Society of the future

The future, the entire future – it’s pale, stale and male.

Euro-American culture is all that exists, its engineers, nuclear families and universal values are throughout the galaxy.

That is the future we have if you believe a large section of science-fiction.

Today’s life, tomorrow

I want to know why I lost interest in sci-fi.

Good sci-fi has a wealth of ideas and the potential that we love. A Victorian child who read the then-fantastical Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1870 could well have grown to become a pioneer submariner.

Sci-fi society - Xray Delta One
Could you grow up into this?

Sci-fi also influences people – Star Trek‘s effect on turning youths (mainly male ones) towards science is well known, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four is quoted with every advance in government surveillance, and when light sabres are made, they are going to hum when swung.

The ideas of sci-fi are good, but more often than not in my experience the stories are a let down.

Story v idea

As a teen I loved sci-fi – not surprising that I ended up studying physics. Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, the two giants of the genre, were my favourites, even HG Wells, but I also had a fondness for short stories and tales.

But then I stopped and moved onto other areas and have barely looked at sci-fi (unless you count Judge Dredd) until I listened to those Bradbury tales and picked up A Canticle for Leibowitz this summer.

It made me wonder why I’d not read sci-fi in many years, but as I read on I realised why.

Unfortunately, while the idea is ‘society’ the execution is ‘the USA’.”

The idea

The idea of sci-fi, in general, is great, and so was the idea in A Canticle.

In it, nuclear war plunges the world into a new Dark Ages with knowledge kept alive by Catholic monks. It’s a grand tale sweeping 1,800 years and focuses on a few choice individuals.

That drew me in, as did the idea – what would future society be like if it rejects science after a disaster? Unfortunately, while the idea is ‘society’ the execution is ‘the USA’.

US equals them

Walter Miller suffers from the writer’s disease that America = the world. Actually, it should be the West = the world as other writers suffer from it. What happens in America happens everywhere – in A Canticle‘s case, an anti-science backlash.

Not every sci-fi story is like this – Nevil Shute’s On the Beach the whole world is affected, but likewise the whole world plays a part in it. Firefly is only partly Western, a Chinese-Anglophone alliance.

The biggest danger of such sci-fi is the extrapolation of modern quirks or fads into dominant, universal factors.  This was hammered home in a recent radio series of Ray Bradbury stories that could be summed up as ‘1950s America… in space!’

Forever fad

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World took sexual liberation as the defining point of society, as did many 1960s films and series. Red Dawn took Soviet posturing and cunning to the point where they could parachute an invasion army undetected halfway across the globe.

At best people barely change, it’s just a few gimmicks. It’d be like William Gibson in the 1990s writing about the future involving parachute pants and tool-related dances.

Never has a dystopia looked so bleak

Contrast this with Nineteen Eighy Four  is fundamentally about how individuals cope with basic urges and feelings in a new society, Blade Runner is about what it is to be human, and 2001 is about humanity’s symbiosis with technology.

Sci-fi can often focus on a good idea to the exclusion of the people around it, to telling and not showing. For a good comparison look at the original script for 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arthur C Clarke’s heavy narration – it’s the storyteller Stnaley Kubrick who discards this and shows it instead.

Hammer home

The idea is good, and it is tempting in sci-fi to hammer home the idea to the exclusion of everything else. It’s why most sci-fi societies seem to be focused and lifeless – as TV Tropes puts it, there’s no such thing as alien pop culture.

What works best as sci-fi is when the story is something else – Inception is a story about invading dreams, but ultimately it’s a heist film, Likewise, Blade Runner is about survival and being human, Star Wars is a classic quest to rescue the princess and defeat the bad guys.

Sci-fi then has the power to drive ideas, but it is when it is from beyond the idea into a story that it shines.

One thing that unites the sci-fi stories I praise is that the first have a story, and also that they have good characters. It why I’ve stuck with Judge Dredd and forgotten the rest.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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