Thursday, July 10, 2008

Men & Women in SF

I was asked in comments what I mean by abstraction. This is not easy to answer.

"The Cold Equations" might be an example. This isn't a real problem. It's a "if you were in a burning house with a baby and a Rembrandt, which would you save?" kind of problem.

The world is full of real problems, both practical and ethical. How can we stand to live in a world where billions of people live in poverty and die young? What can we do about this situation? This is both a problem for all of humanity and a problem for individuals. As people used to say in the 1960s, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. If you opt out of trying to act in some fashion, you are complicit.

This does not mean you are required to change the world. This is a big job for an individual. But you shouldn't go along. A guy in North Carolina, who worked in agriculture research for the state, refused to lower the flag at his research station when Jesse Helms died and has been forced into early retirement.

Would I have done that? I don't know. But he had reached a point where he could not go along.

At the moment, we are on a planet with limited resources and we need to change how we use these resources.

Maybe we can set the problem up as in "The Cold Equations." On one side, we have a political and economic system that hugely benefits a tiny minority. On the other side, we have the unmet needs of the vast majority and the planet, as well as the real possibility of environmental and social meltdown.

Okay. Question one: is there a serious ethical decision here? Question two: is Dick Chaney going to willingly walk out the airlock?

Kim Stanley Robinson has written three interesting novels about how to begin to make the needed changes.

A lot of SF is not (it seems to me) about the real problems we face; and all fiction (if it is going to matter) has to be about real experience and real problems.

Yes, the story may be set in an imaginary place, and the problem may not be one we commonly have here and now. I'm currently writing a story about a Goxhat, who is one part of a nine bodied individual, but who does not feel a sense of identity with the rest of itself. Not a typical human problem. But my Goxhat stories are about what it means to be an individual and a member of a society. These are human issues, it seems to me.

"The Time Traveler" is about evolution and class conflict. "War of the Worlds" is about imperialism and biology. "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is less easy to encapsulate. It's about treating people as animals (the inferior folk of the British empire) and about the line between people and animals. Or so I suspect. I need to reread it.

As I mentioned below, the 1950s SF writers I like wrote about McCarthyism, the Cold War and the danger of nuclear war, and the attempt (after WWII) to create a society of conformers, living in suburbs, working for corporations and consuming what the corporations made.

When I call fiction abstract, I mean it sets up false problems or offers false solutions.

I would also be inclined to call fiction abstract that says, "There are no solutions; we are doomed."

Sometimes, this is a meaningful statement. Often, it is a way of refusing to even think of taking action.


Blogger David B. Ellis said...

I'm not sure I would use the word "abstract" to describe what you're talking about.

Escapist might be better. Insignificant might be even better.

I'm not sure I agree that a work of fiction needs to be significant in this sense to be worth having been written (or read).

Some occasional escapist fun is, I think, quite therapeutic for some of us.

I only see a problem when that takes up a disproportionate amount of one's reading.

11:00 AM  
Blogger David B. Ellis said...

When I call fiction abstract, I mean it sets up false problems or offers false solutions.

What recent examples have you read?

11:02 AM  
Blogger Tallgeese said...

I think you framed the issue well in this essay. Incidentally, "The Island of Dr. Moreau" does support a critique of colonialism (as does "The First Men in the Moon"). In particular, the "beastmen" are often described using racial/ethic markers for the non-European, such as being darker or wearing a turban.

2:08 PM  

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