People who don’t read science fiction, but who have at least given it a fair shot, often say they’ve found it inhuman, elitist, and escapist. Since its characters, they say, are both conventionalized and extraordinary, all geniuses, space heroes, superhackers, androgynous aliens, it evades what ordinary people really have to deal with in life, and so fails an essential function of fiction. However remote Jane Austen’s England is, the people in it are immediately relevant and revelatory—reading about them we learn about ourselves. Has science fiction anything to offer but escape from ourselves?
The cardboard-character syndrome was largely true of early science fiction, but for decades writers have been using the form to explore character and human relationships. I’m one of them. An imagined setting may be the most appropriate in which to work out certain traits and destinies. But it’s also true that a great deal of contemporary fiction isn’t a fiction of character. This end of the century isn’t an age of individuality as the Elizabethan and the Victorian ages were. Our stories, realistic or otherwise, with their unreliable narrators, dissolving points of view, multiple perceptions and perspectives, often don’t have depth of character as their central value. Science fiction, with its tremendous freedom of metaphor, has sent many writers far ahead in this exploration beyond the confines of individuality—Sherpas on the slopes of the postmodern.
As for elitism, the problem may be scientism: technological edge mistaken for moral superiority. The imperialism of high technocracy equals the old racist imperialism in its arrogance; to the technophile, people who aren’t in the know/in the net, who don’t have the right artifacts, don’t count. They’re proles, masses, faceless nonentities. Whether it’s fiction or history, the story isn’t about them. The story’s about the kids with the really neat, really expensive toys. So “people” comes to be operationally defined as those who have access to an extremely elaborate fast-growth industrial technology. And “technology” itself is restricted to that type. I have heard a man say perfectly seriously that the Native Americans before the Conquest had no technology. As we know, kiln-fired pottery is a naturally occurring substance, baskets ripen in the summer, and Machu Picchu just grew there.
Limiting humanity to the producer-consumers of a complex industrial growth technology is a really weird idea, on a par with defining humanity as Greeks, or Chinese, or the upper-middle-class British. It leaves out a little too much.
All fiction, however, has to leave out most people. A fiction interested in complex technology may legitimately leave out the (shall we say) differently technologized, as a fiction about suburban adulteries may ignore the city poor, and a fiction centered on the male psyche may omit women. Such omission may, however, be read as a statement that advantage is superiority, or that the white middle class is the whole society, or that only men are worth writing about. Moral and political statements by omission are legitimated by the consciousness of making them, insofar as the writer’s culture permits that consciousness. It comes down to a matter of taking responsibility. A denial of authorial responsibility, a willed unconsciousness, is elitist, and it does impoverish much of our fiction in every genre, including realism.
Ursula K. Le Guin (A Fisherman of the Inland Sea)