The other day I was rereading Idoru by William Gibson, and the following passage spoke to me. It’s a conversation between two teenagers: Chia McKenzie from Seattle who is visiting Mitusko Mimura in Japan in the near future…
Mitsuko was getting her computer out. It was one of those soft, transparent Korean units, the kind that looked like a flat bag of clear white jelly with a bunch of colored jujubes inside. Chia unzipped her bag and pulled her Sandbenders out.
“What is that?” Mitsuko asked.
Mitsuko was clearly impressed. “It is by Harley-Davidson?”
“It was made by the Sandbenders,” Chia said, finding her goggles and gloves. “They’re a commune, down on the Oregon coast. They do these and they do software.”
“It is American?”
“I had not known Americans made computers,” Mitsuko said.
Why did this passage strike a chord? I’ve found that noticing such responses can be useful, or at least interesting.
I realized that science fiction is especially rich with possibility for introducing cognitive dissonance: the mental discomfort we feel when aware of two contradictory ideas at the same time. When we notice this discomfort we tend to unconsciously reduce it in various ways.
In the above passage, the reader casually discovers that a near-future Japanese teenager has no idea that America still makes computers [“It is by Harley-Davidson?“, “I had not known Americans made computers.”]. Reading fiction, it’s easier to notice and put up with cognitive dissonance because — well, because we know it’s just fiction.
One reason I like science fiction is that it’s easier to notice sneakily introduced, provocative ideas about how the world could be different — and then, perhaps, start to wonder what it would be like if the world really was that way.