Distorted Mirrors: Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Philosophy

As I write this month’s column, Ontario, where I live, is still in the grip of the COVID pandemic. The government issued a stay-at-home order on Boxing Day, which closed restaurants for in-person dining, university classes remain virtual, and we have been told that we should only leave the house for essential purposes: trips to the grocery store or pharmacy or to work or for medical care, and that we should not visit other people’s homes.

Plato's allegory of the C

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Credit: Bohdan Skrypnyk)

Once again, as in the spring of 2020, every choice we make is fraught with ethical significance: if I order food using a delivery app, am I “staying safe” at the cost of putting the delivery person — and those restaurant employees who had to go in to work to prepare the food — at risk? On the other hand, if I don’t support local restaurants, they may go out of business, and all the workers will lose their jobs. Likewise, should I (technically) violate the order not to go into anyone else’s home, in order to help an elderly, single friend get to her cancer treatments? And so-on.

In the last few columns, I have been considering how this pandemic has revealed unexpected and previously unnoticed ways in which many of our institutions are fragile, and our normal activities vulnerable to natural forces over which we have little control. These facts strike me with almost identical force every time I think about them: I feel, sometimes, almost as though I have slipped out of my “real life” into a dystopian novel penned by someone like Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy.

This brings me to the subject of this month’s column (and one I will return to in future columns): how can we best think about our current situation — not just of being in a pandemic, but our social structures and political institutions, and the ethical dilemmas we encounter in our daily lives —  given that we are completely immersed in it?


Usually, philosophers think we need to find a place somewhat removed from what we are thinking about (hence the clichéd image of a philosopher sitting in her comfortable office high up in the ivory tower), to see that thing more clearly and contemplate its meaning and significance in an unbiased way. The problem, often, is this: how can we think clearly about things that we cannot get a distance from? More concretely, how can we think clearly about a pandemic which is engulfing us, and which is throwing many of our assumptions – about how our day is likely to go,  where and how we work, the effectiveness of our government, the stability of our institutions  — into question. How can we reflect on a pandemic that has so disrupted our lives it permeates both our thoughts and our activities?

Lucy and the Faun, illustration by Pauline Baynes

Lucy and the Faun, illustration from CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Pauline Baynes

I believe that science fiction and fantasy novels, films and TV shows are a good place to start, because the writers who create these narratives for us do two helpful things. First, they construct worlds and invite us to enter into them. When well constructed, these worlds are detailed, atmospheric and immersive. We can easily imagine what it would be like to attend Hogwarts, pass through the wardrobe into Narnia or explore strange new worlds on the Starship Enterprise.

Second, the worlds they create are both similar to, but importantly different from, our own. They must be similar enough that we can relate to the characters and their dilemmas and understand the social and political arrangements that provide the backdrop against which the action takes place. Further, because they are slightly different from the world that we actually live in, they provide a kind of distorted mirror against which to see ourselves and our own situation more clearly. The worlds these writers create are, in short, simultaneously our world and foreign territory, familiar space and and alien space, our world made strange and new.

While the line between science fiction and fantasy is porous and unclear, it’s fair to say, I think, that science fiction explores possible (usually future) worlds, while fantasy explores rationally-worked out but impossible ones: while we may discover intelligent alien life on other planets or invent androids indistinguishable from humans, we will never encounter dragons or unicorns. If an elf appears in a story, it’s safe to say that we are reading a fantasy novel rather than a science fiction one. However, for my present purposes, I am going to collapse the distinction between fantasy and science fiction, as both genres are equally capable of performing the two tasks I have set out above. I will call the two genres, considered together, “the fiction of imagined worlds” or “imagined worlds fiction.”

As Peter Y. Paik argues in From Utopia to Apocalypse: Science Fiction and the Politics of Catastrophe:

By compelling us to imagine a different order, science fiction cultivates in us the capacity to conceive of our contemporary situation in a dynamic manner, whether in terms of its disintegration or rejuvenation, making it the literary genre that perhaps most actively fosters a sense of historical as well as… unhistorical consciousness in the present.

Moreover, he agues (correctly, I believe) that the kinds of questions considered by science fiction writers (and, I think, good writers of fantasy fiction as well) have their “roots in the practice of philosophic speculation.”


Interestingly enough, these two tasks, as Paik acknowledges, are also performed by philosophy and the better the philosophy, the more fully detailed the imaginative worlds created. Good philosophers, like good writers of imagined worlds fiction, invite us to step outside of our familiar spaces, and, as they do so, they draw our attention to features of the world that we not only take for granted, but don’t even notice. Are we, perhaps, living in Plato’s cave, and mistaking the world of appearances for reality itself? Are we living in a world permeated by the reality of God, as Augustine believes, or in a world governed by the principles of mathematics and geometry, by material and mechanistic physical forces accessible to the workings of our immaterial minds, as Descartes argues?

Cast of Star Trek, the original series

Cast of Star Trek, the original series

Philosophers who think about ethics engage in similar world construction as well. J.S. Mill, for instance, imagines a world in which our moral decisions can be made with the same kind of mathematical certainty with which we add and subtract numbers, while Kant imagines that moral claims are essentially straightforward logical truths, which would exist even if human beings had never evolved, and which would apply equally to intelligent space aliens, if any exist.

In short, while science fiction and fantasy can both be read as a form of philosophizing, great philosophy can also be read as a form of imagined worlds fiction. Lest I be misunderstood, the point I am making is not that they are all equally trivial genres of writing, but that they are all profoundly important, because they each have the ability to help us find a perspective from which we can think about our present situation (whatever that happens to be) without being so immersed in it that we can find no place from which to clearly see ourselves and what is around us.

We are, as some have observed, like fish who, immersed in water, are unable to recognize the fluid medium in which they live. Imagined worlds fiction and philosophy can (metaphorically-speaking) provide a ladder allowing us to climb out of the water and into the air, the better to both see the water and to recognize it as part of a larger reality. In the next few columns, I will be drawing on these literary resources as I explore particular features of our current situation.

Featured image (clockwise from top left): René Descartes, Ursual K. Le Guin, J.S. Mill, Margaret Atwood, J.R.R. Tolkien, Immanuel Kant.


Rachel Haliburton

Wolfville native
Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.