Frrom time to time the members of Novelocity like to take a step back from their regular posts here and invite a guest to step up to the podium instead. And in that tradition allow me to introduce Charles Gannon, Distinguished Professor of English, Fulbright scholar, and three time nominee for the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Speaking of novels, his latest, Caine’s Mutiny, came out yesterday.
Chuck agreed to come by and share a few words, an essay he’s chosen to call “The Truth… Now and Then.” He’s a smart guy and reading his ideas will change the way you think.
Just this past week, I wrapped up a government think-tank consulting gig. In the course of it, I encountered a lot of what is often called “straight-line” futurism, in which, aside from one or two political, cultural, or technological changes, all else proceeds forward along the vectors established by best-practice projections based on current capabilities, funding, and policies. So during what was billed as a “deep future” perspective (thirty or more years into the future), I was encountering scenarios which projected an essentially unchanged North Korea, unchanged Crimea crisis, unchanged assumptions about basic family and relationship dynamics.
Now, such a future is by no means impossible, but is it likely? Let’s take North Korea: for a (comparatively) small state with a leader whose physical and mental health remain objects of ceaseless scrutiny and dubiety, the greater likelihood is that, between now and, say, 2045, that nation’s political and cultural realities will be markedly different. And yet, that scenario was (by some, uncritically) put forward as legitimate, even likely.
As the real futurists in the room steered discussion toward a less narrow concept of “change,” I found myself reflecting that among us SF (and more broadly, speculative fiction) writers, this kind of “time is frozen” reflex is not unknown. Which is somewhat surprising, considering that exploring change is one of the most important and energizing elements of our genre—even if it does always put us on the horns of various world-building dilemmas.
Partly, this is because we speculative fiction authors live in a tricky grey zone between the “real” and the “unreal.” Many of the doyens of belles lettres still dismiss us as unworthy of serious consideration since we site our tales in worlds that only exist someplace beyond the boundaries of current events or physics. And yet, our field often invokes far more realistic character portrayals than what one may find in many of the more “realistic” genres—even in the realm of belles lettres.
This points to the vexing and multifaceted problem of “exploring the real” that inhabits all fiction, but puts a particularly challenging matrix of choices before those of us who toil in the mines of speculative fiction. In historical or contemporary fiction, authors grapple with choices such as: should one shape the unfolding plot to sustain a dramatic pace, or reduce the dramatic pace to conform to a more believable unfolding of events? Should one craft dialog for reader accessibility or for faithfulness to the spoken form of our language? How much should we be guided by what is plausible when, daily, fact routinely proves itself to be stranger than fiction?
But we in speculative fiction have all these choices to resolve, plus others such as: near future, far future, or otherwhen? Stay with or set aside the rules of physics—and which ones, and why? Invent and reflect changes in language and culture honestly, or mute these so that readers may remain adequately oriented within the narrative? These choices hardly scratch the surface of the many we confront when we choose a world we wish to present, and how we wish to present it.
As if that wasn’t a thorny enough set of choices, we must then contend how pulling on one of these narrative threads often exerts strong traction upon another. And, inasmuch as I was thinking about political and cultural change this past week, that is what struck me about much of speculative fiction—particularly that which sites itself in relationship (either by theme or chronology) to our contemporary moment.
Specifically, let us presume that I am writing a science fiction novel which explores the future as a projection (rather than a prediction: a perilously Quixotic undertaking). In such a narrative, the relationship between the passage of time and change—technological, political, cultural—becomes a crucial part of its believability, and even verisimilitude. One could choose to craft a future which privileges or dictates certain outcomes, but that a priori intentionality steers away from the open-ended cause-effect matrices that drive futurist explorations. Where the end-state is determined first, teleology, not projection, is the narrative’s organizing principle.
However, that teleological choice—whether made in the process of crafting a future world or a wholly alternative reality—is the very life-blood of novels that are motivated by allegory or advocacy. Their mission is ultimately to make a point, including the crafting of utopias toward which we should strive and dystopias from which we should recoil. Conversely, a futurist narrative is fundamentally one of discovery, a thought experiment that would be ruined by having a predetermined end-state. (The case of hybrid works is so inherently tangled by caveats and limiting statements that I must leave it untouched for now.)
Enough generalities: time for some specifics. I will use my own Caine Riordan series, (the next novel of which is released this week) to illustrate how these two (usually) distinct objectives inform and can ultimately complicate each other. In Caine’s future, (set one hundred years from now), I project that the racial and gender issues of this day are largely resolved. However, other social stigmatizations have arisen.
This projection is not arbitrary. In fact, to project otherwise would be to assume that the current trend toward demarginalization of these demographic signifiers ultimately loses steam or is reversed.
Is this unwarrantedly optimistic? I think not. Rather, I think it is the alterative view—that we will be facing the same, largely unaltered challenges—that is the harder projection to legitimate. In order for today’s social conditions to be essentially unchanged a century from now, we must project—and convincingly explain why—our century-long trend toward swiftly increasing social equity and liberality would profoundly stagnate or cease.
And of course, if in 100 years we have not progressed beyond our current bigotries and identity issues, that story would certainly demand to be told, since it envisions a dramatic reversal of our current trajectories of increasing social equity and conscientiousness. That would necessarily imply a correspondingly extensive failure in the pluralistic focus on individual rights that is not only our national hallmark, but the very foundation of Post-Enlightenment Western social evolution.
However, since I didn’t consider that the most likely outcome, the logical question might be: so then how did our current quandaries of identity politics—from the juridical to colloquial—transform or vanish?
My narrative answer grew out of the observation that as we move forward, new social crises overtake those that came before (albeit at different rates and to different degrees). In this case of Caine Riordan’s future, it was simply a function of time and demographic change; it became increasingly anachronistic and perverse to presume superiority based on identity, simply because there ceased to be any evidence for it in he workplace or domestic space. Reflecting this, new gender-neutral pronouns evolved organically (“sib/s” and “allgen”) and there is now an easy lack of presumption regarding any new acquaintance’s ethnic, cultural, sexual, or gender self-identification. On the other hand, when misperceptions or miscommunications occur, this does not create a supercharged emotional situation: mistakes no longer represent the projected power of “dominant culture’s” presumed and preferred identity formulations.
However, in many places, bigotry has now erupted over the use of cyborg implants—a prejudice, which, once again, has significant socio-economic correlations. The thumbnail sketch: genescreening has been the tool of choice for individual optimization in the wealthier nations of the world. The infrastructure necessary to shift to what is essentially an IVF process for every pregnancy was an expensive investment, with various stages of inequity to navigate before availability became nearly universal.
However, poorer communities, and particularly poorer nations, never had the wherewithal to mount analogous initiatives. So, in the rush to compete with genetically “optimized” individuals, they resort to often dangerous (and often extortion-funded) implants. Because these “cyborging short-cuts” also were responsible for a wave of disasters and dislocations during the EMPidemic of the 2080s (although most of the problems arose from hacking, rather than electro-magnetic pulses), they are now considered a hazardous alternative. Their users are presumed to be deceptive, irresponsible, unreliable, more likely to be associated with black market/criminal elements, and possessed of lower innate abilities, etc. If that sounds like a list of traits that have long been used to “validate” bigotry —well, as the axiom has it, the more things change, the more they stay the same. And this is indeed an illustration of how changes and constants weave together in a social tapestry: although the cause and identifiers of that future’s underclass have altered, the basic dynamics of prejudice and Othering persist.
Of course, advocacy novels can and have ported current issues directly into a future setting. This tends to be more easily and reasonably achieved in fantasies/allegories, where the author has absolute freedom to site contemporary quandaries or crises in a wholly fabricated environment, unconstrained by that scenario’s historical connection to our own world. If, on the other hand, the author wished to find a way to fuse a science fictional narrative with such a contemporary consideration, the projective challenge would be to present an (explicit or implicit) explanation for why today’s problems remain the problems in that future time (the shade of this hybridized approach inhabits Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I think). Specifically, the logical unspoken challenge which we must anticipate is, “why has the problem in question experienced no fundamental change?” And furthermore, how do we reconcile that with the lesson of the last two centuries: that change—social as well as technological—is increasing in both its pace and profundity?
Nowhere do we see this contrast more clearly, I feel, than when a narrative world apparently returns us to the past. Specifically, I think of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” alongside The Handmaid’s Tale. Gilman’s tale no longer depicts a plight that must be feared by all American women at this very moment, although its harrowing scenario is hardly unknown in the U.S. So while its warning is still pertinent, its particulars are increasingly historical rather than contemporary. But Atwood, by projecting and depicting a profound spasm of cultural recidivism, illustrates that the triumph of equity is always subject to reversal and defeat, can always swing back—and in so doing, may present a future more dire than the past.
Yet the narrative challenge remains this: Gilman’s story, whatever else it may be, cannot be our future, since those days to come are, in part, a reaction to and produce of our response to Gilman’s past. And so, the challenge which Atwood shoulders and meets is to avoid simply porting past or present cultural crises uncritically into the future. Rather, successful dystopias that are also rooted in contemporary issues do not merely portray what we most hope or fear, but why and how such a scenario could come to pass. The one thing we cannot do—not without violating the axiomatic presumption that time brings change—is to simply move today’s cultural goalposts into some future world.
As professor, panelist, and parent, I have often used a Korean aphorism to invoke the determinative nature of personal perspective: “we see from where we sit.” Now, looking back at these ruminations, I am struck by a corollary: that “we see from when we sit”—whether we are attempting to understand past narratives in the context of their creators’ epochs, or endeavoring to be maximally conscientious in our attempt to project the changes that might be before us.
And that, my friends, is Chuck Gannon, sharing some thoughts that will seep into your brain and cause you to wake up in the middle of the night days later with deep and profound insights (at least, that’s what happens to me when I read him).
It’s also worth noting that he’s the Guest of Honor at AlbaCon the last weekend in March (full disclosure, I’ll be there too as “RoastMaster”). I hope you can make it.
Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology; has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, and WSFS awards; recently won the Cóyotl award for Best Novel of 2015; is a world authority on the Klingon language; operates the small press Paper Golem; and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.
His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.