Updated: Jan 10
Stories about robots and aliens have long been vessels for science fiction writers to examine the nature of “otherness.” How do we treat others who are not like us? How should we treat them? When does a beast become a brother? Can love transcend differences? Is humanity something beyond biology?
The very first science fiction novel was published in 1818. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a deep examination of the ethics of artificial life. That work of fiction, and all the other ethical sci-fi stories since then, are really just allusions to a fundamental moral dilemma that has stumped us from the beginning of time and continues to today.
If we humans cannot bring ourselves to treat other humans as equal and autonomous because of trivial differences like skin color, gender, or religious customs, how can we possibly hope to react ethically when we ultimately encounter beings that are truly different from us?
These are deep subjects, but in many ways, sci-fi is the perfect genre of fiction with which to examine them. So don’t be shy. Let your aliens and robots and lovable monsters mingle with the rest of us. Let us see how our ethical precepts function or fail in a world where others are truly different.
The robot stories of Isaac Asimov are the prototypical examinations of ethics in sci-fi. The central questions in many of those stories are about how we should encode ethics into artificial beings in order to avoid all the sadness and bloodshed Frankenstein's monster had to endure. Unfortunately, Asimov’s stories remain copyrighted, so I cannot link to an online copy of any of them. If you haven’t already read it, I encourage you to find a copy of his anthology, I, Robot, and read especially the story entitled, Evidence, originally published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1950.
Here are two great stories by sci-fi authors that were first published in one of the pulp periodicals.