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Interstellar polycultural setting

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Warning: This entry is even longer than usual.

This week's SH story, Tom Doyle's "Crossing Borders" (which is not for the faint of heart, btw), reminds me obliquely to post something I've been meaning to post for a while now. (I wrote a lot of the below a couple months ago; ended up cleaning it up a little at today's writing retreat, along with getting various other long-delayed things done.)

In my editorial "The Future of Sex" last year, I noted that in what I like to call "human future in space" (HFIS for short) milieus in sf, despite near-utopian levels of personal freedom and tolerance of individual choices, interstellar human cultures tend to have less sexual diversity than modern America.

I've been thinking about that a lot in the past few months, and about the "consensus futures" that appear every so often in sf—there was once a consensus future involving crystalline cities and aircars, and later there was one for cyberpunk, and recently there's been a consensus future involving posthumans approaching a Vingean singularity. Among others.

So it occurred to me that it might be fun to come up with a polycultural HFIS setting that anyone could use. Not exactly a shared universe in the traditional sfnal sense of the term; more like an open source universe. But although that makes a good catchphrase, it's not really very accurate either for what I have in mind.

What I'm thinking of would be more flexible than such things usually are. It would be more a framework than a universe. It would provide ideas that any writer who wanted to could elaborate on, mix, add to, change, or throw out. There would be no requirement for consistency among authors using this setting, or even among works by a given author. Anything that works for you or gives you ideas, use; anything else, discard.

What follows are some broad outlines of my first pass at defining such a milieu, but remember that everything here is flexible and subject to change.


It's the future. It's anywhere from 100 to 1000 (or so) years from now. The Singularity never happened, for whatever reason. (See below for some further thoughts on this.) Humans have expanded out into the galaxy, and in the best tradition of HFIS universes they've found plenty of not only habitable but inhabited worlds.

There are a large number of alien races. They have a wide variety of body types, though most of the aliens who humans interact with are carbon-based and have what we would generally recognize as physical bodies.

Because part of the point is to tell stories that early-21st-century humans will find interesting, we'll assume (perhaps unrealistically; think of it as dramatic license or genre convention, take your pick) that most races have thought processes that are similar enough to humans' for mutual more-or-less comprehension. For example, most of the alien languages have something vaguely like nouns and something vaguely like verbs.

FTL travel is in widespread use. (I prefer drives that can fit on a ship, but if you'd rather use stargates, go for it—and there's nothing to say we can't have both in the same story.) It costs too much for most individuals to own private starships, but it's inexpensive enough that shipping at least some trade goods across interstellar distances is economically feasible. Individuals who want to travel can take passage on passenger ships, and that's not entirely beyond the means of most individuals. Conquering another star system is barely feasible, due to huge costs; conquering multiple other star systems would drain the resources of any system-wide civilization (so among other things it would probably require a unified system-wide civilization). (I haven't really thought through the economics of this to make sure it makes any logical sense, but it'll do for now.)

Trade systems are vast and complex; some of them are based on goods and/or services, some on other things, such as information or reputation. They interact in surprising and confusing ways.

FTL communication is in a price range that puts it within the means of most humans, and is close to instantaneous.

Humanity has enough wealth, distributed well enough, that few humans live in poverty; the vast majority are comfortably well off. People do still work for a living, at least in some human societies, but almost nobody starves. A few are very wealthy indeed, by the standards of their societies.

So far, we've seen all this before. What I haven't often seen before is the diversity of this setting.

There are, as noted earlier, many sentient species. Within each species (including humanity!), there's a wide range of variation on any axis you can think of. There are multiple factions and/or cultures and/or nations and/or organizations and/or kinds of organizations (corporate vs government, for example, and much weirder kinds) with conflicting goals. There are a wide range of religions. There are a wide range of languages, and many of them use sounds that aren't part of American English. (Some, of course, don't use sounds at all.) Both within any given species and across species, there are almost always factions at war with each other (in one way or another) at any given time. There are a range of economic systems; in particular, not all societies (even within a given species) are capitalist. There are also a lot of different kinds of relationships between beings, at all levels—within a given faction, within a given species, between species.

None of this "K'rokk is a Vegemite from the Vegem system, which consists entirely of the desert planet Vegem IV, so he believes in the goddess Mysteria and he is warlike and violent and proud and his favorite color is red, just like all the other Vegemites." No, the Vegem system (known to the locals by a variety of names, most of them unpronounceable by humans) has three habitable worlds, each with a full range of climates and ecosystems, and two intelligent species developed there, and within each of those species there are at least as many complex and unusual social structures, beliefs, and practices as there are among humans. Also body types and shell colors; just because you meet one Vegemite who's tall and spiky doesn't mean all the others will be. Not even all the others of the same species and gender.

And speaking of genders, there's a fair bit of variation among those as well. Some alien species come in two genders, often referred to as male and female (again for genre convention and simplicity), but plenty don't. Some have one gender; some are neuter; some have multiple genders; some, for that matter, have multiple genders but only one physical sex, or multiple sexes but no concept of gender per se, or individuals who have multiple sexes and/or genders, either simultaneously or serially.

Oh, and every species has a wide variety of sexual practices and mores. (If you're looking for weird alien sex, take a look at insect sex on Earth; ideally, if you're interested in this you should attend the "alien sex" slideshow at various major conventions, which mostly focuses on real-world insects.) There's even interspecies sex among some species, even some that aren't biologically sexually compatible—"phone sex" between aliens happens, and there are devices to translate different kinds of stimulation between species. Those devices are tunable for individuals, of course, because after all not all members of a species are stimulated the same way. (Note that some kinds of sexual stimulation may be fatal (intentionally or un-), especially to members of species the devices aren't intended for—a stimulation-translation device in the wrong hands (or other manipulators), or turned wrong way 'round, might make an interesting murder weapon.) And of course some members of some species consider interspecies romance to be an evil perversion, while other folks think it's holy, with all sorts of views along the continuum between those poles.

Legal and economic systems are vast and complex and difficult. Interstellar law isn't always observed, and though there's an interstellar Council at which beings can air grievances, there's no equivalent of the UN to enforce decisions. In fact, there's disagreement (among individuals and factions; it usually doesn't really make sense to say that two species disagree, because that implies an unlikely degree of uniformity of opinion among the members of a species) over whether the Council should have any actual power. Oh, and the Council consists of representatives of various factions, not just various species. How are the factions chosen, and how does each faction choose its representative(s)? Dunno, but it'll be interesting to find out.

Any given species also has a variety of approaches to art and artlike systems. Visual arts, tactile arts, aural arts, verbal and literary arts, performance arts, recorded arts, violent arts, political arts, philosophical arts, and plenty of kinds of art to which humans are blinded by missing senses. (Magnetic-field fluctuations, anyone?)


I haven't decided what to do about AI. I want to say there's no true AI, because once you have true AI I don't see a way to prevent it bootstrapping into Transcendence. But maybe we say that some AIs don't bother Transcending (cf Vinge and Banks). Or maybe there are AIs that are limited (by physical law a la Vinge—legal systems are insufficient, given the vastness and diversity of interstellar societies) to roughly the same levels of intelligence as other species.

In fact, it may be necessary to assume that physical laws prevent anything truly conscious from thinking too fast; otherwise why aren't there biological aliens that think ten or a hundred or ten thousand times faster/better than humans? (I don't object to the existence of such beings; I just think their presence in a story is generally likely to make the story less interesting to us humans.) But again, maybe we can just assume that the ones who've Transcended have gone elsewhere and don't interfere in our affairs too much.

And perhaps limiting AI isn't too unreasonable in a setting where we're also assuming that most recognized sentience is carbon-based; there may be other things that are considered sentient/sapient, but they're so weird that there may even be argument about whether they count.


I think that's all for now. I'm curious to hear what others think, and to see what others do with this (if anything). Feel free to post comments here, elaborate in your own journals, and/or write stories using this milieu or any variation on it. I'm hoping that it's defined enough to be useful (even if only just barely), while remaining flexible enough to allow for a huge variety of approaches, tones, plots, themes, characters, voices, etc.

I've already written a couple of stories, long ago, that I'm going to retroactively say are set in this milieu. I'd post them, except that I'm now tempted to polish them and start submitting them again. We'll see.

25 Comments

Jed, I have something similar I'm up to, particularly more drawn out in my novels called the 'Xenowealth.' In particular I'm trying to hit many of the same points, but I allow my civilizations to rule each other, and I don't do FTL but wormholes, and I do talk about singularities more and critique them...


I'm for it, but if you don't address the Singularity (declaring its impossiblity by fiat doesn't count), you're living in the 80s. There's a market for that, but I'd rather see you do all the things you're trying to do in a way that doesn't let the SF field leave you behind.


there's no equivalent of the UN to enforce decisions

The UN enforces decisions all of a sudden?


My novel is set in something that could be considered the early days of a mileu such as this. It's only 50 years from now and there's no FTL and only one alien species. But the aliens have multiple competing cultures, each with its own language, religions, and mores; they have two sexes but three sex roles (and each culture has different rules about who you should do what with); they communicate in sign language; they evolved in a desert environment but the dominant culture is from the mountains; there is interspecies sex (which different cultures and different individuals have different opinions about); et cetera. I believe I'm reacting to the same "all Vegemites are alike" problem you're reacting to.

What I wonder about the proposed HFIS mileu is whether it's meaningful as anything other than a suggestion of things you ought to think about when developing a mileu for a particular work (and it is very useful for that). It's sufficiently close to one of the established HFIS mileux that a work set in it could easily be seen as falling into the existing mileu (the differences could be seen as an individual author's twist on the standard mileu), but at the same time the issues raised by the extensions are too large to be tackled in even a single novel.

Fiction works by paring away the complexity of real life to a comprehensible minimum. A work that fully expresses the complexity of the proposed mileu would have to be dauntingly large and complex, or gloss over some of the complexity (e.g. by stating that the variety of aliens is overwhelming without going into detail), or focus on some aspects of the complexity and ignore others. I believe I've chosen to use the last strategy by putting only one alien species on stage.

I believe that a real multi-species universe would be just as bizarre as the one you're proposing here, and I think we should try to approach that in 21st-century SF. The challenge is to write about it without overwhelming the reader. One recent example of an attempt to approach this is Appleseed, and to me it failed this challenge.


Does thinking faster/better necessarily convey a large advantage? As you go through a typical day, how much would you gain by being able to think 100 times faster?

You would shower, get dressed, and eat breakfast at the same rate. You'd travel to work at the same rate. You'd type at a slightly faster speed (because of fewer mistakes), you'd talk to coworkers and friends at a slightly faster speed, and you'd perform your work more accurately but with the same physical limitations you currently have. You'd travel home at the same rate, eat dinner at the same rate, engage in some entertainment during your free time (which has not increased much), do laundry and other chores at the same rate, and still need to sleep for 5-8 hours.

You would still disagree with people, and those disagreements would still be difficult to resolve. Thinking faster will not cure disagreements.

Science might make more progress, or it might simply find deeper mysteries. Technology would grow in complexity faster, as would the need to protect against destructive technologies which would also be boosted. Medical mistakes due to inattention might be improved, or might be aggravated. Regulation would grow in complexity, as would tax laws. And it would still take an hour or two to roast a chicken. But your chess game would improve.

Data is far more effective on ST:TNG when he can increase his rate of action along with his rate of thought. Thinking faster can make for far faster conversations among telepaths than it can for us verbal creatures.

The ability of humans to rationalize their behavior 100 times as effectively will not necessarily lead to a more moral, kind, or just society; I would fear the opposite would be equally likely.


The milieu reminds me of the setting of Delany's _Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand_. Which is cool.

Regarding accelerated thinking and the Singularity, I'll agree with most of Michael's comments. I have never heard an argument for the Singularity that I found particularly plausible. (Although David's point about the need to address the Singularity may still apply; whether it's realistic or not, it has become something a lot of readers expect to be described in SF.)


I think this is less a new milieu, than a complaint about the longest-running consensus future of all, the grand FTL-linked galaxy with hordes of species living side by side -- the milieu of Niven and Brin, of Star Wars and Star Trek and Babylon 5, and most of the SF paperbacks I read in the 70s and 80s. The universe you describe, up until "So far, we've seen all this before" is precisely their universe, give or take a few galactic empires and other quibbles. And the caveats (aliens will be as diverse and kinky as we are) that come after "So far, we've seen all this before" were always implied in the best of those works. Read carefully what the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, say, or the Uplift series, or Rebecca Ore imply about their aliens, and you'll note that they rarely if ever argue that any intelligent species is culturally homogenous. If we only happen to meet one political philosophy or phenotype among the six or seven Kzinti we run into in a given book, well, that's not all that strange, since Kzinti of similar looks and tastes might be expected to travel together.

It's a universe, that, as an SF writer, I find it pretty much impossible to write in other than as humor or nostalgic homage.

So many of the assumptions that underly that comfortable, delightful, familiar milieu (FTL? aliens we can talk to? a humanity spread across the stars that has notions of "wealth" and "sex" and "passenger ships" and "how much power the interstellar council should have" seemingly indistinguishable from ours? everything carefully kept "to our level" for the purposes of the story?) seem collosally implausible to me.

I don't mind writing about collosally implausible things, if they're new. But the act of writing about something that I think is extremely unlikely, when hundreds of other authors have all assumed the same unlikely thing, makes me feel that I am not taking the story seriously. I am not really writing SF.

As Delany has written, the glory of SF is that you can write about the world. You can write about *how things might indeed be*. That's the thrill of it for me. If I want to simply play with the reader's expectations, to take only the text, and not the world, seriously -- I don't need SF for that. I'd rather do that in fable or parable or litfic.

The universe you propose, our longest-running consensus universe, seems to me to be too transparently a projection of our world onto life in the future -- when, if the past century should have taught us anything, it is that life in the future will be radically unlike life today, in ways we can't imagine.

That we can't imagine them is no excuse for us, as SF writers, to stop trying to imagine them. But it does mean that we look awfully silly all clustered in one or two attractive corners of the Possible.

I sort of do and sort of don't agree with Ted. The actual Vingean hard singularity -- machines get smart, hit an asymptotic curve, and boom! we're obsolete -- doesn't seem very likely to me -- certainly not inevitable, certainly not on Vinge's timeframe.

But I think David is intending the Singularity in its broader sense. Not the Vingean scenario in its exact detail, but the strangeness it implies -- the sense that we will become the Other, as we begin fooling with our brains and bodies and building very smart (whatever smart means -- we don't know yet -- and both sides of the Singularity debate fool themselves into thinking that they do) machines.

To take examples from your text -- why should sex be so central to aliens? Your aliens seem all to be as sex-obsessed as 21-cen California humans or bonobo chimps; as if they've all lost estrus and organized their societies around sexual pleasure as the ultimate symbol for happiness and sexual vulnerability as the ultimate vulnerability and sexual giving as the ultimate bond. Why not eating, killing, lying on warm rocks?

Did anybody else read Paul Park's story "If Lions Could Speak"? He did a very good job showing that when we write about aliens, if we really want to write about aliens and not just dressed-up reflections of ourselves and our fears, the best we can do is gesture. The best we can do is give the reader the *sense of what it might be like*, to be or meet the alien. We cannot tell them what it might be like -- we cannot actually communicate the information; because we cannot imagine the alien. We can, perhaps, by trickery and art, point beyond what we can imagine.

And the same is true of the future.

The problem I have with your cosmopolitan galaxy-spanning multispecies future -- at least the way it's described in your post (drives, or stargates?) is that it's so damn imaginable.

The thing I like about new outcroppings in SF -- the cyberpunks when they hit the scene, the Singularity's first few imaginings -- is that they manage, just for a moment, to point to something beyond the comfortable staging of wish-fulfillment or anxiety in space and in the future.

In a sense I'm pointing the same direction you are, I know. In a sense, what I'm saying about "galactic society, now, with multiculturalism!" is, it's too little, too late.

In a few of the things you mention -- magnetic-field fluctuations, alien phone sex -- I get a glimmer of a spark of something that could point Beyond. If you actually wrote the story, I'd probably see more. But in the broad outlines of the milieu -- nah. Seems like a whitewash of multiculturalism on an inherently familiar future.

Note that I'm reacting here as a writer, not a reader. I like *reading* Brin and Niven. I'd probably like most of the stories you esteemed folk would write in the milieu offered. Just because I can't bring myself to regard it as likely doesn't mean you can't -- and if you can, I'll probably suspend my disbelief. As a reader.

Of course, now that I've written this post, I am almost certain that my perverse muse will force me to write a polyspecies-galactic-society story. Sigh.

Ben


No time for me to reply to any of these comments in detail just yet, but please keep 'em coming.

Quick attempt to reply to main point of Ben's latest, though:

When you say "a whitewash of multiculturalism on an inherently familiar future," that's a negative way of putting it, but in essence that's exactly what I'm after.

How I would put it is: take the familiar HFIS setting (which usually consists mostly of 20th century white upper-middle-class heterosexual monogamous Americans in space), and add complexity to bring it up to something approximating the complexity level of the real world.

If you try to add as much complexity as such a milieu would really have, you get into all sorts of amazing weirdness—singularities, "If Lions Could Speak," "Coelacanths," even stuff that's so far beyond our comprehension that we can't imagine it to write about it. All that stuff is great; I strongly encourage writers to write as bizarre and unusual milieus and aliens as you possibly can.

However. My point is that people are still writing that HFIS stuff. Lots and lots of it. And it's still popular. And if they're going to write it anyway, I'd like to see it updated to reflect some of the complexities of the real world. Maybe having a future that's only as complex as the real world isn't going far enough—but it's a big step forward, imo, from having futures that aren't even as complex as the real world.

Does that make more sense?

(As for sex obsession, I didn't mean to suggest that all aliens are sex-obsessed. There should be plenty that bud, or that don't reproduce at all, or that don't enjoy sex at all, or that have pleasures that are as intense as sex but aren't sexual, or whatever. The reason I focused on sex as much as I did in my initial discussion is the same reason I focused on it in the original editorial: it's one area of real-world complexity that's almost completely ignored in the HFIS works I've seen.)


I want to hear more about this intriguing "lying on warm rocks" stuff.


Nick, man, you don't know what you're missing.

I hear Heather is planning a special "Lying on Warm Rocks" issue of Fishnet....


I hear you, Jed.

Consider adding to your admonition to mirror our world's diversity across and within cultures and species, an admonition to mirror our world's diversity across *time*.

Ideally, if you are writing about a large, advanced-tech culture, the experience of each generation should be at least as radically different from that of the generation before it, as our experience now is from our experience thirty years ago.

Just as we can do things now we couldn't dream of then -- we might have anticipated the core technologies, but not their everyday implications -- so should characters in your Galactic Polyculture be amazed at what things are now possible for them that weren't a generation before the tale is set.

And the bigger, freer, and more high-tech the universe of communicating parties is, the *stranger* each generation should seem compared to that before it.

Right?

Ben


Ben, I agree with you in pure sf-nal theory-sense, but from a reader's pov, I get a lot more pleasure from books that don't try to show a reasonable projection of change out of time. Maybe I'm a hopeless luddite in this, or a romantic. I wallow luxuriously in universes with a horde of wildly-different aliens that are otherwise pretty essentially the same as the world we live in today. Only better, and prettier, and full of more shiny objects. :-) And hey, if we've essentially cured the worst of society's economic woes, so much the better.

I will totally grant you that it's pure wish fulfillment, but I nonetheless submit that I will buy and read novels like that, endlessly. And I'd rather more of them were better-written. So go to it. :-)


Well, the diversity across time is also a function of the diversity across cultures. There are many millions of people currently working as subsistence farmers and whose lives have changed relatively little over the last thirty years. There are even people who live the way their ancestors lived a thousand years ago.

More generally, it's perhaps worth reminding ourselves of John Clute's notion of the "real year," the year in which an SF novel is really set, no matter what year it claims to be set in. Let me quote him:

"whenever it was written, any Ray Bradbury story takes place in something like 1927; any Robert Heinlein story written after WWII is set in an increasingly juddery 1940; and Philip K. Dick's real year moves only with great anxiety forwards from a classical music store in 1950. The fundamental rules of this naming the year game are 1) that no SF novel (or for that matter no tale at all) can of course _actually_ be set in the future, because all books are in fact set in the past; 2) that SF authors -- depending as they do upon a shared-language-of-exploration (an oxymoron itself insufficiently explored), and upon a readership increasingly inclined to confuse sense of wonder with nostalgia -- tend to find the present less easy to approach than do certain rogue singletons of the "mainstream," who walk alone in a catchment humiliatingly -- for SF writers -- close to now; and 3) that the closer a book comes to the present, the harder it is to write or read or understand."

Presumably the "real year" has a place associated with it; Heinlein's 1940 is an American 1940, not a Uruguayan 1940. Anyway, it seems to me that the increase in cultural diversity in contemporary SF reflects the increasing awareness of cultural diversity by contemporary SF writers.


Excellent points, Ted.

Note that there's a strong correlation between one's world not having changed much lately, and poverty (at least poverty as measured in access to dollars and to goods such as travel, digital data in its many guises, and machines). Those people living today whose lives most approximate those of their distant ancestors are the poorest of us (in those terms). Note also that the world Jed is describing is a very rich world, measured in the same terms, and that the focus of his description is on the rich -- those with the resources to book interstellar passages and to buy alien-sex-translators, and leisure and confidence to debate the proper scope of authority of the Galactic Council. Those are precisely the people whose lives we should expect to be changing fastest -- faster, if anything, than our own.

As for Clute -- sure, but that's a critic's view. For a critic to look at "Flow My Tears, The Policemen Said" and to say "look, it's the fifties", or at "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand" and say "look, it's gay metropolitan life in the early eighties" is all very well and good, and there's a truth to it.

But for an SF writer, while writing, to say to himself, "of course the real year of this book is 1986" seems to me to be, at least on one level, an abdication. (At least an abdication as SF writer -- it is a perfectly legitimate posture for a writer using SF tropes to do something else).

The attempt to actually write about the future seems to me to be both intrinsically doomed, and highly valuable -- critical, to science fiction.

I really don't mean to propose that everyone write almost-incomprehensible hard-edged futurist SF. I'm not saying that. But I do think that part of what we value in SF, qua SF, is those moments -- which can come in the middle of otherwise cozily familiar futures -- that point *beyond*.

I imagine it might also be a distortion of Clute to take what seems to me to be written at least partly as an indictment -- of "a readership increasingly inclined to confuse sense of wonder with nostalgia" -- and to read it as a prescription.

It's precisely where sense of wonder is distinguishable from nostalgia, that it has the power to be more than consolatory.

I'd be interested as to which rogue singletons, exactly, he's talking about, and whether they are, here in 2004, really any more common in the mainstream than in SF.

Ben


Hey, Ben, have you considered the idea that radical change from generation to generation may itself be “transparently a projection of our world onto life in the future”?


Hee hee! I love that idea. :-)

And yes, there are books that argue that it is, and argue it well -- "A Deepness in the Sky", for instance.

I think it's rather similar to the idea that we may encounter a numerous, highly technological alien species that is monocultural -- the Vegemites who are all warlike and violent and proud and their favorite color is red.

It all depends on the handling. It implicit in the text is some really cool sfnal speculation about why that should be the case -- why what seems logical and reasonable to us (diversity of culture being a natural consequence of intelligence, accelerating technological change being a natural consequence of open, rich, high-tech societies) is in fact wrong -- I'll probably love it.

If it seems to be sort of lazily assumed for the convenience of the author, I'll probably hate it.

Another example: I am usually really annoyed by time-travel books in which characters must Go Back In Time To Change The Past For The Better (or stop it from being changed), without any consideration of the seemingly obvious paradoxes (but if you changed it, and there was no you, who changed it...) I am unmoved by the explanation of "genre convention" -- "but we've always done it this way". I am bored of the morally uninteresting "many worlds"-based cop-out.

So recently when I read Orson Scott Card's "Pastwatch/Redemption of Columbus" book, I was all ready to be annoyed. But in the middle of the book, in a paragraph or so, he offers a quite elegant solution for the whole thing, and I was not merely mollified, but actively delighted.

So yeah. I have considered it. But maybe not often enough.


That’s why the only time-travel stories I really like are the self-consistent ones (Twelve Monkeys) and the many-worlds ones (“Mozart in Mirrorshades”).

What I’m struggling with right now is how to do a milieu kind of like Jed’s but without dodging out on the fact that FTL anything directly implies temporal paradoxes.


(Mostly right now I’m waving my hands and saying “causality violation” a lot.)


(Luckily my characters are also only pretending to know what it means. It’s like “atomic” in the 50s, or “e-” in the late 90s.)


Ben, I'm not quoting Clute as a prescriptive. I don't advocate that writers try to identify their "real years" and then stick to them. I do think that Clute's idea of a "real year" is a useful way -- although not the only way -- to discuss depictions of the future in SF.

For example, we might say that Jed's initial proposal is an attempt to bring the real year of many people's SF a little closer to the present. It sounds like you, Ben, want to see SF whose real year is _very_ close to the present. Mary Anne seems to be saying that she enjoys SF whose real year is comfortably in the past.

I'd say that having a real year close to the present won't, by itself, make a novel better, and it's certainly not the only way that fiction can be challenging. For those who want to write SF that feels current, the idea of the real year could be a useful way of looking at their own work, or at others'.

I think David's suggestion (that the focus on radical change may be a reflection of our times) highlights the fact it's hard to escape our own context. The fact that Jed's description implicitly focused on the wealthy, and that the radical change you want to see addressed is an experience of the wealthy, are consequences of our living in a society of wealth and privilege. Finding a truly different perspective is _hard_.

(Science fiction itself probably could only arise in a wealthy society; it may not be a useful mode of artistic expression for poorer societies. Perhaps this is related to the complaint that mainstream critics sometimes level at SF, that it too often focuses on a narrow range of human experience.)


AUTHOR: David Moles
EMAIL: dm@chrononaut.org
COMMENT ID: 3242
DATE: 08/13/2004 10:33:14


[Oops. You know, Jed, you really need to add a Preview mode to this thing. :)]

Science fiction itself probably could only arise in a wealthy society; it may not be a useful mode of artistic expression for poorer societies.

My pet theory about this is that for a poorer society (relative to some nearby rich society), technological change is spacelike rather than timelike.


Short digression. Ben wrote:

I am bored of the morally uninteresting "many worlds"-based cop-out.

So far, I've only seen morally uninteresting *implementations* of the many-worlds thesis, but I think that's just due to over-narrow focus on the protagonist's own subjective timeline. There's material for at least a couple of good stories in examining the ethics of travelling into another timeline -- creating another branching-point, really, due to your entry -- to escape the consequences of an event in your original line.

I'm sure those stories have probably been written. Has anyone here read them?


Sort of a skewed, yet not completely off, topic thing:

Science fiction itself probably could only arise in a wealthy society; it may not be a useful mode of artistic expression for poorer societies.

I think that creative fiction of any kind requires a thriving middle class. When we cast the net beyond genre fiction (SF/Fantasy/Mystery), and ensnare other kinds of fiction (specifically so-called literary fiction), we find the same narrow set of experiences. One tribe is called to use modern suburbia as a setting, while another chooses to create a world from (nearly) whole cloth to explore the same paradox. But both tribes belong to the same nation.

Almost all literature boils down to one premise: given a choice, what do you choose? Then what happens? I paint with a broad brush, but this covers everything from Austen to Tolkien to Chabon to Murakami. For anyone in the lower strata of economic well-being, there is no choice, only the daily adherence to the rules necessary for survival. For those that inhabit the upper strata, there is the not-so-subvert pressure to maintain status quo -- that is to actively avoid too much introspection, lest it lead you to become the next Ché. Without a middle class, there is almost no room for speculation of any kind, thus no room for fiction.

Of course, if I thought it up on a Saturday night, someone else has probably said it better. My lack of education is appalling. Still, there is going to be very little written work (beyond poetry or song) that addresses the breadth and complexity of the human experience across class and culture barriers. Even the stuff written about the wealthy and powerful tends to be far more speculative than experiential. And certainly the works written about extreme poverty are written by those who have managed to rise up into the middle class.

Bah. There's still a half-bottle of wine to drink. I'm sure I'll have much more interesting musings on literature & society by the time it's been drunk.


I think there might be something to Ted's point about SF, but dmg, I think the claim that "creative fiction of any kind requires a thriving middle class" is nonsense.

The effect you're seeing is accounted for by who has more access to distribution mechanisms. It may also depend on what you mean by "fiction". But all classes in all human societies tell stories, and there's a huge and ancient tradition of working-class-and-poorer fiction. It's just that a lot of that tradition is in "folk" rather than "high" art.

[Now, if you're going to claim that only written fiction is "fiction" and that being literate automatically makes you middle class (an arugable claim for much of history, though silly today) then "fiction is middle class" becomes a tautology.]

Any works about extreme poverty that you can read by going down to the local Barnes & Noble, yes, their authors have probably managed to become middle class. That says little, though, about the circumstances of their production.

There is also, of course, plenty of fiction by and of the upper classes.

Indeed, it was fashionable at one point to make the opposite argument -- that Art could be created by gentlemen of leisure, or by those starving in garrets, but the last place you'd find it would be among the tidy row houses of the bourgeoisie. After all, gentlemen risk nothing by criticizing their society, the poor have nothing to lose, so the burghers of the middle classes are the most timid and easiest to control, and the least likely to allow themselves the freedom of imagination to produce Art of Value.

This argument, it goes without saying, was also poppycock.