Writing good science fiction is hard. Writing good anything is hard, but science fiction multiplies the complexity. Science fiction requires a writer to project the effect that a scientific development will have on society. Moreover, the writer must portray this future society plausibly, which means distinguishing it from our current culture by extrapolating/inventing new mores and activities. I think this is why so many authors, even quite good ones, come up with brilliant technical ideas, but their visions of the future look uncannily like our world of the late 1950s.
Take smoking, for example. Smoking is practically ubiquitous in our current society, but there is now a small but vocal movement by doctors and scientists to alert us to the potential dangers of tobacco. They include a variety of respiratory ailments and even cancer. Yet, smoking is just as commonplace in the future worlds of science fiction. You would think someone would portray a smokeless future.
Another example is the portrayal of women. For centuries, women have struggled for and obtained the rights and privileges of men. The trend has historically been in their favor. They fought for and got the vote—quite recently, in fact. In the last war, they “manned” our factories and flew our planes. There seems to be a backlash against this these days; between soap operas and nuclear families, women are expected to stay at home and be seen and not heard. Still, on a long time-scale, this seems to be an anomalous blip. You would think a future in which women are portrayed as leaders and scientists and businessmen would be more common. Yet you can go through an entire issue of Astounding and find just one female character in ten, and odds are that woman will be a wife with little agency of her own. It is a man’s future, if you read science fiction—a smoking man’s future.
It could be argued that this is not all the fault of the writer. Even the greatest virtuoso must play to his or her audience, which in this case includes both the readers and editors. This audience is usually forgiving of one or two deviations from the norm. We call them “hand-waves.” For instance, so far as we currently know, it is impossible to go faster than light. Yet, science fiction is full of stories featuring vessels that do just that. That’s a hand-wave. Psionic powers are another hand-wave. People only have two hands; too many extrapolations results in an alien world that may be too unfamiliar to its audience.
Maybe. I’d like to think we science fiction fans are a more sophisticated lot than the average person on the street. Also, Heinlein certainly doesn’t have a problem dreaming up new ideas by the baker’s dozen and incorporating them into his worlds. The few standout female characters (e.g. Asimov’s Susan Calvin, Piper’s Martha Dane, the protagonists of Zenna Henderson’s The People series) have not driven fans away in droves.
But in the end, science fiction writers start out wearing the same cultural blinders as everyone else. And so the Randall Garretts, Poul Andersons and Bob Silverbergs write their stories filled with chain-smoking men because they can’t imagine a different world. Someday, perhaps, they will read the few great, truly visionary stories of their peers, and light will shine through their blinders.
If you’re wondering what triggered this screed, stay tuned for my next piece. I promise I’ll get back to reviewing the latest magazines.
(Confused? Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)