Chris Beckett was born in Oxford, England in 1955, and now lives in Cambridge, England. He has published three novels – Dark Eden, The Holy Machine and Marcher – and two short story collections: The Turing Test and The Peacock Cloak. He has been publishing short stories in the UK and the US, since 1990.
The Turing Test, won the Edge Hill Short Fiction Award in 2009, the UK’s only national prize for single-author short-story collections. Dark Eden won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2013.
More information about his writing can be found at www.chris-beckett.com
Chris Beckett’s background is in social work and he has also written several text books on social work.
His newest book, Mother of Eden is out this week.
Science fiction is usually, at least nominally, about the future. It’s not the real future of course, it’s at best hypothetical one, and often not even a possible one. But generally speaking, the story takes place at a time which is ahead of the one we’re currently living in, and therefore can be read, at least at some level, as a map of our direction of travel.
That being so, what responsibilities does that place upon us as science fiction writers? Three questions come up for me. Firstly, to what extent is it okay to write about a future that we know will never happen? Secondly, how do we write about future environmental catastrophe without either encouraging fatalism, or raising false hopes? Thirdly, what are the downsides of projecting our past or present into the future? I’ll discuss these one by one.
The basis of the ‘Mundane’ movement in science fiction is that it’s not particularly healthy to build our imaginary futures on impossible premises. As Geoff Ryman puts it:
Being a Mundane boils down to avoiding old tropes and sticking more closely to what science calls facts. We believe that for most of us, the future is here on Earth…
I don’t believe in starships. At least not the starships that turn up so regularly in Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, etc. The speed of the universe is c. Go faster than ‘c’ and something catastrophic happens: mass becomes infinite. We have no idea what that means. It’s a mathematician’s way of saying something can’t happen.
Yet mass-market SF still dreams of faster-than-light travel, through such tropes as warp drives. The Physics of Star Trek by Laurence M Krauss calculates that warp drives would consume energy equivalent to whole galaxies. This is his way of saying something can’t happen without alienating the Star Trek fans who bought the book.
If there are wormholes or portals I see no way that something can travel through them without being converted into energy or crushed by gravitational forces. This is Geoff’s way of saying the starship gets wrecked.
On this argument stories involving widespread interstellar travel, and certainly the very large number involving galactic empires and wars, do not describe a real future, but are simply fantasy, fantasy which, Ryman has suggested, is based on a rather adolescent desire to escape from the world we’re actually in.
Does this matter? Well, my Eden books describe a planet that’s outside the galactic disc (and could therefore only possibly be reached by FTL travel) so I have a kind of vested interest here, but I would defend my decision to set my story there in two ways. Firstly, it seems reasonable to assume that there is life on other planets. That’s real, that’s part of the world, and that being so, I think it’s legitimate to want to visit them in our imaginations, given that we probably can never visit them in fact. Secondly, the way the story is set up does not offer Eden as the future of our own civilization, but rather as a kind of thought experiment about an isolated community, which has to recap much of our own history all over again. Others in more objective positions will be better placed to judge.
But I do share some of Ryman’s disquiet. I feel uneasy about the fact that the SF shelves in bookshops are so dominated by space fantasies. There must be a downside to constantly reimagining, over and over and over, a future that will never happen, rather than thinking about futures that might actually occur. And I think it’s this that gives SF its widespread reputation among non-SF readers of being, dare I say it, somewhat escapist and immature.
Given that all the evidence suggests that human beings will not be able to escape from the limitations of Earth, should we not be thinking rather more about our future here?
Grim darkness versus cosy apocalypse
Thoughts like these have led me to feel that I’d like to write a novel at some point about a real threat that is facing us, the threat of catastrophic global warming. We’re in the middle of a glorious reckless bonfire of fossil fuels that took millions of years to lay down, and the evidence seems to be fairly conclusive that, if we don’t douse that bonfire down, there are going to be some very nasty consequences for our descendants.
But how to write it? If I depict an entirely grim future why would anyone want to read it, and where would be the story? The story would already have happened, and this would just be a long way of saying “the end.”
But suppose I set the book in a world degraded by climate change and add some hope. In spite of everything, perhaps, a group of people are building a new community and finding ways to adjust to the changed circumstances. Will this not give the message that actually we don’t really need to worry about climate change because people will cope somehow and it may even be kind of fun? Brian Aldiss coined the phrase cosy catastrophe to describe this latter kind of danger. I remember back in the 1980s I wrote to Doris Lessing (whose work, incidentally, I hugely admire), to suggest that she should be more careful about depicting new communities arising from the ashes of a nuclear holocaust.
But you may notice that I haven’t written my climate change novel. I haven’t yet figured out how to resolve this dilemma.
It’ll always be the same
A lot of science fiction, even if set far in the future, is based on the premise that things will be essentially the same. There will be empires, there will be tyrannies, there will be wars over resources. However technologically advanced, we humans will fight for territory and dominance like a bunch of turbocharged chimpanzees.
I met a German SF writer recently, Karsten Kruschel, who grew up in the old East Germany. He told me that under Communist rule it was forbidden to write stories set in a future where socialism had not triumphed. Stifling and oppressive as such a rule is, you can see a crazy sort of logic in it. Marxism claims that Socialism and then Communism are inevitable, and that this is simply the law of history. The depiction of any other kind of future, therefore, would have called this principle into question.
Leaving aside the strange closed world of the GDR, the more general point stands. If we believe that social progress is possible, that history has a forward motion –if not towards Communism, then towards greater justice, say, or more personal freedom, or gender equality– are we not undermining that progress if we depict futures which are just as brutal, unjustice or unfree as the present? Are we not calling into question the hope on which progress depends? Some critics argued that Dark Eden, with its depiction of a society increasingly dominated by men, was guilty of suggesting that patriarchy would always triumph in the end. It wasn’t my intended message (see my comments above about Eden as a thought experiment rather than a depiction of our future), but again I must leave others to judge.
Certainly there is a challenge here to science fiction writers who believe in social progress: if you really do believe in it, shouldn’t you depict it in your imagined futures? But this raises difficulties too, difficulties which are the mirror image of those raised by catastrophe stories. Utopias are dull settings for stories. They too are extended ways of writing “the end.”