Why are there a number of how-to books on building worlds in Science Fiction, but none, at least that I know of, about shaping the societies that inhabit them? Thankfully, there are authors who include the societal element of the story they’re writing, be the societies alien or human. But there were a couple of panel discussions I attended at last weekend’s DETCON1 that suggested too many writers are ignoring the sentient side of the equation when they look at future worlds or the future of our world.
DETCON1 was this year’s North American Science Fiction Convention being held in Detroit. I wish I could have attended all the panel discussions, but every one I did make it to was very good. Two of the panel really stood out in my mind. The first was a panel on how science fiction and fantasy approach religion.
I was first introduced to the topic when I attended Clarion back in the ’80s, and continued to notice when religion was handled well in Sci-Fi. Understand, I’m not talking about religious stories with a science fiction theme. Rather, science fiction is able to explore religion and its impact on a society without being didactic about a particular church or sect.
The panel contended that too often religion is simply forgotten or ignored as part of the make-up of a world’s society, at least in novels. Television science fiction, however, has some notable entries for stories that included religions as part of the narrative arcs, such as Deep Space Nine, Babylon Five, and Battlestar Galactica. In none of these shows was religion presented as an argument for belief in a particular church, even an alien one. But their stories did recognize the impact religious beliefs had on a society and its ethics. It’s easy to see in reality the impact of religious beliefs that we have in today’s world, impacts both good and bad. We can’t simply leave that behind in the worlds we make up for fiction.
The panel represented a wide range of beliefs, ranging from a “practicing Jew” – as Isabel Schechter emphasized about herself compared to “non-practicing Jews who show up on these panels – to an atheist. The latter, however, was not there as a counter for the inclusion of religion in Sci-Fi’s portrayal of societies, and even accepted the viewpoint that atheism is itself a belief not supported by rigid scientific proof.
Rather, everyone on the panel discussed the need to include religion as part of the mix when creating the society that exists in our fiction.
In the first draft of my novel Lunar Dust, Martian Sands, I used a monastery as a place to hold a memorial service on Mars. Yet in the rewrites I fairly quickly fleshed out the monastery’s role in the colony and the society that had left earth in the early 22nd century. The monastery wasn’t prevalent throughout the storytelling, though it played a small but key role in the plot. More importantly, it was among the elements that made the Martian society seem more real to me.
The second panel was “Octavia’s Brood: Speculative Fiction & Social Justice.” Octavia Brood is a forthcoming anthology of “visionary speculative fiction by organizers and activists, and essays about the radical potential of science fiction,” inspired by the late science fiction author Octavia Butler. The phrase in the session description about the “radical potential of science fiction” is what got me to attend this panel. Each of the panelists saw the potential and capability of science fiction to deal with social justice and other issues facing societies within the context of a good story. It doesn’t require an author to create a dystopia. In fact, it works better if those issues are weaved into a complex and believable depiction of people and a society that’s part of the story.
The members of both panels weren’t talking about preaching, be it about religious believes or social ills. But they were advising writers it is just as important, if not more so, to get the people and the society they live in right as it is to get the science right.