So, does anybody really enjoy being in the future?
Based on the science fiction I am familiar with, the answer would usually appear to be no.
I first became aware of the problem in 1991, when I participated in a scholarly conference devoted to the topic of "Food in Science Fiction and Fantasy." Both the late Frank McConnell and I pondered the subject and produced papers (later published in a collection I co-edited, Foods of the Gods: Eating and the Eaten in Fantasy and Science Fiction) pointing out that, as a general rule, the food in the future worlds of science fiction is absolutely terrible—
And eating well is not the only sort of pleasure that the people of the future seem to be avoiding. Despite exceptional cases ranging from the stories of George Alec Effinger to the short-lived comic book Strange Sports Stories (1973–
And science fiction remains surprisingly silent about futuristic variations on that most intense of bodily pleasures, sexual intercourse. Yes, I have been told for the past fifty years that the target audience of science fiction is adolescent boys, who must be protected from explicit sexual content in order to avoid protests from concerned mothers; but while this may have long been the accepted wisdom among editors and publishers, it is surely no longer true today. For nowadays, when I go to a bookstore, the adolescent boys are hanging out in the manga section, while the science fiction and fantasy section only seems to attract aging hippies and matronly middle-aged women. Can anyone sincerely believe that there would be widespread outrage if a contemporary science fiction novel speculated in explicit terms about how advanced technologies might alter or enhance the joys of sex?
For further evidence that characters in science fiction tend to avoid pleasure at all costs, consider the evolution of the Star Trek universe. Early episodes of the first series (1966–
All of this seems especially strange because, as many will recall, there was a time in the 1950s when many futurists, observing ever-decreasing work hours and the rise of automation, were predicting that people in the future would need to work very little or not at all, and that the major problem facing society would be helping idle citizens come up with satisfying activities to fill their endless hours of leisure time. Yet on those occasions when science fiction writers envision future worlds of people who never have to work for a living, they do not, by and large, devote their imaginative energies to developing new ways for them to relax—
In arguing that characters in the futures of science fiction generally tend to avoid any form of pleasure in favor of their professions and their missions, I have already noted some exceptional cases, and I am sure readers can think of many more; still, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to show that a general pattern is in place. I should also acknowledge that there is precisely one leisure activity that is incessantly observed in science fiction, and that is drinking alcoholic beverages; seedy spaceport bars are an established trope, and there are any number of appealing concoctions for imbibers, ranging from the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) to the Cardassian brandy recently referenced in the film Star Trek (2009). But excessive drinking is known to be the frequent pastime of people who are otherwise unhappy with their lives, again suggesting that, overall, people are unwilling or unable to relax and enjoy the experience of living in the future.
Asked to explain the phenomenon, many readers are no doubt squirming with impatience to shout out the obvious answer: well, duh, it is interesting to read about future people battling implacable enemies or solving cosmic mysteries, while it would be boring to read about future people puttering in their gardens or installing new batteries in their antique Priuses. Yet this, again, is an attitude characteristic of prepubescent males, demanding exciting adventures at every moment, not of mature readers who are prepared to be entertained in a variety of fashions, and as already noted today's science fiction is increasingly attracting readers who are visibly mature. Surely, no one can seriously maintain that intriguing science fiction must avoid persons of leisure, and J. G. Ballard is one writer who has repeatedly demonstrated that one can produce fascinating fiction about idle people, whether it is the artists and bored aristocrats inhabiting the far future resort of Vermillion Sands (1971) or the drifters haunting the ruins of Cape Canaveral in the stories of Memories of the Space Age (1988). In sum, I am confident that a science fiction writer could tell the story of an intergalactic golf tournament which would be just as imaginative and involving as the story of an intergalactic war; yet we have more than enough works in the latter category and few if any in the former.
One might also theorize that, generally speaking, the most successful science fiction writers, and hence the ones who provide the most common and most popular visions of the future, would tend to be the hardest working writers—
Another factor generating hard-working heroes may be that science fiction writers, like everyone else, can fall victim to the logical fallacy of false analogy, in particular the false analogy that species grow and progress in the manner of individual beings. Thus, just as people living today may regard themselves as adults in comparison to their more primitive, childlike ancestors, writers envisioning advanced future humans may consciously or subconsciously depict them as even older adults who would naturally see today's people as children. And just as children are invariably associated with play, adults are invariably associated with work. Thus, even in depicting future humans who may seem as rash and headstrong as any modern adolescent, writers may tend to think of them as a bit too mature to really care much about childish pursuits like sports or dancing. (The irony here is that biological evolution often appears to achieve progress through a process of neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics in adulthood, so that it would really be more logical to envision future humans as more like children than ourselves; and there are also faint hints of that in science fiction—
However, I believe that there is actually a deeper and more provocative reason for the tendency I have discussed, and I will frankly confess that, this time, I didn't come up with it. I say "frankly confess" because, well, I got the idea from a man named Frank. For when Frank McConnell and I independently concluded that the typical science fiction future was a gourmet's nightmare, we were compelled to devise some explanation for the phenomenon, and mine was both narrow and flippant: noting that the most commonly experienced present-day environment resembling our envisioned future is the hospital—
THE GENRE OF SCIENCE FICTION—
IF THERE ARE SUCH THINGS AS GENRES— IS ONE THAT LOATHES AND FEARS THE BODY AND LONGS— AS DO WE ALL— TO MAKE FOOD EITHER A SACRAMENT OR AN EXCRESCENCE, A PASSAGE TO A HIGHER WORLD OR A CASTOFF RELIC OF THE MORTALITY WE HATE.
This represented, he went on to say, science fiction's affirmation of the ancient Christian heresy of gnosticism, the belief that only the spiritual world is significant and valuable and that the material world is inferior and, well, immaterial in the other sense of the world—
Indeed, if you think about it, science fiction is filled with predictions that humanity is destined, in one way or another, to eventually abandon our bodies for a more spiritual sort of existence. There were crude intimations of this in older stories about human brains transplanted into robot bodies—
McConnell's insight was that, while only explicitly presented in certain texts, this expectation of eventual transcendence of the human body was implicit throughout the genre. Thus, if humans are indeed destined to someday leave the material world and exist only on a spiritual plane, why should future humans bother to create and enjoy the most delectable of foods? Or, to recall McConnell's subsequent discussion of why medicine is so often marginalized in science fiction, why should future humans bother to devise new and better ways to preserve the human body when we eventually will no longer need it? And, to refer back to the curious omissions I have pointed out here, why should future humans bother to exercise their bodies in sporting events and dances, to engage in new and extravagant forms of sexual activity, to collect and cherish memorabilia, or to create memorable works of art? Someday, they will be leaving the material world behind to become creatures of pure spirit who, one assumes, will derive pleasure solely from placid contemplation of the mystically infinite.
Furthermore, if one looks carefully, such prophecies can be detected in popular science fiction stories apparently focused on future humans who look and act exactly like ourselves. For the holodeck of Star Trek, in addition to serving as a place for crewmembers to work at their second jobs, can also be interpreted as a trial run for a future human lifestyle in which people will no longer travel to real places and interact with real beings, but will instead spend all of their time within computer-generated fantasy worlds. And when Luke Skywalker drifts away from his human and alien companions in Return of the Jedi to greet the ghosts of his father and his mentors, the clear message is that, all things considered, it is better to be a ghost than a physical being. This posited desire to escape from the material world also accounts for the only physical pleasure that future humans continue to constantly indulge in—
Surveying the futures of science fiction from this perspective is, in one respect, rather depressing, because it appears to verify the assertion that science fiction, instead of employing scientific information and logical deduction to predict plausible futures, is actually impelled to colorfully recycle the myths and legends of our ancient religions—
Still, there may be a modern insight, as well as ancient beliefs, lurking within the ways that science fiction portrays the future; for it would seem evident enough that the future is going to be dominated by the people who work the hardest, and play the least, which would logically explain why they are so often the protagonists of our imagined tomorrows. Certainly, for the longest time, Americans were viewed as the workaholics of the world, which would provide a reason other than chauvinism for the fact that, for the longest time, the futures of science fiction, even those crafted by Europeans and Asians, seemed to be so all-American in their features and their characters. I mean, I do not wish to be overly critical of certain European citizens, but can we really believe that the future will be controlled by people who routinely take month-long vacations and habitually fight for the privilege of working fewer and fewer hours per week and retiring at younger and younger ages? And it is hardly surprising, then, to find that recent science fiction often posits a future more influenced by Japanese or Chinese culture—
In sum, it may indeed be true that, as the old proverb suggests, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—