Anything Can Happen

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?

Independence Day movie poster

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’ latest, 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. 

Logo from Web page of NASA's Asteroid Watch

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.

The Knowing Time Traveler

That attitude is tenable as long as we’re living in the present.  We don’t know what’s going to happen next.  But what if we did?  Suppose we had the ability to travel in time back to an earlier era—permanently.  What would it be like to live one’s life knowing, as settled history, what the future holds?

Outlander book cover

There’s an entire subgenre of time travel romance that deals with contemporary people going back in time to live with a lover in the past.  The most well-known story of this sort is probably Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (1991), first of a lengthy series, which was in turn developed into a TV series.  Here Claire Randall, a mid-twentieth-century nurse, is magically transported back to the eighteenth century to fall in love with Scotsman Jamie Fraser.  While I’ve only read the first novel, and the tale evidently gets a good deal more complicated later, Claire seems happy to give up her twentieth-century life to reside somewhere in the past.

Of course one could always look forward to the unknown personal events of one’s own life, which presumably wouldn’t be enshrined in the historical record—unless one’s presence itself changes the overall course of history, which sets up an entirely different kind of story.  When we go back and change the past, as in L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1939), or (in a notably more complex fashion) Angela Quarles’s Must Love Breeches (2014), we’ve rewritten history, and we no longer know what’s going to happen.  (I’ve commented on some aspects of changing history in a previous post.)

But if our personal lives stay under the radar, so to speak, then we already know the broad outlines of our future from our erstwhile history books.  That might be useful:  Quarles’s heroine, in the epilogue, reflects that “she’d not been above using her knowledge of upcoming historical events to safeguard her family and their finances.”

On the other hand, for a science fiction fan who enjoys the open-endedness of not knowing what will happen, such a life in the past might be hard to bear.  We could no longer wonder whether extra-terrestrials might land tomorrow, or new medical breakthroughs be made, or whether unexpected political events like the fall of the Soviet Union might occur.  From this perspective, living immured in the past might seem like a prison, rather than a comfortable resting place.

Time Signature cover

This is the situation I set up in Time Signature for my heroine Trina.  She’s a lifelong F&SF fan; her eyes have always been fixed on the future.  When she begins to take seriously the notion that she might be asked to live her life in the past, how does she grapple with that?  What kind of comedy might develop from this somewhat unusual romantic obstacle?

I had a good time finding out, and I hope you may as well.

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.

Conclusion

Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.