Does science fiction have a social function?

Is modern science fiction failing to provide the positive visions of the future that it used to? And if so, is that a bad thing – is SF somehow ‘failing its mission’? A poster at FutureHi wrote that he has been reading and enjoying a Norman Spinrad novel, and found himself wondering why no other novels he’s read recently seem to depict a ‘future that is better than the present’. He then quotes Spinrad’s opinion on the same matter, so I’ll quote his quotage:

“Providing hope is something science fiction should be doing. It sounds arrogant to say it, but if we don’t do it, who the hell will? One of the social functions of science fiction is to be visionary, and when science fiction isn’t being visionary, it hurts the culture’s visionary sense. And when the culture isn’t receptive, neither is science fiction. It’s a downward spiral.”

Well, I can see the point being made here. We’re not exactly overburdened with people painting rosy visions of the future at the moment, in science fiction or anywhere else – and the reasons for that should be pretty obvious to anyone who has an IQ bigger than their shoe size and doesn’t live underneath a large rock in Siberia somewhere. Maybe we could do with some positivism; a few people saying, “hey, look, y’know, we can do some stuff pretty well, and we’re getting better all the time”. I’m a bit of a doom and gloom merchant myself (O RLY?), but I can fully believe that balance of opinion drives progress – a foil to my pessimism can be very useful at times (which is why I read every day, to name but one example). Hope, positive visions, check. You’ll hear no complaints from me – though you may hear an oppositional devil’s advocate rant or two, natch.

No, that’s not what bothers me here. What bothers me is this notion of science fiction having some sort of social obligation to discharge.

An diversion, by way of illustration: when I was younger, I was a terrible music fascist (YA RLY!). If the tunes you listened to didn’t match my exacting (yet frequently hypocritical and unfounded) standards for what was good and righteous in musical form and content, you were, frankly, less than human. OK, maybe not quite that bad, but I probably thought you were a bit of a dick. And my standards were very much based on the lyrical content of the songs; if the singer wasn’t saying something I wanted to hear, he was obviously a talentless moron who had little right to breathe, let alone be making money from releasing records – perceptive readers may well have guessed correctly that I was a huge R.A.T.M. fan, for example.

As I’ve grown up and mellowed somewhat, I still look for lyrical depth (in music that has lyrics, at least), but I don’t look down on any song for its lack of political fire and thrust. Even though I sometimes still prefer that it does, I no longer feel that music has some sort of duty to carry the words of righteousness to the ignorant masses – after all, the ignorant masses aren’t going to listen even if it does, right? 😉

I think there are relatively few people who would defend the notion that music must be a vehicle for hopeful visions of the future; that it must be concerned with exposing wrongs or defeating injustices. Granted, some musicians themselves would (and do) defend this corner, as do their fanbases. But I doubt many of them would be arrogant (or just plain young and naive) enough to suggest that everyone should be doing it their way. For one thing, the protest singer market is quite small, and who wants too much extra competition? 😉 The bottom line here being that if you want to express your personal views through your art, to use it as a soapbox, then that is your inalienable right as an artist. But it’s not in the rulebook that you have to.

This is why Spinrad’s rant bothers me. To me, it sounds like a man saying “well, damn it, if everyone wrote the way I write, we’d be halfway out of this damned mess already,” which smacks more than a little of hubris. Sure, if he wants to write future utopian stories where the world is a better place than it is now, who am I to stop him? He makes a good living doing it, has many readers and fans. Go for it; do your thang.

But why should anyone else necessarily have to do the same thing? It sounds like Spinrad is channelling my teenaged music fascism here – “no no no, you idiots, that’s not what it’s for, you’re demeaning the thing by making it into entertainment!” As far as I can tell, despite being (on the surface) an artform concerned with visions of the future, SF has always been a form of commentary on the here and now; a lens through which to see our current selves, extrapolated into new ideas and situations. I long ago gave up the notion that some of my favourite novels would actually ‘come true’ (which was fairly hard to face, especially where Julian May’s Saga Of The Exiles was concerned), but instead learned to see parallels between these future visions and the world that existed at the time they were made.

There seems to be an assumption by Spinrad that, if we all started writing jolly and optimistic Star Trek TNG rip-offs, the whole of human culture would suddenly take a drastic turn for the better, and before you know it we’d have a confederation of healthy and cheerful space-dwelling humans jetting about the gaff and doing highly moral things (at least in situations where the constraints of good plotting allow it). Not very likely, really, is it?

This may just be the result of a massive over-estimation of the power of SF over world culture (though Adam Roberts might defend the cinematic branch of the genre as having a rather pervasive influence, and arguably rightly so). After all, it would be a great thing to do; if writing positive novels really could change the future for the better, I think a lot of SF writers would probably do so with little or no regrets.

But it would surely offend their artistic sensibilities. At the end of the day, love it as I do, and knowing that at times it can be a force for education and mind expansion, science fiction is just entertainment. Moreover, in novel form at least, the ingredients of a compelling story are the elements of discord, of conflict, of disaster. Novels where cheery well-adjusted characters have a great time for a few months succeeding at everything they do, in a world that’s pretty damn fine and constantly getting better DO NOT SELL…largely because no one publishes them. They just don’t make a good read.

Sure, I want visions of the future from my SF. But I want realistic visions of the future (if that’s not an oxymoron). And in a climate of global pessimism, ‘realism’ will inevitably focus on less-than-cheerful extrapolations of current situations – art mirrors life far more than life mirrors art, even in this mixed-up postmodern world we live in. Art and culture definitely have a bidirectional feedback loop, but I feel that Spinrad has massively overstated its power to effect genuine change, and at the same time demeaned the art of novel-writing in general. I’m happy for him to write his positivist visions if he so chooses – and I may even read one some day. Right after I’ve worked through the huge queue of moody dystopias that are lurking by my sofa waiting for attention, which I know for a fact I will enjoy thoroughly – after all, I’ve always had a soft spot for people who shirk their social duties. 😉

12 thoughts on “Does science fiction have a social function?”

  1. Interesting post. I think there’s a quite significant unresolved tension at the moment, at least in literary sf, between the perception of where sf is and where it should be. The thing is, we’re not actually short of optimistic sf; think of books like Accelerando or Rainbows End, for instance, or even books like Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest trilogy, which may be about global warming but argues with some conviction that there are things we can do. These are books that say “here we are at the start of the twenty-first century, look at the possibilities.”

    On the other hand, though, there is the pervasive sense that the future didn’t happen; so you get stories like Ian Macleod’s ‘New Light on the Drake Equation’–or novels like Lydia Millett’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, where one of the characters is driven to despair by how old and frail the world seems to him to have become. This is, I think, at the root of Geoff Ryman’s argument for mundane sf. There’s nothing to say that mundane sf can’t be optimistic, but I suspect the mundanes would argue that a lot of optimistic sf is ducking the hard questions. Interestingly, you could say that both the mundanes and Spinrad are arguing for the social responsibility of sf, but with quite different aesthetics guiding them.

    I also think this dichotomy is an expression of a wider uncertainty in contemporary culture. It’s hard to tell, because I spend so much of my time in the sf headspace, but I think there’s a general nervousness about the future that wasn’t there even five years ago.

    Tangentially, you might be interested in this review (and attendant discussion) of Adam Roberts’ Palgrave History.

  2. Thoughtful post. Regarding the vision of “moral” space inhabitants, it would seem to me that opening the “final frontier” would lead towards more frontier morals. Not pretty, but in many ways more comfortable to the adventurous type. Whenever you give people more space, they become more savage, not more civilized.

    But your main point is well taken. SF reflects more on us than on our progeny or their destiny.

  3. I agree one hundred percent with the poster (armchairanarchist that is, not the futurehi person); it’s just entertainment. Leave the message crap to the lit fic flacks.

    Niall Harrison sed:The thing is, we

  4. Are the readers and viewers and especially critics failing science fiction? But there can be other factors contributing to that failure. Is the current gloominess the result of mankind failing to see the future for the last 30 years? We focus on the fun stuff and ignore that 700 year old accounting. LOL

    Maybe our educational system contains too many Stalinistic personalities.

    “Ideas are far more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should we let them have ideas?”

  5. The issue is that you can’t make people read what they don’t want to read; and the fact of the matter is that didactic ‘hard’ sf turns all but a select core group of readers right off. I don’t mind some science in with my serving of story, but there has to be a balance; if I want to learn economics, I go read an economics textbook.

  6. {{{ but there has to be a balance; if I want to learn economics, I go read an economics textbook. }}}

    You think the textbooks have balance? LOL

    The science in the sci-fi books was better in that it put things in perspective. The story painted the BIG PICTURE and showed where the science and technology fit within that picture. The science books did not do that. They went into details about a particular subject far more than the SF book did but it was like knowing how to make a screw and not knowing where it fit into the machine.

    The same seems to go for economics though. You can search all of the economics books you want to find how much consumers lose on depreciation of automobiles. GOOD LUCK! That is why I decided to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix after I saw the movie. It had a teacher deliberately not teaching for political reasons and I wanted to see if more details were in the book.

    My point is that some good SF is better than school and the text books.

    For an SF story with economics try:

    The Cosmic Computer by H. Beam Piper

    But it is integral to the story it is not a lecture on technology and economics.

  7. {{{ The establishment of science fiction as a field separate from other types of fiction dates from April 1926, when American writer and publisher Hugo Gernsback published the initial issue of Amazing Stories, the first English-language science-fiction magazine. Gernsback believed that fiction could be a medium for disseminating scientific information and encouraging young would-be scientists, so he wrote and published stories with this purpose in mind. An early example of his writing, Ralph 124C41+, was serialized in his popular science magazine Modern Electrics in 1911. When Gernsback brought out Amazing Stories in 1926, he named the new genre scientifiction, explaining, ‘By

  8. And reducing the genre to Gernsback’s very limited definition is an insult of equal measure, not to mention staggeringly myopic. I think we just have to agree that we read science fiction for very different reasons.

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