Wednesday, December 10, 2014

On the Impossibility of Cultural Estrangement

Charles Stross writes on his excellent blog about the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future science fiction. His objection is that far-flung societies ought to be significantly removed from what is familiar to us; and yet many space operas present a future that is essentially the status quo, plus made-up technology:
The gender politics, religious framework, ideologies, fashions(!) and attitudes of today—specifically, of a type of Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to—has become a universal norm. And nothing else gets much of a look in.
He brings up two examples, one of which I am unfamiliar with; the other one is Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton, the first book in his Commonwealth series, of which I am a big fan. I have my own problems with Hamilton's writing, but they are not the same as Stross's problems. In fact, I was very surprised by his objections; and while Charlie is very good about engaging with his fans, the comment thread stands at 348 entries as I am writing this, and I just don't see the value of riding into the middle of the discussion on the back of a white rhino. So you get to read this on my blog instead.

My first counter to Charlie's objection is that he is guilty of this himself. He grants that Hamilton at least has a fig-leaf explanation, that the rich people who are the majority of Hamilton's protagonists have access to rejuvenation and their society is therefore frozen in time (in the later books, access to rejuvenation for the middle classes and working poor is also addressed). Yet let's look at Stross's own far-future books. He's come up with two compelling space-opera universes: that of the Eschaton (abandoned due to mechanical inconsistencies that bother Stross far more than they ever bothered fans), and that of Saturn's Children. In the latter, society is frozen in a sort of today-plus-ten-years, with middle-class aesthetics predominantly influenced by the Western fascination with Japanese pop culture which has - today, in 2014 - become thoroughly mainstream and is well on its way to being diluted into banality; and much of the rest of that world is a direct copy of the modern vintage hipster approach, co-opting the symbology that is already retro in his reader's time. Stross's fig-leaf excuse is that he is describing a rump society left over after humanity essentially ground to a halt, stopped reproducing and died out, all within a lifetime of the observer's now, and the remnants are compelled at firmware level to ape that moment in time when their creators perished. In the Eschaton universe, Stross goes further still - his god-machine takes various historical human societies, including quite recent ones, and deposits them around the universe in such a way that they would come into contact with each other simultaneously - but at different points in their own development. The compelling culture of the original Eschaton book is late-stage Imperial Russia, but with starships and lasers. The most distinctive culture in the second Eschaton book is literally Space Nazis.

Secondly, the most obvious retort: every writer is told to write what they know, and every reader consumes a story via their own perspective. For a human, fallible writer to create a universe that is fundamentally unrecognizable would be a neat trick indeed, especially if it is supposed to have developed from an existing modern one. Have any managed this? Answers in the comments, please...)

For the human fallible reader, that universe would be confusing and without meaning - the semiotic equivalent of opening a PDF document in Notepad. This is why the works of Jules Verne or H.G. Wells do not accurately describe real-life 2014-or-thereabouts. For even the best futurist to predict events more than a decade or two in the future, without firmly grounding them in historical precedent of similar developments, is a blind lottery: you might succeed accidentally and occasionally, but you can't pull it off reliably and repeatedly.

Thirdly, I think there is a counter-argument to be made to Charlie's assertion that a comparison of our present with our own past implies an unrecognizable future. Yes, the world of 2014 is incredibly different from the world of 1914; but that world is far less removed from 1814 in the view of the man on the street. And the world of 1714, in that same perspective, would be remarkably similar to the world of 1214. That's just taking Europe - a continent and culture that famously had a thousand-year chasm in its civilizational development, from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Renaissance; and if Hamilton's criminally familiar universe is set 400 years in the future, well - there are 400-year-old buildings a stone's throw from where I'm sitting right now, still perfectly functional. And if I go into a shop, I can buy food from farmers and artisans who use 400-year-old methods to produce a premium, higher-added-value product. I live in a country that is often lauded in global media as the world's most advanced digital society, but in this same country, heating your house with a wood-burning stove is still a perfectly valid infrastructural choice.

The classic SF soundbite about the future being already here but unevenly distributed applies at both the macro and micro scales. Parts of our lives are incredibly advanced, but transport a modern literary novel four hundred years back in time, edit it slightly for spelling and vocabulary, and I think it would still be readable to the people of that age, as one of those new-fangled notions in the style of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Fourthly, I think the grounding of far-future SF in modern culture is simply a normal part of the compact between the reader and author. The escapism that draws readers to space opera is about being a better version of yourself - not about associating with someone entirely different. From the days of "Utopia", it is understood and accepted that the author uses the expanded horizon of speculative fiction to make a relevant point, to say something about the society in which we live today. If the future they have described does not come to pass, the artistic value of the work is not diminished - we still enjoy Verne and Wells, and Asimov and Heinlein.

The best futurists are not the ones who have guessed right - they are the ones who have presented a future so consistent, believable and attractive that the generation of their fans goes out and builds it.

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