12 June 2009

Society and SF, or, why, in the future, we will all have a society of our own

It strikes me that if there's one thing that SF does relatively poorly, it is in creating believable societies. I don't mean societies that are believable in the scope of the tale; I mean societies that can really stand up to more than a couple minutes' examination and avoid the tendency towards fridge logic that can take up residence in fictional stories at the drop of a hat. Star Trek is very much the poster child for this, as it is basically a universe built around a single ship and filled in on an ad-hoc basis. The Federation doesn't seem to really work so much as simply exist, which is forgiveable within the tale but falls apart if one spends any time pondering it on the way to the kitchen.

The classic SF authors avoided this through a simple expedient of writing their own society into the future. This isn't a cop-out, not in the slightest, because they knew at the very least that something had to change to maintain a modicum of suspension of disbelief while keeping familiar environs. I would call Asimov's Foundation series a prime example, from a 21st century perspective, because, once one strips away all the spacecraft and interstellar-ness, the dialogue and setting is a little archaic to modern sensibilities. Heinlein did this often, particularly with his Future History tales, but he also adopted another conceit: an ideologically triumphant society.

What I mean by an "ideologically triumphant society" is a society that is less an attempt towards belivability and more an attempt to transform one's personal belief system into a viable and transcendent system. In Heinlein's case, Starship Troopers is the exemplar (I seem to recall Stranger in a Strange Land as being one, too, but it's been a long while, and I didn't much like that book in any case). The society of Starship Troopers is, well, one of soft facism, what one today might call Libertarian Paternalism. The chaos of the past has been banished by application of Heinlein's belief in individualistic responsibilities, so much so that they look upon 'past' systems with a mix of fear and pity. A lecture by a professor in the book is actually a lecture by Heinlein himself about the failings of the juvenile justice system; it's all in the past, in this book, and this quietly confident society sails on through rough waters of warfare and tragedy to a calmer sea of peace.

This kind of society is generally easy to read if the rest of the story is up to the task. Starship Troopers is very much a product of genius and is undeniably a science fiction war novel before anything else, and as such succeeds. However, I see this as being only one side of the coin. Heinlein used it positively, to portray what he believed should be, but it can be used negatively, as well, in dystopian fiction. This is the most common method today, I think, and it is hard not to see why: drama feeds off of disaster. Things going wrong is ever a catalyst for heroism.

Movies have very much adopted this perspective, mostly because it allows for explosions. In V for Vendetta, a militant fascist society, Norsefire, controls all of England, and has carried out various iniquities upon its people until brought down by the machinations of V. Alan Moore, the writer of the graphic novel, is very much a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist, and it shows (The graphic novel is far more careful and interesting, by the way, but condensation is necessary for a movie. Remember what I said about reducing interpretations?).

All of this does not mean that there is not hope for belivable societies in SF. Neal Stephenson's latest book, Anathem, avoids most of this ideology. The reversed perspective of what are basically technologically philosophical monks thrives within its limits, never quite allowing the reader to see past the prejudices of the protagonists while still allowing details of realism seep through. Arbe is obviously--and literally--a literary stand-in for Earth, to the point of almost innumerable parallels, which allows Stephenson the luxury of combining the simple fuctionality of writing modern society with the more-or-less neutral ideological views of his protagonists.

Despite what I said before, I see that Science Fiction does actually do fine with society, but only to a point, the point to where it serves the story, and not the other way around. Neal Stephenson wanted to write about philosophy; Asimov wrote about people and technology; Heinlein wrote about the effects of lifestyle and war. Different skills and talents produce different results, leaving the SF field scattered with methods that are varyingly believable and may or may not be worth embracing. Learning from a fictional tale is possible, but adopting it wholesale is impractical...because there IS nothing else other than the story. More on that later!


Adam Wykes said...

The way SF investigates the dichotomies of utopia and dystopia is, I think, one of the most important services the genre renders to society.

By predicting and supposing various types of these two extremes, SF allows us to consider: what do we want out of our societies? Is our present society on the path to dystopia or utopia? In reality, neither of these extremes is usually reached, but they serve as useful concepts.

Take, for example, Brave New World. What is wrong with this place? Everyone is happy, disease is almost nonexistent, everyone knows their place, everyone is comparably wealthy, peace is assured, etc. Yet most readers have come away from the book feeling profound apprehension/disgust for BNW's society. The book makes the attentive reader think: what is it that makes a good society, if not these things?

Geoffrey Wykes said...

It's asked and answered within the story, I think. I ended up feeling that what happens to the protagonist is depicted as an act of nature, almost. Society as a monolith, if you will, completely separate from morality, in a way that has been designed as such. I think that the ultimate lesson is one of perfect systems and imperfect people, who either ride the tiger or get mauled by it.

Adam Wykes said...

What is society, though, except a system designed to accommodate its inhabitants?

A social system that does a poor job of accommodating its inhabitants is not a perfect system; the perfect system minimizes such cases of "mauling," as you put it.

You are right though - it is asked and answered within the story. But that doesn't mean the reader will stop thinking about it, and that was probably Huxley's goal to begin with.