It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

The future’s so bright, you gotta wear chains


While reading Marianne de Pierries’ Dark Space last week (see here), it struck me that sf writers are all too keen to extrapolate or invent science and technology in their fictions – FTL, AI, anti-gravity, etc. – but they then insist on imagining socially regressive societies. The world of Araldis in Dark Space is markedly sexist – the women are either wives or mistresses, and have no say in Araldisian society. Why would a writer do that? After the decades of struggle for gender equality, to then write about a society in which women are once again second-class citizens just seems stupid. It’s not even a failure of the imagination because it was plainly a deliberate artistic choice.

But this is not unusual in space opera. Writers invent galaxy-spanning empires with magical technology… and then populate them with tyrants, slave traders, mass-murderers, pirates and all manner of scum and villainy, design them with systemic inequality, inequity, injustice and unfairness. True, scum and villainy exists in modern-day society, and even the twenty-first century has its share of inequality and inequity. But they don’t define it.

Space opera is an inherently right-wing subgenre. As is military science fiction. There are exceptions but, as a general trend, both subgenres tend to the right of centre. It is, I suspect, a consequence of the form, since not all writers of space opera or military sf cleave to the political right. But the vast majority of those writers – Anglophone ones, as that’s the bulk of my reading, and the area about which I know most – live in developed nations, where slavery is illegal, where everyone has the vote, where fairness in many areas of life is either legally or constitutionally protected. And yet these same authors can happily invent a future universe in which sentient beings are treated worse than animals, the first solution to any problem is unregulated violence, and inequality is institutionalised… And that inequality is all too often ignored by the protagonists, because typically they’re among the privileged. (This latter is especially true of secondary-world fantasy, with its penchant for adventuring princes; but that’s an argument for another day.)

There are, I noted above, exceptions. Iain M Banks, Alastair Reynolds, Ken MacLeod, for example. These exceptions are usually British. Having said that, while Banks’s Culture is famously a post-scarcity utopia, he still populates his novels with plutocratic shits (possibly a tautology) and the like – if only to give Special Circumstances something to do…

I’ve been wondering why space opera / mil sf needs to be so socially regressive / right wing. Is it a consequence of science fiction’s history? Military science fiction often appears to be little more than fancied-up Horatio Hornblower in Space, and so copies 17th Century British society – in all respects but the technology. It could be that Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, famously based on Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, led to the Roman Empire as a model for galactic empires in space operas. Personally, I suspect US science fiction owes an unconscious debt to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. The similarities are striking.

And why are the exceptions mostly from the UK? Is it just a consequence of domestic politics? I’d like to think British sf owes an equal debt to HG Wells, but it was plainly dominated by the US mode – at least until the advent of the New Wave. Admittedly, the last couple of decades has seen more Wellsian sf creeping into British sf, though his influence continues to be ignored by US science fiction. Which is odd, historically, as HG Wells – and Jules Verne – were both extensively reprinted in magazines during the early days of the genre in the USA.

Some have argued that space opera and military sf require conflict, that without it there’d be no story. But conflict is not the only delivery mechanism for drama. There are others – exploration and puzzle-solving are two alternatives, for example. Literary fiction does not require rapes, murders, slavery, genocide or global wars to provide drama. Further, science fiction is, above all else, about the present. And present-day society – for the majority of those who read and write Anglophone sf – is mostly fair, and has become increasingly so over the centuries. (Bar current Tory policies designed to profit the few at the expense of the many.) That fairness is not universal, true; but even those who do not currently experience it are generally better off than they would have been in earlier decades and centuries.

Perhaps it’s simply that space opera / mil sf are predominantly escapist subgenres. Perhaps they can’t aspire to anything higher. If they were to comment on unfairness, if they were to justify their regressive societies as story qua story, you’d expect to see some discussion of those it effects most in the real world. But the Other is also noticeably absent from both subgenres. Both are still characterised by the privileged expressing their privilege – mostly using awesome weaponry.

The history of space opera and military science fiction, from EE ‘Doc’ Smith through Poul Anderson and John Brunner to CJ Cherryh and now Peter F Hamilton, is almost entirely populated with examples which demonstrate the above. It has become axiomatic. That needs to be questioned. A regressive society is not, in and of itself, implicit in space opera, and should not be treated as such. Space opera need not primarily be escapist; and escapist fiction need not be defined by unfairness in its invented universe.

It’s time to think a little more intelligently about the universes we create for our fictions. It’s time our fictions reflected our ambitions and didn’t simply parrot the assumptions of past decades.

It’s time we dragged space opera, and military science fiction, into the twenty-first century.

13 thoughts on “The future’s so bright, you gotta wear chains

  1. Interesting thoughts Ian.

    While those are two subgenres I hardly ever read in SF, particularly from contemporary authors, I’m not sure I full apprehend your point. Is it that these futures are glorified, made to seem like they are good futures? Because surely that merely creating SF that envisages such tyrannical futures does not in it and of itself make the author right wing. If they have a dystopian feel to them, then I don’t see why you would have a problem.

    I would be interested to see some authors listed who write the sort of SF you are referring to (for the more ignorant amoung us like me).

    • It’s that these futures appear to be the default setting. And I did say that not all writers of space opera or mil sf are right-wing. But many are – like Jerry Pournelle, or Neal Asher. And few space operas are dystopian – they’re modelled on empires, British or Roman, and both are signed as highpoints in their respective nations’ histories…

      • The problem is that most societies tend to regard where they’re at as their high point of their history, particularly by those who are in (or support) the current system. I think that is particularly true for cultural/social values. People always think they are more enlightened than at any point in their past.

        No doubt, if we do have some tyranical future ahead of us, where people are enslaved and women oppressed, they will look back at our present time as foolish and congratulate themselves on their current level of enlightenment.

        But having said that, if the field is becomming dominated by a particular way of envisaging the future, it can’t be good for the genre. A lack of imagination, particular in the genres of SF and fantasy, is never a good thing.

        • But I never said present-day society is a highpoint. A fair society is a journey, and we’re closer to the end than we were. But we’re not there yet. And the only way a future society which has slavery can consider itself enlightened is from the point of view of the slave-owners – and by definition they’ll be a minority, so it can’t be an enlightened society, can it?

          • I don’t know Ian, it’s hard to have this kind of conversation without being coloured by cultural predispositions.

            All I will say is that it future society may not consider majority rule (i.e. democracy) the most enlightened form of governance. I’m not saying that it isn’t, only that it’s our current cultural values that tell us it is.

            • I’m not saying majority rule is the most enlightened form of government either. What I am saying is that I fail to see how any society can be “enlightened” if the majority, or even all, do not possess what we currently consider to be basic human rights. The slave-owners might well consider their society as such, but the fact that they’re a minority, and a privileged one, invalidates their claim.

  2. Nicely put, Ian. I do understand your point clearly and want to throw those books across the room before I’ve given them a chance. I think it’s easy to make mean characters, just like in TV and movies, and subtle complexity costs.

    At the same time, human nature does lead us down some nasty paths – it would just be nice if SF writers explored a wider variety.

  3. I agree really. I don’t know why people need to write about “unenlightened” societies, unless they really hanker after them (which right-wingers certainly do.) This is actually a big condemnation since it’s a failure of imagination, these writers are saying the future can only be like the past.
    But…. The present day life of most people in the world is more like the unprivileged in the Space Operas you mention. There aren’t too many fully functioning democracies* you know. And, since money always talks, none that give a stuff for the common people.

    *Most so-called democracies are profoundly dysfunctional.

    • # I don’t know why people need to write
      # about “unenlightened” societies, unless
      # they really hanker after them (which
      # right-wingers certainly do.)

      Wow, I think that’s a massively unfair statement! Firstly, who do you mean by ‘right wingers’? That’s going to be a very broad church, and some of them would be people who simply believe that market forces will provide the quickest route to a better world for all. On the other hand some of them will be nazis. In fact, if you stand far enough to the ‘left’, then most of the human race will be ‘right-wingers’.

      The left/right way of thinking isn’t very useful, and probably hasn’t been for a long time. There are large numbers of people who are committed to widespread human rights, but are violently opposed to command economies. Are such people ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing? It all depends on where you stand.

      As to why people write future dystopias, it’s not because they hanker after them. Orwell didn’t hanker after the nightmare world of 1984, nor did Atwood wish to live in the society of The Handmaid’s Tale. They created these world to scare the bejeezus out of people.

      It’s also true that it’s a lot easy to get drama out of a nasty society, than out of a nice one. In a nasty society your protag immediately has problems to deal with. In a nice one their only real issue is likely to be boredom.


  4. Love the title of this one.

    But I have some issues with the belief that the future is going to be ‘enlightened’. What grounds do you have for thinking this? If you look at human history it’s an endless tale of oppression and cruelty. And even in the modern age, while some of us in the western world may have a pretty good deal out of life most of the time, most people on earth suffer much the same oppression as their ancestors did.

    Remember, we (the UK) only gave the vote to women in the last century. We still live in a society that has massive imbalances of wealth and opportunity. In 1954, not that long ago, Alan Turing died for his sexuality. In many parts of the world there is no freedom of religion, sexuality, or thought.

    This ‘enlightened age’ that we live in might well be a short-lived bubble, after which we will return to the ‘default’ status of humankind, which is oppression and exploitation. For one thing there is the question of who and how the modern age is being paid for? Could we support such a nice society without extravagant burning of resources?

    I also question how much power we in the ‘democratic’ world really have. Companies are not run as democracies, but much more like feudal states. China isn’t a democracy, yet it is on the rise, and the ‘Beijing model’ is much envied.

    Why would we expect that the future will be more like our brief ‘golden age’, rather than like the countless millennia that have preceeded it?

    Why do we assume that our ‘enlightened’ western model is going to be the thing that shapes the future, and not models from other societies (or indeed, old but still lurking models from our own).

    Many places and people are suspicious of western freedoms, and more traditional models are followed throughout the world. There’s no way to know that the future won’t look more like the past than like the now.

    There is another reason for making the future grim, of course. It makes for great stories. You need something for the protagonist to be striving against, and an evil overlord works just dandy. What would Robin Hood be without King John?

    Still, I agree that variety is the spice of anything. I’d be interested to steal hear your ideas on what kind of stories we could be writing, and what kind of futures could be envisaged?

    • I don’t hold with that “humans are animals” and “animal nature” stuff. We’re driven by needs and desires that are very much unique to humans. But what I see in space opera, as outlined above, is a failure to address that. Not that I think any kind of real futurism is operating in such fictions – it’s just creative laziness, borrowing some tropes from historical periods and then importing the entire society with it. The 30th century will not be the 17th century, it will not be the 21st century – but why write about it in the 21st century as if it were the 17th century?

  5. # I don’t hold with that “humans are animals”
    # and “animal nature” stuff.

    I didn’t say anything about animals!

    # We’re driven by needs and desires that
    # are very much unique to humans.

    Hmm… I wish you hadn’t said that. Like what? I think most of nature exhibits similar needs to ours. The one that springs to mind is that humans have (and it’s been shown in psychological experiments) a sense of ‘fair play’. But I wonder if we’d find the same thing if we did more experiments with social animals.

    Anyways, forget animals, I was talking about human history. Human history has been a history of people in chains, and even our supposedly ‘enlightened’ western world was practicing slavery up till 1865 (1833 in the UK, but I suspect that British people continued to profit from slavery for a long time after). It’s still less than a hundred years since we gave women the vote in both the UK and the US. Why would anyone think that this ‘golden age’ we are living through is anything but a rare and precious blip, before things go back to ‘business as usual’? If you look at history, it’s a blip, and if you look at the current state of the world it’s also geographically a blip too.

    Also, even within our societies, we have corporate entities that function more like feudal systems.

    But I take your point that if everyone does the same thing with their futures, then that’s a bad thing. It would be good to see some non-dystopian futures too, in fact it would give people an image of something we could build towards (although there is Star Trek’s Federation and Iain Bank’s Culture which already do this, to some extent).

    But I think there is a common assumption that the future will look like our current ‘golden age’ (which is only a golden age for some). But this is by no means given, and on balance, history implies that the 30th century is more likely to look like the 17th, than like the 21st.

    # What I am saying is that I fail to see
    # how any society can be “enlightened” if
    # the majority, or even all, do not possess
    # what we currently consider to be basic
    # human rights. The slave-owners might
    # well consider their society as such, but
    # the fact that they’re a minority, and a
    # privileged one, invalidates their claim.

    I agree with you, but then doesn’t this invalidate any claim that our society is enlightened? What is ‘our society’? We can only claim that its enlightened if we set certain limits on it’s size. All around the world that are huge numbers of people who lack basic human rights, and they live in coutries that we trade with and depend upon for resources and products (like oil), and depend upon to sell our products to (like weapons). Thus they contribute to our society, but when we start talking about ‘our society’, we cut them out of it, otherwise we don’t look very enlightened.

    Right now in the middle east people are rising up against despots whom we have supported and traded with. How enlightened does that make us?

    Indeed, when one thinks of this, there has never been an ‘enlightened society’, there has only ever been groups who had increased rights and that group is quite large in our ‘golden age’.

    But this is no reason not to write futures in which human rights are available to all. But they still won’t be enlightened because of that modifier ‘human’, which will leave out the AIs, the uplifted animals, the aliens, etc, etc. So, there will be a rich seam of fiction with non-human protags striving to throw off their chains and unseat their evil human overlords!


  6. # But the Other is also noticeably absent
    # from both subgenres. Both are still
    # characterised by the privileged expressing
    # their privilege – mostly using awesome
    # weaponry.

    I’m not too sure about the ‘privilege’ here, I’m not sure that, say, Ender Wiggin is privileged, he is being used. Captain Kirk, though, is privileged, as are Iain M Bank’s protags, generally.

    But I pretty much agree with the rest. ‘The other’ in space opera, is only the alien enemy.

    However, this is not just a problem for space opera. The other in 2001 is Hal (maybe the monoliths, but they are more a force of nature than a character). A case can be made that most SF is actually fascist, because of the way it treats its non-human characters. Even BBC’s “Doctor Who” has recently started to have characters spouting about ‘that little spark of humanity that makes me special’ etc, etc. (I stopped watching when this stuff got too much, so if it’s swung back now, it’s too late, you lost me…

    Actually, you know what it was in Dr Who that finally stuck in my craw?

    It was the Empire. In the future, the humans have an Empire, and no-one bats an eyelid at that.

    But the reason was slightly different. IF the human Empire had been this terrible think that the Doctor and co were working to overthrow, I’d have kept watching. But the Doctor actually seems to support this Terran imperialism. That’s what I couldn’t take.

    But still, I think it’s almost certain that we will have imperialism in the future, many people will say that we have it now. We’ll never be rid of it, any more than we’ll be rid of crime. But you keep fighting crime.


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