Science Fiction Repair Shop: Future Tense Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-07-15 10:00:00-04:00 No comments

The One Thing About Geordi That LeVar Burton Wishes Star Trek Had Explored: "His Sexuality"

You have to remember that [Star Trek: The Next Generation] was 20th century men, for the most part, writing a show about 24th century people.

That summation could apply to the vast majority of SF that peers into the future (instead of looking at a slightly-altered present).

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I've written before — typically while invoking Barrows Dunham's Man Against Myth -- about how the man of the past could not have begun to conceive of the man of the present, and how that leaves the man of the present fighting similarly losing odds when trying to conceive of the man of the future.

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Serious SF (as opposed to mere pulp) tries to be as untrammeled as it can about such things. Pace, Heinlein imagining a future far less molded by the moralizing forces that shaped his own life. But a lot of the future he imagined was, likewise, shaped by his own counter-moralization — sexual freedom and polyamory, etc. His idea of a "better" future was just that: his idea of a better future, one conditioned a lot more than it might seem by his moment in time and space.

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Gene Roddenberry's ideas about the future were similarly conditioned, and while he too had optimism about mankind's ability to make a future for itself, the ways he saw man doing that were quite particular to his vision. We tend to think of Star Trek as being a little too optimistic for its own good these days; our ideas of the future now run to scruffier things like Firefly rather than the clean-scrubbed Utopianism of Trek. (I suspect many people also grew annoyed with the way Trek fell back on time travel as a plot device, or used technological gimcrackery as a Solomonic solution to an intractable social problem.)

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None of this is meant to be considered problematic or objectionable. It's just one of the products of being a particular person in a particular place at a particular time. You can only see so far forward, and you're only going to be able to use your existing frame of reference as a starting point. Samuel R. Delaney's Triton drew heavily on his time and experiences in Greenwich Village, and while some of that has given the book a dated veneer, many ideas explored in it are still prescient. It's just clear that if anyone--Delaney included!--sat down to write a book like this today, it wouldn't come out anything like this.

I get varying impressions about what people think is the real value of SF, depending on who I talk to. Some place most of the value on the work as a predictive thing, which I've groused about before as being way too limiting. Others have seen SF as being a way to speak obliquely or allegorically about the here and now, with the longevity of a given work often being a function of its more general literary merit. The Stars My Destination may have some individually dated details, but the timelessness of the underlying story only deepens with each passing decade — and the things Bester was zinging that were present in his own society (e.g., the rise of the corporation as a political entity) have only become that much more relevant.

It's not a question of which of these is more important — the predictive value or the commentative value — but rather how you make the best of each to serve the story. A story can have virtually no predictive value (does anyone really believe Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a remotely accurate look at life a few years hence?) but can still be insightful. The trick is to make sure the insight becomes more important than the future vision — which, if you ask me, requires some understanding of human nature to show up on the page generally. That's hard to do no matter what section of the bookstore you're getting shelved in, and the number of books that pull it off in any genre — even literature with a cap L — continue to be remarkably few.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop futurism science fiction writing