[Discussion] Why some Sci-Fi Doesn't Age Well: Future Worlds with Retro Social Mores

Given a blank slate to create a world, things an author doesn't change from their contemporary environment can have as much impact on their narrative as the imaginary worlds they build. How has this affected you when reading or watching Fantasy and Sci-Fi works?

Emily Asher-Perrin wrote a fascinating (and long) article for Tor:

Why It’s Important to Consider Whether Dune Is a White Savior Narrative

It considers not only Herbert's approach to race in the book, but also gender, and treatment (or utter absence) of marginalized groups in the Dune universe. Long, but worth it, and food for thought for people interested in the books and the upcoming movie.

My recent attempt to re-read Asimov's Foundation series was derailed because the anachronistic social sensibilities yanked me out of the future back to an unenlightened past.

I'm interested to read Goodjer takes on the broader notion of social attitudes in older works of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. As Asher-Perrin points out, when a writer starts with a blank slate, it is interesting to consider what they don't change.

"the sleeper has awokened"

I feel like all these imaginary worlds are dead now. Time to let them go and create new ones.

Yeah the article makes a good point. If it is a white savior story, it is certainly a story about the white savior not actually saving anyone, but destroying them, both through misguided help, and by outright abusing them.

In any case, I don t know how well-known a fact it is, but the author was a bigot. He hated homosexuals. Cut ties with his own son because of it...
So the negative view on homosexuality that certainly exists in the book (in regards to the Harkonnen guy) is in all likelihood the authors personal contempt shining through.
Both he and his books should be called out on that.

BadKen wrote:

I'm interested to read Goodjer takes on the broader notion of social attitudes in older works of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. As Asher-Perrin points out, when a writer starts with a blank slate, it is interesting to consider what they don't change.

All art is a product of its time.

And any book you read--or film or TV show you watch--that was made 50+ years ago is going to have something in it that doesn't reflect current social mores. You can either accept that (and view it as a measuring stick of social progress) or it breaks your immersion and boots you out of the story altogether.

As for Asher-Perrin's blank slate statement, I can both see her point and also sympathize with authors who are attempting to create an entire functioning universe on a very daunting blank page. In the case of Dune, one of the most rich, detailed, and complex world buildings I've ever read in any genre.

Is it perfect, especially judged by today's social standards? Of course not. But, 50 years on, it remains one of the best science fiction series ever written precisely because there are so many layers to it.

And there are a lot of science fiction authors today who are creating wonderful worlds that reflect current social mores regarding race, gender, sexual identity, and more. And they'll be just as outdated in 50 years as Dune is today.

I would look at if the cons of a story outweigh the pros. Frank Herbert was writing at a time when most science fiction was either utopian leaning (Star Trek), dystopian leaning due to social structures (Fahrenheit 451), or featured humans vs aliens/zombies/super smart apes.

Herbert was one of the first to take a look at how ecology, climate, and pollution could have devestating effects on a future society.
Dune also had strong female characters and open depictions of sex that would never have been possible in sci fi TV shows and movies at the time. Finally, as the TOR article points out, Paul Atreides is not a savior. He’s more like Lawrence of Arabia - a brilliant military commander who was trying to do good but ends up creating an even greater mess.

I do think it’s fair to call out Dune for it’s portrayal of race and LGBT relations given both were huge social issues in the 1960s. But we tend to forget that the world pre-Internet was much less connected. Herbert grew up in a predominately White Northwest where there were few openly gay people. It makes sense that he would have blind spots, especially if he wanted to focus on the ecological destruction he was witnessing first hand. And for what it’s worth, his work did inspire a new generation of planners and environmental scientists who helped clean up the Puget Sound.

Personally, I think the answer is to not write off writers like Herbert if you enjoy their work, but supplement your reading with works from other non-White male writers like Octavia Butler.

I go into reading authors like Asimov and Herbert with a definite historical bent. Both in terms of the history of the genre, seeing the early signposts laid out makes for an interesting perspective to apply to modern authors, as well as societal history - Herbert's Bene Gesserit read to me as very much informed by the feminist movements of the time, and by the time he gets to Chapter House Dune, the Honored Matres are a version of that with the sexual revolution thickly lacquered over the top.

Dune by itself wasn't super bad. The sequels, which I kind of feel like you might need to include to ger to the "amazing world-building" thing... (because I've read plenty of better world-building from that era and before)... well, that's also where you have things like the concept of axlotl tanks. Which... might just be horrendous enough to negate any claims to good representation of women's agency, too.

There are a lot of reasons that a lot of folks I know have a hard time going back to read Dune.

Hypatian wrote:

... well, that's also where you have things like the concept of axlotl tanks. Which... might just be horrendous enough to negate any claims to good representation of women's agency, too.

IIRC, that particular interpretation of what axlotl tanks were is all on Brian Herbert

Spoiler:

when he took a gigantic smelly sh*t on his father's legacy with his terrible prequels.

It certainly depends on the book and the writer. I've read a ton of early Sci-Fi. Some of which holds up, some of which doesn't. (I mean, Theodore Sturgeon was talking about SciFi when he said "Ninety percent of it is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.")

Also, some of the writers were pretty terrible overall. Asimov had some clever ideas, but he really couldn't write characters very well. (And also harassed women at conventions, so there's that.)

On the other hand we have people like Ursula LeGuin, whose writing was definitely aware of which assumptions her worldbuilding was rewriting.

OG_slinger wrote:
Hypatian wrote:

... well, that's also where you have things like the concept of axlotl tanks. Which... might just be horrendous enough to negate any claims to good representation of women's agency, too.

IIRC, that particular interpretation of what axlotl tanks were is all on Brian Herbert

Spoiler:

when he took a gigantic smelly sh*t on his father's legacy with his terrible prequels.

Inaccurate. Axlotl tanks were defined within the series as being women during... Heretics of Dune with the line along the lines that no Reverend Mother would now or ever be an Axlotl tank for the Bene Teilaxu. This was followed by that... no longer being true when the Teilaxu were destroyed after the events of that book and the Bene Gesserit using the technology on themselves (which opens a whole weird can of worms) which leads to the revival of Miles Teg.

The MORE problematic area of Teilaxu views on women and their purpose and society did come up during Brian's follow-up novels, by being MORE EXPLICITLY stated, but the beliefs of the culture were pretty implicitly already established by our views of the Masters and their words/inner thoughts/actions throughout the last 3 books of the original series.

(All that said, I can't say one way or the other if that's an entirely fair read either. The Teilaxu are clearly portrayed as the villains of a good portion of the final half of Frank's on-going series and their innovations at the cost of many womens' lives are clearly viewed as reprehensible [even while used for their practical purposes] by all other players in the conflicts.)

Don't get me wrong, I find Brian Herbert and his co-writer (whose name escapes me) to be a few runs down from Frank's level of work... but that was a Frank creation through and through.

*nod* I think the reason I've seen it called out as explicitly "yikes" despite the Bene Tleilaxu being portrayed as villainous is the whole thing where the technology is taken as a necessity and adopted by everybody else, too. It's a very "well, this is monstrous, but I guess being monstrous is okay if we have no choice" thing.

Which feels very ecccch, particularly when you know it was the author's choice to have it be a necessity.

BadKen wrote:

As Asher-Perrin points out, when a writer starts with a blank slate, it is interesting to consider what they don't change.

Setting aside Dune for the moment, this is a really interesting topic within the speculative fiction genre as a whole. For all that speculative fiction is, in some ways, a playground for the imagination and allows for the complete reinvention of our world, it's also a fascinating record of unexamined assumptions. What kinds of things do we think of as the fundamental, unalterable facts of our world? Which things do we think are true of every world?

Because of this, we can see how these assumptions shift and evolve over time. Compare the opening movies from Fallout (1997) and Fallout 3 (2008). In these two examples created just eleven years apart, you can see how the idea of what drives war and conflict have changed in dramatic ways, despite both narratives hinging on the idea that "war never changes".

Fallout presents an idea of human conflict as being fundamentally driven by greed and an ever-growing need for resources. The genocidal conquests of the Romans, the Spaniards, and the Nazis are depicted as fundamentally about questions of resources and economics. In the world of Fallout, humanity drives itself to the apocalypse for control of petroleum and uranium. Every conflict is at heart this same thing, because war never changes.

Fallout 3 has a different narrative of what is ostensibly the exact same story. Fallout 3 takes for granted an idea that humans are fundamentally violent creatures. Resources, religion, and ideology are used as excuses for us to act out an intrinsic urge to fight and kill one another. We have been doing this since the dawn of time, and in the world of Fallout 3, it's what finally drives us to the edge of extinction through nuclear annihilation. Every conflict is at heart this same thing, because war never changes.

These two narratives are interesting because they were both meant to introduce new audiences to essentially the same world. In 1997, Fallout was a new world; in 2008, it was one that had lain dormant for a decade. But the view of what caused that fictional world and what our world is fundamentally like are very different. A game made in the late '90s, after the Cold War, after the Gulf War, and in the middle of an economic boom saw our world as being driven by market forces. A game made in the late '00s, after 9/11 and Abu Graib, saw our world as being driven by primal, violent urges in mankind.

The former view of the world being about conflict between greedy nations would stand out as a bit old-fashioned in our current cultural climate. Our media has become inundated with post-apocalyptic stories, and every one carries with it the unexamined assumption that whatever enemies we may face after the end of the world, the real villains are other people. Scratch off the veneer of civilization, and we're all animals underneath. That view of humanity has been shaped by and has in turn shaped media like The Walking Dead and its brutal authoritarian societies and Game of Thrones with its ubiquitous torture and sexual assault. And just like Fallout does with its story about Rome, Spain, and Germany, the authors and fans of those stories point to history and say, "This is what history shows we are like and will always be like".

Speculative fiction, perhaps more than any other genre, provides us with a fossil record of ideas about ourselves. And invariably, those past ideas come into conflict with current ones. We now notice the lack of people of color in Dune or the universally negative depiction of queer people because we no longer assume that the world is fundamentally shaped by straight, white men; or if we think it is, we don't think that's a state of nature and that every universe will or should always be that way. Reexamining old works like this can give us a lot of insight into not only what was "normal" in the past but also what's "normal" today.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Our media has become inundated with post-apocalyptic stories, and every one carries with it the unexamined assumption that whatever enemies we may face after the end of the world, the real villains are other people. Scratch off the veneer of civilization, and we're all animals underneath. That view of humanity has been shaped by and has in turn shaped media like The Walking Dead and its brutal authoritarian societies and Game of Thrones with its ubiquitous torture and sexual assault.

That's not an accurate description of Game of Thrones, but it does raise the question: if everyone--detractors and supportive critics alike-- thinks a certain work is one thing even though an accurate reading is something else, then what is that 'thing'? The accurate real reading, or the mistaken popular reading? Artistically, the former; anthropologically/historically, the latter.

Our criticism of a thing is a pretty good fossil record of ideas about ourselves, too.

I've read Game of Thrones up through the latest book. It has ubiquitous torture and sexual assault, and the author has justified that as "historically accurate". Perhaps the TV show toned that all down a bit.

cheeze_pavilion wrote:

Our criticism of a thing is a pretty good fossil record of ideas about ourselves, too.

IMAGE(https://media.giphy.com/media/l0Iy1ezV0qAef463u/giphy.gif)

ClockworkHouse wrote:

I've read Game of Thrones up through the latest book. It has ubiquitous torture and sexual assault, and the author has justified that as "historically accurate". Perhaps the TV show toned that all down a bit.

It's not a "scratch off the veener of civilization" tale, though. I haven't seen The Walking Dead so I can't comment on it, but the series that comes to mind for me is The Wire: a tale about the bad things that happen when institutions--even imperfect ones--rot and fail. Not because we're all animals underneath, but because we're human--some kind of social fabric brings out the best in us, which is as 'real' as what is worst in us.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

large animated gif

stay classy, Clockwork.

cheeze_pavilion wrote:

It's not a "scratch off the veener of civilization" tale, though.

It is, though, or at least is operating in the same theater on the same patient. Scratching off the veneer of civilization is all about showing how commonly held ideas of institutions and norms "actually are" and what they are or would be "really like". Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is built on the premise that it's a "realistic" depiction of common fantasy genre tropes and clichés. In much the same way that The Wire is all about deconstructing the monolithic ideas of "the police" and "criminal gangs", Game of Thrones deconstructs magical prophecies, knightly orders, and royal succession to show the violent, thuggish, rapist things that those would be "in the real world".

ClockworkHouse wrote:

large animated gif

stay classy, Clockwork.

Sorry about that! I'll try to use smaller file sizes in the future.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
cheeze_pavilion wrote:

It's not a "scratch off the veener of civilization" tale, though.

It is, though, or at least is operating in the same theater on the same patient. Scratching off the veneer of civilization is all about showing how commonly held ideas of institutions and norms "actually are" and what they are or would be "really like".

Well, no. Like you said, the 'veneer of civilization' tale is about showing that we're all animals underneath. The patient in GoT is a human, not an animal (no Dune pun intended!). We're not simply restrained by institutions and norms because our natural state is like vicious animals in need of a whip. Living within a social fabric isn't an artificial muzzle imposed on us--to the contrary, a social fabric is natural.

To tl;dr it, it's the significant difference between seeing humans as naturally rotten animals, and seeing humans as naturally imperfect social creatures. The latter might not see humans as angels, but it's a heck of a lot less negative (and much more complex) than the former.

Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is built on the premise that it's a "realistic" depiction of common fantasy genre tropes and clichés. In much the same way that The Wire is all about deconstructing the monolithic ideas of "the police" and "criminal gangs", Game of Thrones deconstructs magical prophecies, knightly orders, and royal succession to show the violent, thuggish, rapist things that those would be "in the real world".

I'd agree with that, but I'd also say it supports my point.

ClockworkHouse wrote:
large animated gif

stay classy, Clockwork.

Sorry about that! I'll try to use smaller file sizes in the future.

stay clocking, Clockwork.

Gonna double post to expand on this, just so it's clear if it crosses in posting:

cheeze_pavilion wrote:
ClockworkHouse wrote:

Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire is built on the premise that it's a "realistic" depiction of common fantasy genre tropes and clichés. In much the same way that The Wire is all about deconstructing the monolithic ideas of "the police" and "criminal gangs", Game of Thrones deconstructs magical prophecies, knightly orders, and royal succession to show the violent, thuggish, rapist things that those would be "in the real world".

I'd agree with that, but I'd also say it supports my point.

Once of the thing I really liked about GoT is that it takes aim at those tropes without going too far the other way and descending into just a 'gritty, dark' version. GoT is more interesting than that.

I ignored GoT when it first came on the air, because I wasn't really interested in another "veneer of civilization" tale. I only watched it because I had a lot of time to kill and there were like a million episodes and tits and dragons sounded like a good way to turn my brain off while making some attempt to not fall totally out of the cultural loop.

What I found was something that tried to break free of that duality. I found something that didn't shove its brutality in my face to demonstrate how REAL it was; I found something that wrestled with the common fantasy tropes being unrealistic, but set about deconstructing them with something more subtle than Robert's war hammer.

I gotta go mop the floor and besides my words aren't coming to me right now, so I'll make this short. In characters like the Hound who also rejects the tropes but not because he's so BRUTAL!!! but because his cynicism hides his hurt because he's actually a hopeful character at his core, or Jamie, where the struggle is with his identity as a warrior being literally cut off of him, and no training montage will ever bring that back.

I mean, I can't be the *only* person who got chills when in the last season of GoT

Spoiler:

Jamie saw the dragon, saw the usurper Queen he must Slay, and saw the spear on the ground, am I? That he was still enough of a knight that he could still be a lancer, and here was the quest his whole life was building towards even if he didn't know it until that moment?

Really, I found something that didn't remind me at all of "grim and dark = SERIOUS BUSINESS." I found something more like The Last Unicorn

The last two seasons IMHO have done a good job of giving non-male characters a lot of agency to shape their destinies. Not to get into spoiler territory, but Dany and the Stark sisters save the day on multiple occasions, and Cersei pays back some of the sexual abuse she’s suffered a hundred fold. If you’re burned out on the books but like the world and story I would recommend giving the show another try.