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What our science fiction says about us (bbc.com)
52 points by pseudolus 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 45 comments

The author just sounds ignorant, and seems to have jumped up at Cixin Liu. Western fans have always welcomed authors like the Strugarsky brothers and Stanislaw Lem, and Japanese scifi. He also seems to be forgetting pioneers like Ursula Le Guin, authors from a diverse Western background.

Moreover, even traditional well-known Western fiction has had diversity in characters. I am Indian, and off the cuff, can recall the following "historical" Indian figures/settings in Western scifi:

- Captain Nemo, in "20000 Leagues Under the Sea", was the erstwhile Maharaja of Bundelkhand, India

- "Around the World in 80 days" - Phileas Fogg, the main character, rescues and later marries an Indian, "Aouda".

- The programmer of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, is Dr. Chandra, from UIUC

- One of the most famous antagonists in the Star Trek universe is Khan Noonein Singh, a Sikh character

- One of the five scientists in Carl Sagan's "Contact" is Indian (Devi?)

- "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" by Robert Heinlein has Agra, India as a pivotal plot venue.

Most "Western" Sci Fi has been very diverse in it's characters as most non-dystopian futures assume a very globalized earth. Let's take star trek for example

* TOS has been on the forefront of this with basically the whole bridge crew beeing a commercial for space diversity, even going so far as having a russian officers during the cold war on the bridge.

* The first Chief engineer of the TNG Enterprise was an Indian only to be replaced by Geordi La Forge (a blind black man).

* DS9 dealt with race and diversity on so many levels, i can't even begin to count.

* VOY just happened to have a very diverse crew, it was never explored much just...accepted?

* ENT same as voyager just a little less "on the nose"

Star trek was interesting in this, you can see how creators tried for diversity as much as current norms at the time allowed.

In 60s, captain (aka main hero) had to be postercard white american, no way around it. TNG had a caucasian french captain (played by british actor, tells something about what creators thought about audience). DS9 had an african-american captain. Voyager a woman.

> In 60s, captain (aka main hero) had to be postercard white american, no way around it.

And indeed, it is even stated at one time (albeit possibly by an unreliable character) that women _could not be Starfleet captains_.

I think Star Trek was actually fairly timid about this compared to contemporary and older novels. TOS pushed the envelope a little bit, but the rest were mostly just hitting contemporary norms. Notoriously, they were very skittish about LGBT characters, even at a time when gay people were showing up in sitcoms etc without anyone getting too upset.

Novels are a whole different story, though; Clarke, le Guin etc were very much more progressive.

Television is a more conservative medium than novels, generally. Star Trek always lagged slightly behind the cutting edge in terms of social commentary on tv, but also stayed pretty close to that cutting edge.

It's always tricky, introducing more progressive social ideas to a broad audience. You want to open minds without alienating them.

I disagree on TOS, which I think pushed the envelope a lot for the time it was created, but yeah, most of the later series have been more conservative. "Let's have some black and/or female characters" was less revolutionary by the late '80s.

(Though it's interesting that TOS, by including a Klingon and an android in the bridge crew, illustrated the in-universe diversity of Starfleet without doing much for IRL casting diversity.)

I suppose I have to admit that having a blind man in TOS was progressive. And having black, female, and finally black female protagonists (DS9, Voyager, Discovery) was a series of steps forward. Still damn disappointing that we had to wait 'til the last few years to get openly gay recurring characters.

Before Geordi La Forge became chief engineer of the TNG Enterprise, there wasn't a dedicated chief engineer [1].

The Indian character you mention wasn't the first (or particularly senior) [2].

[1]: http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Argyle

[2]: http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Singh_(Lieutenant_JG)

Just reminded myself of this: In the model 2001: A Space Odyssey the moon station has a "sovyet" and an "american" entrance which both lead to the same room. The main character notices this with releave instead of annyoance.

Kim Stanley Robinson - Red Mars trilogy - half of the crew are russians, japanese etc. After colonisation even more diverse etnicities arrive.

James Corey - The Expanse - main characters include Indian, Polynesian, whole premise of the book is "nationality" conflict. Belters especially.

Jemisin - The Broken Earth trilogy - again, different looking people as main characters, racial conflicts and so on.

Ann Leckie - Ancillary series - ambiguous gender characters as main characters, racial conflicts etc.

I'd say that western sci-fi is rather progressive in character diversity.

Alastair Reynolds - Poseidon's Children trilogy - African nations (and the Chinese and Indians) are the world's foremost technological powers and space faring nations. Also ELEPHANTS IN SPACE!

Also forgot: Kim Stanley Robinson - Years of Rice and Salt - plague kills off whole Europe, and then all middle east and far east nations are main entities for the whole book.

Louis Wu - Ringworld, described as mixed race and of course aliens. The inhabitants of Ringworld (as seen in sequels) are also very diverse.

Citing Black Panther as an example of a departure from

> Well-known artistic depictions of the future [...] showing a marked lack of diversity.

Black Panther was a purely american product, Comic book superhero is the most stale and rehashed sub-genre of science-fiction from the last century, and this author uses it to show a "blossoming" of new diverse and imaginative production from "around the world"?

Afrofuturism, reaching back from W. E. B. Du Bois with The Comet to Black Panther, Nnedi Okorafor, ALL of them american products, would not be considered the "West"? African-american culture is not western?

> “But this phenomenon, which is now making its voice heard from areas like China or Africa, also has a much longer history that precedes today’s boom.”

This whole article seems to be written from the point of vue of someone who have been blind for decades, discovering that other culture exists all around. Reaching outside their bubble seems progressive and forward-thinking, but this surprise and this impression of being so avant-gardiste only serves to show how bigoted they were for so long.

> Well-known artistic depictions of the future have traditionally been regarded as the preserve of the West, and have shown a marked lack of diversity.

I can appreciate the prudent use of "well-known" here, because science-fiction has been extremely diverse and progressive from the beginning. If anything however, there is a backlash from alt-right cliques to colonize the genre, with the recent attempts to subvert the Hugo Awards[1]. This seems to go against the narrative of this article, but I think this is more important (and disturbing). That Cixin have won the award recently does not mean that science fiction is becoming more diverse, only that foreign authors have been welcomed into the fold.

So typical, the only boom that matters is the one playing into the US cultural codes, one face of imperialism. Only there it is pretending to be diversity.

[1]: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/apr/17/hugo-award-nom...

I don't know if it's because of the translation or because it is the Chinese style but reading the three bodies problem was a chore. The concept is good but most of it could be condensed in a 100 pages novella. It felt like reading the Dune prequels. Not the kind of things you'd expect to get a Hugo award.

You should read Cixin Lius short stories then, his short stories are far better than 3BP, they are in my opinion much more imaginative while additionally being very concise. The only real bummer is that Cixin Liu just seems to love dramatic irony on epic scales so much that basically every story is based around it.

The trilogy had some nice ideas, but it seems more like an exploration of the cosmic sociology than of a real story, which got quite tiring after a certain point for me. Though, I think I'm just not the type for trilogies, I favor concise existential literature over world-building.

I've always maintained that sci fi really shines in short stories and novella's. It's rare imo opinion for novel length sci fi to be as provoking and pleasurable.

Black Panther was one of the highest grossing movies of the year, so I think it is kinda significant that it got made at all, and that it was as successful as it was.

Also, although its ostensibly a 'super hero' movie, there isn't actually any super hero stuff in it (e.g. innocent people being saved from falling lifts, burning buildings etc). Its a sci-fi story about who rules a super-advanced african nation, and what their foreign policy should be.

>Its a sci-fi story about who rules a super-advanced african nation, and what their foreign policy should be.

Of the very crude, beat-you-to-the-head-without-subtlety variety, when it comes to sci-fi.

Marvel Studios has been pumping out hit after hit. It's not really surprising how successful it was at all, especially with the Avenger's tie in.

Right, but as of a few months ago Black Panther was the highest grossing (and most tickets sold) out of all Marvel movies. Probably Infinity War has passed it since then, but still. Its likely the second-most successful Marvel movie ever - thats significant, no?


That's because it was a good movie with good characters and an interesting story. The setting, cast, and other accidentals don't matter if you have good characters and an interesting story.

This is what a lot of the purveyors of politically correct SF don't seem to understand.

Comic book superhero is the most stale and rehashed sub-genre of science-fiction from the last century

Superheroes go all the way back to Ancient Greek stories of gods and demigods, or even some of the Old Testament prophets, the stories are still read today and are clearly structurally similar. The idea that superheroes are a modern American invention is just ludicrous.

>Superheroes go all the way back to Ancient Greek stories of gods and demigods (...) The idea that superheroes are a modern American invention is just ludicrous.*

No, they don't. Heroes and gods/creatures with special powers indeed are ancient.

Superheroes are a specific thing, within a specific culture.

It's not only that ancient gods didn't were spandex, it's a whole lot of cultural preconceptions and genre characteristics that define the superhero stories (not to mention the way those are produced and consumed).

If we accept your premise that superheroism is a continuation and extension of ancient fables, wouldn't that make it even more stale and rehashed?

It would, but my point is really, that this isn’t a “purely American product”

The ancient Greek/Old Testament stories are not science-fiction though.

Yes and no. Swap planets for uncharted islands and Star Trek (TOS at least) would be instantly recognisable to any Ancient Greek.

in the original star trek they find Apollo [0] and determine how ancient greeks may have been inspired by aliens. really enjoyable episode to think over:-)

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Mourns_for_Adonais%3F

I started The Three-Body Problem yesterday. I don’t read much science fiction but I’ve seen this particular book mentioned a lot so I thought I’d give it a try.

I haven’t read that one but another science fiction book I read a couple of years ago after seeing it mentioned on HN a few times is Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. If you feel like reading another science fiction book in the future I recommend that you read Cryptonomicon. It was a good book that had a lot to offer.

If we're making recommendations then mine would be Marooned in Real Time by Vernor Vinge.

I just read this a couple months ago and really enjoyed it. The world-building was excellent and the story was very well constructed. Great writing and great SF.

Don't miss his True Names story.

I second those both and would like to add Anathem by Neal Stephenson as well.

I feel Diamond Age is his best, but the ones mentioned are great too.

I never really liked the earlier Stephenson that much - but I love Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, Anathem and Seveneves.

I even like the last part of Seveneves!

Reamde wasn't very good though.

But the first part of Seveneves is better surely? Though I liked both.

Yes, I would agree with that. The first part is fantastic and the last part is quite good.

The last part should have been a separate book!

Make sure you stick with it, the sequel is amazing.

hatever you do afterwards, do not firebomb SETI or a startrek convention. It's too late anyway.

Mh, personally I see far more fantasy production, distopic future fictions than science fictions ones... And I agree that they represent actual society trends since artist in general foresee the future far more than any other...

And if we dig deeper even science fiction like Star Trek represent their "originating" society, for instance while ST clearly represent an "international" future they represent it as USA-style-centric vision, that's is the starfleet. The same they represent a not-really-free society because yes there is no need to work and anybody seems to be happy, but anything goes around "starfleet" or around a military apparatus, not a democracy.

> The same they represent a not-really-free society because yes there is no need to work and anybody seems to be happy, but anything goes around "starfleet" or around a military apparatus, not a democracy.

Well the societies are free by our modern, humanist standards. Just one of many examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdXTohdKcm4

The whole "everything goes around starfleet/military" is basically just bad writing, but very much against what the future of star trek wants to project.

The fact that "starfleet" is actually a military force, while anywhere we hear that it's task is exploration not war IMO demonstrate that. Essentially entire "United federation" society seems to turn around starfleet. Only veeeery few times I here thing about democracy like elections or political charges (that in general came out when in trouble and need military protection or doing something wrong and need to be stopped)...

Do you really see freedom in a hierarchy? Yes, characters seems to be free, but basic of ST society is all but a military dictatorship not a democracy, so they are the USA that formally have elections and are a democracy but in practice they have a corporatocracy that use money, media power to steer the society and single citizen have a very little weight... Consider only the real purpose of many aspect of electoral system across the western world. The most "democratic" was the Swiss one, followed by modern German one, only because of nazi fear I think, classic Italian one was in a similar shape before actual series of reform, French the same before recent ('90s era) transformations. Why for instance have "primary elections"? Why not say simple "anyone who collect around 0.1% of voter's signature can be a candidate and all of them will go to the final election? Why not having a sovereign parliament without any "majority prize" etc and a nominated government that have to face the parliament without any veto power? Few country have or have had it and they was or they are well and powerful.

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