There’s a story that I think I first encountered as a Turkish proverb, but that I suspect is nearly universal among cultures.
A hunter walked through the forest with his bow, shooting down birds for their feathers. As he walked, he wept for the beautiful birds whose lives he was taking. A young bird said, “Look, this is really a good man; see the tears in his eyes?”
An older bird said, “Never mind his eyes. Watch his hands!”
Bear with me a little while; I’ll get to the relevance of this story for writers, and especially for science fiction writers.
If you’re interested in the shape of a culture and what happens when you change something, science fiction is a wonderful playground. We can’t run experiments on existing cultures, but fiction gives us a way to run virtual experiments. Is your guess about the result of a change convincing? Is it a good result? Does the reader agree? And don’t forget that time and events may affect the “experiment” in unforeseen ways.
Case in point: many years ago, when the Iron Curtain still cut Europe in half, I read a story – sorry, I can’t remember title or author now – where the big change was that suddenly people could fly. And the big result was that countries on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain were swiftly depopulated now that their citizens were no longer trapped by border controls.
In the context of that time, freedom from border controls seemed like a wonderful thing. Now? Maybe not so much.
People are always proposing this change or that to the rules of our own society, and mostly they claim to have the best of motives: “I just want to save lives,” or “I just want to give everybody a fair shake,” or “I just want us to be considerate of others’ feelings.” We’d be a lot better off if we actually could run experiments on the proposals. Failing that, why not a virtual experiment?
As soon as you try to plot one, though, you have to move from “I want X; this will result in X” to “What do I think will be the actual effect of this change?” and “Who would benefit from this?” Science fiction can be a great place to explore those questions – just like that story positing that people could fly.
Never mind his eyes. Watch his hands.