Science Fiction and the Myth of the Rational Actor

by M.L. Clark

M.L Clarke’s latest Analog story, “The Last Romantic on the Belliponte” appears in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]. Read here about some of the influences behind the story, from the work of Frederik Pohl to human psychology, and why the author finds inspiration in stories about overcoming existential threats.

Psychology has long played a key role in science fiction, but there were definitely eras when human behaviour was a more popular theme—not only in the genre, but also in the broader literary culture. As the figure of the psychiatrist, the perils of groupthink, war trauma, and questions of individual madness versus cynicism with government arose in film and literature of the 1960s and ’70s, so too did it permeate science fiction. In the post-war/Cold-War period, you find a range of psychological discourse in speculative sci-fi like Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Slaughterhouse Five (1969), Philip K. Dick’s spiritual-conspiratorial science fictions of the ’60s and ’70s, and of course the analysis of military states, their actors, and their fallout found in pieces like The Forever War (1974), “Enemy Mine” (1979, Asimov’s), and Ender’s Game (1985).

When I came across Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (1977) as a young sprog in the 1990s, its discourse on psychiatry and guilt seemed of a piece with non-genre work I was reading then, too: literary fictions where characters wrestled with the psychological impact of their life stories, either directly in therapy or via Jungian and Biblical archetype. But Pohl’s story also made the role of science fiction in psychological reflection seem obvious, if not essential: a way of clarifying and amplifying the crux of human confusion, without getting bogged down in specific historical examples and loaded cultural nuances. Readers would always come to any such work with their own, real-world referents, but the playing field for reflection on human nature could still be made much more inclusive, depending on the writer’s craft and the scale of their sci-fi conceit.

Gateway follows a protagonist trying to improve his life on an overcrowded and miserable Earth. When he wins a minor lottery, he buys a one-way ticket to a station long abandoned by a mysterious ancient species, and laden with vehicles bearing pre-set routes that simply require humans brave enough to test them. Some might lead to destruction, others to uncharted and lucrative lands. No one knows how long each trip might take, though, which also raises the risk of turning on one’s crew as supplies run out. And of course, capitalism’s worst impulses persist on this far-flung station as well; its controlling company leverages individual human hopes of “making it big” to fund an economy where residents must pay for their oxygen until they get over their last-minute jitters and sign up for a do-or-die mission out.

But the novel also follows our protagonist in therapy, long after these events, so we know that he survived and did well. We just don’t know how, or why he’s so miserable. As the story unfolds, though, we’re given his experiences of desperation, cold feet, bonding and falling out, isolation, and ultimately the cause of his guilt even amid success. It’s a ghost story as much as anything—but the hauntings that happen here are all psychological, and all only made possible by a science-fictional confrontation with what this human scarcity mentality, and the survival instincts it cultivates, might look like when played out in the greater unknowns of outer space.

My latest in Analog, “The Last Romantic on the Belliponte” (May/June 2023), also deals with the psychology of humans trying to keep it together in the dread desolation of the unknown. My piece cannot help but exist in the shadow of The Expanse, because it depicts outer-planet and asteroid-belt cultures forming the crew sent into the Oort to try to make sense of extrasolar objects zipping past. However, even a series like The Expanse (the books, and the TV show) reflects a much more rational approach to humanity, which is common especially to military-oriented hard science fiction and space operas. Everyone in such tales usually has a coherent reason for being as they are, which allows for some splendidly high-minded politicking and monologuing between Earthers, Martians, Belters, and other invested parties along the way. There are exceptions in The Expanse’s character set, of course, but even they hold their knowledge of humanity’s underlying volatility with great care. Amos Burton, for instance, as a calm crewmate capable of matter-of-fact violence, is acutely aware of the veneer of polite society to which many around him aspire. He’ll support his friends in this aspiration, but without ever losing sight of the depths to which humanity can sink in a snap.

Two decades ago, Peter Watts’ Blindsight (2006) traded on a similar baseline optimism to craft its own hard-science-fictional horrors. What if our sense of self deceives us? What if the whole notion of higher human reasoning was merely a maladaptive evolutionary fluke? Such are the questions posed by a crew encountering alien life unlike anything humans had imagined possible, in a universe where the notion of our coherent “humanity” was already starting to come undone thanks to recent advances in genetic manipulation and species resurrection.

I say that Watts was trading on optimism, though, because the revelation of this work requires readers very much enamoured with Western notions of a coherent and “higher” self in the first place. I have never counted myself among those—probably couldn’t have, because I came from a volatile childhood where emotional regulation was by no means routinely practiced by anyone in my household. My SF has long traded instead on sitting with the irrationality that drives so much human action, despite all our aspirations to the contrary, and which I strongly feel merits greater inclusion in our hardest science-fictional what-ifs.

Has it always worked? I’d say my approach remains in progress: a lifelong interest I hope to keep improving as I go. In “We Who Are About to Watch You Die Salute You” (Analog, March 2014), I tried my hand at imagining a journalist navigating superficial media reactions to a serious disaster: the destruction of our first Martian settlement, even while four astronauts are still hurtling toward a site that wouldn’t be able to sustain human life. Would the fact of their impending death, and the horror of what had transpired on Mars, compel a solemnity and uniformity of Terran grief? Of course not. Just as the internet floods with irreverent memes and petty chatter whenever tragedy hits us in the real world, so too did my tale imagine gossip and ongoing vendettas overwhelming mature response to that near-future disaster, too.

Likewise, in 2021, in “Love Unflinching, at Low- to Zero-G” (Clarkesworld), I imagined a weary space station veterinarian trying to avoid an intergalactic incident sparked by the careless entitlement of average humans willing to do anything to gain access to the next trending pet. Everyone has “reasons” for what they do, but most are knee-jerk, thoughtless reactions to having any limits set on their freedoms at all. And in last year’s “Lost and Found” (Clarkesworld), an officer wakes from cryo to discover that the society she serves has become deeply entrenched in political nonsense during her time in transit; meanwhile, the supposedly “crashed” ship she’s been sent to rescue wasn’t filled with hapless victims so much as average citizens who built grand justifications for breezing past clear embargos.

If these story summaries feel as cynical as their some of their fictional actors, you’ve hit upon exactly the struggle I’m continuing to work through, as I write related tales. The aim is never to decry fellow human beings—simply, to wrestle with the role of the irrational in all our lives, which so often impedes our pursuit of better ends, but which also sometimes nudges us in surprising ways forward.

I’m no longer thrown out as much by the goofy science behind an asteroid, a plague, an alien invasion, or an environmental calamity, as by the sheer romance of scenes where we see the whole world unite, if only for a moment, under a common threat.

Finding just the right, deft touch for our irrationalism hasn’t been easy, though, and when I reflect on the lion’s share of science-fictional content in our genre in general, I’m not surprised. We are just so in love with the idea of rational action, measured response, and highly considered follow-through. Hard science fiction is usually delightfully big on getting the details right—for material sciences, astrophysics, biochemistry, architecture, climatology, firearms lore, ecology, and virology—but there’s still a lot of behavioral wish fulfilment behind how we craft the sentient agents in these technically rigorous tales.

Even though the world around us routinely undermines any claim to human beings, in general, ever acting in accordance with rationalism’s greatest ideals.

In recent years, then, I’ve come to roll my eyes at different parts of, say, planetary disaster or apocalypse films. I’m no longer thrown out as much by the goofy science behind an asteroid, a plague, an alien invasion, or an environmental calamity, as by the sheer romance of scenes where we see the whole world unite, if only for a moment, under a common threat. Of national governments and international organizations more or less functioning as intended when disaster looms, hustling to put various survival plans into action, instead of being hindered by one cantankerous congressman who still really wants to see a floor vote on his life’s work, some tedious gerrymandered redistricting policy, before the end is nigh for all.

And it matters, too, this divide between so much grandly science-fictional content and actual worldly behavior. Just as the CSI TV franchise has grossly distorted public perception about the robustness of material evidence in criminal cases, so too do science-fictional futures often craft a dangerously self-flattering notion about the fundamental rationalism of at least A Few Good Actors, who will surely rise to the Herculean challenges of any new tech or cosmic crisis.

There’s something to be said, conversely, for the irreverent haplessness of science-fictional characters like Arthur Dent—the human being who, in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, just happens to be saved (at least, initially) from the Earth’s destruction, which was itself caused by a bureaucratic nightmare rather than any targeted attack. Behind the gentle humor of this five-book trilogy lies the great, yawning weight of our relative helplessness as a species. A mass coronal ejection could take us out any day. We could easily miss an asteroid headed right for us. Another zoonotic viral transfer event might wipe us out first.

None of which is to say that our stories shouldn’t aspire to showing human beings doing extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. Of course they should. Of course there’s plenty to be said for having good role models in fiction, and for imagining better outcomes.

But the key to an excellent literary role model lies in the real-world rigor of the crises we set before them. And no, that doesn’t mean eliminating the spaceships, the aliens, or the elaborate new technologies. But it does mean going two steps further than the fact of future tech itself.

Frederik Pohl famously said that good science fiction “should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” His own work went one further: imagining not just the traffic jam, but also the work it might do on the pre-existing psychology of the driver, who might then leap into road rage once set behind the wheel. To imagine better, we must first imagine ourselves as we are, as messy as we are—and as messy as we will probably remain, even in the most far-flung of worlds ahead.

M.L. Clark is Canadian by birth and ancestry, but now calls Medellín, Colombia home. A writer of speculative fiction (AnalogClarkesworldF&SF) and translator of Colombian literature, Clark also writes humanist essays for OnlySky Media and the newsletter Better Worlds Theory, at A first novel, an alt-history set in the USSR called Then Raise the Dead Man High, launched this year’s slate of sci-fi and translations out of Clark’s indie press, Sí, Hay Futuros Ediciones.


  1. “…still a lot of behavioral wish fulfillment [in hard sci-fi]”

    Amen to that sentiment! I think that among the many contributions Stanislaw Lem made to the field was his appreciation of human irrationality. Thanks for this thoughtful post.


  2. This was a good read.
    That is what I think of it
    Great insights on the intersection of psychology and science fiction! It’s refreshing to see a focus on the messy, irrational aspects of human behavior in the genre. Looking forward to reading “The Last Romantic on the Belliponte.”
    Thanks, Ely


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