Science Fiction Does Not Require Grace

In Uncategorized on May 10, 2013 at 4:30 pm

I made a post on my tumblr the other day reminding people (and informing those who didn’t know) that Ender’s Game is a great book, will likely be a great movie, and you should not pay to see it, because Orson Scott Card is a rabid anti-gay activist.

This isn’t about how Orson Scott Card has threatened to tear down the government over gay marriage. This is about the reactions I got, which were really interesting. The top two were:

1. How does a man who espouses such beliefs in real life write a book about acceptance and understanding like Ender’s Game?

2. How can a science fiction writer be so closed-minded?

I can’t answer #1. Best guess I have is “by accident” or possibly “his better nature had a brief moment of freedom”. The second question, however, I have some thoughts about. I spoke about them a while ago on LJ, but I’d like to see if I can vocalize them a little more clearly a few years on.

To be open-minded, in the way we generally define it, requires three things: imagination, empathy, and the willingness to accept you may be wrong. This is true whether you are being asked to accept two women getting married or whether you’re being asked to consider the idea that a sky-god actually did make the world in six days.

The writing of science fiction — the writing of most fiction — only requires imagination. That’s pretty much it.

Good writing generally employs a high level of empathy, of course. Not only the ability of the writer to put themselves into a situation strange to them, but to put the reader there as well. But it’s a very specific, very localized empathy, and it’s not strictly speaking necessary. If you’re a good storyteller, you can tell a story and even if it’s not true and people know it’s not true, they will still buy into it because you’re telling it in a compelling manner. Sometimes, science fiction is quite clearly a writer telling a story about something they desperately wish would happen to them — which requires very little empathy — and if they’re good at it, they get away with it. I’ve done this; I know there are professionally published writers who have. Talent can take the place of empathy when all you’re doing is sellin’ a story.

And writers of speculative fiction, of fantasy and sci fi, rarely have to entertain the idea that they might be wrong in their writing. Their world isn’t our world. If you set a story in the year 3000, you’ll be dead (presumably) by the time the year 3000 rolls around to prove you wrong. If you tell a story that opens after a massive alien attack has nearly destroyed humanity, you’re probably not going to be around when and if that actually happens. And if you are, people are going to have more pressing issues than whether or not you got the details right.

Science fiction writers don’t have to have the three key components of an open mind in order to tell a story. Some do; some don’t. But it goes beyond “people are different from each other”.

There is an expectation of science fiction writers that because they spend a lot of time thinking about potential futures, they will embrace the real future as it rushes towards us. This seems logical, but it doesn’t take into account the disconnect between what we want and what we get.

Writers like control. Even the ones who espouse chaotic theories like to hold the conversation with themselves. We call it “dialogue” but really it’s a monologue spoken by two different people. I love to write dialogue because I control both sides of the conversation, whereas in real life, about eight times in ten, I get wordless and stammery two or three sentences in. I’m not good at conversation with other people. That’s not the other person’s fault.

Science fiction writers control every aspect of an entire universe. They get to say who survives the apocalypse. They get to say who’s in space and why. They get to say whether the aliens are nice and what technology we’ve held onto. Have you ever noticed that in most scifi television shows, all aliens that come from one planet usually have the same skin colour? They have the same religion, too, and the same social structure. Minbari only have one faith. Klingons only have one social code. This isn’t a hard rule — there are exceptions. They’re just not terribly frequent.

Earth isn’t like that. We have lots of different skin tones and faiths and sexualities and social mores and clothing styles and monetary systems. But a society so vast and complex is difficult to grasp, certainly difficult to encapsulate in fiction. When you do, you end up with the imaginary Princess Bride story where the “good parts” were edited together by the narrator’s father because most of the book is about boring stuff like economics. Economics is necessary but it does not make for compelling fiction.

This is where it gets scary. Because if you control the future in fiction, eventually you forget that you don’t control the future in reality. You want the future to be one way and then it turns out, whoops, cellphones. Whoops, the internet.

Whoops, gay marriage.

Oh snap, yo. Are two dudes kissing in space? I didn’t write that. Who gave the internet permission to happen? These damn cellphones, what the hell is SMS?

You can’t control the future. There are too many variables. And if you can’t control the future, but you desperately want to, the next instinctive, illogical step is to prevent it from happening. Keep things the way they are. Maintain the status quo and you don’t have to worry.

Ray Bradbury likened social justice to censorship, and was violently opposed to his book about censorship being turned into an e-book that literally could not be burned. Orson Scott Card is terrified that legalising gay marriage is going to screw up the social fabric of the entire country, despite the fact that gay people were happily cohabitating with each other long before he was born and will be long after he is dead. Science fiction writers don’t automatically want to see the future. Some want to script it. Some think the only way to do that is to prevent it from happening.

It’s okay to love fictional futures and to write them. It’s okay to be afraid of the real future. It’s also okay to want to guide that future.

But preventing the future? In the books, that’s the province of the villain.


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