Science fiction is an American mode of fiction. It was born in the white-hot enthusiasm for technology which prevailed in the electronics and mechanics magazines of the US during the 1920s. A prosperous future was imprinted on every page as new devices, new inventions, new scientific breakthroughs improved the standard of living of the USA’s technophilic middle class. It was the beginning of the age of the mod con, better living through engineering. The centre could not only hold, it was invulnerable. Even from internal threats. External enemies were defeated by technological mastery (and overwhelming force).
The American Dream was the only desirable and sustainable narrative of the future.
Even then, sf’s visions were problematical. The hopes and aspirations of these Americans, the mores and sensibilities of the US middle class, provided the culture in which sf blossomed and grew. Achievements were embodied in those who were first, not in those behind the scenes who made it possible. Neil Armstrong conquered the Moon, not NASA. Indeed, NASA was seen as a brake on the exploitation of space – private industry was the best vehicle for progress. And it was powered by the most powerful engine of all: the profit motive. Profit led to riches which provided the freedom to self-actualise – and so profit came to trump all other considerations. Riches became an end, not just a means to an end. Since governments curbed such headlong growth in the name of society and not individuals, they were characterised as obstacles. Humanity – well, man – could not reach his true destiny unless his growth were unfettered.
Progress should lead to a world which is fairer and more just. The futures we narrate should reflect this. If we look back at the history of our world, we see a clear, if somewhat irregular, progression toward a more moral and socially-improved present day. So why should we base our visions of the future on the sensibilities of the past? Why should we embody in our science fictions the aspirations of a generation ninety years ago? Their present is not our present. Some of their dreams have already been achieved, some have already been discarded as unattainable, some of them have been determined to be undesirable.
These are not thought-experiments, stories in which the world itself provides some object lesson to those unable to look up from the page. These are action-adventure stories set on alien worlds, in galactic empires, in corporate-dominated futures, in urban wastelands and plutocratic societies. And in every one, many of those freedoms and rights painfully won over the past 250,000 years have been reversed to give us… Sexism. Racism. Slavery. Endemic violence. Brutish behaviour. Rape.
Of course, science fiction is the fiction of the privileged. It’s the culture of the privileged displaying their mandate in the most naked form imaginable. Only in this way can civilisation be wrested from savagery – or so their carefully-doctored history books tell them. They have the right to kill and maim and rape and impoverish those who do not accept their dominion because they will better off for it… whether they want to be or not.
This dominion extends into the realms of the imagination, into the worlds of the yet-to-be and the never-to-be. New science leads to new forms of life and, almost universally in sf, such new people are treated as non-people, as slaves, as property. Though our science fictions demand we present them as human as ourselves, their origins tell them against them. New science leads to new scientific bigotry.
Even worse, it’s not just these new people we have invented whom sf mistreats. Women are often no better off in sciencce fictions than they were during the genre’s golden age. Other cultures are blithely ignored, or pillaged in a quest for the “exotic”. Invented worlds are always monocultural – and that culture is the culture in which sf was born and grew to squalling infanthood. But then sf is designed to explore the desires and concerns of this culture. The only Others who appear are either aliens or enemies. Foreigners need not apply.
Too many of us refuse to look too closely. We are blinded by the wonder, our gaze is captured by the shiny toys. We privilege the “idea” and forget it is only one aspect of the stories we tell. We allow our assumptions and preconceptions and prejudices to validate our fictional futures. We forget to challenge. We want our future to be comfortable for us to visit, even if it is a dystopia. So we populate it with things we will unthinkingly accept, and never question its likelihood, its rigour, its plausibility, or the effects it might have on others.
Were such Randian technowank fantasies what Hugo Gernsback had in mind when he first published Amazing Stories?
I keep on finding myself circling around a pair of genre movements from recent years: Mundane SF and Optimistic SF. I was a fan of neither when they originally appeared. They seemed unnecessary restrictions – in fact, Mundane SF felt like it was throwing out of sf all the best toys. But when genre becomes defined by its toys, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate their usefulness.
And what should we replace those toys with?
The real world of the twenty-first century, of course.