or,Forget your goddamn hoverboard — where's my utopia?
Every now and then someone writes some screed that seems to presuppose that science-fiction began with Star Trek or Campbell and that the movement to include social themes is destroying the genre. This is a patent nonsense: firstly because the genre is flourishing; secondly because social themes were always part of those stories; and thirdly because Campbell and Star Trek were mere johnny-come-latelies to a centuries' long list of illustrious foremothers.
But the fake geek guys don't actually care about the history of the genre. All they care about is what they read and saw when they were growing up. That's why the catch cry among the current generation is "Where's my hoverboard?" They saw Back to the Future Part II, they imprinted on the hoverboard like a newborn chick on its mother and, ever since, that piece of cheap technology is all they want of the future.
What this doesn't take into account is that hoverboards don't come from nowhere. Someone, or more likely some team of people, has to create them. Back to the Future Part II has no interest in exploring this. It's not the kind of story that delves into social themes; it's the kind of story that knocks a woman unconscious and leaves her in the alley to keep her from interfering in the men's adventure. So it simply has our white male hero steal the hoverboard from a native of the time period and proceed to trash it.
Star Trek, though it was (self-)consciously interested in social themes and depicted the future as a utopia, wasn't much more forthcoming on how its technology or that utopia developed. Which came first, the replicator or the society with no need for money? Zefram's warp drive seems necessary to meet the Vulcans and enable humanity's next step of societal 'evolution'. It's never spelled out and there are a few counterpoints — the Prime Directive at least seems to recognise that technology isn't a panacea — but by and large the general impression, imbibed by the generation raised on the show(s), is that if we get the technology right, society will fall into place.
This isn't entirely unfounded: technology can greatly improve quality of life. Birth control, immunisations, water filtration, solar power and cellphones have, together and severally, incredible transformative power. But it's not the whole story. We still need to figure out how to get our hoverboard.
And this is something that the ovular works of science-fiction took an intense interest in. Whether their utopias were reached by the imagination, a polar vortex, a dream, or time travel, they didn't want to just revel in cool technology (although they did that) or the fantastic adventures it enabled (though they did that too). They wanted to know How do we in the present get some of this?
And the answers were based in social justice.
Suffrage, says The Blazing World
. Education, an end to early marriage, and keeping men secluded in mardana, says Sultana's Dream
. Physical and mental training for women, suffrage, prostitution reform, and farming, says Men's Rights
. Free and universal education, class equality, parthenogenesis, and eugenics, says Mizora: a Prophecy
Yes, eugenics; no, these authors were not perfect. (None of us are: we can but keep striving for it.) But they were right about extending education. The more people we educate, the more people can contribute to advancement of society, knowledge, and technology. Like science-fiction, computing was literally founded by women, and we wouldn't be anywhere near where we are today without the integral contributions of LGBT people, of people of colour, of people with disabilities.
But our society doesn't make it easy for any of these people. In the news recently have been the stories of women who left astrophysics because a prominent lecturer at their university harassed them and countless others for years with impunity. The same happens in science-fiction fandom. It happens in computing. And it happens in engineering. People who don't meet the cis-het white male standard get chased, sidelined, and ignored out of the field.
So where's our hoverboard? Let me tell you: it was supposed to be created by a team of engineers who met at a conference and discovered a shared passion and a mutually complementary set of skills. But in our timeline, none of these people are in the field any more. Maybe they got shot at the École Polytechnique. Maybe they got arrested for building a clock. Long story short, if we want a hoverboard we're going to have to take our DeLorean 30 years back in time and fix whatever went wrong.
No DeLorean time machine? Well, in that case maybe we'll just have to settle for fixing the things that are still going wrong in the present.
we need to build our social justice utopia and then
we'll get our hoverboard. And a lot more besides.