I sometimes wonder if in the future they’ll look back at the 20th century as something of an aberration. During the 20th century, efforts were made, precipitated by two huge wars, to create just and fair societies for all – some using methods and ideologies more extreme than others. But the Soviet Experiment went down the pan, and most developed nations seem to be sliding down the slippery slope after it. We’re slowly returning to a world in which the privileged few callously exploit the masses in order to further enrich themselves and extend their power. In the old days, it was the royalty and nobility; now it’s the plutocrats and power-mongers.
Once they could use religion to control the great unwashed – and it still works in some places – but for many it no longer has the power in their lives it once possessed. So now they use the law. They’re putting in place legislation which undoes all those steps forward made in the past hundred years. And with the sort of bare-faced cheek only available to those for whom irony is an alien concept, they insist they’re doing it for our own good.
Which is not to say we’re not complicit. Popular culture celebrates the immoral profligacy of the rich, and heaps scorn on the poor. We admire the greed of the wealthy, when we should be angry at their squandering of resources, or their plundering of that which should belong to all of us. It’s all very well dreaming that any one of us could join their hallowed ranks – if, as they claim, we “work” hard enough – but we’re much more likely to find ourselves at the opposite end of the scale.
Science fiction and fantasy are as guilty as any other mode of entertainment. If sf can be characterised as ordinary people doing extraordinary things in extraordinary worlds, then we too often fail at the “ordinary people” part. No one is Paul Atreides; no one can be Paul Atreides. We can only escape our humdrum lives by being what we are not: empowered. And in sf and fantasy, those powers are extraordinary. They might be technological in origin, they might be magical. But it’s not a utopia unless we have them.
You could argue that there’s no drama in ordinary lives; or that the drama simply isn’t big enough or, well, dramatic enough. No one wants to read about serfs when they can read about princes, no one wants to read about a cook’s mate 3rd class when they can read about the admiral of the space fleet. But this is patently bollocks. True enough, a serf can’t change the world – not unless they’re suddenly handed magical powers – but there’s certainly room for adventure. But then fantasy is not about changing the world, it’s about maintaining the powers of the few. There’s nothing consolatory in being a serf, and nothing admirable in perpetuating their condition. But as long as they have it good in the royal castle, that’s all right then.
So, where are the fantasy genre’s Robespierres and Marats? Why must every peasant-hero be privileged at the start of the story? It’s not even as if they “work” hard for it. It’s a gift, it’s like winning the lottery. And all they do with their new-found power is… keep the privileged few in power. Among which they now number.
Sf may have a slightly better record, but there are far too many tropes in the genre’s lexicon which fail to address societies’ imbalances. Sf should not be justifying prejudices. Celebrating individualism just means you think you’re better than everyone else. And you’re not; no one is. So why are there no stories in which the Great Social Experiment of the 20th century took root? Why must we all imagine that in the future corporations will be more rapacious than they are now? Where are the stories in which there’s no need for one group of people to slaughter millions of others simply to impose their will, or co-opt their resources? Where are the stories in which corporations are carefully regulated so that they can’t “accidentally” bring the Earth, or the Galaxy, to the brink of disaster? The stories in which sacrifice is a personal choice, not an imposed one?
Yes, many authors have tried. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for example. Iain Banks and his Culture, perhaps… Except the Culture is a post-scarcity society, and has not so much redressed any inequalities as rendered them moot. Which is not the same thing at all. There are other examples. But they’re still a minority.
It’s bad enough the history of the real world is a catalogue of actions by the privileged few extending and/or abusing their privileges. I seen no reason why we should perpetuate this in genre fiction.