It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Your world will not be my world


I think it was Orson Scott Card who wrote in an essay in Asimov’s back in the 1990s that any future of consequence would be American. That assertion was debatable then – if not offensively arrogant – but the world has changed a great deal in the past twenty years, making’s Card’s boast even less likely. And yet still I see contemporary sf novels in which Planet Earth seems to be either monoculturally US-ian, or contains worlds extrapolated from present US society.

Science fiction is chiefly a white, male, middle-class genre and is dominated by the USA, and so its sensibilities and concerns are typically those which confirm the prejudices of that demographic. But not always, of course – back in 1991, William Barton and Michael Capobianco’s Fellow Traveler was set in a future Soviet space programme; in 2012, Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth opens in a future where “Africa is the dominant technological and economic power” and follows the fortunes of an African family. (There is no mention in the blurb, however, of which African nation the family are from – Africa is, after all, as monocultural as Europe: ie, not at all; and since we’d say French or German or Polish or Swedish, we shouldn’t be saying “African”.)

Photo taken by Columbia Space Shuttle

In reference to the near-future, sf has maintained some degree – though it could be greatly improved – of diversity of setting and cast. But anything set further hence usually devolves to the white, Western, Anglophone, vaguely US, vaguely right-wing default world carried over from the genre’s early beginnings. There’s no good reason for this. True, the US still performs much of the tentpole science, but not exclusively. The LHC is in Switzerland; the Soviets had a space station before the Americans; the Chinese may well be the first to set foot on Mars. Many nations have space agencies – indeed, out of the twenty-two past and present ESA astronauts, only one speaks English as a first language.

Even looking at the cyclical nature of empires suggests that US hegemony will no longer exist in any recognisable form by the middle of this century. Then there’s everyday technology and its uses. Such as surveillance. The US provides no good model for any future society in this regard. If anything, looking at the UK would be more useful. Twenty-five percent of the world’s CCTV cameras are in the UK. It is the most-surveillanced nation on the planet. Yet we don’t especially much care about the fact we’re always being watched. US ideas of privacy exist only in the US, and the US attitude to video surveillance does not map onto British sensibilities. It is likely that, as surveillance becomes more pervasive and ubiquitous, it is the UK attitude to it which will prevail.

Europe is also, of course, defiantly not monocultural. Its twenty-seven member states speak twenty-three official languages. Back in the day, Harry Harrison may have thought Earth, and hence any subsequent interstellar polity, might uniformly adopt an artificial language, but even the language he chose, Esperanto, has never been used routinely by more than an estimated one million people. India, a single nation, has no national language but recognises twenty-two regional languages (although the SIL Ethnologue lists 415 spoken throughout the country). History has shown that languages come to dominate areas as a result of conquest, religion, trade, or cultural imperialism; and often from a combination of all four. But that, obviously, does not mean that their dominance remains eternal: Arabic is no longer spoken in Spain, for example.

All of which suggests that science fiction has changed very little from the days of Amazing Stories, especially in regards to its in-built attitudes and sensibilities. The tropes it has developed over the generations have become shortcuts and defaults. It’s not just those galactic empires of whitebread worlds, but the technology and science and their uses. Can’t be bothered to figure out how spaceflight really works? Bung in some “thrusters” and “inertial compensators”. Can’t be bothered to design a plausible future? Just make it like the US, but with neat toys. It’s authorial laziness. Writing stories that not only cater to the prejudices of a perceived market but actively reinforce those prejudices is not something a genre which boasts of its inventiveness and transgressive achievements should be doing.

Mundane SF was seen by many genre fans as throwing the baby out with the bathwater – it’s the wildly improbably stuff like aliens and time travel which can be the most fun. But at least Mundane SF required its adherents to focus on the basics. You couldn’t just make shit up, you couldn’t just slot in those neat ideas from Tropes  R Us, you couldn’t just pretend that interstellar travel was like air travel of today or sea travel of earlier decades. You had to think about the world of your story, not just pin a few baubles on the default setting. Sadly, Mundane SF is little more than a Wikipedia entry these days, but let’s hope it had some effect on the genre.

And let’s hope that Blue Remembered Earth, the first of a trilogy, is the start of a new movement in science fiction to break away from white middle-class Anglophone futures, a move towards more plausible and more representative world-building. Let’s hope Alastair Reynold’s new novel helps pave the way to a more adult and thoughtful genre. After all, if we want to take be taken seriously by non-genre writers, we shouldn’t bitch and moan about being ill-treated, we should show them that we can be as good as they are. We’ll only ever be taken seriously if we up our game.

And we need to start doing that right now.

11 thoughts on “Your world will not be my world

  1. Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days is a good example of a series of sf short stories that are not focused on a WASP future but instead are set in a near-future India. Worth checking out.

    I’m hoping for good stuff in Reynolds’ new series as well.

    • True – and also for McDonald’s River of Gods,Brasyl and The Dervish House. But then, these are set in the relatively near-future, and it’s the more heartland space opera-type stories which tend to be less diverse.

  2. If the current science fiction community don’t move out into these other worlds, then the literary writers moving into science fiction will introduce those other worlds into science fiction for us. Simples…

  3. McDonald has done this more or less from the outset. Chaga, Kirinya and Tendeleo’s Story were set in Africa, the earlier Desolation Road and Ares Express weren’t terribly USian.
    Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City – which I’m reading now – is set in South Africa (but it’s a contemporary alternative universe rather than space operatic.)

  4. PS.
    For what it’s worth my own Son of the Rock owed little to extrapolation from the present US but I confess it was Anglophone in outlook.
    (Then again, I was trying to write a particularly Scottish SF novel.)

  5. It’s not as bleak as you seem to think. There’s rumours of change. The Chinese are apparently very into SF. There’s a very interesting SF strand in Japanese literature. Many of these books will not make it into English.

    There’s even indications of much more SF being produced in Africa. For example:

    We live in the English domain, one that’s quite snobby towards non-english texts, but that doesn’t mean it’s not out there being written or filmed.

  6. Hi Ian – for what it’s worth, the characters in the book are mainly from the Kenya/Tanzania border area, although by the time of BRE these states have been subsumed into the East African Federation, along with Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.

    Whether or not the EAF becomes real, I thought some degree of federalisation was plausible. Too complicated to go into a blurb, I hope you’ll agree.

    • My point was more a general one, and no doubt as soon as the copy I’ve ordered arrives I’d have discovered the characters’ origin. Must admit I’m quite looking forward to reading it.

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