A contemporary truism of science fiction is that, no matter how far-flung the future being imagined, its depiction is always, in some way, commenting on the present. How overtly an author decides to integrate the present into their worldbuilding has a significant impact on suspension of disbelief, but even using a term like “suspension of disbelief” suggests the goal should be to immerse readers fully in another time and space, and that isn’t always the case.
In 1973, Umberto Eco described ten ways that literature set in the Middle Ages could be used to negotiate contemporary needs, and many of those modalities apply just as well to science fiction’s thematic projects. A work set in the distant future, for instance, can use the trappings of a typical space opera as a “philological [p]reconstruction,” to help illustrate the long-term implications of contemporary social structures and technologies; or as “philosophia perennis,” as part of an ongoing philosophical discourse that extends from current logic and ethics systems; or simply as a “pretext,” a backdrop of setting and plot without as much focus on the plausibility of key details, because the greater narrative purpose lies simply in seeing how familiar (contemporary) characters would operate in an exotic setting.
When a book like Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars (2017), a deep space adventure ostensibly set well over half a millennium into humanity’s future, goes a mere two paragraphs before reaching for a contemporary analogy—“If the White Raven was a family home, the wreck was more like a studio apartment”—the text is still in the middle of establishing the rules of its universe. Who is the narrator? What audience are they addressing? What kind of future are they interested in constructing? Of the three possibilities above, Pratt’s narrative voice suggests a space opera written with “pretext” in mind—and that can be risky, because for some readers of science fiction, anachronism is distracting. However, whether this tactic effectively serves its chosen function depends on something else: namely, the narrative impact of its consistent use.
On one level, The Wrong Stars, the first book in Pratt’s Axiom Series, has all the makings of classic space opera. Pratt’s tale follows a motley, wisecracking freelance space crew as it addresses a solar-system-specific quandary that rapidly grows into an intergalactic mystery challenging humanity’s understanding of life in the cosmos. Only Callie’s crew of four to six (depending on how one defines a person), assisted by a stranger wrested from cryosleep and later by an alien, can together seek out the truth, save the human species, and … maybe help two specific humans knock boots, so as to fulfill the novel’s heavily telegraphed love plot.
At the core of this space opera is one particularly effective genre concept: the species design for Pratt’s aliens, the “Liars”—so named because the aliens, humanity’s only first-contact experience, are notorious for lying about big-picture matters, like the origins and central mythologies of their people, as well as everyday details about where they were and what they were going. Each tribe of Liars engages in different tall-tale-telling and forms of denial about their lying, but the species is unified by its ability to exasperate its human trading partners for this reason. If not for the Liars’ willingness to share the stars through technology like the “bridges” (fixed wormholes opening up new sectors for exploration), these aliens, with their multitude of tribes manifesting a myriad of biological variations, would have been kicked to the wayside centuries ago, by a human race disappointed in their only known cosmic counterparts.
But when Callie and her crew discover a five-hundred-year-old Goldilocks ship sitting where it doesn’t belong—namely, right in Earth’s solar system—the haul yields two surprises: Elena, a woman from the past who insists that her crew encountered and was lost to a different kind of alien, and a bridge generator, a device that makes new wormholes, much to the terror of local Liars. Both discoveries of course spell trouble for the crew, and potential devastation for the human race.
Considering this context, then, some linguistic fudging is inevitable, because rare is the science fiction author who can effectively depict futurespeak at the level required to distinguish, say, Elena’s English from whatever Callie and her crew might grok. Pratt goes one further, though, by making a significant number of overt nods to today’s most sociopolitically resonant language, like “enthusiastic consent,” and the range of labels currently in active use for persons across the gender and sexual-orientation spectrums. Pratt’s characters not only remember Harry Potter well enough to use a reference in common parlance therein, but also to quibble about its semantics. One crewmate also employs the contemporary (mid-twentieth century) idiom of a mystery wrapped in an enigma, without the phrase showing any mileage the way most do in time. And even when a Liar needs to describe humanity’s danger, she draws upon an ants-at-a-picnic analogy that sits uneasily against the book’s depiction of Earth as a place that, after extreme resource depletion in Elena’s time, recovered only enough to serve as a dull blip in the crew’s space-travelling psyches. Was there really no more proximate alternative example for the alien to employ to make her point, like allusion to a pest common to space station life?
As for personal identity labels, there are, of course, other ways to incorporate the full range of human gender expression and sexual experience into science fiction and fantasy. From classic SF/F writers like Delany (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), Dhalgren (1975)) and Le Guin (The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)), to contemporary writers like Rose Lemberg (“Geometries of Belonging” (2015)) and Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014)), these genres are full of alternative vocabularies, and even the development of whole universes, in which identity is more individual-specific than in need of all-encompassing demographic labels—let alone exactly the ones we use today. It isn’t necessary, for instance, in Rose Lemberg’s “Geometries of Belonging,” to know if the correlated social discourse for the distinct way some spellcasters use their secret names is neurodiversity or trans experience. The more important factor, as a work that Eco might have included in his category of “philological reconstruction,” is simply that Lemberg’s worldbuilding stretches our understanding of contemporaneous social structures in general.
It is also significant, in determining the audience and scope of narrative purpose for The Wrong Stars, to consider what is left out of Pratt’s deployment of the present. Callie, the name of the main protagonist, is short for Kalea Machedo, which technically makes the character non-white (at least in keeping with contemporary associations between names and social constructions of race). However, it is unclear where either Hawaiian or Japanese culture figures in a significant way into Callie’s character—either in her store of historical knowledge, or her idiomatic expressions, or her overall value set. In fact, it is difficult to differentiate between any of the approaches to humour, justice, and cultural analogy used by most of the crew, such that the text reads more as if all characters—Drake, Janice, Stephen, Michael, Callie, Ashok, and even Elena—are drawing from the same, twenty-first century, Western-normative well of lived experience.
Now, there is precedence for this kind of cultural and temporal partiality in some of the most entrenched canon in SF/F history. Why else does twenty-fourth century Starfleet favour late-twentieth century jazz, popular classical music, and baseball? Why else would one of the mysteries in the Battlestar Galactica reboot, (spoiler) supposedly set millennia back in human history, hinge upon Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”?
But whereas invocations of contemporary culture and speech are often used in prominent science fiction vehicles to advance complex issues, in Pratt’s work the use of such explicit categories instead often closes off the story’s most intriguing aspects. Drake and Janice, for instance, are two beings on Callie’s crew who share a single, tremendous jumble of a body, thanks to a mess of a rescue mission undertaken by a previously uncontacted Liar tribe. This character history could have yielded a wealth of reflections on transitional identities, but when another character asks them about their sexuality, each simply rattles off their additions to the book’s overall checklist (Drake, gay; Janice, aromantic and mostly asexual) as if the ability to feel each other’s orgasms and the sheer act of now sharing a body is still not sufficient to offer changes, too, to the fundamental identity matrices Drake and Janice used in their prior lives.
Similarly, when Callie desires to serve as judge, jury, and executioner in the wake of a heinous act of genocide by another tribe of Liars, it just so happens that the only Liar to survive the ship’s countermeasures against an attempted boarding is the one who disagreed with his superiors’ decision to wipe out the station in the first place. This conveniently provides the narrative with an escape from three potentially thought-provoking moral dilemmas: one, the question of what response could possibly be fitting for genocide (a struggle that truth-and-reconciliation commissions, state governments, and the UN alike are still grappling with in our time); two, the question of what restorative response is fitting for genocide perpetuated by a population acting in response to a body of species-wide trauma that each member carries in its active memories; and three, whether there is any way for Callie to execute the Liar without herself becoming monstrous.
Not every work of science fiction can be expected to rise to the delicate ethical discourse of, say, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Survivors” (1989), in which Captain Picard has to mete out justice to a being who committed a deity-like crime against sentience, or The Expanse’s “Cascade” (2017), in which Naomi renegotiates well-worn trolley-problem ethics by returning self-determination to a frightened mob in the middle of a life-or-death scenario. These are examples of science fiction serving the “philosophia perennis” function of fictional storytelling, by extending our current ethical quandaries into far-flung future settings; in contrast, Pratt’s narrative, with its fixation instead on character identities, offers an especially skewed sense of moral priority in lines like the following, which is uttered by Callie, with the backing of the ship’s computer, while the rest of the crew (including Elena, of another century and therefore, you might think, the most likely to offer disagreement) remains silent:
“You don’t believe in the law? That’s OK. The law believes in you. Whether you recognize my authority or not, we’ll still throw you out an airlock if you’re found guilty. Ship, what are the charges against … do you have a preferred pronoun, Lantern?”
No, this absurd willingness to leap cheerfully to killing a fellow sentient being but also to balk at misgendering the impending victim is not treated like a punchline in the text. Moreover, Callie’s rush to vengeful bloodlust is not questioned by even a single member of the crew (save Stephen’s protest, as a doctor, against the use of torture to achieve her murderous ends). And so, at best, this seems a missed opportunity: Pratt might not have been interested in negotiating the limits of space justice to handle heinous crimes; but there was room here for at least a modicum of psychological nuance to be lent to the overall character of a crew trying to restore social order while freshly grieving the loss of colleagues, friends, and (in some cases) potential lovers. Instead, though, the book’s rigid categorization of sentient experience (however diversely categorized!) means that the only way to make the alien acceptable for redemption is to erase from her all but guilt by association for the brutal crime under scrutiny in the first place.
This squeaky-clean handling of character depth extends, too, to the language supporting the novel’s central love plot, which for some reason the entire crew is keen to see resolved even when there is plenty else in progress to keep everyone’s attention occupied. From the captain’s first encounter with Elena, it is clear that the two women will sleep together, because there really isn’t room for narrative complexity in lines like:
She looked like a sleeping princess (peasant garb aside), and something in Callie sparkled at the sight of her. Uh oh, she thought.
The reference to “peasant garb” is another anachronism that complicates a clear reading of this scene (i.e., would one need to write “Ellen Ripley looked like a sleeping princess [scanties aside] in the well-earned repose of her cryochamber”—or would the role of simile not be obvious?), but another part of this first encounter offers an even greater puzzle. “Sparkled”? A feminized body can manifest in many ways, but as an occupier of one such manifestation I had a difficult time imagining what this verb might be referring to physically. When we are later told that “Callie felt a sudden hot surge of lust,” I again struggled to place this feeling within the body we are given to understand that Callie has. Are her space-scanties wet? Does she have a sudden tightness, or heat, in her lower abdomen? Not to write too boobily about feminized characters, but is she becoming acutely aware of her tits, hard and sensitive under her spacesuit? Is there a general prickling heat in her arms and face and neck that leaves her feeling like all the blood is rushing from her head to her, ah, not-so-neutral zone?
The sort of evasive language that occurs around Callie and Elena as sexual beings would not be as much of a problem if so much of the text wasn’t spent explicitly spelling out that the two have feelings for each other, that everyone knows this, and that they need to get it on ASAP. At these junctures, too, the story again makes protracted use of contemporary keywords, like when the ship’s computer, Shall/Michael, encourages Elena to pursue her interest in Callie by telling her the following:
“If I did a full diagnostic, I think I’d see very interesting hormonal activity when the two of you interact.” A pause. “What I’m saying is, you’re attracted to each other.”
This explicit invocation of biological response should have been sufficient, but for the purposes of Pratt’s narrative, it seems to be important to then offer an explicit label for one of the attracted parties’ orientations, complete with definition. And so the conversation continues:
“She, ah, doesn’t just like men?”
“Back in the days when she had a dating profile on the Tangle, Callie identified as demisexual. She’s attracted to people she develops feelings for, whether they’re femme, butch, andro, enby, genderfluid, shifting, or otherwise. Attraction follows interest, for her. I think you interest her greatly.”
If we refer back to Eco’s model, this sort of exposition (which in no way seeks to adapt contemporary language for a far-flung future that quite possibly would have fewer hang-ups about labels in general), suits the use of science fiction as a “pretext” for exploring the full range of contemporary character types. And in the present, especially in the Western, political context, labels are important. Thus, for some readers, there will likely be a sense of affirmation in seeing such terms given clear, explicit mention in this snappy, wisecracking SF adventure. But when read in the round—the white-normative lead character with a throwaway non-white name, the shouted-from-the-rooftops queer romance central to the plot, the explicit and rigid deployment of gender and orientation categories amid indifference to more nuanced explorations of sentient experience—what emerges is a highly self-conscious space opera. Pratt’s narrator is clearly keen to go about the business of depicting space-themed hijinx involving action, aliens, and revelations about the nature of the cosmos; but is also deeply preoccupied by how this narrative will appear in light of contemporary sociopolitical discourse.
Now, Pratt’s The Wrong Stars is by no means the first science fiction text to manifest such difficulties, and, as such, the weaknesses in this text are usefully illustrative of the ongoing struggle, for many SF/F writers, to ascertain what sort of present they are being encouraged to incorporate in their visions of the future.
I am tempted to say, for instance, that books like The Wrong Stars still show, if nothing else, that we have come a long way from the age of novels like Asimov’s The End of Eternity (1955), which could imagine time police tasked with rescuing the whole course of human history, but never (save for one unfortunate century of matriarchal rule) a role for women outside of secretarial, janitorial, and easy-squeeze labour. However, to say such a thing would be to employ another of Eco’s categories for historical writing: namely, to depict another period as primitive simply to exult in how much better we are in the present. Such a statement, too, does a tremendous disservice to the range of SF/F writers in every era: some more comfortable writing traditional employments of gender, sexuality, and morality; some better suited to exploring the twisty poetics of human experience in all manner of far-flung setting.
A more measured approach to analysis, then, comes from a contemporary of Eco’s, the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault noted that often, in the present, we try to prop up other eras (i.e., in his writings, the Victorian era) as less enlightened times so that we can position any action in the present as a kind of triumphant emancipation from that brutality. This presentist enlightenment is certainly suggested in Pratt’s overt and over-the-top usage of contemporary terminology in such a far-flung future setting, to affirm the equal value and presence of humans from other walks of life. However, in presuming everything in the present to represent the pinnacle of moral advancement from a more rigid past, we simultaneously retain the memory of that rigid past, and all its psychological parameters, in the present, too.
If science fiction’s projects differ from those of our colleagues in historical fiction, then surely they differ most self-evidently in the former writer’s ability to imagine worlds in which humanity has yet to tread, but which nevertheless lie tantalizingly upon the horizon of contemporary debate. This is certainly one of the projects embarked upon by many SF/F writers who have embraced the evolutionary nature not only of our species, but also of species of thought within our peoples’ writing. Though Pratt’s The Wrong Stars conveys a clear understanding that contemporary space opera requires more nuanced character types in order to be successful, the novel’s strongest elements, like species design, are ultimately underwritten by an approach to psychological and sociological inclusivity that, in the wild and wonderful world of science fiction, misses the forest for the specific names of trees.
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