Why Cutting-Edge Sci-Fi Is Often Penned By Marginalized Writers

By Noah Berlatsky

Science fiction is about the gadgets. To be on the cutting edge of science fiction, therefore, you need to know your doohickeys from your gizmos, and be able to determine which will catapult you out past Uranus. Space flight, nanotechnology, virtual reality, and all the things you can do with AI — the serious science-fiction writer has all of those terms on Google alert, so as to know exactly what the future will look like five minutes from right . . . now.

“Great science fiction explores the philosophical possibilities of science’s impact on reality,” sci-fi writer James Wallace Harris declares at SF Signal. You take real science, you add brilliant philosophy, and you’ve got sci-fi. Right?

Actually, no. Harris’ article has been widely pilloried on social media because, in his tour of “cutting-edge science fiction,” he managed to make a list without citing a single piece of work by a woman or person of color. But what’s been less discussed is that his omissions are tied closely to the fact that his definition of cutting-edge science fiction is ludicrously limited.

For Harris, good science fiction focuses on real, possible science, extrapolated. “The trouble is the fans often prefer the beliefs they were raised with, and not those belonging to the cutting edge,” he huffs plaintively, bemoaning the fact that sci-fi fans still like time travel and space opera. If only fans, not to mention literary critics, were out there on the cutting edge, they’d know that H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is no longer relevant. It’s just science fantasy; pfft. Progress has overtaken it; consign it (via time machine) to the dustbin of history.

The problem is that Harris is in the thrall of that dusty, outdated idea called “progress.” Progress has been under assault for some time in the history of science–Harris probably needs to check out the decades-old cutting-edge writing of Paul Feyerabend. But whatever you think of progress in physics or biology, no one thinks progress in literature makes sense. Jonathan Lethem isn’t better than Shakespeare just because he’s around now.

Similarly, old science fiction isn’t superseded just because we now know about relativity. Cutting edge in science fiction shouldn’t mean: “I’ve included the latest, hippest equation.” It should include science fiction that is beautiful, startling, or challenging in form or content. Sci-fi writers are creating literature, not blueprints. Cutting-edge sci-fi isn’t sci-fi that uses the latest gadget. It’s sci-fi that dares you to think differently.

And since cutting-edge sci-fi demands you look at the world from a new perspective, it’s no wonder that much of it has been written by folks whose relationship to the mainstream is difficult and marginal. That is, by women and people of color. Science fiction as we know it, in fact, arguably begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Victor’s experiments aren’t based on the best technological knowledge of our time, or even of Shelley’s, but that doesn’t mean the book is backwards or irrelevant. On the contrary, it remains what it’s always been: a parable about a man who is obsessed with, and even enraged by, his inability to control reproduction. Victor wants to create life, like women do, and in his attempts to control the process of birth, he destroys both his wife and his outsized, monstrous child. Power, reproduction, love, hate, control, gendered panic; Shelley’s skeptical nightmare about male ambition still resonates with the latest headlines some 200 years later.

In the Frankenstein tradition, the two most ambitious and acclaimed living sci-fi writers are probably Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany. Both Le Guin and Delany are explicitly feminist writers, who have used science fiction not to play with the latest gadgets, but to critique, and undermine, preconceptions about gender, self, sex, and governance.

Delany’s 1975 novel Triton, for example, can be read as a prescient and devastating critique of Harris’ all-men, all-tech science fiction. Bron, the protagonist of the tale, is a typical strapping sci-fi male hero — he is big, blonde, swaggering, and works in an (ahem) cutting-edge complex technical field.

But Triton is a libertarian, egalitarian society with little formal hierarchy, and as a result, all those cutting-edge qualities that would make Bron a hero in another novel do him no good. He’s nothing special, and his self-centered certainty that he should be special ends up alienating him from workmates, friends, romantic partners, and certainly from the reader. In an effort to reconcile himself to Triton, Bron undergoes a sex change operation: a wry commentary by Delany on exactly how “cutting edge” white male sci-fi is. The future belongs to different folks, Delany insists. Find other protagonists, or end up as an anachronism.

Over the last few years, there’s been a vocal campaign by some science-fiction fans to push against the nomination of progressive works at sci-fi’s prestigious Hugo Awards. An awards voting block dubbed the Sad Puppies called for honors to go to “unabashed pulp action that isn’t heavy handed message fic,” in the words of sci-fi writer and Sad Puppy Larry Correia. For the Sad Puppies, “message fic” is an illegitimate innovation. They live in an odd, alternate universe in which Mary Shelley, Samuel Delany, Ursula Le Guin, and Octavia Butler never lived or wrote. Having ignored the past, they have no access to the future, or even to the present. Like Bron, they wander around being helplessly unpleasant, trapped in a community that long ago passed them by.

Harris isn’t a fan of pulp — but he’s similarly disconnected from the tradition of feminist and progressive science fiction. As a result, his canon (heavy on the Heinlein) doesn’t look so different from the Sad Puppies’, and his cutting-edge proscriptions for sci-fi look unconsciously retrograde.

“[S]cience fiction writers wanting to be on the far horizon of the known science-fictional universe must read widely,” Harris says. That’s advice he’d do well to take himself. He might start with Nnedi Okorofor’s recent novella Binti, in which the titular protagonist explains to her alien captors, “There are different kinds of humans.” You need different perspectives and different voices if you want to imagine differently. In a world where everyone is the same, the future is going to be bland and monochrome, no matter how up-to-the-minute you are on your science.

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Lead image from the cover of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: flickr/RA.AZ

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