I used to think science fiction was all about the future, but I’m not so sure anymore. Speculating about the future is what got me addicted to science fiction, but that was back in the 1960s when the future was all shiny. I think the future has tarnished over the years and science fiction has reinvented itself many times over with new fictional destinations. Rereading old science fiction has shown me that science fiction wasn’t all about the future in the past either. Science fiction is a never never land for adults. Settings for science fiction don’t always have to be the future, they can be any time, place or dimension, just as long as it’s not here and now. And like Dorothy’s visit to Oz, it’s all about learning our heart’s desire.
I recently read The Currents of Space by Isaac Asimov, a rather enjoyable standalone novel that didn’t involve robots or psychohistory, but was set in a galactic empire like his Foundation stories. More than anything it reminded me of the Star Wars universe and I wondered if George Lucas had been a big Asimov fan growing up. There are lots of galactic empires in science fiction, and readers seem to love the kind that has the political structure of medieval or renaissance Europe overlaid on a vast structure of many-world interstellar space. Are we seeking the future, or the past?
We’re reading two galactic empire novels in the Classic Science Fiction book club this month, The Mote in God’s Eye by Niven/Pournelle and Risen Empire by Scott Westerfeld, and both of them have an aristocracy. So does Dune, and oh yeah, Star Wars. What is it with monarchies and emperors ruling the galaxy in the future? Is good old fashioned democracy just too boring? Why do readers want social orders and class structures of the past in their stories of the future?
Readers love big sprawling fantasy novels, with heroic men, beautiful women, fantastic creatures, magical powers, swords and horseback riding. J. R. R. Tolkien defined that archetype with his books about Middle Earth. No one believed his fairyland existed. When I was growing up the difference between science fiction and fantasy was science fiction was supposed to be speculation about potentially real futures – that SF authors were extrapolating about days to come. But I think that’s no longer true, I think stories of galactic empires are the new fantasy archetype for modern times – that galactic empires have become the new Middle Earth.
Is science fiction really about the future? When it comes to galactic empires I don’t think so.
Asimov eventually attempted to tie his science fiction series into one epic view of the future, and even suggested a reading order you can find here. The Currents of Space is a fun read, but it made me think about how science fiction is evolving. As a kid discovering science fiction back in the 1960s I’d sometimes discover books that seemed quaint and very out of date, but still fun to read, like the Edgar Rice Burroughs Martian series, and the epic space opera of E. E. “Doc” Smith. The ideas in them were obviously superseded by science of the day, yet they were fun stories, just unbelievable. That sort of puts the kibosh on calling those stories science fiction in my mind. Does time and the march of knowledge turn all science fiction into fantasy?
Even the Heinlein I was reading in the 1960s, that was written in the 1950s, like Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land, that featured an ancient Martian civilization, had been converted to fantasy by the Mariner spacecraft photos. This revelation was sad because I had wished for a Martian civilization, or at least some kind of life on Mars. I was reading science fiction believing it was foretelling the future of mankind, and all too often it was wrong.
At 13 I assumed interplanetary travel would unfold in my lifetime and I would die knowing that interstellar travel would arrive in the 22nd century. That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen now. Yet modern science fiction is full of galactic civilizations. Has science fiction become Oz books for adults? Is science fiction just another kind of magical fairy land to visit with our minds?
I have grave doubts that galactic empires will ever be possible – but they are a powerful meme. What’s so appealing about galactic empires? The deep, spiritual response to Star Trek and Star Wars suggests almost a Jungian desire for elements of the galactic empire. Could it be that it’s not about the potential realism of future manned exploration of the galaxy, but tuning into desires for certain kinds of experiences?
- Speed of travel. Most galactic empire stories involve trips between stars taking days and weeks, which would be comparable to ocean travel back in the old days. If we ever travel between the stars it’s going to take years or even centuries. However, in most galactic empire stories people travel between the stars at the speed of old sailing ships. I think weeks on a boat (starship) is romantic to people.
- Effort. Most stories involve spaceships requiring no more maintenance than our cars or speedboats. We seldom see stories with even the hint of maintenance like we see for commercial aircraft, and never for something like we see for navy vessels. In Star Trek, the Enterprise was far easier to maintain than a Gulfstream jet. I can’t think of any interstellar transportation system in science fiction that even approaches the support structure of the space shuttles, or even the Russian rockets. But the technology of these interplanetary ships seem no more complicated than old sailing ships. What we really want are ships about the complexity of pirate ships.
- Cost. NASA can only be funded by the federal government, but in galactic empire novels, space travel seems no more costly than commercial ships in Victorian England. The Millennium Falcon looked no more costly than an ancient ketch from the Bahamas.
- Weapons. Galactic empire novels tend to have very high tech weapons, but whenever the story can, it will bring back the sword. Light sabers are high tech swords. Often on primitive worlds in galactic empires, people travel by horse, or something akin to one. You get the feeling that deep down many readers would love a world where dueling is both honorable and accepted.
- Mysticism and Magic. You’d think that science would be the only system for understanding reality in the future, and religion and magic would be long forgotten. But again, how often have you read a galactic empire series were metaphysical powers come into play? Readers love humans that have powers and talents. These may come from tech enhancements, or ESP, or some mystical mumbo-jumbo like The Force.
- Diversity. You got to say this for galactic empire stories, we seem to want tremendous diversity in the human body. Just read some of Samuel R. Delany’s early books like Empire Star, Nova or The Einstein Intersection, which are set in galactic empires, and think about the body types in Tolkien.
- Gender Roles. The 1974 Mote in God’s Eye is downright paternalistic about women, whereas thirty years later, in Risen Empire, women are liberated to be combat soldiers. However, I think in the future where mankind has spread across the galaxy, readers still prefer strong men and beautiful women, and maybe even damsels in distress.
- Fantastic creatures. Are aliens really any different from the fantastic creatures we find in fantasy fiction?
Why are our science fictional futures so much like our real histories? Asimov said he patterned the Foundation series on Roman history. I felt The Mote in God’s Eye was patterned on the British Empire. I often feel military science fiction is inspired by American grunts of WWII. I thought Dune riffed on Arab and Australian aborigine cultures. And many people have compared space opera with westerns.
The practical scientific prospect of human galactic empires is next to nil. Or about the same as Middle Earth being real. So aren’t many epic science stories really just another kind of fantasy epic? What does that say about reader psychology? If galactic empires are a kind of mental comfort food, a romantic setting for our deepest desires, what does that say about what we really wish life was like? Do we all have genetic programming to go on quests? Would we like to bring back the class system with aristocrats and peasants? Just look at fantasy based computer games where players get to design their characters and how they are typed and categorized – not very egalitarian. Isn’t there a lot of overlap between fantasy games and sci-fi games? How different is a fantasy warrior from a futuristic mech warrior? And don’t people prefer a princess over an ordinary girl both in fantasy and the future? And how do we analyze something like The Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin?
Despite the success of science fiction in popular culture we’s stopped believing in the shiny future we wanted in the 1950s. Our new fantasy/SF worlds have become Baroque hodgepodges of past and future. Readers for the most part don’t enjoy dystopian visions of the future, nor do they like gleaming promises that are closer to utopias. They seem to love down and dirty complexities where good and evil still battle it out – doesn’t Tolkien show a lineage with John Milton? Doesn’t Star Wars reveal DNA from Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Dumas and Rudyard Kipling?
Personally, I used to believe in galactic empires like Christians and Muslims believe in heaven, but now I’m completely skeptical of them ever existing. However, they make for a delicious fictional destination. As and I get older I’ve come to appreciate the comforts of cherished fantasies.
JWH – 6/9/11