Like so many other scribes, I have been inspired by psychologist Jordan Peterson’s fascinating book to sketch my 12 rules of life. But mine are different, because each is drawn from canonical science fiction. Why? Maybe because this is the literature on which I grew up, or maybe because I have never lost the taste for it. Or maybe because the sci-fi canon really does have a lot to teach about the well-lived life.
Here, then, are my 12 rules. I cannot pretend that I always follow them, but I certainly always try.
“An atom-blaster is a good weapon, but it can point both ways.”
— Isaac Asimov, “Foundation.”
This is one of the clearest expressions of the basis of the liberalism of process. It matters not only whether one accomplishes an end but also how. Any tool available to the “good guys” today might be wielded by the “bad guys” tomorrow. One should always take this proposition into account when choosing a tool kit.
“Happiness consists in getting enough sleep. Just that, nothing more.” — Robert Heinlein, “Starship Troopers.”
OK, happiness does consist of more than this — but getting enough sleep is indeed one of its key components. The larger point is that taking physical, emotional and spiritual care of the self is crucial to being truly happy.
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: This skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
— Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
In the book, the words are spoken by the narrator, explaining part of the views of a group of mystical stoics who call themselves the Handarrata. But it’s an important lesson for life. If we want to avoid constant unease, we have to learn to live with a degree of ambiguity.
“Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of ‘wrong’ ideas.”
— Octavia Butler, “Kindred.”
Butler, of course, means this the other way around: that a society’s taste for getting rid of “wrong” ideas is a mark of its repressive nature. The time-traveling narrator is explaining the need to get rid of an inflammatory book in the antebellum South — inflammatory in this case meaning that it might spark a slave uprising. Whether the “wrong” ideas that must not be expressed are ideas we love or ideas we hate, the same mischief is afoot. Better by far for us to trust each other to draw the right answers from the wrong books.
“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Fellowship of the Ring.”
This much-quoted line is also much-misunderstood. It’s spoken by the dwarf Gimli as the Fellowship is preparing to depart on its mission to return the Ring. To see the context, one must consider the response of Elrond, Lord of Rivendell: “But let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.” Elrond’s point is that it’s OK to back out — but back out now, before taking on the responsibility. Once the vow is made and the task undertaken, Gimli is right: One mustn’t give up because the going gets hard. But we should not avoid making promises just because it’s wrong to break them. On the contrary, as Tolkien notes, making promises is also a duty.
“Don’t provoke the Borg!”
— Said by Q to his son Q in “Star Trek: Voyager.”
The line is striking because everything we know about the Star Trek universe tells us that although the Borg are nearly impregnable, the Q are more powerful still. But the fact that your side would likely prevail in the case of conflict isn’t reason enough to go looking for trouble — especially given that it’s usually the innocent bystanders who wind up getting hurt.
“Some things you teach yourself to remember to forget.”
— William Gibson, “Count Zero.”
I don’t mean by this what Jammer (the club owner who speaks the words in the novel) means in context. What I have in mind is letting bygones be bygones and training the self not to dwell on every wrong and misfortune, so that we can look forward rather than backward.
“We do not pretend to have achieved perfection, but we do have a system, and it works.”
— Spoken by the alien Klaatu in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951).
This sentence occurs midway through the speech delivered by Klaatu at the end of the original film. He is explaining how the other planets will henceforth prevent “this Earth of yours” from extending its violence into outer space. What’s striking about the proposition is Klaatu’s willingness to settle for a practical modus vivendi, rather than insisting on achieving some ideal of justice. In our rollicking politics, we too often forget the extent to which the virtue of compromise, with its implicit humility, is crucial to the democratic idea.
“Guerrillas have something to hope for.”
— James Tiptree Jr. (pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon), “The Women Men Don’t See.”
In context, Tiptree’s heroine, Ruth Parsons, is replying to the male narrator, who after Parsons says “What women do is survive” has told her that she makes it sound as if being female is “a guerrilla operation.” But the point surely has a broader application. In life itself, particularly as we seek change, we ought all to be guerrillas — working in the small, behind the scenes, rather than thinking that change only matters if we do it all at once and make headlines.
“Whether a thought is spoken or not it is a real thing and it has power.”
— Frank Herbert, “Dune.”
If thoughts matter, then thinking matters — which means training people to think matters. I doubt that Tuek, the smuggler who spoke these words in the novel, would have much cared for social media.
“The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ ”
— Ray Bradbury, “Fahrenheit 451.”
As Bradbury notes, a crucial reason to read is that we can be surprised, upset, offended, turned in a different direction. Books at their best make us think. We don’t live in a thoughtful age, and for just that reason, reading books that challenge us has become more important than ever. When we read seriously and thoughtfully, we run the risk that we might change our minds. That’s good. One of the worst things in the world is conformity, which is another word for intellectual cowardice.
“Beware of the Dark Side. Anger, fear, aggression: The Dark Side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
— Yoda, “The Empire Strikes Back.”
What more is there to say? In the roiling complexity of our inner selves, it matters enormously which emotions wind up on top. One road leads to inner and outer peace. The other . . . doesn’t.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”