Some days ago there was a “Pretend To Be A Time Traveler” day and some pages gave suggestions. Of course, most of these suggestions were based on movies, so there was all sorts of things that harked back to stuff like a Mad Max future.
This is because most science fiction the common person sees is in movies. Possibly this came about because the publishers decided ex cathedra that science fiction didn’t sell and therefore have been marketing science fiction not to sell (with the exception of mil sf) for the last thirty years or so. Weirdly it never seems to have occurred to them that perhaps the reason SF – other than mil sf and Baen always excepted because duh – didn’t sell was because no one was particularly interested in grey goo and staring at their own belly buttons.
It wasn’t so much the selling an agenda that made it unpalatable. Most sf sells an agenda, even the one that tries not to. I found when I pivoted from Fantasy to Science Fiction that while in Fantasy you could keep your political beliefs snide and half hidden, in Science Fiction to do that you’d have to outright lie, and you’d have to do it consciously. And the lies you put in would make no sense with the rest of the world.
Why? Because science fiction requires you to project into the future how you think history will go, and therefore how you think people/economics/history/philosophy work.
Of course you can choose to preach or not – I try not to (I’m not responsible for some of my characters. When reading A Few Good Men, please remember the Usaians are a messianic religion. [clears throat. Right.]) – but the assumptions are there and are easily examinable if one should want to explore them.
Interestingly, I can read people whose assumptions are dramatically different from mine, as long as they’re not in your face stupid. The book that had everyone in the oughts wearing nose filters when playing outside, and where the Earth was so overpopulated that everywhere was like the more populated parts of India for instance, went against the wall with force and malice, because that book was written in the nineties. I could have read it – even if as alternate history – if it had been written before the sixties. But in the nineties? Apparently this person thought that people came out of nowhere and emerged fully grown (Sort of like miracle gro for people) and reproduced within the space of… two years? Also she believed we were all going to suddenly default to the ecological preservation/concern standards of Russia and China (Spew all you want. It’s proletarian pollution.) AND manage to do that within ten years. Stupid assumptions. Book goes against wall. Note book still got published. There is a reason for this which we’ll explore later on.
Anyway, I’m not sure when, but I think sometime in the early eighties, (but it might have been seventies, because remember I was in Portugal, which means I got SF with a lag time and with weird choice factor built in. [I wonder if most Portuguese know the people who represent SF rights in Portugal are all Spanish. Never mind.]) the editors got tired of all this “the future gets better” thing. This was the era of Paul Ehrlich after all, and we were all dooooooomed, doooomed, I tell you, dooooooooooooooooooomed. Then there was the fact that technology was bad because it allowed us to oppress native people who were in tune with nature. Yeah, these were the first editors fully indoctrinated in oikophobia and Rousseau-blah to hit power.
Suddenly SF was redefined. We were told it wasn’t about the future. It was about today’s problems in a future setting. Yes, that’s bullhockey. Yes, to some extent science fiction is always about the present, not the future – more on that later – but that’s because we live in the present. However, its mode is to strive to see the future, through a mirror darkly. Like historical fiction it is a way of telling a civilization what and who it is. Historical fiction tells society who they were [and the fact today mostly is lies like a rug is somewhat disturbing] and science fiction shows a civilization where it CAN choose to go. (One is trying very hard not to think that this was also part of telling our civilization it couldn’t go to the future, it couldn’t be more prosperous, it couldn’t be free, it couldn’t be–)
Redefining science-fiction gave people permission to write novels that were belly button gazing with some passing references to its being the future. Honestly, I have a degree in (languages and) literature (yes, I was VERY bad in a past life. Next?) and most of the modern-literature cr*p… er… stuff they made us read in college could be “science fiction” as the gate keepers were defining it, with only a few passing references to its being the future, really.
Well, modern literary novels sell almost not at all. (I know, because I CAN write the stuff and I showed an opening to a friend and he said it was very good and his agent would love it, but did I realize the most I’d ever get for a literary novel was bottom-advance? And they expected you to only write one every two years? I investigated. He was right. I shelved the idea. At any rate, it was never something I WANTED to do – I’m low class and like genre. Sue me. — My only goal in trying it was to make money because Dan was unemployed and I wanted to support the family.) And modern literary novels disguising as SF sold even less because the people who buy literary novels to be seen with them wouldn’t touch SF with a ten foot pole. So, of course, publishers decided SF didn’t sell. (This is like insisting all fish on the shelves must be three months old, then telling everyone no one buys fish anyway and we should just stop fishing and let the seas be pristine, again. It’s a trick governments use a lot.)
Movies continued to show us space, and future, and past, and even when they were dystopic, were clearly SF and interesting, so of course, SF movies did well – ranging from the soft/near present sf of Sliding Doors, to the gonzo parody of Galaxy Quest, to the apocalyptic dreams of Alien (Or even Independence Day. I love Independence Day) or Blade Runner.
There are exceptions in Science Fiction, of course, but they were mostly the soft/time travel SF.
Which brings us right around to time travel, pretending to be a time traveler, and why you can’t take your assumptions out of SF – and probably shouldn’t – which means SF is to an extent about the past, but you shouldn’t AIM to make it about the past.
When I was a young literature student (with most of my sins still to expiate) we studied the structure of various stories people tell. And we found that all stories people tell, even the ones that are purportedly, about the present are always about fifty years behind.
Some are further behind than that. I don’t even mean things like the Iliad. We know the Iliad is fossilized story. That’s fine. And we know that fairytales are fossilized – in fact ritualized story – actually about a society that never existed.
It’s harder to perceive this effect in other genres. For instance jokes. Most jokes are frozen in the world of the earlier twentieth century. Why? Possibly because the present is varied, but the past is uniform, having been told into uniformity. No? Well, when have you met a naïve farmer’s daughter and a traveling salesman? There really aren’t any traveling salesmen anymore. There are company reps, but not door to door to-the-public traveling salesmen. And the setup of most jokes would fall flat if the people had cell phones or had watched cable TV for any time at all.
Science Fiction and Fantasy is not immune from this. In fact, in many ways it’s far, far worse than say other genres like mystery which have to depend on recording the quotidian.
The recent triple-prize winner short story, for instance, based on the idea that a child would reject the culture of a foreign-born parents, and that her suburban neighbors would reject her too was very well written… and about a parallel universe. It could have taken place in the fifties and (MAYBE in some places) the early sixties. After that? Not a chance. Unless you put the story in some isolated, G-d forsaken place (I confess I don’t remember where he set it. I don’t really have a brain these days and I’m starting to understand why Barbara Hambly tells everyone she’s illiterate. I read fiction and it falls from my head ten minutes later. Mostly because I have to remember the details of my own world so I can finish book, so…) the theme simply doesn’t work.
It absolutely doesn’t work in the last thirty years. Uh uh. Nah-ah. Look, I am an immigrant, with a marked accent and I have kids in the schools. The problem was NOT getting my kids to want to hear about my homeland. I was fortunate — ! – the school didn’t offer Portuguese, so I could explain in words of one syllable that no, they shouldn’t be in bilingual Spanish classes and make it stick. If they’d had Portuguese bilingual classes (some places near Boston do) they’d have overruled me. H*ll, supermarket cashiers chide me for not teaching the kids Portuguese (As G-d is my witness we TRIED) and “their culture” as though, you know, they somehow drunk Portuguese culture in mother’s milk and therefore need to be taught to understand it because… CHEESE! Lasers! Wife!
The problem was making them “acculturate.” This is insane, since they ARE American and shouldn’t have to acculturate to anything. The school, however, enshrined my “culture” as though it were genetic and pushed with all their might to make them think of themselves as Portuguese first. (Apparently Dan’s contribution goes for nothing. Rolls eyes.) I fought a rearguard action, because I think living in a place thinking of yourself as an outsider makes you less successful. (I have reason to know this. Remember I bought Stranger because of the title, without reading even the back. Because in Portugal, at 12, I was a Stranger in A Strange Land.)
It rings true to editors – and most readers – of SF who vote for awards because — you won’t take this wrong, right? – as a group of core writers/editors/readers, we tend to not be married, and we have probably fewer children (certainly fewer children going through public school) than anyone else. And the attitudes that sound “right” to people aren’t the ones of their generation, but the ones they grew up with. So for anyone my generation, what sounds right is the forties and fifties, when our parents’ generation was growing up.
Some of this is going to happen in all science fiction. A lot of what Heinlein assumed about how the future would be came from living through a time of explosive tech (and population) growth. And even more so from his parents having done it.
It’s being human, okay? We don’t have writers who aren’t human. (Though I’ve met some that– Uh. Never mind.)
BUT this is going happen more when you tell people that sf is supposed to be about today’s PROBLEMS. This sort of sf-problem-reflection is going to get even more inchoate, involuted, and have nothing to do with the FUTURE. (Hence the endless female-lib stories that seem to think the future exists frozen in amber circa 1950.)
So, back to being time travelers. Making predictions is hard. Particularly about the future. The average person pretending to be a time-traveler is just going to be… weird. And people will have no idea what they’re going on about. The non average person (my son) pretending to be a time traveler is going to make people back away slowly. (“Who knew the dinosaurs would make a come back. Some breeding specimens remained in deepest Africa. Of course, they’re convenient for riding. But NYC has a dino-poop problem, and you can’t sleep at night for the mating screams of Pteronodons”.)
Which means there’s more to this science fiction thing than meets the eye. If I’m right and SF is how we tell ourselves how far we can fly, how far we can go, then SF is both difficult to do and essential and while it can’t leave the present (because of that human thing) it shouldn’t strive to do “a critique” of the present, because that just makes it “modern literature” which is to say fifty years or more out of date. And also, really, not about how far we can go.
Don’t fight too much on your projection of what comes next. Your assumptions will be built into it, of course. But make sure you’re turned the right away around, and projecting the future, not staring at the past.
You’ll make mistakes. Of course you will. Computers blindsided everyone (and will continue to. We still don’t know ALL of the impact of the internet revolution.) But dream BIG. Dream odd. Dream fearlessly. Now that you can dream without gatekeepers telling you which dreams are valid, don’t gate-keep yourself.
If Science Fiction does anything, it gives a vision we can aim for.
Even if it’s just that third star on the right, at which we’ve aimed our ship.