Science Fiction Repair Shop: A Peek Forward Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-03-24 14:00:00 No comments

Purchase on Amazon

Earlier this month I swung by one of the local used bookstores and snapped up Robert Silverberg's Hawksbill Station for cheap. SIlverberg is one of those SF authors who doesn't get much credit — he was more workmanlike and dependable than brilliant, and I kept getting him confused with that other Robert (Sheckley), whose acid humor set him a cut above the pack. But Silverberg was also quite good — The Man in the Maze, for instance, is a great little book, and Dying Inside is one of the few times an author has crossed freely from "SF" to "literary" territory without tripping on the threshold in either direction.

The idea behind Station is pretty neat: political radicals in America's future are exiled into the Cambrian era rather than executed, and have established a colony of sorts that's teetering on the edge of collapse. What I found most interesting about Station is two things about SF generally that pop out at me more and more: the way it's always dominated by the moment of time it was produced in, and the way casual sexism makes a lot of otherwise-good work from SF's earlier years hard to read.

The first part is easy enough, but always manifests greater complexity when you peer a little more deeply into it. Back when Station was first penned (it was originally a short story expanded to a novel, and I have to say it shows), the big political threats as perceived by the West were the various forms of Communism — mainly because we were worried about losing out to it, and not because, as we know now, that Communism is no way to run a civilization (as opposed to democratic socialism, I guess, but that's another essay). The real problem with the Soviet Union was not just that it was an evil empire, but that its inherent instability would leave behind a mess when it fell apart. As a result, the book's attempts to look politically forward-thinking make it seem quaint instead.

The same goes for its sexism: the only female character in the book is the main character's long-lost sweetheart, and she has no real influence on anything that goes on. Maze had something of the same issue: most every character of consequence in the book is male, and while no malice aforethought seems to be at work, it's also its own reflection of the times, and a somewhat jarring one at that. It's a reminder of how this stuff can sneak in from under the door when you're not looking.

Thing is, whenever I come back to the idea that any work of SF is always looking forward from its moment in time, I try to do so out of the sense that we should not be punishing earlier work for manifesting this attribute, but instead looking all the more closely at the work on our desks in that light. I tried to do this with Vajra, and I still felt I'd gotten too stuck in the moment — e.g., are people really going to be printing themselves new organs in the future, even as an indulgence? Won't we have long since moved on by then to something even more radical?

I also had to ask myself this: was the reason I got stuck too much in the moment because I insisted on having the story rooted that much more directly in people we can to some degree identify with? Those people are going to be connected all the more to the moment we live in; they're going to want what we want, and perhaps also in the same ways we want it. To what degree does that prevent us from understanding what they are really intended to be, and what their future is meant to represent for us?

Tough questions, and I feel like the point of writing any particular work is to suggest a single, specific possible way in which those questions can be answered. They're not meant to be definitive or total answers, any more so than any single meal or dish could possibly sate every appetite or satisfy every palate. Silverberg was answering his own questions in his own time, and any work of SF from days gone by is going to be valuable for that reason: it shows us how, once upon a time, there was a completely different way of looking at the things around us and projecting forward from them. Isn't that what creativity's supposed to be about?

Tags: Robert Silverberg Science Fiction Repair Shop science fiction writing