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“Science fiction is the laboratory of ideas

Interview | Bernard Werber

Celebrated French author Bernard Werber is known as someone who takes a strongly intellectual approach to fiction, blending philosophy, spirituality, science fiction, thriller, science, mythology and consciousness into his stories, as well as blending prose and encyclopaedic passages into the narrative mix. As a writer, Werber said he believes science fiction is the ideal genre to engage with to incorporate his diverse interests and ideas.


“For me, science fiction is the laboratory of ideas. This is where new ideas emerge. It’s also a place where scientists can draw inspiration from. Scientific discoveries are endless, because they first appeared in science fiction books. The more science fiction writers a country has the more chance it has to become a powerhouse in the future. We can see that countries with many science fiction authors, these countries often have very advanced technologies. The reason is very simple. Because there is a strong connection between science and science fiction and predictions about the future,” Werber said, speaking at the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival.


“And if a country doesn’t have science fiction this means that this country only lives in the past, or in the present just repeating old things. On the contrary, if a country has many science fiction writers there are many possible paths. It will be able to expand your imagination. I believe we will be saved by imagination. This means that what we have so far must have been imagined by our ancestors. And good ideas we imagined today will also make our descendants live in a better world. That’s why the status of science fiction writers is very important in a society. Science fiction is more than entertainment, more than a glossy genre of literature. It’s really a laboratory of ideas. Here people can come up with new solutions that no one else can think of.”


Werner is perhaps best known for his Les Fourmis (“The Ants”) trilogy, which has topped sales charts in countries all around the world and was published in China in 2021 by Post Wave. The trilogy not only vividly captures the lives and struggles of a fellow species but can also be viewed as a scathing critique of capitalism and aspects of humankind’s approach to the world we live in. Reflecting on what drew him to researching and writing about ants in science fiction, he said he was struck by how much humanity can learn from this particular society.


“For ants, I am interested in it as a very ancient civilization. The oldest human originates from three million years ago. However, the oldest ant city-state originated 120 million years ago. I think they can survive this long because they had to face a lot of difficulties. They always found solutions. So they can survive until our time. So I think our human civilization, as a young civilization, needs to learn from ant civilization so that we can see problems that may arise in the future.”


On the profound issue of whether science could potentially save or kill us as a species, Werner argued that science itself was neutral and he quoted Rabelais when he said “Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul”.


Werner added: “Science is not the solution. Science is just a tool. If you have a hammer you can use it to build a house or you can smash a person’s skull. If you have fire you can make a dish or you can burn down a house. If you have nuclear power you can use it to generate electricity. Or you can make an atomic bomb. That is to say science itself is neutral. It will neither save nor kill us. It will work as we want, such as with artificial intelligence where there are people who program behind the robots, there are people who program these robots to only do what people ask. That’s why I say that revolutions will not be technological revolutions, it’s a psychological revolution. It’s a revolution of mentalities. If we program machines to kill, they will do it. They will just execute the slaughter we unleashed. If we program these machines to help us and allow us to build a better society, these machines will also perform that. I don’t believe that technology will save us.”


Werner said that now the only big challenge humanity faces from a technological perspective is whether we have the ability to colonize other planets.


“I think the big issue now is, are we going to colonize the moon? Are we going to colonize Mars? Can we do it? Can we get out of the solar system and live on other planets? I mentioned in one of my books called The Butterfly of the Stars《星蝶》that this is the concept of Noah’s Ark. Imagine that Earth is no longer fit for life and we have to leave the Earth. It’s a technological problem. This is the only place where technology will be decisive,” he said.


“For other technologies, I think we’ll just make bombs that will do more and more damage, and we can make computers that will increasingly monitor what people are doing, and also stimulate people to generate more and more consumption. So it doesn’t make much sense. So my expectation for technology is to build spaceships that will allow us to go to other places and start over. We will do better than our ancestors did.”


At the 7th EU-China International Literary Festival, Bernard Werber joins acclaimed Chinese science fiction writer Fei Dao, in conversation with Wu Zhenghao, to discuss the topic “From Ants to Robots: Unravelling the Tangled Future”.