I’ve been rereading science fiction classics, mostly because I have never read them in their original language but also for inspiration and fun. It’s interesting how, even with how much strangeness they manage to contain within, there is always one, or usually more, thing that not only marks the book as a product of its time but also showcases the limits of human imagination.
Before I go on, allow me to explain something. I don’t cook. This is not te same as “I can’t cook”. It’s not that I don’t like cooking or that I can’t cook. It’s that I’m essentially working two jobs what with my day job and the writing. My husband and I both consider my time better spent in writing related activities than in cooking, at least until there comes a time when I’m writing full time, if ever such a time rolls around.
So I read a book like Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. And in many ways it is glorious; big ideas, sweeping predictions, cool technology… With the social life and mores of Leave It To Beaver. At one point of the book, there’s this couple, Jean and George, who move into a budding artist’s colony that has reverted to a lower technological capability than their contemporaries to rediscover art and science. One of Jean’s biggest concerns is that the island doesn’t have private automatic kitchens. Clarke uses her outrage at having to cook her own meals as a way to highlight how far technology has come but accidentally manages to convey another thing as well: he never considered the possibility that for Jean and George the default food-processor might be George.
Now I’m not saying that Clarke was actively misogynist – he may or may not have been, I have no idea. He probably was only a man of his time, almost all of his women are, after all, little more than background noise. Very probably much like the women around him were supposed to be. Of course that’s not the whole truth and never has been.
But it does showcase the failure of human imagination. A failure which exists in pretty much anything fictional. Star Trek, with its multitudes of imagined worlds could not imagine technology that wasn’t based on the newest technology available. Which is why we have intercoms on the Enterprise. Time and again the huge science fiction greats imagined incredible technology and interesting world but couldn’t imagine the gender roles of the day as any different.
This is not a self-aggrandizing way of putting masters down, at least I don’t mean it as such. I probably have bigger failures in my imagination, just elsewhere. For me this is inherently part of the hopefulness of science fiction. No matter how we imagine the future, it will most likely be better.