Thursday, August 14, 2008

Big Surface SF and Space Age Demographics

The latest JOURNAL OF THE FANTASTIC IN THE ARTS features an essay by Geoff Ryman (author of WAS) about “Big Surface SF.” By this he means high-profile, commercially successful products such as STAR TREK, STAR WARS, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, and BABYLON 5. According to Ryman, these kinds of works pay little attention to scientific accuracy (he particularly dislikes FTL drives). Rather, they succeed because they embody grand dreams, especially the aspiration to leave the nest (Earth) to achieve the freedom of traveling to the stars and transcending terrestrial, or even human, limitations. An extension, in fact, as he implies but doesn’t say in so many words, of the nineteenth-century philosophy of Manifest Destiny.

Ryman admits to enjoying some features of Big Surface SF. Most of his comments, however, are critical, focusing on such issues as the role of minorities in these series’ versions of the spacefaring future. Ships and space stations have multi-ethnic crews, but socially and politically they seem like middle-class, white Americans. Ryman doesn’t ascribe this tendency to deliberate racism; he thinks the established tropes of Big Surface SF have a life of their own. They carry the writer along in their wake, unless consciously resisted. Now, I think Ryman is, in part, over-interpreting. Surely part of this tendency in popular media flows from the same factors that result in English scientists saving the world in British horror movies and monsters trampling Tokyo in Japanese horror movies. But I acknowledge that there’s also, probably, an implicit socio-political philosophy at work.

Ryman summarizes this position as the expectation that minority ethnic groups will exist in the future, but they’ll all be “assimilated.” The galaxy, as he puts it, will look like contemporary America. Even though I’m a bleeding-heart liberal myself, one of my reactions to this complaint was, “Well, duh.” Despite our flaws, North American culture embraces ideals of freedom and justice that have drawn people from all over the world to these shores and continue to do so. In the past, “assimilation” into these ideals has been viewed as a Good Thing, not a Bad Thing, as has a “color-blind” society. While I don’t endorse now-laughable retro visions such as the transplantation in Heinlein’s juveniles of 1950s suburban family structures into the twenty-first or twenty-second century, I don’t think it unbelievable (although by no means inevitable) that the present dominance of Western culture might continue for another century or two.

Also, I see criticism like Ryman’s as presenting the writer or producer with a double bind. If the minority characters behave and talk like everybody else, they’re “assimilated.” If they display distinctive ethnic traits, they may be perceived as stereotyped or ghettoized. (The same problem arises with strong female characters. If they fill conventional “masculine” roles, they may be dismissed as essentially men in drag, as Ryman does for some of these characters. If they fill any other kind of role, they’re apt to be charged with portraying a feminine stereotype.) With regard to DEEP SPACE NINE, Ryman (in my view) even distorts the on-screen situation in support of his argument. He cites Captain Sisko as an example of an “isolated” black character (the one-of-each syndrome). On the contrary, in addition to Sisko, we meet, at the least, his son, his on-and-off lover, and the continuing character played by Whoopi Goldberg. Not exactly racial parity by a long shot, but hardly “isolation.”

Whether the future will reflect a tendency toward greater homogeneity (I’ve read a few stories that anticipate a future Earth on which the races have mingled so thoroughly that everyone has a “rainbow” heritage) or will result in maintenance or strengthening of our present ethnic divisions is, surely, a question that allows valid arguments on both sides. It could be plausibly argued (as numerous SF authors have postulated) that interplanetary travel and contact with extraterrestrials will promote greater unity and uniformity among Terrans. Not that I’d want our colorful diversity of cultures to melt into a bland soup. But it would be nice to imagine that someday diversity won’t equal division.


  1. Interesting food for thought. Thanks.

  2. Very well done. I like the term "Big Surface SF". Thanks for posting about this!