MIND MELD: Ticklish Subjects in SF
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Is there any subject science fiction hasn’t turned its eyes (or feelers, or antennae) to? Maybe not, but with the passage of time, habits change, mores change, worldviews change, new writers come to the fore bringing new questions, or new ways of asking old questions. There is always a flavor of the month, a subgenre favored by media or by writer’s movements now and then (cyberpunks and steampunks promptly come to mind, but we can also think of the New Weird and New Space Opera, to name just very, very few). On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are always delicate subjects, things that don’t give themselves easily to scrutiny, for a variety of reasons.
Bearing this in mind, we asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
In a field as wide as SF, surely any mention of a taboo topic will only lead to someone appearing with a copy of a ragged pulp magazine from 1937 to declare, “Aha! You forgot this story! It’s been covered! We need never discuss this again!” But a few things come to mind.
SF in the US has long been a propaganda wing for, inexplicably, both the libertarian movement and US space program. A contradiction, to say the least, but it’s a contradiction that can be papered over by contending that both small-government classical liberalism and enormous government expenditure with military and propaganda purposes are part of the broader narrative of “Americanism.” It is quintessentially American to be a rugged individual, and to have a giant technocratic apparatus to project and extend this individualism. And there is plenty of SF in which America fragments, or collapses, or it superseded, but this is only rarely if ever depicted as a positive good for the world—despite very many people outside of the US who would be pleased if the country, or at least its political power on the world scene, went poof tomorrow. So the happy circumstance of an American implosion is one taboo that comes to mind, though the lack of SF with this theme might just be a case of writers and publishers knowing where their bread is buttered.
In Japanese SF, where the bread is buttered on the other side, the US occasionally shuffles off the scene to allow for a realistic near-future in which Japan predominates, but a lot of Japanese SF also features Japanese characters collaborating with friendly American rivals/partners. One book that approaches the happy end-of-America theme is Genocidal Organ by Project Itoh, which we just released over at Haikasoru.
Another issue not much talked about is the philosophy of science. In SF, it seems to stop with Kuhn. There’s not much discussion of Feyerabend or others of his ilk. Perhaps everything after Kuhn was nonsense, but at least we could expect to see some brickbats leveled at them then. Instead, SF seems happy to shoot spitballs at scientific non-entities like “young Earth” creationists. Kiddie stuff. SF writers and fans often prize their own rationality, but many of them are just mere rationalists.
Finally, the biggest taboo has nothing to do with content, but rather than form. The very notion that there is such a thing as good writing and bad writing, rather than just stuff some people like and others don’t, is looked at with a lot of skepticism in SF circles. It’s a taboo to valorize quality writing, or to claim that there is such a thing as a good reader, and a poor reader.
Right now is a veritable renaissance of diversity in the field. I am sure that all possible subjects have been covered by someone out there and my inability to identify them says more about the lack of breadth to what I read than any shortcomings in the science fiction genre. We have more writers of color, LGBTQ writers, and women writers than I can ever remember in my lifetime, tackling issues of race, gender, sex, and class with sophistication. It’s an incredible time to be a science fiction reader.
That said, I wish more books today had characters who are disabled/differently abled or have developmental differences. We do have stories of normal people feeling inadequate in magical worlds–the squibs of fiction. The themes of alienation and loneliness may evoke the experiences of some who live with real-life disabilities, but they are no substitute for fiction featuring characters with actual impairments. Roughly ten percent of the world’s population lives with a disability, and yet fictional characters with any kind of impairment are supremely rare. The only modern series I can recall in which a main character struggles meaningfully with his developmental differences and yet remains a hero is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series. Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark is told from the point of view of a high-functioning man with autism. These are, however, exceptions rather than rules. More commonly these characters tend to be cliched supporting roles: the blind seer, the PTSD vet who nobly sacrifices himself in the final battle, the villainous ugly mutant, the inspiring sidekick who, dying, teaches the hero to live life to the fullest. You can hear the swelling music, can’t you? These stories are unlikely to tackle the complexity (and difficulty) of existing in culture unable or unwilling to accommodate a range of ability. I have seen science fiction wave these issues away all too often. Either it’s the future (and of course everyone is perfect now), or anyone is “fixable” with technology. I prefer stories with the courage to confront the fact that all progress leaves someone, somewhere, behind.
This does not mean, of course, that disability and heroics are mutually exclusive, or that one should be defined solely by what stigmatizes him or her. Heroes have many strengths, weaknesses, virtues, and flaws. Being differently abled should be only one facet of a great character. It is not mutually exclusive of charisma, charm, sex appeal, intelligence, wit, or any of the other qualities our favorite heroes embody. I believe there is room in our fiction, so rich in stories about identity and finding a place in the world and struggling to gain respect from our peers, for characters of many colors, sexes, and abilities.
I suppose the usual accusations hurled against SF– scarcity of people of color, geographic parochialism, lack of psychological depth, simpleminded depictions of science in action, economic illiteracy, disinterest in realism—are sufficiently well known not to bear repetition. Most of these are either being addressed or are easily fixed so I won’t dwell on them. Instead I’ll point to what I think is a meta-problem with SF, one that’s neither easy to fix nor has received much attention.
As Heinlein pointed out in 1941, science fiction is the literature of change. My concern is that the literature has always had a weak grasp on how change happens. In the 1920s through 1950s, when literature was doing away with the traditional comforts of narrative, golden-age SF was moving in precisely the opposite direction. SF wasn’t interested in the kind of estrangement offered by the surrealist, existentialist or modernist genres. Instead, the classic SF tale with its straightforward narrative and written primarily for adolescents was a throwback to the mythic adventure tale.
Whatever the origins, the reality is that we’re no longer living in a world run by heroes, plots and gods. The scale of human interaction is no longer restricted to spatial neighborhoods. From evolutionary theory, we have learned that the story of evolution is that there is no story. There are no plot arcs, no deep themes, no great villains, no mythic quests, no progress principle, no eschatology, no teleology of any kind whatsoever. Similarly, historicist explanations, the kind of grand narratives offered by Toynbee and Gibbon (or modern historicists like Fukuyama and Huntington), are no longer tenable. The shift also extends to personal narratives. From social psychology we now know that the reasons people produce for why they do things often have no bearing on the actual situation; our consciousness ceaselessly produces stories to make apparent sense of our behavior. Change happens, but it is now far easier to describe rather than explain what has happened. We are faced with a world in which chance and contingency underlie almost anything we examine.
Unfortunately, chance and contingency are precisely those elements that undermine fictionality. The nature of narrative is to overlay patterns on events, and so stories often end up providing a spurious logic for events. Because of its interest in change, SF has been hit harder than other literary genres.
SF’s traditional strategies for explaining how change happens— the mad scientist, the genius, the kindly alien, the grotesque Other, the discovered artifact etc.– are no longer adequate. SF can think up magic technologies to solve the world’s hunger problem but it is unable to imagine social movements like the Arab Spring or microfinance or the palliative care movement in Kerala. When these movements are turned into stories, what usually results is a trivialization, a hero’s journey—the Google engineer who facebooked a revolution or Muhammad Yunus who became the “banker to the poor.”
It isn’t that we don’t have examples of how literature can talk about change on a mass scale. For example, there’s Raja Rao’s Kanthapura (1938) which explores the spread of a radical new political technology—nonviolent resistance– in a remote south-Indian village, Gordimer’s then near-future July’s People (1981) which explores the end of apartheid through the matrix of some half-a-dozen relationships, or Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic Mars trilogy.
Yet by and large, SF’s strategy in the face of all this modern complexity has been to focus on the what-if rather than the how-if. The classical SF idea-story takes change as given and focuses on exploring its consequences. While this has led to wonderful stories, it also means the fictional elements are often inessential, mere syntactic sugar. The marriage of fact and fiction is never a happy one. It is only a matter of time before speculative non-fiction– fields like speculative economics, speculative biology, popular science, and counterfactual history– becomes the loci of a literature of ideas.
I’m not calling for the abandonment of story nor proposing that we all start work on the next Stand on Zanzibar or an article for Scientific American. But it is time to work towards a real literature of change as it happens now, not as it used to happen in the age of gods and heroes.
Nalo Hopkinson’s Fisherman is not actually SF/F but it’s in a collection of hers that otherwise is and it’s an amazing genderbend story that is so artful and heartbreaking it’s worth looking at. Also her book Midnight Robber has a great arc of recovery from sexual trauma that is well worth reading.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed talks about the solitude and emptiness of the exile in a way no other book I’ve read does – a character caught in between two cultures, it’s harrowing and beautifully written.
The entirety of Sheree Renee Thomas’ two piece anthology Dark Matter is a powerful collection of scifi/fantasy from the African Diaspora, a must-read.
Tananarive Due’s The Good House and Andrea Hairston’s Redwood and Wildfire both get deep with magic and conjuring in a way that addresses its cultural and daily life relevancy in a way we rarely see in scifi/fantasy, as does Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, an amazing take on the spirit world from an award winning Nigerian author.
Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo directly addresses cultural appropriation and is hilarious and sad at the same time.
And Octavia Butler’s Kindred looks at sexuality and power dynamics in slavery and modern day race relations – all her books do but i think Kindred is the most direct look at it. But for issues of power, no one beats Butler in my opinion.
Finally, at the risk of seeming pluggy: my own short stories Magdalena and The Collector, both from Salsa Nocturna, address surviving childhood sexual trauma and cultural appropriation, respectively.
Oh, so many! But the ones that immediately come to my mind are new forms of organization, especially serious treatment of anarchism and communist (not stalinist) societies. I guess the only work that dealt with these issues was Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which is her best novel, hands down, and one hell of a work in Literature. Yeah, with a capital L. One related thing: there are a lack of stories in which things go right, humanity moves forward, things get better. Back in 2010 editor Jetse de Vries challenged authors to write about these things and he ended up publishing the Shine anthology. But that was it. Not more about that.
What else, lemme see…oh, drugs. There aren’t many stories in which drugs (both consumption, production and market) are the main thing. Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War (and sequels) was the closest thing to a drug-themed novel I’ve ever seen, but it’s not exactly about it, really. And one last thing I’d love to see an SF/Fantasy author write about is the “gun culture”. Can’t remember a novel which discusses society’s (especially American society) fetish for guns, bullets, swords, bombs. Probably there aren’t enough stories about that for the same reason there are not enough stories about sex in SF/F. Maybe.
Science Fiction and Fantasy are young, geeky genres, and as such they are often behind the curve with contemporary fiction in many ways. For a long time the virtues that contemporary literature has in terms of theme, writing styles, narratives, story structure and even simple craftsmanship in wordplay have not been seen widely or even accepted by the genre community as valid, useful or legitimate.
So, too, Science Fiction and Fantasy are behind the curve in terms of dealing with subject matter. Battles that contemporary literature has fought and struggled with decades ago are battles that genre literature is still coming to terms with.
Sex is the biggest and greatest example of this. Until books like Philip Jose Farmer’s The Lovers, sex was something never seen or often even hinted at in science fiction. But this was a battle long since fought and won in contemporary literature, which was pushing the bounds of literature in terms of subject much further at the same. (for example, William Burroughs Naked Lunch). Another book of the time, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange seems to be and have been filed more as literature than science fiction, especially with regards to sex and violence.
But even today, George R R Martin can say, rightly, he gets more criticism and objection in his book for describing a sexual act or even nudity than he ever does for the bouts of violence that permeate the Song of Ice and Fire series.
As related subjects, Gender and Sexuality are subjects that science fiction is slowly coming to terms with, but it’s a long and hard slog. Even with books like Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite, or the work of Ursula K LeGuin, the work of James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon, there is a lot of resistance to exploring this subject. More recently, some of the ideas presented in the Lois M Bujold Vorkosigan novels regarding gender, and sexuality are interesting and are pushing into this subject well. (see A Civil Campaign for example)
Still, even given these examples, there is still a lot of resistance today to exploring such issues in science fiction. Things are getting better on that front, but, again, contemporary literature has long since won this battle.
Where both contemporary literature and genre literature have a problem, though, is the thorny issue of politics. Describing politics, specifically modern politics and political systems and how people act with respect to politics appears to be something that only really skilled writers manage. No matter the politics of the author or the book, finding a nuanced portrayal of politics is akin to finding a unicorn. Characters of opposing political stripes to the viewpoint of the book are, far too often, caricatured and misrepresented. It is rare that the politics in a contemporary or near-future science fiction novel feel as messy, complicated and real as a first world nation in the real world.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting is an excellent example of where the intersection of science and politics feels right to me as a reader. Also, moving away from the contemporary to the medium term future, Arctic Rising by Tobias Buckell has a future Earth whose politics surrounding the Arctic ocean be interesting, multidimensional, complicated and extremely plausible.
Trying to identify what SF has yet to explore properly is difficult because it is such a wide-reaching genre. Just about every scenario has been explored by genre at one point or another, albeit from a variety of different perspectives. Yet there are some subjects which, I feel, have often been marginalized, perhaps unfairly, or ignored completely. The following are subjects which I wish the genre at large would tackle in more explicit terms:
1) Future History Based on the Now, Minus the Disaster
A lot of SF tries to imagine the worst case scenario. What happens if the U.S. immigration policy goes all the way to the right (or to the left)? What happens if Climate Change goes haywire and ruins the Earth? What happens if the U.S. is turned into a Theocracy (broadly speaking)? And so on. (I mean “future history” less in terms of prediction and more in terms of experimentation with possible outcomes. I understand that SF is not a prediction machine.)
But what about a more realistic future? One without the disaster. A future where events from now shape events to come, but without all the dystopian qualities typically associated with such things. I’d like to know what that world looks like. What if we have 4 more years of Barack Obama and the Do-Nothing-Congress? What happens if Mitt Romney becomes President instead? What will that do to the country in 20 or 30 years? Or, to take a less politically charged view, perhaps we could ask what the world will look like after prolonged armed conflict — what if this whole War on Terror never ends (not politically charged at all, right)? Not the disaster scenario, but the realistic one. The one where Earth isn’t a toxic wasteland full of mutated humans or whatever…
2) International Law
So many SF novels present futures where Earth has miraculously settled all its differences and created some kind of United Earth. I enjoy these stories just fine, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see more stories tackle the attempt to make that world happen? After all, if the U.S. is any indication, a World Government is unlikely to have an easy job of it. They’ll run into questions over sovereignty, rights, religion, etc. There will be insane amounts of terrorist attacks, bitter arguments, and possibly war. People will wonder what will happen to their already-shared “freedoms” or whether they’ll get to keep doing X or enjoying Y. Whose morality with a World Government follow? Whose religion? Whose governmental framework? Those stories are worth telling.
3) Civil Rights Abuses…That Go Unchallenged
If it isn’t apparent by now, much of what I feel is absent from SF are related to political issues that matter to me. One of those issues is the question of rights; in particular, abuses of those rights that rarely get challenged in the nations of the abusers. For example, many undeveloped or poorer countries (what some people inaccurately refer to as the “third world”) are often used as dumping grounds for Western garbage and toxic waste; while environmentalists and some media outlets rightly throw a hissy fit over this fact, the public at large is either completely unaware or doesn’t seem to care, even though many of these countries have no means by which to stop such activities from happening (in some cases, dictatorships are involved). There are plenty of other examples, but I think this one serves my point well enough.
What SF sometimes ignores, at least in a general sense, is what it means to be one of those abused groups. If you are not from the dominant spaces of power, how do you engage with the world? What will that world look like to you in the future? There are certainly examples of this in SF, such as work by Tobias S. Buckell, Nalo Hopkinson, or even Paolo Bacigalupi, among others, but as much as I like their work, there is a desperate need for SF to directly engage with these issues (Buckell does touch on the environmental questions in Arctic Rising). This applies to a wide range of civil rights questions, too. What about women in countries that don’t have the same civil rights as, say, Europe? What about people in small nations who are caught in armed conflicts spurned by foreign nations? What about disenfranchised people, such as refugees, or survivors of wars they never asked to be fought above them? I would love to see these kinds of questions explored in SF, because they would add a richness to the genre that sometimes gets lost in the desire for sensawunda and adventure (valuable though they are).
Having said all of this, it dawns on me that I’ve probably missed out on a few stories that cover the above areas. If you know of some, feel free to suggest them in the comments. I don’t have a life anyway…
I think SF has sidled up to, but not quite looked at, the fact that as we careen towards the end of the Mayan calendar, our faith in every single large scale societal institution has been shown to be misplaced. Religion, as a lot of SF has taken a near-indecent glee in pointing out at times, is fundamentally hypocritical at the bureaucratic level (Although I’d argue, not at the parish or community level), banks have been shown to be nothing more than a lens for their CEOs to focus their greed through and the governments of the west have all begun to gravitate to the same, dull grey ball of reactionary, self-righteous, right wing beliefs.
God, the temptation to finish there is almost overwhelming:)
What that is, in a sense, is a soft apocalypse. The parental structures society is built on all have clay feet and are all as stupid, venal, self-interested and misguided as the rest of us. The definition of that is the current UK government, an uneasy coalition of Conservatives and Liberals who agree on nothing, have compromised on everything and are loathed by everyone. Meanwhile, our opposition party stands around waiting for it’s focus groups to tell it how to be relevant again. Things fall apart, the center cannot hold and the falcon can’t hear the falconer because he’s had his funding cut, that sort of thing.
Which all sounds terribly depressing but there’s actually real optimism and fun to be had playing in the ruins. This is a soft apocalypse remember, and the opportunities for satire are swamped only by the opportunities for near future science fiction to reinvent itself. Commercial spaceflight is happening, environmental change and study is happening and the structures that fiction can grow in these weeds are fascinating, beautiful and completely unlike anything we’ve seen before. To quote Pontypool, it isn’t the end of the world, it’s just the end of the day. Look at Brian Wood‘s excellent graphic novel series DMZ, and his current, The Massive, to get an idea of what can be done with this sort of fiction.
The Future – With very rare exceptions, science fiction usually reflects the obsessions and fears of the present, not any realistic projection of what might be. For example, for most of its history English-language science fiction has aggrandized a particular group — people very much like the authors themselves, that is, white and male and Western, and probably some other things like heterosexual and college-educated. Nothing wrong with the aggrandizement of a group — so long as that aggrandizement doesn’t rely on the exclusion and vilification of other groups — but it’s a blatant lie to call that kind of thing futurism or even realism when it’s really just propaganda. Fortunately, after a lot of yelling on the part of people in those vilified, excluded groups (and others who want actual futurism), I think we’re beginning to see more narratives that are truly global and more protagonists who aren’t drawn just from one particular minority of humankind.
People – Along with doing a piss-poor job of representing the breadth of humankind, science fiction usually does a bad job of depicting individuals and societies in a realistic way. I suspect this is because SF has long had a completely illogical contempt for the social sciences even as it venerated the so-called “hard” sciences and even pseudosciences (e.g. eugenics). Because of this we end up with endless speculative societies that owe more to the author’s eu/dystopian fantasies than any kind of sociological or anthropological realism; we have protagonists who laugh in the face of PTSD and have perfect control over their unmedicated schizophrenia; we see more narratives devoted to psychic abilities than to existing neurological variations. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself; we’re all guilty of wishing humankind could be better than it is. The problem lies in the fact that science fiction which does this has historically been lauded as hard-hitting and true, when it’s really just as romanticized as the most formulaic fantasy. The biggest names of our field have been some of the worst offenders — and because they’re the biggest names, with the most rabid fanbase, it’s hard to criticize their work without bringing down the wrath of geekdom.
Politics – In the real world, government is ugly. Messy. Complicated. And… functional. For the most part, most human political systems work just fine, insofar as the goal is to keep societies running smoothly and the majority of citizens alive and content. In a ridiculously large number of science fiction narratives, though, government is not just dysfunctional, it’s morally wrong. At best SF political systems are dysfunctional background noise for protagonists to rail against and seem smarter/more moral by doing so; at worst the government’s sole purpose seems to be to provide conflict by impeding the protagonist. There’s no way for even the most functional political system to come off well when it’s placed in this quintessentially antagonistic role. Then there’s the whole genre of postapocalyptic fiction, which is all about government going so mad that it destroys the world, and/or the stalwart protagonists establishing newer, better government after the apocalypse has conveniently wiped the slate clean. I have no idea why so many SF writers and readers are libertarian — well, I have an idea why — but the result is that the SF landscape is littered with completely unworkable, twisted political systems in immediate and desperate need of a revolution, or one natural disaster away from Thunderdome. But that’s not how human beings work. We’re social. We like systems, and we built them to resist change and damage. We like peace. So it’s just as wrong, IMO, to say that something like Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After is unrealistic for depicting a successful artist-led anarchy, as it is to assume that we’re all doomed to live in the future of Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, in which hedonistic rapist black cannibals take over the world once the civilizing influence of Western culture nukes itself.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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