I was watching Smiley-seque BBC2 drama Page Eight last night, which bases its plot on the notion that the prime minister was aware of the US practice of covertly torturing people, and it occurred to me it was a story driven by moral outrage. This is not something that’s typically in short supply. Just look at the various responses to the recent riots. There is plenty of moral outrage in real life; there is also a lot of it in assorted entertainment media and modes of fiction.
But not, I realised, in science fiction.
Which is odd, because moral outrage is a characteristic of the middle classes, and science fiction is a middle class genre. (Fantasy, I think, was once higher, but was democratized by Tolkien.) It would be reasonable to expect moral outrage to be a common fuel in genre story-engines, but it is, in fact, surprisingly rare. Perhaps this is because science fiction is an inherently optimistic genre. It presupposes that problems have solutions, that mysteries can be explained; that the universe itself is open to explanation and eventual exploitation. Science fiction stories are about the things we can control, or they are about the process of gaining control over them.
This last may be why there is a preponderance of right-leaning science fiction. Admittedly, control can be democratic, egalitarian and universal; it does not need to be restricted to the privileged. It could be argued that dramatic tension necessitates the limiting of control to a select few – either to narrate their defence of it against an external threat, or watch as it’s wrested from them by some group better-suited to wield it. Such battles are usually driven by survival or jealousy. The rewards are typically limited to the privileged, but it’s everyone else who suffers. So the unprivileged, of course, have good reason to be fatalistic. But science fiction is not a fatalistic genre – and it would need to be to make effective use of moral outrage. The genre lionises the privileged far more than mimetic fiction does, and that is why it’s not a fatalistic genre.
True, science fiction is fond of playing Cassandra – and hindsight has always provided sharper vision than foresight – but all that doom-saying does admit of a solution. Something can be done. Or perhaps, something should be done. These are problems of the future – over-population, climate change, biosphere collapse, asteroid strike, etc. – they are not the crimes of today. They may have been created by the actions of the past and present, but as far as science fiction is concerned, the problem which requires fixing lies ahead of us. The message is: Act soon, because we can avert it. The message is: let us take control now, let us impose our will on the times ahead.
There are those who say science fiction’s only purpose is to entertain. Which is a bit like saying the purpose of economics is to reward greed, or the purpose of politics is to rationalise bad policies. Art, in any media, should always aspire to more than mere escapism. That it fails to do so does not invalidate that aspiration.
(Apologies for the bad pun in this rant’s title.)