The power of fiction to shape culture

Over at ThinkProgress, Alyssa Rosenberg reflects on Paul Krugman’s confession that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation set him on the path toward economics.

From Rosenberg:

“Fiction is about defining the outer limits of possibility: you show a kid a world where economists can shape the fate of humanity, and he’ll embrace realistic possibilities for social science he might never have been attracted to in the first place.”

As someone who’s become more and more of a policy wonk, the thing that continues to pull me back toward fiction (aside from entertainment value) is its immense power to make statements about issues, society, and culture – much greater, I think, than non-fiction. Non-fiction is always somewhat bound by its real-life subject. It’s about something that happened, in a certain place and to certain people. Fiction, by drawing and integrating bits and pieces from the collective conscious, can say much more – though one must, of course, avoid the urge to treat fiction as straw-man puppet theater [See: Raynd, Ayn].

For those unfamiliar with the book, Foundation is a bit unconventional in that it follows the multi-century recorded legacy of Hari Seldon, a “psychohistorian” who can predict social history with astonishing accuracy, and leaves his instructions for future humanity in an enormous space-vault that opens every couple of generations. If this sounds a bit familiar, it’s because popular urban legend attributes this feat of wisdom to Walt Disney.

Here’s Krugman:

“I read Foundation back when I was in high school, when I was a teenager, and thought about the psychohistorians, who save galactic civilization through their understanding of the laws of society, and said “I want to be one of those guys.” And economics was as close as I could get.”

What strikes me, in light of the novel I’m writing now, is that Krugman essentially wanted to be a super-hero. He just found a viable path, while the other kids were pretending to be the Human Torch. This makes Rosenberg’s assertion about “embracing realistic possibilities for social science” even more interesting.

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