It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Looking backward from the Year 3000

4 Comments

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.

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4 thoughts on “Looking backward from the Year 3000

  1. I like your sentiment and direction here. But the real world is a rapacious hierarchy of those who have plundering those who have not. To build a human utopia such as Star Trek where we have moved ‘beyond’ such appetites in just 200 years is contrary to human nature.

    To create a truly “evolved” human being that has left the basic animal traits of the early planet Earth behind would take hundreds of thousands of years in an environment that forces natural selection to determine our destinies.

    Short of that, we are evolving into a species that can barely lift its own head off the table because we are manipulating natural selection so that everyone survives which seems to me to be regressive, not forward moving.

    Follow our current trend of mental and physical growth, never mind social or moral, for the next thousand years and the outcome looks bleak.

    • All that human nature stuff is rubbish. We invented civilisation, moral and legal frameworks, in order to build societies which could not use that as an excuse for bad behaviour. And we should not be producing entertainment which perpetuates that myth.

  2. I’m not sure I agree with your premise in your response that :
    “We invented civilisation, moral and legal frameworks, in order to build societies which could not use that as an excuse for bad behaviour.”

    Modern democracies attempt somewhat to fulfill that promise but civilization was built to protect the haves. Consider the Greek, Roman and Egyptian worlds. They gave citizenship to themselves and enslaved everyone else. “I got mine and don’t you dare touch it” is really what civilization was created for. Out of that sprang nationalism which is the bane of human growth today. African countries that institutionalize rape and genocide is an example of how close we are to the raw and terrible world of human nature. American bashing all Muslims to excuse themselves for their own place in civilization’s breakdown demonstrates how even a modern society immunizes itself, instead of “leading us out of the wilderness”.

    The entertainment that you discuss is really only a thin veil to make a sedentary audience believe it can behave differently. Add on to that the overwhelming challenge of even getting your city council to create better laws, let alone the national government, and you can understand the perpetuation of so-called heroes like Captain Kirk, Paul Atreides, and John McClain.

    Personally, I agree that adventures that take place below the surface would be fascinating. I’m trying to work on that myself. All we need now is an audience….

  3. “No one wants to read about serfs when they can read about princes, no one wants to read about 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.”

    I’ve recently read the last of Le Guin’s Annals of the Western Shore. Those (especially the last) dealt mainly with the lives of the unempowered; and were not noticeably unengaging to read.
    Arguably most of Le Guin’s oeuvre also does this and she’s about the best writer SF/Fantasy has.

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