We all know the UK economy is in a terrible state, and it’s not all that different in other countries. Massive deficits, swingeing cuts. Looking at the future, it seems no one’s going to be wearing shades for a while. Except perhaps science fiction writers. After all, isn’t sf known for mapping the way to utopia as often as it treads the road to dystopia? Isn’t sf famous for proposing solutions to situations before they become problems, for warning what might happen if things don’t change?
Well, yes and no.
Science fiction has never been predictive, at least no more so than is necessary for plausible world-building. The one sf prediction most often quoted, Arthur C Clarke and geostationary satellites, wasn’t even from a sf story but from a technical paper published in Wireless World. Which is not to say that history has turned many of the future worlds built by science fiction into quaint alternate history. The need for verisimilitude can sometimes resemble futurology, since both depend upon extrapolation. But for science fiction, it’s done for dramatic effect and need only be as complete as is required in the story.
Nor is science fiction didactic. Hugo Gernsback may have said that he saw sf as “an idea of tremendous import, but it is to be an important factor in making the world a better place to live in, through educating the public to the possibilities of science and the influence of science on life which, even today, are not appreciated by the man on the street”, but it’s doubtful that policy lasted more than a handful of years. As a young sf reader, I learnt a lot by reading science fiction but a) educating the reader was unlikely to be the story’s chief objective, and b) a lot of what was espoused was, well, wrong – or rather, was opinion presented as fact.
Which doesn’t mean that sf is entirely escapist, or written purely to be escapism. According to John Gray, in an article in the New Statesman, sf “pursues an inquiry into what it means to be human”, a narrowing of the focus of “the bourgeois notion of fiction as a criticism of life”. Yet he also adds that science’s role “has been to gauge the limits of the species”. Science’s role, I would have thought, is to explain the world around us.
The public perception of sf, in all media, is weighted towards escapism. But when Gray claims that the situations documented by science fiction are no longer seen as open to change, or resolution, that human beings cannot “shape the future”, his explanation is that the genre has become more personal. The world, or universe, is no longer at stake in sf stories.
Where is he pointing? Space opera routinely puts the galaxy in peril, and it’s possibly the most popular sub-genre of sf at present. It is also, possibly, the most escapist. Nor am I convinced sf ever really had the power to affect the real world: either by inspiring those who read it – the cliché of the sf reader growing up to become a scientist – or the warning implicit in a sf story being taken seriously by the general public. When did people start looking to sf for answers? 1984 and Brave New World are rubbish examples because they’re not generally considered to be sf. Even HG Wells stands across the genre rather than within it.
Yet what Gray says is partly true. Look at the shortlists for the various sf awards this year, and much of sf nominated seems entirely personal, about the problems of individuals and not worlds. The stories and novels seem less inclined to identify problems or offer solutions. The sf of 2010, if the shortlists are any guide, no longer offers maps to the future, dystopian or utopian. Science fiction is said to be a genre in conversation with itself, but once upon a time it was also in conversation with the future. That discussion seems to have dried up; indeed, science fiction and the real world, of whatever period, no longer appear to be on speaking terms…
There seems to me to be a misperception here. Someone looks at the critically-acclaimed shiny new – the awards shortlists, in other words – and sees nothing comparable to Well’s utopian blueprints or Orwell’s cautionary tale. But those two books were never emblematic of sf. And awards shortlists rarely reflect the state of the genre.
There are indeed lots of people talking in sf – not just China Miéville, not just the dead white European males named in Gray’s article. Perhaps, yes, the biggest conversation sf is having is with itself, but there are those talking to the future and talking about the real world – Jetse de Vries’ Shine anthology and DayBreak Magazine, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl, to name but a few.
One branch of sf may be growing increasingly escapist, and another trying to drop the science all together and rename itself “speculative fiction”… but still the genre’s remit stretches in scale from the cosmic to the individual. Which leaves room somewhere in the middle for all manner of world-changing, all manner of conversation with who- and whatever. Just because Planet Earth is in trouble, it doesn’t mean everyone is talking about it, or indeed has to. But someone will be. Science fiction is a broad church.
And quite a noisy one, too.