[GUEST POST] Carrie Cuinn on 5 Golden Age Science Fiction Universes I’d Never Want To Live In

Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, book historian, small press publisher, computer geek, & raconteur. In her spare time she reads, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes gets a new tattoo. Learn more at carriecuinn.com.

Some of the most read, and most loved, early science fiction novels are set in places where only the hero of the tale has a chance at a enviable life. Golden Age SF especially, with its focus on adventure stories and cold-war era morality plays, often describes bleak home worlds from which the main character has to escape to survive, or dystopian worlds from which escape is impossible. Though usually presented as the highest form of man, even the heroes have lives absorbed by trying to break free from an oppressive or rigidly controlled society. If the landscape doesn’t kill you, the locals probably will.

Here are five examples of terrible vacation spots:

1. Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

When: AD 2540 (632 A.F. in the book) Where: London, Earth.

Government: The Earth is united under The World State, which has established an economy based on constant purchasing. Advertising is subtly blended in with both religion and education.

Society: Population is limited to two billion people, and from the creation of your embryo (no natural childbirth here) you’re slotted into the job your genetics are best suited for. The majority of society is therefore organized, efficient, and happy. Also, there’s a lot of drugs to help out if “happy” wasn’t in your genetics or job description. Children are taught via hypnosis, and early education includes moral and societal conditioning along with facts and figures. You are bred to a caste, you cannot leave your caste, and sleep-hypnosis ensures that you wouldn’t want to, anyway. Wanting to be alone, to think independently, or to be an individual are all considered abnormal, deviant character traits.

Sex: Yes, please. The majority of the world views sex as a normal social activity, and actually discourages monogamy. Plus their idea of religion is to get together each week to watch a dozen people take drugs and have sex. While singing hymns.

Religion: None, if you don’t count the orgies. Only the “primitives” still have religion.

Real Estate: Not so bad, if you’re part of society. The “civilized” portions are well maintained and beautiful. However, Native Americans and other “uncivilized” folk, or those who can’t fit into the carefully monitored society, find themselves shipped of to low-tech reservations or islands of merciless weather.

2. Edward E. Smith, PhD: The First Lensman (and the associated Lensmen series) (1934 to 1950)

When: Starting two billion years in the past and going into the future.

Where: Earth, Arisia (an alien planet), the cosmos Government: On Earth, corruption runs rampant, and a drug cartel rules North America, working on conquering the rest of the world. The Cosmocrats, a political party formed by the Lensmen, uses the power and knowledge they gain from spying on people with the Lens to gain control of North America. Because, um, that’s better. Right.

Society: Most people are immoral and easily corruptible, so much so that the benevolent aliens have a hard time finding a decent man on the planet (even though they made their own humans). Women are especially weak, and deemed “psychologically incapable” of wearing the Lens – though I will point out the first woman to be proven worthy of the Lens is a curvy redhead. (I’m just saying.) Drug use is rampant. Eventually the Lensmen take over, and then there’s much less crime and moral decay, because the telepathic police officers ARE WATCHING YOU. Also, those nice aliens? They’ve been meddling in human affairs for millennium and have bred two lines of genetically-engineered humans without our consent. In order to fight their war against a different alien race. But they were nice about it.

Sex: What part of “telepathic police officers are watching you” is sexy? Plus, “breeding program” doesn’t exactly inspire my confidence in your skills.

Religion: Some of the alien races, particularly the Valerians, have a religious practice but the Lensman seem to be largely irreligious.

Real Estate: The series actually spans a huge number of worlds, including some heavy gravity planets, volcano-covered worlds, ice planets, and so on. The message here seems to be that if you were lucky enough to be born on Earth, you should be thankful for the telepathic policemen and the breeding program and the drug war. Lucky you.

3. Robert Heinlein: Methuselah’s Children (1941/1958)

When: 22nd century AD

Where: Earth, United States

Government: In order to recover from the theocracy previously running the Government under a series of Prophets, the current government is merely a “council” which follows the Covenant, an agreement that encourages education, free-thinking, and understanding amongst all people. It’s primary function is to declare that the government has no power to “punish” individuals and can only act if one person injures another with their crime.

Society: The long-lived Howard families, who’ve extended their lives after centuries of careful breeding, share their secret with the rest of society … who decided that they’re lying about the source of their longevity and persecute them mercilessly. The Covenant? Yeah, that got “suspended” to allow for the arrest of the Family members, once again proving that humans will only be kind as long as it benefits them to do so.

Sex: Heinlein would have you believe that taking your own mother to bed is a good idea, if she’s a hot redhead*, though there isn’t as much sex in this book as in later Lazurus Long novels. One can only assume that Heinlein simply isn’t choosing to show as much, but his characters remain some of the most likely creatures to fall into a bed who ever existed.

Religion: After living in a country run by a series of dictator/Prophets, religion isn’t that popular right now.

Real Estate: The Family travels into space and lands on two different worlds. The first is lovely but the beings they meet turn out to be domesticated pets of the true rules of the planet, who kick the humans out when they refuse to submit. The next world is a paradise planet, except for the hive-mind of beings who require the Family to join the hive (and lose one’s self) in order to stay. Lazurus convinces them they’d be better off taking their chances on Earth. You know, with the pitch-fork wielding mob.

4. Isaac Asimov: Foundation (1951)

When: 50,000 years in the future (12,020 GE).

Where: Begins on the planet Trantor, capital city of the First Empire. Later the planet Terminus, where the First Foundation is exiled.

Government: Ruled by an Emperor. When he discovers that Hari Seldon has worked out a method of using math to predict the future of humanity, and the future isn’t looking good, Seldon gets brought up on charges of treason. Friendly government? Not so much. Think lethargic, infected, and dying from slow decay of its own ideals. Later in the book, the “Mayors” of Terminus become the central government of the Foundation’s home world. They’re Machiavellian in their desire to survive, playing off neighboring planets against each other.

Society: On Trantor, the people are so self-impressed, so convinced of their past glories, that they’ve stopped innovating.

Sex: I’m sure there must be someone having sex, somewhere one of these planets, but Asimov doesn’t mention it. Also, there are no women in this novel, outside of one who’s mentioned as an example of an advantageous marriage for power. No one in any position of power or even anyone with an abundance of education, is a woman.

Religion: The people of Terminus develop “Scientism,” a religious order based on their greater scientific knowledge (compared to the barbarian planets around them), and use it to control others. The priests develop “magical” items, such as food that cures the sick, or a floating throne to make the King fly, to convince others of their holiness. While I prefer science to religion, I doubt that the fact the miracles are real makes any difference to the people being oppressed by it.

Real Estate: Trantor is so covered with skyscrapers and other buildings that most of the inhabitants of the planet haven’t seen the sky in years. Terminus has limited resources, and can’t properly sustain a civilization without the help of nearby planets. The four nearest planets have primitive societies ruled by warlords. Oh, the options.

L. Sprague de Camp: Rogue Queen (1951)

When: Future time. de Camp was a bit vague on the details, but it’s after humans go into space.

Where: Ormazd, a planet orbiting the star Lalande 21185.

Government: Each of the hives is ruled by a Queen. She has a council (made up entirely of males) that advises her. The implication in the novel is that the council actually holds all of the power and the Queen is a figurehead. Much like the British monarchy, except I’d rather not imagine Her Highness mating with the Prime Minister and members of staff. I mean, good for her, but I don’t want to picture it.

Society: Humanoid, but their society is built around hives, like ants or bees. They have specialized workers to do each of the tasks, so you don’t get a choice of careers. Also, they kill the drones when they get older, so in that way it’s like Logan’s Run without the parties. The different hives are loosely affiliated, but the later half of the book is spent dealing with a war between two of these groups. There is a neutral zone centered between four of the hives, run by an “oracle” who isn’t affiliated with any group, but turns out to be an alien from another world.

Sex: Yes! The queens mate! After eating meat! Ok, so, none of the other females do. And only a handful of drone males get the privilege of reproducing. However, the idea that all of the females could become sexually active, thus allowing of all the males to have their own mates, is so powerful that the males rise up and overthrow their government to get the chance.

Religion: None. Society is so controlling and all-encompassing that religion isn’t necessary.

Real Estate: Much of the book takes place in the vast wilderness that separates the hives, and our heroes nearly starve. Not the kind of place you want to spread out a blanket and have a picnic.

* Note: While I cannot encourage free love to the extent of becoming your own grandfather, I can’t argue with the suggestion that redheads are a good idea.

12 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Carrie Cuinn on 5 Golden Age Science Fiction Universes I’d Never Want To Live In”

  1. The funny thing about #1 is that I was discussing BNW over at Night Shade Books in regards to Dystopias.

    It’s a dystopia by our lights, sure, but the citizens and inhabitants of the World State really think they are in a utopia. And that makes it even more horrible…

    As far as Rogue Queen, since its set in the same universe as Planet Krishna, I’d have to disagree with you. I’d love to visit the latter…

    1. What works for one person doesn’t always work for another :) As a woman, I’m not as interested in living on de Camp’s spruced-up Barsoom as perhaps a man might be. ROGUE QUEEN falls, chronologically, at the end of the stories he wrote in that universe, and by then Krishna’s changed some. Have you read his essay on it?

      I do think that one way authors point out just how awful a society is (when we can see its dystopian/flawed) is to have the citizens not see the problem. That sort of makes us stand up and say, “Hey, wait, don’t you see what’s going on?” Then we can identify with the one hero who sees the flaws and tries to change the world.

      1. I don’t recall reading the essay. If you have a link, I’d love to read it.

        And really, I’ve said it before and again. Someone like Subterranean Press or the NESFA folks need to collect those novels of De Camp’s and re-release the lot of them.

        The “characters don’t see the awfulness” is a neat trick. Takes a good writer (like Huxley) to do it well.

  2. Just wanted to point out that “Also, there are no women in his novels, outside of one who’s mentioned as an example of an advantageous marriage for power. No one in any position of power or even anyone with an abundance of education, is a woman” is not a completely accurate statement.

    If you are referring to the first five stories, or so, you are absolutely correct about the women. However, beginning with “The Mule” (published in FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE), the main character and hero of that novella is, in fact, Bayta, wife of Toran, who unknowingly befriends the Mule and in the end, ultimately, defeats his plans to find the Second Foundation. She is not the well-rounded female character you would find in stories today, but then Asimov’s excuse at the time was that he had no experience with women. She is, however, intelligent and makes use of her intelligence to solve the mystery of the Mule.

    In “…And Now You Don’t,” the final story of the original FOUNDATION series, Arcadia Darell is the hero of the story and is an even better developed female character than Bayta was.

    These stories were both part of the original FOUNDATION series, published between 1942 and 1950. In his return to the FOUNDATION stories in the 1980s, Asimov included much stronger female characters (he now had more experience), two of which were Dors Venable and Wanda Seldon, Hari’s granddaughter.

    I’m not arguing that any of these women are the well-rounded characters we see today, but your statement makes it sound like there are no women of significance or importance anywhere in the stories, and these two lead characters demonstrate otherwise, I think.

    1. Jamie – that’s a typo. It’s not meant to be “novels” as these mini reviews don’t cover whole series, but just a single book. This one novel, the original version of FOUNDATION (in which case, as you pointed out, the statement is correct). Sorry for the confusion.

    1. I think we carried on because the novels do talk about hope and overcoming obstacles and courage in the face of unbeatable odds. There are good things in each of these novels, which is probably why they’re classics :)

      I guess the moral here is to be the hero of your story, because you wouldn’t want to be anyone else.

  3. Thank you Carrie. I’d add to your list most SF worlds that have since been created. Heinelin’s PK Dick’s, Ian M Banks and so on. Perhaps my near future vision of Scotland falls into the same pattern. I hope not. Dystopias are always easier to write about than Utopias, because they embody more opportunity for conflict. Try to write about a world in which people live harmonious lives. It’s damn difficult to keep it interesting; to engage with the characters. Aldous Huxley tried it in “Island” and ended up with a plodding, somewhat tedious novel. I contend that fine literature about worlds we’d like to live in can be written, but require a lot more talent.

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