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Sunday 11 February 2018

All Tomorrow's Tomorrows

Scifi is my thing, has been since I was a wee babby.

When I was knee-high to a grasshopper I was obsessed with space and planets and astronauts. I had the notion that anything to do with space would be better than its mere earthly counterpart, that a "space thing" was just inherently better than a "thing". I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid, obviously, but I also wanted to be Optimus Prime, so I don't know if I can put much stock in that.

As writing is a practicable skill, so is reading. Grasping nuance and context is a thing that comes through experience and exposure. Science fiction as a genre is one of those that relies more heavily on context than one might think - to understand the relevance of the future the writer has envisaged, it helps to understand the present and the past the writer is from.

It doesn't forgive problematic content, of course. Explains, but doesn't forgive.

Take Lovecraft. Dude was racist and sexist as hell, had a Disney-esque dose of antisemitism, but if you follow his writing chronologically it becomes clear that his attitude mellows. He's still reluctant to allow women to achieve or succeed at anything in his work, unless they are woman-shaped beings from outer realms or - in one case - a woman's body being driven around by the spirit of her own dad. (Seriously.)

His work from the early 20s - Arthur Jermyn, Herbert West - features a lot of comparisons between POC and gorillas or bestial creatures. Which is, let's be real, loathsome. It's the kind of shit that I can't help but think of when I see chibi Cthulhus. Then ten years later - having spent some time in New York, and experienced more of the world than previously - he releases The Shadow Out Of Time, barely two years before his death via cancer. Of course, the racism is still virulent and omnipresent - the aboriginal natives are named Blackfellows - but nary a comparison to animals or subhuman creatures in sight. A very tiny step forward from way, way back there somewhere, but a step forward nonetheless. Insert joke about how low the bar has to be set for cis white men.

Let's look at the difference between, oh I don't know, Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Haldeman's Forever War. Approaching a vaguely similar topic from two different directions and emerging with two different conclusions, it isn't surprising that the two authors had radically different influences on their writing and had observably opposing views on the subject of warfare.

Robert A. Heinlein - whose rules of writing I quote often, even if his attitudes to the world aren't something I subscribe to entirely - abandoned writing Stranger In A Strange Land (an arguably better story) to write Starship Troopers after being frustrated by Dwight Eisenhower putting a hold on US nuclear testing. He and his wife actually started up a society in support of the US nuclear programme. He served in the US Navy for 5 years, reaching the rank of Lieutenant before he was discharged in 1934 - tuberculosis. Notably, he didn't see any actual combat during his service. His writing started some five years further after he left the Navy.

Joe Haldeman's writing started after military service, too - he won a purple heart serving as a combat engineer in Vietnam. The man went to war, the man was injured fighting it, and The Forever War was out before the war even came to an end.

I don't think I need to tell you the particular attitudes reflected in their work. You can probably guess. Let's touch on it anyway. In Troopers the war is a good and necessary thing, as is preparing for it, as is a society of brutalism that embraces it. The movie adaptation actually lampoons this, is actually fairly anti-war in how it looks askance at the whole affair, while being an unrepentant sci-fi action broo-ha-ha. Forever War, though? At no point during this book do you see the war as being right or just. It's seen as a sad sorry state of affairs, even if the primary focus is how the time dilation endured to fight the war is what does the real mental and social damage to those fighting it.

Yes, the reading of the stories is well and good. Understanding them is better - but understanding why the writer wrote them, and where they were coming from in their experiences that may have led to the story choices in particular, is important.

Look at the scifi that we read today. It's markedly different to anything that came out before. Every year we march further into an uncertain future, and we grasp certain concepts quicker, while others become distant and alien to us. Works that would have required an intense pre-emptive dump of information and an almost upsetting amount of exposition can now be presented quickly and easily, because not only are writers getting better at presenting vastly different settings rapidly and accessibly, we're getting better at reading them.

Examples of this, in particular, are easily found in several books I sell up on the regular - Becky Chambers' A Long Way To A Small Angry Planet and A Closed And Common Orbit. John Scalzi's The Collapsing Empire. Neal Asher's Dark Intelligence trilogy. Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy. Everything that James S.A. Corey writes in The Expanse.

We are all writing from somewhere, and towards somewhere. Sometimes we are writing towards something. Sometimes our way to get to that thing is soaked in neon and the weakness of the species. Sometimes our way is through a single small change that becomes a huge one. Sometimes there IS no change - just viewing the same bit of the world from a different angle.

The important thing is that we read critically and we write constantly.

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