The Revolution of Politics
One of the most interesting facets of modern science fiction, at least for me, is the culmination of various threads of cultural pressures that have coalesced to shatter the socio-political underpinnings of the genre.
In English, things have changed. And it is good.
I grew up reading the founders. I have (I think literally) everything Doc Smith ever published, from Lensman to Skylark to his detective stuff. Doc was a fun read. His heroes were grand. His villains embodied evil. His damsels were hard-headed, for all their distress.
But one thing was always constant.
They were invariably white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants derived from northwest European cultural and genetic stock.
A century ago, that was not just expected. It was required. These were the days when (white) women had just been granted the right to vote in the United States, something that any southern blacks would not achieve for another HALF CENTURY. Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas was still decades away from being fought. The Japanese were legally prohibited from immigrating to this country. Those that were here were frequently prohibited from voting or owning land in many cities. Chinese immigrants were kept in ghettoes that European Jews would have recognized.
What this meant was that the target audience of science fiction in those days was narrow. WASP. Middle-America. White bread. Boring.
There were limits to what you as a science fiction author could write about, if you wanted it to sell. Lantern-jawed male heroes with strong moral and ethical codes (read: Boy Scouts, back when that connotation had positive aspects).
You might have an exotic alien princess to rescue, but exotic invariably meant dusky in the Italian sense, and no farther. (Loving vs. Virginia was a half century away, as well.) It wasn’t until Jim Kirk that you could seduce strange green chicks in your science fiction and be taken seriously, because Gene Roddenberry was all about pushing the envelope in good ways.
So where are we today?
I only do indie-press publishing. That means I write it. Fabulous Publisher Babe™ and a few others do the First Reader thing (not critique. There is a difference.) I fix the things they identify. We publish it.
I don’t bother trying to get an agent and a publishing deal. Partly, I’ve done the economics. Even those folks to do get a deal don’t get a good one. Every year, a single person hits the zeitgeist, and achieves literary godhead, but that’s one in however many millions of us are trying.
Not worth playing those odds.
Plus, I’d have to submit to editorial ideology. Every year, the major publishing houses identify the particular areas they want to push. The themes, if you will. Those of you paying attention at home will note that we are coming to the end of a major cycle dealing with teenagers in strange, post-apocalyptic blood sport games. (A YA Dystopian sub-genre, if you will.) I suspect the next surge will be near-Earth Hard Science, Space Exploration, playing on the fantastic success of Andy Weir (who got all the science right, and is happily moving us away from pseudo-magical hand-waving. Thanks, Andy.)
For the writer, that means that your book must fit within a VERY narrow slice of a sub-genre, if you want to get the big houses to pick it up. And they will demand that you hammer your round peg into the square hole they believe will sell.
Instead, I want to talk about another hot-button topic.
Last week, we touched on race and gender in science fiction. (Because, as some [dumb-ass] people will tell you, women and minorities can’t write SF. Right.)
This week, I want to grab the third rail: Human sexuality.
Once upon a time, (the only way to publish was that) your heroic main character was a man who was absolutely committed to one of two ideologies. First, proper heterosexual conjugations within the confines of marital bliss. (Read: almost all of them.) Alternatively: proper males heterosexually seducing buxom females into short-term flings with no emotional weight, generally just before the villain killed her, or she gets written off in the epilogue as having to stay behind to protect her people while the hero rides off into the sunset. (Read: Ian Fleming, as the master, everyone else as bad knock-offs.)
Research over the last few generations has offered very strong evidence that binary, monogamous heterosexuality (one boy + one girl) only describes a majority proportion of the population, but not all of it. If you throw in Kinsey numbers, things get even more dicey.
Put simply, we don’t always fall into nice, binary boxes.
Why should our characters?
Science Fiction is all about producing stories set in alternate realities, as a means of exploring “What if…?” We are not in the present tense. We are going someplace where the world is not a mirror or analog of our day-to-day lives.
Our readers have already committed to suspending some level of their disbelief when they picked up a book on the SF/F shelf and flipped it over to read the back. This is your opportunity to tell them a cracking good story that pulls them in, entertains them, and, best of all, makes them THINK. Makes them wonder. Starts to break down some of the ideological constraints in their heads.
I understand the basics of biology. A culture, a people, a society only survive when you continue to produce future generations of progeny to sustain it. Whoopteedo. There are way more ways to do that. Aldous Huxley explored cloning to an interesting degree. Others have done the same.
Since the early 70’s, organic chemistry has helped to separate the act of procreation from the consequences. (Please spare me the religious diatribes. We’re talking science today, not cultural relativism.)
So what should science fiction be like for those people who don’t get stimulated by the concept of binary, heterosexual monogamy? How are those characters going to be different from the classic hero? (Hint: probably not one damned bit. You already know a whole bunch of people for whom such frameworks don’t fit. Your public acceptance of such things frequently determines if they include you in such conversations. You may not realize you know so many people that are “not normal.” heh)
Me? I have known a number of interesting people. Creatives tend to be far less rigid in their adherence to such ideologies. One of my good friends at the day job is a very out gay man, whom you would not identify if he didn’t say something specific. (I have other friends and co-workers who broadcast such things. Seriously gaydar-pinging level broadcasting. We don’t any of us care.)
I had a good friend, ages ago, who used me as her beard, because she worked for a couple who were far less understanding of such things. they would have probably fired her immediately if they ever realized she was a lesbian, them being hard-core fundamentalists in the early 90’s. Suffice it to say she and I had the same taste in women, else we might have ended up married at some point. But much of polite society was not ready to accept, let alone embrace, such things.
Today, laws based on such very narrow set of relativistic cultural norms that criminalize this kind of human behavior are being cast into the dustbin of history, alongside most of the rest of the Twentieth Century’s other ideological –isms.
As writers of science fiction, it is our duty to consider how the future will work, especially in such a place. I’ve had to, recently, because I’ve run into some characters with relatively high Kinsey numbers. There’s not a right or wrong, just an understanding that how they look at things might be different. And how your other heroes and villains will react to such knowledge and such behavior is a topic that needs to be explored.
Indie-press means you get to throw a pot of spaghetti at the wall, and see what sticks. What entertains. What sells. Some of it will resonate with readers. Especially if you have done it right. And I don’t mean old-fashioned caricatures, unless used satirically, or (rarely) dead accurately.
(I have another friend. One of the original Studio 54 Queens. Go look that one up if you aren’t old enough. One night, a girl got him drunk, took advantage of him, and he got her pregnant. They’ve been married for more than 25 years at this point, but he’s still the most fabulous person I have ever met.)
So my challenge to you is this: What have you written about a character who goes beyond the two tropes above? (Lensman Kinnison and Captain Kirk?) Have you explored a culture where things aren’t WASP? (wasps, by the way, do it entirely different than WASPs, as a rule.) Have you explored the Uncanny Valley? Has your science fiction been traditional or exotic?
And what do you think human sexuality will be one hundred years from now? One thousand? Thursday After Next?
How big is your science fiction? How far has it pushed the envelope and made your audience really THINK while still telling a good, entertaining story? (One can always push things too far and end up grinding a political axe INSTEAD of telling a story. Have run into a few of those over the years, as well.)
Hopefully, you have had fun pushing the boundaries of everyday in your writing.
shade and sweet water,
West of the Mountains, WA