O tempora…

Image Pixabay. (does the future hold the frog or the flower?)

I’ve been reading several 1960’s sf novels (homework, and enjoyment) I’ve been through James Whites, a Mack Reynolds and a few Simaks. Interesting from the writers point of view. Style has changed a lot (books were much shorter). The stories are still interesting and well structured. They’re actually thoughtful books – far more so than modern rehash of PC thought. But the dialogue and the social relationships, the ‘mores’, the expectations and social structure… are very 1960s.

I like the stories, but there are times this makes it hard work as it throws me right out of my rapid reading trance.

Science fiction writers don’t just extrapolate (or in some cases make up without any remote logical basis. Nice work if you can get it) the technology of the future, but society that will flourish (or survive) the impact of that technology.

Well, that’s the idea, I guess. Mostly, in practice, we write stories. And in order to sell those stories we tend to try and please an audience – whether that’s an editor living in NY bubble, or the guy reading books.  Still, in a few years’ time when readers look at your extrapolation of where the world is going and (in the light of the changes since you wrote it) where it is or seems likely to go, now… odds are you’re going to look a totally dated idiot – ON THE BEACH reflected the thoughts and views and social structure of when it was written. Likewise many of Mack Reynolds books where he assumed the triumph of socialist rule – and projected that on a society which had the attitudes, reflect views and mores of his 1960’s market.

The smart money – looking at the track record of sf writers, says: ‘don’t know what it will be like, but it won’t be like that.’ The values and ‘mores’ are reflective of when a book is written.  It’s a rare author who can project those further than a couple of years future-ward. We’re MUCH better at technology than people and societies.

It’s why I say that sf (though writers imagine fondly that they’re shaping the future) in most cases, actually reflects a daydream based in today, or yesterday. It is largely reactive, not formative (I know. Not what writers want to hear. It can be that, and true.)

This is damned awkward when you look at the fact that books in the traditional publishing world only come out a couple of years after the time they were written.  Secondly – particularly in for the Indy writer – the long tail is relevant. The last thing you want is audiences going face-palm because you set your projected extrapolation of social mores on what looked like a sure thing… in 2016. Think back. Take it from the assumptions of that time, particularly in NY publishing bubble – and just how dated books set in that context seem a mere couple of years on. And now we have a huge revival in agonized Handmaiden Tail (yes, I did spell it that way on purpose) smudged clones… which may look equally foolish in a few years. The ‘wrong side of history’ is a fickle beast.

I’m not a great fan of catastrophism (everything blown into the worst disaster evah! “I got a B+ for my medieval basket weaving module: my life is ruined. It’s the end of the world.”) but the way things are changing… well, it’s hard not see vast social and political and economic knock-ons, much of which is certainly unknown territory, and must be utterly terrifying to those who were so certain their Titanic was proceeding smoothly to a known utopian future.

Being a fairly pragmatic scientist, and a student of history, I suspect most of the predicted catastrophes will not be catastrophes at all. We’ll muddle through with most people having no idea just what the hell all the shrieking, wailing and ‘here come the cattle-cars’ was all about. Of course, history and science suggest there will be catastrophes… but they won’t be any of the nonsense that pearls are being clutched over.

But I do think we’re heading into another shift in the zeitgeist.  Politics have always been divided more or less left/right, but what the two sides stood for 50 years back of course has little to do with what they are now. Aspects have changed and others have not, and, basically, no writers have got it even remotely right. I probably won’t either.

Our field – at least in traditional publishing – has moved steadily leftward, to the point where US political donation records from book publishing indicate less than 1% going to anyone else.

At one stage the Left was the party of working class. That was then. That, if you read the left-wing authors of the 60’s and 70’s was their world-view.

Times change. The US Left, looking at donors and endorsements, have become the party of super wealthy, the media, the celebrities, the large powerful corporations. They have taken on a collection of disparate ‘disadvantaged minorities’ as their client-voters and abandoned any pretense of supporting the working class, and gone all-in globalist – a world view – and the future it produces, reflected in the books they publish.

It seemed a sure enough bet, a few years ago, to the extent that any pretense of evenhanded conduct has gradually disappeared. And publishing followed the same trend as academia and media: working on the idea that to permit any other views to be expressed was to legitimize them, ‘normalize’ them, and that might encourage people to take them seriously. They must be demonized instead to keep the ordinary people from embracing their ideas. To fight ‘fascism’ and the far right – which seems to be moving target, better expressed as ‘to attack anyone who isn’t absolutely doctrinaire like us.’

The entire doctrine ‘preventing normalization’ rests in practice on one slender reed: people are stupid and cannot be allowed to think or decide for themselves.

To take this point of view requires that those academics, journalists, writers and publishers assume they’re an elite, who will make wise and suitable decisions for everyone.

Does that sit well with you? Do you know any of these self-elected ‘elite’ (look at them: are these the people you’d choose? I know a lot of academics, a few journos, and a lot of people in the publishing industry. Some of them I even like. But allow them to make value judgements for me? Er. Nope.)

Perhaps you think you are, and will be one of those elite making those decisions?

If you do: you’re a dumb as rock and have not the most elementary grasp of history.

Besides… there is no evidence that it works. Oh, it works on individuals all right. The individual can have their livelihood destroyed or damaged, their lives screwed up. But unless you believe that they were a charismatic force of one… the question is not whether such behavior hurts that person (it does) but whether it changes the views of wider public of that topic.

And the evidence seems to show that de-platforming – or allowing open debate… produces pretty much the same outcome.  Perhaps it would be different under a complete ‘Saxon style’ suppression (kill all the men, rape the women and make them chattels. Make brutal examples of any hint of resistance) and there have been those who say ‘ by any means necessary’ – but, to judge by the failure of the levels of brutality used in Russia, China, Cambodia etc… that is what it would take. One has to wonder at the rationalization and mental gymnastics needed to take this course.

In fact, if you have to look at the huge expense, effort and brutality that go into silencing and denigrating… and weigh that up against outcomes, you might look at things like the campaign against Brexit, the attacks on Donald Trump, the media’s attacks on the gillet jaunes etc. and ask whether ‘silencing’ and ‘deplatforming’ to get rid of a ‘problem’… didn’t have opposite effect?

Interesting times. Ones that could go all sorts of ways. Ones that need to be considered when shaping that social structure in your next book. And ones that could leave a lot of the books of a few years back with very short tails.


35 thoughts on “O tempora…

  1. I think that the idea that Science Fiction should be predictive (and is judged by the extent to which it accurately predicts future events) is a very simplistic one. Ursula Le Guin, in her introduction to “The Left Hand Of Darkness” talks about this at some length, and more eloquently than I could.

    But I do agree that there are a certain number of shared assumptions common to the SF of the 1960s and 1970s that have dated very poorly. Of course there will be a Central Government Of Earth that will rule benevolently, of course all world religions will be disproven and forgotten (except, sometimes, a vague Westernized Buddhism) of course traditional families will be replaced by State Childhood Centers, and so on.

    In some cases I think that was a deliberate attempt at propaganda on the part of the authors (“See how great Universal Socialism will be!”) but more often I think it was a reflection of unconscious assumptions.

    My takeaway from this (and I’ll admit I have a great fondness for the New Wave era of SF) is to encourage me to examine my own unconscious assumptions. What “of courses” run through my own projections into the future, and what if I don’t take them as given and instead try out some different theory of what will happen next?

    1. I think that the very first science fiction story I ever made-up in about 1980 (alas, I’ve never been good at writing-down) was a direct response to the “of course world government” assumptions of the future. I don’t remember reading “of course world government” in stories because I don’t think I was actually *reading* any science fiction at the time. Despite all the adults around me being anti-Soviet, though, there were little doubts that being larger was more efficient. It manifested in religion, in Christian ecumenical movements. It manifested in public school in the development of mega-districts and National level Department of Education. It manifested in Liberalism which was still pushing individual rights and the idea (at least here in the US) of a universal desire for things like “votes” and a common and universal humanity. Feminism, for all it’s original crazy proponents, still insisted that all women everywhere wanted to be liberated.

      Since all humans wanted the same things, a single system that provided those things was obvious.

      Even at 16 years or so old I understood that humans didn’t all want the same things and an attempt at World Government would end very badly.

      If I were to write something deliberately reactionary today it wouldn’t involve a World Government, but it would insist on a universal human experience, yearnings and desires. Because *today*, while the World Government ethos seems intact the notion that people are *alike* in their humanity rather than defined by their differences is utterly reactionary.

  2. or look at the sheer amount of trouble they are going to to get conservative YouTube channels silenced, or at least permanently demonetized.

  3. I did NaNoWriMo this year and spent some time using the message boards. So much of what amateurs like me are writing about is tribal political pornography with window dressing from various genres. It’s not trying to be predictive at all, but rather reactive. And since so many people have such short historical memories, the reaction and reflections are very short and narrow.

    I did it too this year. I wrote a thriller where the antagonist was the US federal bureaucracy literally grinding people up for spare parts. It turned out real good but it is a creature of the moment. There is no Big Message embedded in it. It’s a beach book. The best date I can hope for is that it will be a droll time capsule for this time and place.

  4. An excellent book about _The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise_ makes the point that when a social/ethnic/religious community comes into contact, especially hostile contact, with another social/religious/ethnic community and culture, they harden their borders and become less tolerant, not more open. So rather than “Wonderful Won World Government meets friendly aliens,” perhaps humans are more inclined to “Wildly Different Human Groups collide with suspicious aliens.” That plot idea might age better. Or it might not.

    “The same as now, but more so” seems to run to Dreadful Dystopia or Not-So-Bad,-Really. Which depends on what the publishers wanted (for example: early-mid 1980s Mad Max clones, post-nuke societies, et al).

    1. During a discussion long ago, one of the panel said, “Okay, what if you didn’t like that government? Where would you go?” And the other panelists were looking at him like he was some kind of nut. (not, the panelist wasn’t me who said it, though I’ve adopted and used the line since…)

      Any of the “single world government” scenarios I contemplated all wound up looking like Stalin’s USSR after a few iterations. There are always people who want power more than anything else, and there are people who are willing to give it to them. It’s one of those “basic human nature” minor details that socialism tries to gloss over.

    2. One thing that ’80s post-apocalyptic fiction taught me was that the first casualty of WW3 would be fashion sense.

  5. Dave said: “One has to wonder at the rationalization and mental gymnastics needed to take this course.”

    Wonder no longer. From today’s New York Times:


    tldr = no, extinction of the human race would not be a bad thing. Because bunnies matter too, you know.

    The author stops short of saying we should all commit seppuku, but definitely thinks a universal sterilization program would be a step in the right direction.

    Thanos was a piker for stopping at half. They’re more like Saberhagen’s Berserkers. Kill everything, burn it to bedrock, then stand guard to burn any spores you missed the first time.

    You can see it peeking out under the “renewable resources” blanket the eco-warriors wear. If the population of Europe was low enough, windmills would be enough power. No more stinky coal, no more nassssty nuclear.

    Solution? Kill a bunch of White Westerners, sink civilization back to roughly Elizabethan technology (except for the rich rulers of course, they get 21st C tech, phones and antibiotics and cars, flying cars in fact) and the problem of Humanity is solved.

    It wouldn’t be so bad that idiots at universities are publishing shit like this, but they’re doing it on my dime. Frankly, it’s pissing me off.

    And yes, the mere mention of any of it in a novel will have me quitting in disgust. Conveniently, most SJWs (looking at you, Nora KJ) virtue-signal in their blurbs. This saves me a lot of time and money.

  6. Two possible cattle car futures for the U.S.

    One: The Left so irritates the Right that the conservatives band together, round up all the progressives, and ships them to Sweden (or Canada if the shipping costs are too high.)

    Two: The Left finally gain enough control that they round up all those accused of conservativism and ship them to reeducation camps either on the North Slope of Alaska, or Minot, North Dakota.

    1. I’ve not lived on the North Slope. I have lived in Alaska. I can tell you, having seen them with my own eyes, that there are silos full of barley, left to rot, because the political powers that be have a stranglehold on what can be exported/imported to Alaska. Alaska can take care of itself, thank you very much, if it’s left alone and allowed to. Which it isn’t.

      1. Is that because of Jones Act restrictions on shipping and lack of adequate land-based alternatives (limited roads, only indirect rail) combined with control of the main ports? Or are there other factors at play?

        1. I was told it was the Jones Act. This was in the Delta Jct area, and the projected market was Korea, but when you factored in the mandated diversion through Seattle before the grain got to market, it raised the price enough to make it undesirable.

          1. It seems like allowing ports to ship to other countries from Alaska or Hawaii or Puerto Rico would improve the economies of those places immensely.

              1. It would be a good thing. But then another way would need to be found to keep the remnants of the US merchant marine afloat (financially speaking), if there remains any interest in having commercial hulls under the US flag. A direct subsidy would have Progressives screaming about giving money away to corporations and some Free Market folks going on about market distortions and such. Nationalization would have pretty much everybody else up in arms about Socialism.

  7. I take great comfort in knowing that the super-progressives of today will one day be sneered at as hopelessly dated by their intellectual descendants.

  8. I find that the more I study history, the better I understand the ‘now’ and I think, the better I can extrapolate forward into the future. Human nature doesn’t really change much. Technology just lets humans do things they couldn’t in, say, the Roman era.

    1. But we couldn’t have developed that technology with the mores of the Romans.

      Our current mores limit technological development. Probably.

      I don’t the the customs against live human vivisection are really preventing the development of any really useful technology.

      On the other hand, I am not very pleased with environmentalism. Does that mean it is wrong, or that my conclusions from that prejudice are correct? I think I can’t really know.

      History is extremely useful.

      1. I was raised to be an environmentalist. A person took care of the land and the animals. Pure religious based tasks given to Adam time. Ie., not a bit of socialist/economic motivation going on there. Not a bit of anti-human sentiment there.

        1. That’s why I tell people, if they ask, that I am a conservationist, not a modern environmentalist. “Environmentalism,” like feminism and liberalism, has changed meanings as much as a mood ring on the finger of a 3 year old changes color.

  9. Oh the many times I read old (now) space stories that were a jolt when some character lit a cigarette or cigar and the air handlers could then be heard working harder. Product of the time of writing. Then, this even affected nonfiction. An old ARRL (Amateur Radio Relay League) ‘handbook’ (long too big for a mere ‘handbook’) spoke of the properly/well equipped operating station – with ash tray. Some years ago I was wandering through the housewares section of some store (not a K-Mart, but on that order) and was a puzzled for a moment… and then remembered.. oh, yeah, those funny looking glass plate-like things are ash trays. And both my grandfathers smoked – and were local in my youth.

      1. I was accused (and yes, ‘accused’ is the correct word) of that… in the 1970’s. What I had made was not such, but was supposed to be a ‘gravy boat’ – but I can’t say it was any good as such… and I don’t gravy. It was just the only thing that didn’t seem like utter bilge of things suggested.

        Had I wanted a real ashtray (I don’t smoke, Ma & Pa certainly didn’t) there was the compression molder Pa had bought… with four molds. One for each suit (clubs, diamonds, hearts, spades… gee, wonder what the previous owners had as clients…) Nothing ever really came of it all. An injection molder, however… well here’s a formula:

        Machining Night Classes + Injection Molder + Hard work + Reagonomics…

        …added up to climbing a few rungs…. from ‘used cars you need to work on all the time’ to ‘used/new cars you don’t need to work on’ and ‘aircraft owner’. And I’m being polite and not describing the plumbing such as it wasn’t. And no, not outhouse.

        I have met one person who claimed the 1970’s were great and the 1980’s were terrible… but that person was working a public sector job – and it showed, right there.

  10. > couple of years

    My favorite example of that is Joe Poyer, who was some of the first to write what are now called “techno-thrillers.”

    For one of them, he blended current and future trends; the Cold War, hypersonic reconaissance aircraft, drugs, the “U2 incident”, added some projection into the future, and wrote “North Cape”, which was a pretty darned good read. But by the time it made it through channels and into print, Poyer got blindsided by something that nobody expected, at least not for a generation or two – the microprocessor.

    Poyer’s pilot was plugged into a flying pharmacy that turned him on or off, ratcheted his awareness up or down, and otherwise optimized him for the task at hand. He had worked out the details pretty thoroughly. But by the time the book hit the market, the microprocessor revolution had made flight-capable computers that could handle most of what his pilot was doing by hand.

    Poyer did a great job… but North Cape reads like something from some odd alternate universe where technology went off at a slightly different angle. Which, I guess, it more or less did…

  11. Heh. I tried to extrapolate the gender wars into the future. I _vastly_ underestimated the weirdness of the extremes and their hatred of ordinary people.

  12. I reread McCaffrey’s Dragonquest last night. What I had missed as a teenager was the lovingly detailed negative description of Kylara, a Weyrwoman, (female co-leader of Dragonriders if someon missed that boat) She is vain, fairly stupid, lazy and utterly self-centered, and the author describes these faults in both her internal monologue and her interaction with others.

    The author also makes any number of points of keeping women out of men’s business. Not that most men are faultless, but those who are, boy are they paragons. Even to me who is not remotely woke, it became a bit tedious after a while, and I morally certain these classics would not have been possible today.

    1. Given that McCaffrey had a lot of problems with men, and that you can read all about the specific types of men she had problems with, in other books by her…

      Um, I think you are seeing a “loving” depiction of a specific type of woman leader. McCaffrey has tons of women doing the leadership thing, and generally it is a good thing. Having a sexuh divuh in charge is not a good thing. (And in theatre circles, I am sure she saw that crud.)

      1. I shudder to imagine what Lessa would have been like without F’lar. Someone who catered to her tantrums and whims… ugh. Or she’d have turned into a cruel, manipulative monster that made some of the other series baddies look like mild humanitarians.

      2. Don’t doubt you. I was surprised by the re-read. Sassenak, Menolly, Rowan, to some extent Lessa. There is no shortage of very capable women and plenty of them would be nice neighbours indeed.

        My point was that even monsters Like Cersei Lannister got less of an obvious thrashing than Kylara and GOT started out more than 20 years ago. How badly can you depict a woman in a book and still get it sold main-stream? Tom Kratman doesn’t count.

        1. Game of Thrones is probably a bad data point. Martin is a Communist, and is probably trying to present a nihilistic dark and grey medieval world so that the likes of Stalin and Mao don’t come off worse.

          It seems plausible that NY publishing is sandbagging when it comes to flawed woman leaders, and is doing so for a reason.

  13. My formative exposure to science fiction was Jules Verne. (shrug) I skews my view in conversations like this quite a bit.

    1. I read him as an eight year old long before knowing the concept of sci-fi. Don’t think of him as formative. His ideas were awesome and his protags were cool but generally felt very distant to a child. Sergeant Bigglesworth for better or worse formed my world-view.

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