Didn’t See That Coming Either…

I posted a little while back on the way science fiction of the 50s and 60s completely missed feminism in the future – not that far into the future either, let alone a century or two. But then sf writers were mostly male and they didn’t see the rise of female sf writers either. Speculation on what the future looked like was always a major theme in science fiction – indeed it became known as speculative fiction. But even as late as the last decade of the 20th century – even into the 21st century – sf still managed to miss the bleedin’ obvious.

It happens a lot with sf movies – only Kevin Costner’s much maligned Waterworld caught the whiff of changing times with bad guys called ‘smokers’ who scoured the endless oceans for ships carrying cigarettes. Everywhere else, smoking in the distance future was still regarded as normal. In the claustrophobic confines of the Nostromo, the crew lit up constantly, and more recently still, Sigourney Weaver’s xenobotanist in Avatar awoke from her sleep to demand “Where’s my Goddamn cigarettes?” Yeah right, try that on a space station. It seemed the western world’s rejection of passive smoking never occurred to those speculating on the future as they plugged away at their word processors in a nicotine smog. A future where smoking is banned almost everywhere (even in your own writing den if the niconazis had their way) – unthinkable! But at least Star Trek and Larry Niven postulated a future with no smoking on star ships or the invention of harmless cigarette substitutes. Maybe the Nostromo crew were vaping? But no way would Grace Augustine settle for that shit. Meanwhile, back on Battlestar Galactica Starbuck puffed on ‘fumarellos’ and you could collect cigarette cards of him doing that in the real world.

In spite of the video phones in Bladerunner, and the ire of Phillip K. Dick’s heirs over the name of Google’s 2010 smartphone, neither book nor the movie saw the splendid comedy of people walking into light-posts as they gazed intently at their screens and failed negotiate street furniture. Public video phones didn’t catch on, not because people would caught in embarrassing situations when the phone rang, but because they couldn’t be made vandal-proof. Personal phones that people can lose, drop in water or crack the screen are much more profitable.

But that’s the trouble with predicting the future. Like Forrest Gump’s mother said, “Life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get.” (Well, you don’t if someone hides the chart guide to the fillings.) All you know is it will be different, and things you take for granted now will be banned or just disappear.

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again – Robert Silverberg

time hoppers

I knew Silverberg prior to this on the stength of one book – Romany Star – which I read simply because it was the only sf book I ever came across that was about gypsies. I enjoyed it immensely, especially the rollicking main character Yakoub.
I always intended to read Letters From Atlantis, Silverberg’s first venture into the Romany Star universe, but never got around to it until recently, when I found ┬áin the public library. Sadly, I found Letters From Atlantisa bit wet, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Atlanteans seemed too settled, fatalistic and reliant on their gods to be the descendants of Romanies – Yakoub was more what I would have expected. Prince Ram had none of Yakoub’s opportunism and verve. The Rom may look downtrodden and dumbly accepting of a cruel fate to some, but this is far from the truth – these are a strong people with a rich culture, and a whole hearted approach to life. Besides, I don’t really like the letter format. It seemed quite stupid of the protagonist to be writing letters to his girlfriend in the ice age.
The other stories were Project Pendulum and The Time Hoppers, both far more satisfying. (I should mention that such is the power of Silverberg, that I could not put this book down, even though it started with the story I liked least).
Project Pendulum</em> is a tour de force, swinging back and forth between past eras and incredible visions of the future. Of the three, it is my favourite, since it showcases everything I love about Silverberg, his evocative prose, his ability to create credible characters with just a few strokes of the pen, his powerful story telling.
The Time Hoppers was interesting. It covered so many of the issues that we worried about in the 60s, such as the population explosion, ecology and could time travellers affect the future by stuffing up in the past (to put it in modern terms, if I travel back into the past and kill a butterfly, will I cease to exist in the future?”) that it was like time warping back into one of those earnest discussions we used to have between recitations of beat poetry.
But what was chiefly interesting was that Silverberg, like so many sf writers of the 60s, completely missed the one major change that would place over the following decades – the status of women. Even though it is 500 hundred years into the future, the women of Silverberg’s world still define their lives by marriage. The protagonist is Queller, a `class seven’ – which means in that overcrowded world, that he can have a room to himself. His sister Helaine is married to a god-awful specimen with whom she shares one room and the regulation two children. Helaine is married – full stop. She has no career, she stays home and programs the cooking. Her husband is unemployed, but there is no suggestion that Helaine look for a job instead. Her youngest child, a boy, jokes to his older sister that he can realise his ambitions because he `has something that she hasn’t got.” A penis, of course.
Did no one see the women’s revolution coming? Or did Silverberg dismiss the rumbling in the female ranks, deciding that if space and jobs were at a premium, women would be forced to mind the kids anyway? It was not only surprising to me that one of the most visionary writers in sf should think that women would still be wearing aprons 500 years into the future, it also startled me how badly it stood out. Like a sore thumb in fact. Now we expect to see women fighting the aliens and taking charge of space ships and colonies, and to read a book still set in the 50s mindset is completely jarring.
Even to read sf actually written by a woman back in the 60s was something of a novelty. Women were deemed too soft and emotional to be able to write hard sf, and of course, what did they know about science anyway?
Even now, the women’s role in sf has been to look at the human impact of the future, but it’s something the men have picked up on as well, and both sexes abound in sf now – you can no more expect the woman to be manning the kitchen than you can expect a man to be manning the controls of the space ship, or blasting the bejaysus out of the aliens.
Ah, the old time warp – so nostalgic, and so intructive. A writer must remember not to overlook the most blatantly obvious changes that time may bring.

Isaasc Azimov’s comment on the book cover is quite ironic in view of Siverberg’s failure see the sexual revolution up ahead – buyt then Azimov wore the same blinkers.