The More Things Change . . .
One of the things I like about reading science fiction and fantasy is that you never know how things might turn out.
Of course certain genres of stories come with expectations. In an adventure epic, we can be pretty sure the good guys will win. In a traditional romance, the couple generally gets together at the end. But what’s different about F&SF, as opposed to what we might call mainstream or mundane stories, is that the worldwide situation at the end can be radically different from the one at the beginning.
I’m talking here about big-picture changes. Of course things can and do change for the people in the story. But in a mainstream story, the world around the characters is pretty much fixed. Our main character may win a million dollars, but the overall distribution of wealth doesn’t change. Our hero and heroine may fall in love and marry, but it won’t be front-page news. In a TV hospital drama, the imperiled patient won’t be cured because aliens suddenly arrive with a universal regeneration technique that makes illness obsolete; the cure will come on a more individual scale.
The World At Stake?
In a science fiction story, however, world-changing events may occur. The movie Independence Day depicts an alien invasion after which, as I pointed out in a previous post, things will never be the same. A nifty new invention may change the world. Discovering people with strange powers among us may affect our whole history, for good or for ill. A revolution may succeed in overthrowing the oppressive tyranny. Things will not always reset to their “Gilligan’s Island” starting point.
Not all F&SF stories involve such events. A perfectly good fantastic tale may result in changes only for the central characters—in Jo Walton’s Among Others, for example, or Becky Chambers’ The Galaxy, and the Ground Within (2021). But the potential is there. The set of possible outcomes has a wider range: the resolution does not have to confine itself to the resolutely mundane.
Even mainstream thrillers where it appears The Fate of the World Is At Stake—James Bond, say—usually don’t take that step. The world-changing fate is averted, the status quo is restored. Even the possibility of radical change is usually hidden from the general public; there’s no sense that Bond’s exploits are a nine-day wonder in the press. On the contrary, we have the sense that the people at large never know how close they came to nuclear destruction or whatever the menace-of-the-week is. When such a thriller actually does postulate a major change for the world—as in, say, Tom Clancy’s now-outdated Red Storm Rising (1986), or the more recent book by Elliot Ackerman & James Stavridis, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War (excerpted in the February 2021 issue of Wired)—I’m inclined to think of it as science fiction for exactly that reason.
Hope and Unease
This open-endedness is an effective counter to both complacency and despair.
When stories teach us that even big overarching parts of our life can change, we are less inclined to rest in the comfortable assumption that the status quo will always remain. This is a good thing, because it keeps us from taking things for granted. America could become a dictatorship; it behooves us to make sure it doesn’t. The world could suffer an ecological catastrophe. An asteroid could strike the Earth again; that’s why we track near-Earth objects.
But it’s equally important to recognize that the big world-picture could also get better. It is easy, especially in a cynical age like our own, to assume that current evils will always be with us; things will continue to get darker and more depressing. But that’s merely taking the status quo for granted again. We cannot assume that there will always be racial discrimination, that some people will always go hungry, that Earth’s ecology will degrade. Not knowing what is going to happen means we can hope for better things as well as fear worse things.
We can thus take comfort, as well as warning, in the open-endedness of the future.
Had she really thought the world didn’t change? She was a fool. The world was made of miracles, unexpected earthquakes, storms that came from nowhere and might reshape a continent. The boy beside her. The future before her. Anything was possible. (Inej’s thoughts, in Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2016), ch. 44, p. 529.)
F&SF fans, then, are encouraged to be both cautious and expectant about the future. That doesn’t prevent them from being either naïve or discouraged—we see plenty of both. But they are a little more likely to look toward the future with interest and curiosity.