pressured by circumstances to bear it to the place where it can be destroyed. Tolkein asks, what is the effect of power on a good person who does not seek it? Can he resist its temptation, and at what cost?
The point of this is not to demonstrate different reiterations of a theme, but to show how ethics is at the very heart of speculative fiction. How can we ethically use the knowledge and power that future scientific discoveries will give us? How can we avoid the consequences of using them unethically? Substitute ‘magic’ for ‘science’ and those two questions are key to fantasy, also. The best science fiction does not simply imagine scientific advances—that’s simple speculation without any story—and the best fantasy does not simply portray an imaginative world—that’s simply world-building, not storytelling.
Take any story you love in all the realms of speculative fiction, and at its core you will find an ethical question: “What should we do if this (time travel, terra-forming other planets, AI, seeing into the future, shape-shifting, using magic) were possible?”
If you want to write a memorable story, give your characters an ethical dilemma to resolve. And then, raise the stakes by twisting it, as Wells did, adding extra dimensions and moral issues.
I can’t begin writing a novel until I know clearly what that question at the heart of this book, will be. Everything emerges from that question: the characters, their motives and goals, the plot, the setting. My first science fiction novel, Walls of Wind, began with the question: “How should we behave toward those who are so different from us that we can barely communicate, let alone understand each other? Is it enough to co-exist peacefully, or should we try for more?” And then I twisted it further into the question: “What if males and females were two different species?”
My young adult science fiction novel, The Occasional Diamond Thief, also begins with an ethical question facing the protagonist: “What if you learned your father was a thief? Would you follow in his footsteps, learn his "trade"? If you were the only one who knew, would you keep his secret?” And then I follow my teenage protagonist as she deals with the consequences of her ethical choices.
Socrates is referred to as “the father of Western ethics” because of his enduring influence in that field. Perhaps he should also be called the favorite uncle of speculative fiction?