One of the things I love most about science fiction and fantasy is the potential they represent for society; an egalitarian social structure, where discrimination is not entrenched in every aspect of the way society thinks, behaves, legislates. Minority characters are not minorities because they are in a world where everyone has an equal chance at success, a fair shake, an even shot. Seeing someone other than a white man in charge of a space ship, or a battle fleet, is unremarkable and requires no special exposition or explanation in the text.
Obviously this is not the case across the board for these genres. There are plenty of works that reinforce existing power structures, plenty of white men ruling worlds and colonising planets. No genre is perfect and though I love science fiction and fantasy, they are no exception to this rule. But there does seem to be a greater representation of egalitarian society in science fiction and fantasy, which leads me to start wondering why. Is it that people interested in these topics are more likely to be drawn to these genres, to write in them, to feel comfortable and free in them? I suppose it’s certainly possible that this is the explanation, but it doesn’t quite sit right with me.
Fiction in general, after all, contains a lot of genres and a lot of room for play. And obviously there are works of, say, literary fiction that also explore egalitarianism and promote equality, though they are far fewer in number, proportionally. The reason I think it works so well in science fiction and fantasy is that these stories are not of this world. When you get to make up entire societies and social structures, to push at the boundaries of reality, to play with technology and magic, you are not bounded by the limitations of the world we live in and you can throw those limitations out if you so choose, or poke at them in interesting ways.
Which is a great thing, to be able to explore, but it is also a kind of sad thing to think about, that people seem to feel most comfortable modeling egalitarianism in societies that are not only not ours, but not really possible. Now, some science fiction of course is intended to explore where our society could go, might go, should go, and this is a cornerstone of the genre, but when books are clearly meant to be specifically futuristic, the society presented may be so far abstracted from society now that it is hard to see how we are supposed to get there. We can see the egalitarian model, but it is out of reach because we don’t know how society got from here to there.
There is a black box somewhere between, and it is that which I would like to explore most. Some authors definitely are doing this, thinking about ways that societies could fundamentally shift and how that might happen. They may take readers through the process or just reference it, but at least they try to explain what happened.
I would love so much to see more literary fiction set in a modern setting with unremarkable egalitarianism. Why not play with this, as a concept, rather than making minority characters stand out, or making sure readers know how remarkable it is that a person might be able to rise to a position of power without coming from the hereditary class of power? Why not throw out ideas of power altogether and show readers how it might be possible to change society now, not later? In this sense, science fiction and fantasy with a social justice bent almost feel like a cheap way out for me as a reader; I love reading them, but at the same time I want to see what it would look like for society today, right now, the society I am living in, to be radically different.
It sort of reminds me of my objections to ‘it gets better,’ a programme structured around the idea that some day, in the future, things will be better. It makes me ask why things can’t be better now, and what’s holding up that process. Telling queer youth that things will be better at an abstract and unpredictable point[1. Or, if you’re Dan Savage, when you leave your backwards rural community for the big city where everything is magically awesome for queer people.] isn’t terribly helpful for people who are living in torment now. Who are struggling with inequality now. Imagining a speculative world without oppression excites me, but also makes me feel a little like the viewers of the ‘it gets better’ videos.
So many attempts at building egalitarian societies have failed that it begins to feel like an impossible goal, something we only see in fiction because it is fictional. Something we can only dream about because it will never happen. An exercise in futility. It is, at best, a naive pipe dream had by those of us who lie awake at night and wonder how exactly we managed to create such an unjust world, and what, precisely, we should do about it.
This is not to say that people should stop writing egalitarian science fiction and fantasy! Far from it. I think that these works are critically valuable and important because they do show readers another option, another way of being, another choice, and they plant the seeds of great things. I read the Lioness Quartet at an impressionable age, I know how this stuff works. But it does make me long to know why egalitarianism has to be, literally, the stuff of fantasy. Is it really so unimaginable?