Imaginative Limits

My brain is in a weird place this morning. I woke up in the middle of a vivid dream and I haven’t quite managed to get my head on straight since; also, it’s a new month. The year’s turning. There’s a lot going on.

All this – and some incidental stuff, like the fact I watched the movie Avatar yesterday for the first time in ages and a book review I read this morning – are conspiring to fill my mind with thoughts of speculation about the future and how little, in real terms, we can know or imagine about it.

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Firestoned via Compfight cc

I like to read SF books. I won’t say that I’m well read; beyond the basics (Philip K. Dick and Robert A. Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin, and a few others), and a couple of oddities I’ve picked up second-hand over the years, I have a fairly thin knowledge of the genre overall. I’m more of an interested amateur. However, one of the things that has always struck me when reading SF is, strangely, not the unlimited breadth of imagination that greets the reader, but the strangely limited views about humanity and its future that one tends to encounter. One of the ways in which this manifests, for me, is the fact that I’ve rarely, if ever, come across a classic SF book which doesn’t mention ‘tapes’ – audio and video tapes, history recorded on reels and reels of celluloid, manually operated and paused and edited. This has always fascinated me.

We can imagine worlds where giant gelatinous cubes can make three-dimensional copies of any object placed in front of them – essentially, an organic 3-D printer – but we can’t imagine anything like a digital future (In Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death (1970)). Even Fahrenheit 451, one of my favourite SF novels, imagines a totally analogue world, despite the fact that television screens have become so large that they act as the walls of the room the viewer is sitting in. Books are still hard-copy, and nothing like the internet has even been thought of. The book review I read this morning was for The Monadic Universe, by George Zebrowski (1977), which features a story called ‘The History Machine’, again imagining an archive far in the future which is entirely dependent on tapes. I haven’t read this story but it did chime with the impression I have often received when reading SF books and stories – when it comes to certain aspects of human culture and technology, SF seemed to have been strangely blind.

(Then, of course, you have books like Neuromancer which blow this ‘theory’ out of the ballpark, but you don’t often find books like that – books which resemble our world, but a much less humane and comforting version of it. Usually SF books make me feel like we live in a horror-filled version of their dream of the future; Neuromancer makes me feel like we live in paradise. But I digress).

Sometimes I read SF books and I realise exactly how rooted they are in the world which created them, and how indicative they are of the prejudices and preoccupations of their own age. Inverted World, for instance, which I recently read, was originally published in 1974 and, while being an amazing book about relativity, environmental decay and massive-scale engineering, it also features the most egregiously offensive scenes in terms of its treatment of women and marginalised peoples, and their function in this society. Of course, perhaps this was the point – maybe the author was trying to say something meaningful about how no matter how much changes in terms of technology, old school prejudice and sexism will always be alive and well – but I’m not sure. It just seemed to be a no-questions-asked, this-is-how-the-world-operates acceptance to me, and quite possibly a reflection of the world it came out of rather than the world it was imagining. I know all literature does this – and of course it does, because nobody can see the future – but for some reason I expect more of SF. I expect it to be focused on imagining wider horizons, presenting ways in which the future will be better, more than we can dream of, filled with impossibility. But this genre, more than any other, describes exactly how limited the human imagination can be. We see futuristic societies and thought processes and whole centuries of imagined history (far into our own future, of course), but we still rely on tapes, or women are still abused, or it’s still all about war and terror, and the whole edifice collapses.

Then, perhaps is a cause for optimism that these SF novels seemed so limited in so many ways. As they wrote stories about far-distant futures where celluloid was king, in reality the seeds for a digital future were being sown. As they wrote stories about women as objects for use like any other resource or tool in worlds all over the galaxies, women in reality were fighting – and winning – their battles here on Earth. As we were taking some of the best ideas from the SF novels so beloved by so many and turning them into reality, we were also developing faster than any SF novel had ever dreamed. Perhaps it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that our development has outstripped the dreams of our most far-sighted writers, and perhaps that’s something to be celebrated.

And perhaps I should have rolled over and gone back to sleep this morning instead of getting up and trying to function. Who knows?

Welcome to a new week, y’all. Let’s try and make it something to be proud of.


14 thoughts on “Imaginative Limits

  1. Kate Wally

    I’ve read very little SF, actually, more of what would be classified as fantasy, but I think that they too can have the same influences of their age. Great post. xx

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Yes – quite right. I guess, of course, that all works of art bear the hallmarks of their age, but somehow with SF you expect it to be more forward-thinking. It’s funny how in some ways SF breaks all the moulds, but in others it seemed strangely blinkered. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  2. Jan Hawke

    We’ve been having a discussion elsewhere about ‘classic’ sci-fi and how it holds it up decades on and really, I think you’re right in saying that the future technology aspect usually doesn’t pan out too well. I certainly do agree with the fantasy labelling because really it’s still all about people and it’s our own limitations that really stymie the predictive elements, because science can only deal with what is known?
    On a purely practical level things like, say furniture, haven’t changed too much since we learned how to break sticks, bones and stones and put them together in new and innovative ways to make things like a chair or shelves or headrests. So there’s that aspect of getting around things like lack of breathable air, or zero gravity, using proper scientific principles. With people you still have the same problems in some respects, but there it is possible to predict and though the temptation is to go with a slightly souped up progression from the world today, some authors do step up to the plate – I’m mainly thinking of work like 1984 here and some parts of Huxley’s Brave New World where superpower politics, fishbowl society and pill-popping have demonstrably happened. Others like Philip K Dick have the gem of good ideas but need rebooting, so the still sunny California of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep need the booster of Ridley Scott’s damp dark environmentals to drag it into a more believable future for contemporary audiences. Or original Star Trek – where the future technology relies on pulleys to open doors, and clunky mechanical counters on light boards with bulbs that Edison could have made?

    Technology changes, but doesn’t necessarily mean people do as well is probably something we should be striving to address perhaps. For writers, I think the modern genre category of speculative fiction is probably a more exact classification and just leave the science out of it! 😉

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks for your response! It’s funny you mention Star Trek because, clunky mechanics aside, I think in terms of that show’s thought processes they were very forward-looking. Sure, it bears the limitations of its age, too, but with (my heroine) Uhura, I think they were taking a huge risk and doing it not only because it reflected a futuristic society, but also because it was the *right* thing to do, and it reflected a change that they wanted to see happening in reality. I guess what I was trying to say was it’s funny how in some respects SF is so forward-thinking and in others, it’s so backward. You make a good point in saying that science can only deal with what is known; maybe I’m expecting too much of SF to predict everything. 🙂 Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Maurice A. Barry

    It’s a holiday here today. Son #1 left fro Calgary this morning so there was no sleeping in. Josephine’s not too happy but time will work it out.
    As it tends to do with all things.
    Just yesterday I read a quick synopsis of all of Star Trek (not that I needed it, mind you) and one thing I was left with was the overall sense of hope, even with the darker shows like DS9.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      I hope son #1 will be okay – I’m sure he’ll thrive in Calgary. I hope Josephine (and you, and everyone else who misses him!) will be okay, too. Thoughts are with you.

      Star Trek, I love. I totally agree the shows always had that sense of hope, that things could and would be better. I think they were responsible for more social change than they’re given credit for! Thanks for the comment, and for checking in. 🙂

  4. Mary Patterson Thornburg

    What a good, interesting post! I’ve been thinking about the same things, as some of the great SF classics move into — or beyond — their 70th decade. Recently did a guest blog at Long and Short Reviews about Heinlein’s “The Door into Summer” ( While rereading that book I noted that Heinlein’s narrator drew money from what amounted to an ATM, powered by what he calls a “cybernet” (the ONLY hint of digital tech before William Gibson’s books that I can remember, but I’m an amateur SF reader too), I also found that the casual sexism, and hints of casual racism, in the book made it uncomfortable to read. Now I’ve just reread John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids” (old U.S. title “Re-Birth”) and find the same sort of thing. There are strong women in the book, but the male narrator and apparently Wyndham himself prefers women whose strength is an effort for them, who are at heart helpless and reliant on strong men. I think you’re right — these writers seem to accept their vision of gender roles and female nature as givens, what is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen. They were more interested in technological changes, which they often got wrong, than in social change.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks so much for this fascinating comment! I’m not as well read as I’d like in the SF genre, but it’s funny that even in the books I *have* read, these same issues keep coming up. I’ve been amazed for years that the same blind spots recurred in book after book, primarily the tape thing, but also the lack of vision around women’s roles and the roles of ‘other’ races. I’m always open to having my mind changed, of course, and I’m hopeful that the more widely read I become, the more my opinion will develop. But thank you so much for this comment, and I’m glad you found merit in the post. 🙂

      1. Mary Patterson Thornburg

        This is going to sound like a sexist comment from me, and maybe I’m WAY wrong, but… in the 1960s I was an undergraduate at a university with a big engineering school, where well over 90% of the students were white and male and were not encouraged to take liberal arts courses of any kind. I worked in one of the engineering departments for a time, and many of the guys were SF fans. But that “lack of vision around women’s roles” was quite prevalent, to say the least!

      2. SJ O'Hart Post author

        I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, and it was much the same – you don’t sound sexist at all! I didn’t work at my university’s engineering department, but for sure it was mostly men, mostly white and they had an unhealthy disrespect for the arts, both in general and the Arts Faculty specifically. Maybe these SF writers are right after all, and ‘some things never change’… Let’s hope not!

  5. Jan Hawke

    There’s definitely a ‘lag’ factor for SF gender politics pre WW2 when it was mostly about the science and guess who got study physics and engineering most back then? lol
    Sian – your earlier comment about Star Trek (and in particular the Uhura character) certainly was ground-breaking but also a sign of the times, certainly on the more liberal West Coast in the US, so in some senses the screenplays were echoing the socio-racial advances for humankind at least. Arguably with the Klingons (especially in the Kirk/Spock years) western culture xenophobia and cold war policies was not quite so tenderly treated, but TNG and subsequent evolution in the franchise softened that stance too, although violence and conflict still featured strongly and regularly where cultures and galaxies collided…
    But back to gender issues – when we get women starting to get interested in and writing SF more, the science side of things seems to take more of a back seat and the ‘human aspects’ hold the attention while still nodding to the contemporary status quo – I’m thinking more now along the lines of Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tales and other dystopian takes where social issues get deconstructed, or completely smashed. For the men as well, but then this possibly is because of the advances in the genetic/bio/neuro sciences where our ‘inner space’ is now throwing up huge question marks for the future that speak more eloquently to women perhaps?

    Or do women just naturally want to write (and read) about the more personal techie things?


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