Worlds & Time

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Science Fiction Psychiatry

I've been reading a few books recently that take an extremely optimistic view of where psychiatry and psychology were going to lead the human race, and I just wanted to point this out. The few top ones are Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat, A. E. van Vogt's The World of Null-A, Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man and to a lesser extent Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven.

Right, there are some spoilers below for those books.

In Vogt's world, instruction in Null-A (non-Aristotelianism) leads to nearly perfect super men running society. This is sort of a personal problem for me, because I am myself an ethical subjectivist of sorts and while this is sort of the premise of Vogt's Null-A world I don't think that if the entire world embraced my beliefs that we would suddenly fall into a huge peaceful co-existence with each other. Humanity just doesn't work that way.

Vogt's book suggests that once people understand the multifaceted states of gray that exist in even the most clearcut black and white ethics questions they won't have the internal conflicts that characterize humanity today. Thus, properly Null-A people are patently unbiased, non-bigoted, and willing to work together to reach consensus.

The plot revolves around people that have "imperfectly" accepted the null-A philosophy and are thus violent and determined to overthrow the null-A based government to seize power.

In the far future world of Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat, society has progressed to the point where most people are content to live on their planet, do their jobs, and not rock the boat. The Stainless Steel Rat character, James Bolivar diGriz, is an exception to this pacifism and is basically an adrenaline junky that gets off on robbing banks and being one step ahead of the police on any planet he happens to be on.

The first book of the series revolves around his recruitment by law enforcement and then his battle of wits with a brilliant criminal woman and murderer. diGriz is a criminal himself, but he considers anyone who would murder someone else to have a mental problem. At the end of the book he captures her and they "heal" her murderous tendency leaving the "brilliant criminal" part. diGriz then promptly marries her.

Similarly, in Alfred Bester's classic The Demolished Man, one of the main characters spends the entire text attempting to get away with murder in a world with telepathic police. In the end he is finally outwitted by the police, charged and sentenced. Instead of the death sentence, or even prison he is "demolished," his psyche is carefully dismantled, reorganized, and reassembled without the drive to kill. As the book ends one police officer comments to another how sad it would be for society to lose someone intelligent and driven enough to have almost gotten away with murder.

There's also a hint of this in The Lathe of Heaven, in which psychiatry rewrites existence several times over while avoiding the cure to a man's problems. At several points it is implied that the doctor probably could cure the main character, but doesn't. After all, if he doesn't, he gets to control reality for a little longer. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all that.

The common thread that I'm grasping at in these books is the optimistic view toward understanding our minds that these stories hold. Just like there was optimism about sentient computer systems with emotion and flying cars, these stories looked at psychiatry and psychology and assumed that some day we would be able to fix nearly any mental issue that we would have.

We haven't gotten there, and the more we learn about the function of the mind, the more hopeless it seems that we'll be able to create miracle cures for mental illnesses and societal problems. We'll probably never be able to reach a perfect state of rationality as described in The World of Null-A, the ability to completely remove bloodlust as per The Stainless Steel Rat and The Demolished Man, and we'll probably never have the ability to solve serious psychiatric difficulties with hypnotism as portrayed in The Lathe of Heaven.

Update: I just thought of another example as well: This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman. In those books, mental illness is mostly a thing of the past. Only one world has retained any mental issues, and instead of castigating the mentally ill, the differences in brain function are embraced and eventually lead to nearly supernatural abilities and specialized positions, such as the ability to pilot FTL spaceships across the galaxy and break complex codes.

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