That Was Then

Science fiction is never really about the future. It’s about the present. It only pretends to be about the future.

Nor could it be otherwise. The writer is inevitably trapped within the social and intellectual matrix of the present day. There are, as Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, unknown unknowns.

One of the ways this plays out is in the cultural preoccupations and references of people whose lives are ostensibly hundreds of years in the future. I’ve just finished reading Ancestral Light by Elizabeth Bear, and it illustrates this in some jolly ways. Bear’s human characters are part of a multi-species galaxy-wide civilization. They have never even been to Earth; they live in their space ship. Quite evidently, centuries have passed. And yet….

And yet the lead lead character reads George Eliot’s Middlemarch and makes a passing reference to The Scarlet Letter. Another character quotes Marcus Aurelius. Bear’s first-person text drops in two distinct references to Gertrude Stein, the two that everybody knows: “X is an X is an X” and “there’s no there there.” The narrator carries with her, if you can believe this, a paper copy of Illuminatus, a novel by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson that was published in the 1970s.

As if that weren’t bad enough, here we are, hundreds of years in the future, and yet the lead character and her villain antagonist both drink coffee. They’re quasi-marooned on a gigantic alien spaceship … but somehow the villain has brought along a supply of coffee sufficient to last for several months.

As a teenager I was quite taken with George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. Written in the late 1940s, it’s about how life continues for a tiny remainder of humanity after most of the human race dies in a plague. It’s not a very good book, as I discovered when I re-read it as an adult. One of its failings is that for years after civilization has ended, Stewart’s characters are still smoking cigarettes. They retrieve cartons of them from the moldering ruins of the cities. This is extraordinarily silly. The reason Stewart did it this way was, quite transparently, because as a writer in the 1940s, and presumably a smoker himself, he simply couldn’t imagine drafting a scene involving a social encounter in which his characters didn’t light up.

Isaac Asimov wrote stories set in the 21st century in which the women worked happily in the kitchen, wearing aprons, and the men wore hats. He was not capable of imagining the things that he was not capable of imagining.

The supposed future clings to the past in another way, too. In the first important time travel story, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the time traveler goes to the future — but while the idea of time travel grabbed our collective imagination, these days time travelers seem always to journey to the past. Dinosaurs, the great library in Alexandria, Shakespeare, the Crucifixion, the Black Death — these are the idea files that writers love to leaf through. The reason, I suspect, is that the past seems real to us. The future hasn’t happened yet, so it’s just a blank, but the past is palpable.

There are other problems in Ancestral Light. Basically it’s a space opera (Bear admits as much), so it’s jam-packed with stuff that doesn’t make sense. I think my favorite bit is that on the tiny, cramped interstellar salvage tug in which the narrator and one other person are the entire crew, they have two cats. Cats on a small space ship, for months at a time. Her copy of Illuminatus is described as being printed on onion-skin, because of course carrying unnecessary weight on a space ship is a thing to be avoided. Fuel economy and all. Yet they’re in space for months at a time, so they’re quite evidently packing about a ton of cat food. Yeah, right.

Bear mentions that the cats have been trained to use the zero-G litter box. I invite you to try, if you dare, to imagine exactly how that would work. Me, I’m thinking the whole genre of science fiction is pretty much zero-G cat litter, when you get right down to it. Some of the stories are good. Some of the characters are good. But the world-building is generally a shabby mess.

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