Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Unasked And Unseen Questions

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2023-02-16 07:00:00-05:00 No comments

Science fiction and fantasy are like any other fictional mode: they're only as good as the presumptions brought to them. If you presume too much, or presume the wrong things, they don't work as interrogations of all the things we unthinkingly live with (or die from). Here are some recent examples from my own notes:

  • Why do magic schools in fantasy all follow the boring, regressive boarding-school model? Why don't we see any magic schools along the lines of a Montessori school, or A.S. Neill's Summerhill? Do people just not know about such things? Is that because peoples' ideas about such things are largely formed by the previous generations of such work, which in turn were informed by largely regressive ideas about educational institutions?
  • Why is there almost no examination of the normative influence of the presence of magic in a society? Can you imagine the French Revolution, or Napoleon's conquests, transformed by the introduction of such a thing? Not just in military terms, but social terms — the way such democratization of power would have transformed every assumption we could have about social organization. Yes, even more so than the philosophies already in the air by then. Those theories would now have more than one form of practice.

Both of these have inspired works of their own on my end.

Now, I'm betting someone, somewhere has addressed these ideas in a story of their own, but the overwhelming majority of the stuff I've seen out there isn't like this. This is the stuff most other people encounter before they get it into their heads to write something of their own, so it's no wonder they don't move much beyond the unquestioned assumptions of such works. Assuming they move past them at all.

It's hard to know what kind of unquestioned assumptions you're dealing with. Most SF from 50 or 75 years ago makes us do double-takes with how badly it missed the boat on things like changes in social norms, while at the same time being halfway OK with its predictions about technological norms. We don't have flying cars (and we're discovering very quickly this might in fact be a terrible idea), but we've had a near-revolution in public awareness around gender and sexuality. Most SF authors were predicting something akin to the former but not the latter.

Another hard problem that arises from this is how to ask such normative questions in good faith. Good faith does not come automatically. I remember a fledgling author talking about a story they were mulling, which was essentially a reversal of race relations (whites as victims of institutional racism by other ethnicities, etc.). From the tone of the discussion, I don't think this person was trying to be trollish about the project, but it did seem they had not done a lot of basic homework on what is a fundamentally tricky issue to write about at all, let alone write speculative fiction about. I gently urged them to read as much nonfiction as possible on the subject before even attempting such a thing.

I also advised them, after that, to think about how to turn the subject into an interesting story in a way that was more sophisticated than just inverting norms and expecting the mere inversion of norms to be the story.  (I have no idea what happened after that.) And maybe that's the big thing about a what-if at the center of a story: it has to be more than a what-if, but also a and-then-what. "Ask the next question" was Theodore Sturgeon's motto, and he did that by provoking thought but by also being deeply empathic.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop fantasy science fiction