The pitfalls of history

One of the great lies of science fiction is the idea that we are writing for the future.

The truth is that we are writing for today, and moreover, that we can’t help but become quaint. Hell, the best we can hope for is to become quaint. The worst that will happen, inevitably, is that we’ll be downright offensive.

No matter how forward-thinking, how egalitarian, how enlightened, how scientifically minded we struggle to be, no matter how inclusive we work toward becoming… in a hundred years, or even twenty, the unconscious biases and attitudes imbedded in our work are going to make readers wince. Science will outstrip our current understanding of the universe; social roles will change. The best of us will learn, over the course of our careers, and continue to be open to these new ideas. (I’m minded of James White here, who radically changed his portrayal of women over the course of the Sector General stories to reflect a world in which it had become commonplace for women to be doctors and surgeons.)

There are attitudes and assumptions that we do not even question now that will seem absolutely bizarre in a hundred years’ time. Our visions of the future are so thoroughly influenced by our own ethnocentrism and culture-blindness–and those of our readers–that attempts to even step outside those boundaries appear bizarre, alienating. Over the years, the cleverer science fiction writers (Ursula K. Le Guin being perhaps the best example) have exploited this tactic intentionally.

This is not so much a manifesto as an observation; the realization that my own habit of judging the writers of the past by the standards of today is a sign of intellectual laziness on my part. Is it really fair for me to dismiss a book from 1930 or even 1970 because it suffers under a “What these people need is a honky” plot?

On the other hand, it’s important to know where the boundaries are, I think. Even by the standards of his own day, for example, H.P. Lovecraft was a supremely racist motherfucker. While I still find elements of value in his work, I also feel the compelling need to undermine his filthy ideas about biological determinism and social hierarchy at every turn. I’m somehow a little more willing to let Kipling have a pass; by the standards of his own day, he was a progressive. Equally, Shakespeare’s treatment of women is often execrable… but he took the then-radical position that we are people, with some right to self-determination and fair treatment under the law. I give him seven out of ten.

But when a modern author’s work betrays hints of unconsidered discomfort with alternative lifestyles, or fat-shaming, or Victorian attitudes toward mental illness, or when only the black characters are identified by skin color every time they show up–I find it bothers me.

Hobbit. Fat jokes. I’m much more willing to forgive them of Tolkien than Jackson. But still.

Conversely, when I notice a same-sex or mixed-race couple passing unremarked–unmarked–through a narrative, it gives me a moment of warmth. (Television shows are suddenly getting this right, on occasion. Every time it happens, those shows just made me 150% more likely to tune back in next week.)

There’s a level on which holding works of the past to modern standards reveals our own inflexibility of mind. For example, Bronte meant Jane Eyre’s obsession with phrenology to demonstrate her scientific mind and her irrepressible intellect, not her credulousness and attachment to pseudoscience.

So what can we do in our own work?

Well, have our own opinions, for one thing. Interrogate the social zeitgeist. Identify stereotypes and tropes and question them. Pause a moment when we notice that we have characterized our villain as a fat gay sadist. Maybe wince in anticipation of the winces of others. “I beg of you: consider for a moment that you may be mistaken.”

We can understand that the rules, thank cod, will change–and that this is a good thing. And we can accept we’re getting it wrong, and try to do better anyway.

Alas, how times do change.

Except it’s not Alas at all, when the arc of history occasionally does its job and bends toward justice.

Posted: Thursday, December 27th, 2012 @ 11:00 pm
Categories: Blog, Collective Action, Writing.
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3 Responses to “The pitfalls of history”

  1. SF and the Pitfalls of History | ***Dave Does the Blog Says:

    [...] attitudes / assumptions of the author — and what one can try and do about it.Embedded Link » Blog Archive » The pitfalls of history One of the great lies of science fiction is the idea that we are writing for the future. The truth [...]

  2. WOL Says:

    Yeah, what you said — and how you said it so cogently and clearly.

  3. Francis Zanger+ Says:

    I am usually bothered by many/most of the same things you are– intolerance of pretty much any sort of those who are female/fat/gay/black/whatever. The list used to include both Irish– as you used well in ‘The Tricks of London’– and Jewish, neither of which makes it to the top echelon of “minorities that are fun to despise” anymore, at least in the US.

    [Which brings up that which was for me the one questionable aspect of the delightful 'Tricks of London' (Please, write more Lady Abigail Irene Garrett tales!) Do you really wish us to believe that an Irishman named Cuan, descended from a great Irish warrior, would hide his identity behind a name guaranteed to make him sound like a Jew, descended from a great Israelite rabbi? 'Coen' and 'Cohen' share a pronunciation, and the only folk DI Bitner would like less than the Irish would be the Jews.]

    But to a comment on your blog essay… Have you thought about the possibility that readers in some moderately-distant future might consider all that you wrote terribly naïve and dated, that they might be living in a world where gays/lesbians have vanished from society because of their failure to contribute to the gene pool, say, or that ever since the Great Revival of 2183-’89, 97.2% of the population of planet Earth is traditionalist, ritualistic Roman Catholic?

    Neither is likely, of course, but neither did it seem likely even a decade ago that Washington State would pass referenda supporting gay marriage and recreational marijuana during the same election, nor likely 50 years ago that we could find such rail-thin women attractive and normal (by their standards) women fat!

    Guessing the future is a loser’s game for all of us, which is why science fiction is safest set in an era far, far beyond the life spans of its readers, or even better, in alternate worlds… not that the writer won’t in half a century appear hopelessly dated in either case, but at least those who stick to alternate or far-future scenarios can’t be proven wrong!

    All that said, Ms Bear, given the quality of your imagination and your writing, I really don’t care if you’re proven wrong by “New Physics anthropologists”, using their combination of the CERN collider and the Hubble telescope to see into New Amsterdam’s past– I am still going to read everything produce in that series and about those people!
    Pax–
    Francis+