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.