Leah Petersen lives in North Carolina manipulating numbers by day and the universe by night. She prides herself on being able to hold a book with her feet so she can knit while reading. She’s still working on knitting while writing. Find out more on her website.
One of the joys of writing science fiction is that authors get to take our stories places they could never go today. It’s also one of the challenges. Worldbuilding is an intricate and tricky thing. If it’s not right, the story falls flat on its face, no matter how wonderful it is otherwise. Whether it’s with science or society or history, unlike with fantasy, in science fiction it has to jibe with what readers already know or you’re lost before you set off.
One way this can manifest is with social issues like same-sex relationships. I walked away from an otherwise wonderful book feeling frustrated and annoyed because hundreds of years into our future, with overpopulation a huge issue and religion not even mentioned, same-sex relationships had been criminalized. What? Why?
To start with, we’re making huge strides in gay rights, especially in the West, so something would have needed to change to turn that so drastically around. Religion has always been the primary driver for that, but as far as the reader of this book could tell, it wasn’t even a factor in society or governmental policy. Threatened human extinction could certainly have driven us to such a major change, but you’d think a society in which overpopulation drove all sorts of laws and regulation would be thrilled that you were having sex with zero risk of procreating. It was aggravating and distracting.
But that can happen all too often when we write any speculative fiction. We all bring our own prejudices, history, hopes and dreams to anything we write. Either we perpetuate, exacerbate, or solve them, and most of the time without realizing it. That’s not a bad thing, but when we’re writing in a genre where we can play God with just about anything, it’s vital that we don’t take our worlds past the point of credibility.
No, what authors postulate for the future doesn’t have to conform to anything we have or experience now. But most science fiction assumes we’re in there somewhere. If humanity still plays a role, you simply can’t forget our baggage, cultures, and history as it has already played out. You don’t have to keep everything the same, but you must make the changes plausible. You can take science all kinds of places…as long as it can make sense. If in the future we’re all flying by flapping our arms or shapeshifting, there has to be a pretty good explanation that doesn’t ignore basic things like gravity and biology.
But back to the earlier premise, same-sex relationships in science fiction, for me, was a way to really “win” the future, but writing it didn’t come without its challenges. When I created the world for my Physics of Falling trilogy, a same-sex relationship was central to the story. However, I ran into unexpected challenges presenting this plausibly within the story. If one of the most powerful men in the universe was party to this relationship, in this day and age, that would be An Issue. Oh, we might get over it, but there’s no way it would just pass without comment. I didn’t want that for my story–that wasn’t the point. The places this tripped me up in writing surprised me at first.
I made the situation plausible by setting it in a fiercely secular society, with humans populating other worlds and thus not experiencing any population issues one way or the other. And technology being nearly there now, any couple could pass on their own genes to the next generation, so heredity and such would not be an issue. We can easily go there from here, and whether for those reasons or something else entirely, I expect we will. But I asked myself how such a society would react to such a prominent same-sex relationship.
Well, they wouldn’t. If it’s a stigma long in the past, why would anyone even bring it up? If it had no effect on whether or not an emperor could have his own children, passing on his own DNA, what would be the objection? There weren’t any I could find. And yet I found myself writing a scene in which my protagonist agonized over his sexuality. He feared and faced rejection from his friends and family when he “came out.” Why? Beats me.
Once my editor pointed it out I realized this simply didn’t fit the world of these characters. Why would my protagonist or anyone else care? It might be unexpected, sure, since he was also attracted to women, but it would hardly be something to agonize over. And he already had plenty of other issues that he had to contend with. It was incongruous, a distraction, and downright careless. Thankfully, I was able to take it out in time.
That is one of the things I’m proudest of about my books, something regularly noted in reviews and reader comments, and best of all, something that has made a difference in lives here and now. More than one teenager (my characters are teenagers when the relationship begins) has contacted me to say how much it meant to them to see themselves, their hopes and fears, played out in a positive way. Like all diversity in fiction, it’s something we’ve been sadly lacking and something making huge strides now. I had been afraid originally that the same-sex content would make the story hard to sell to a publisher, but the industry is doing wonderful things with diversity now, and it was never an issue in my pursuit of publication for the series.
Science fiction can take us good places or it can take us bad places or both at once. It’s always a challenge to do this plausibly and well. Some authors are doing fantastic work adding diversity to the genre. A short and eclectic list follows. Add your own recommendations in the comments. Here’s to the future!
Ghost Bride, Yangsze Choo
Babel-17, Samuel R. Delany
Rider, Joyce Chng
Starglass, Phoebe North
When We Wake, Karen Healey
Adaptation, Malinda Lo
Dangerous, Shannon Hale
Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi
The Chaos, Nalo Hopkinson
The Eighth Guardian, Meredith McCardle
Proxy, Alex London
Orleans, Sherri Smith
Viral Nation, Shaunta Grimes
Ascension, Jacqueline Koyanagi
Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, Kristin Cronn-Mills
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, Benjamin Alire Saenz
Pantomime, Laura Lam
Gracefully Grayson, Ami Polonsky
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin