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Looking backwards to the future


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.

And yet…

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.

8 thoughts on “Looking backwards to the future

  1. Yes, how do we escape our prejudices and narrow perspectives in order to imagineer the kind of sophisticated, multi-racial, diverse societies the future will invent?

    Similarly, we anthropomorphize alien races, giving them many of the traits found in the human mind/body, utterly fail to make the leap to true exoticism. Species who neither resemble us nor have the slightest affinity for our modes of thinking, scientific theories, etc. We make assumptions based on knowledge we have gained after merely dipping our toes in the cosmic ocean. How foolish our presumptions, how tiny and unambitious our visions…

  2. “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.”

    Is that not a teeny bit of a generalisation, Ian? Are there not some USians who don’t share that mindset? (- but I suppose they might not read or write SF, perhaps.)
    I don’t disagree with your thesis on the whole; most SF is too militaristic (and individualistic.)

    But I do think there are identifiably national characteristics in SF. There is a particularly English strand. (I don’t mean “British.” Ian McDonald, for example, stands outside that and Scottish SF writers by and large follow a different star.) And McDonald actually sets his fictions anywhere but the loci you mention.

    “Science fiction is an American mode of fiction.”
    Maybe in its main manifestation, but its origins lie elsewhere – Verne, Wells etc. Given the US is the major market it will be a hard job to reclaim it from where we are now.

    In the end it might all have to be translated into Chinese, though.

    • Yes, there are some generalisations in my piece, and yes there are identifiably national characteristics to some sf. But I still think that within the tradition we generally recognise as modern sf there are a number of assumptions, tropes and clichés that are a product of the genre’s beginnings in the late 1920s and that we have not questioned those assumptions enough, if at all.

      Amazing Stories published reprints of Wells, Verne and Poe, but I don’t agree that those authors originated sf. Their works are proto-sf, but the tradition as we now practice owes more to Gernsback, Campbell, Pohl, etc, than it does to those “scientific romances”…

  3. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 5/13/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  4. Ian,

    Are you saying that too much SF nowadays is dominated by the moral values and attitudes that it has inherited from the founders of modern SF? In not just American but British (and other nationalities) SF?

    I’m sure I don’t read as much recent SF as you but it doesn’t reflect my experience. At least I think it’s fair to say that there seems to exist plenty of the kind of SF you seem to be calling for, even if it is not in the majority.

    I would also add that just because instances of moral or social “backwardness” exist in a particular story, that does not necessarily mean that the author is advocating such things.

    I guess I’m trying to say that it does not seem to me to be as much of a problem as you seem to think it is.

    • And yet one book currently on the Hugo shortlist is very much like I’ve described, as is another which won a raft of awards only a couple of years ago…

      • Should such books not exist at all?

        • They should certainly not be lauded. And if a book contains such things, they should not be ignored. As it is, everyone accepts stuff like this, and they need to start thinking about it, they need to realise they should not be so accepting.

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