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Monday Original Content: Tim Maughan on British SF and the Class System

Science Fiction Is Here, It’s Just Not Evenly Distributed

By Tim Maughan

“Being middle class in Britain has changed. Politicians and the media and many Britons still talk about “the middle class” as if it is a steady, secure, cohesive social group. They assume it is growing ever more populous and influential. “We are all middle class now” has been a favourite newspaper headline for decades, as long-term social and economic and political trends have weakened the upper and working classes….(yet) there is the beginning of a more ambiguous story: the increasingly competitive nature of middle-class life and the decrease in job security; Margaret Thatcher’s opening up of the classic middle-class professions, such as university teaching, to market forces; the slow decline of the great state and corporate bureaucracies; the downgrading of middle managers by new business ideologies.” – Andy Beckett, The Guardian 24/07/10

Being middle class in Europe or North America ain’t what it used to be. You used to know where you stood. You used to know how everything worked. It was easy, certain things were almost guaranteed, there was a path to follow. Work hard at school. Go to university. Get a good graduate’s job. Buy a house. Have kids. Go on holiday every year. Retire with a nice secure pension.

But now there’s a dull hum reverberating through the suburbs, the disquieting sound of self-questioning. Things really ain’t what they used to be. Worried you can’t afford to go to university? Worried you won’t get a job afterwards if you do? Oh, you’ll probably get a job…but is it what you’ll want? Will it challenge you? Will it pay you enough? Will it be the dream career your parents and teachers promised you you’d get, if you put your head down and worked hard? Will you be able to get a mortgage? Are you still going to be renting – or even worse – still living with your parents in your 30s? Can you afford kids? Do you even want kids? Is your next foreign holiday going to be anywhere as exciting as your obligatory gap year was? How is that pension of yours doing? Is it even going to be worth jack shit in 30 years time? Who is going to look after you when you’re old?

Any crisis of identity or confidence for the middle classes is also – undeniably – a crisis for science fiction. Science fiction is one of the great middle class cultural projects; an exciting, upmarket gated community where you need to show your credentials to get admittance. You’re allowed into science fiction because you understand the greatest middle class-empowering construct of the last 200 years – you understand science. You are welcome in science fiction because you understand that scientists and engineers and astronauts are heroes. You are welcome in science fiction because you understand that rationality and reasoning and hard work can fix anything. And most importantly, you are welcome in science fiction because you’re middle class and you understand that the future is yours for the taking.

And that is the biggest problem facing science fiction right now. The future isn’t just sitting there waiting for the middle classes to take it anymore (well, at least not the middle classes in Europe and North America – it’s very likely the future is up for grabs for the growing middle classes in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere – but that’s another, potentially far more exciting story). If the future is just a bunch of very scary questions, rather than something that belongs to the middle classes and makes them feel special than what’s the point of reading – or even writing – about it anymore?

So it looks like everything solid is melting into air, but it’s not time to abandon ship quite yet. Science – oh rather speculative  – fiction still has ways of making the middle classes feel special. In fact there’s so many options it’s hard to know where to start. What about zombies? There’s no need to worry about the future with the zombie apocalypse because there isn’t one. Instead there’s nobody telling you what to do and no boring job you have to go to, which is pretty great in itself, plus you finally get to put all that knowledge, cunning and expensive gardening/cooking/sporting equipment you’ve amassed over the years to good use killing people your neighbors.

Zombies feel a bit passé? Then what about urban fantasy? Don’t be put off by the word ‘urban’, and how it became this kind of catch-all media phrase for black music and hip-hop and scary poor children wearing hoodies – there’s nothing that vulgar here. Urban fantasy does away with all of that and replaces it with werewolves and vampires. In effect it’s pretty much the same thing – it’s about middle class fear of inner-cities and the guilt of privilege – but it’s a lot sexier reading about your stylised fears getting carved up by a hot white girl with midriff tattoos and a samurai sword.

Of course if you’re really scared of the future, then the obvious place to turn to is the past. Again it’s tough to know where to start. There’s time travel, where middle class readers can go back to the blitz and see how plucky the working classes were – before they got shell suits, Blackberry phones that they surely can’t afford and a welfare state. Or if that’s a little too recent or unglamorous there’s always the Victorian era, when Britain truly was great and still had an empire; a real one – based on killing and talking posh, not just on cheap manufacturing costs and investing in currency like empires are now. The only thing they didn’t have was steam powered zeppelins and robots dressed like Colonel Sanders, which is why speculative fiction had to invent steampunk – the empowering benefits of which have been outlined far more eloquently elsewhere.

And if none of that appeals to then there is always ‘The Weird’. The only problem with The Weird is that nobody actually knows what the fuck it is, apart from perhaps a handful of writers and critics who don’t want their more literary colleagues to think they like sci-fi.

Either way forget the future, because as far as science fiction is concerned the future is dead. There’s still some interest in the far future – with the singularity, journeys to the exoplanets, wish fulfilling nano-machines and all the other things that’ll never happen – but as far as any future that might be relevant? Forget about it, and forget about the present too. Both are too scary, and worrying and talking about very real, very scary and very relevant things isn’t science fiction’s job anymore. It was in the past, in the 60s and again in the 80s – it even was back in the 1890s – but now it’s here to comfort the bourgeois, to provide them with an escape from the encroaching mediocrity, and to remind them how special they once once were.

Because the lower classes – the proletariat, the working classes, the ‘chavs’, whatever you wish to call them – don’t really have anything to do with science fiction at all. They don’t have the credentials to get into the community, because they don’t understand science and rational thinking – they don’t have the education. And if you don’t understand science and don’t have an education then you can’t claim or shape the future, can you? Every good, hard working middle class child knows that.

Which is odd, because you only have to pause and look around you and it’s clear that being working class ain’t what it used to be either. They’re still being accused of being responsible for all the crime and the economic meltdown they had no part in managing, yes –  some things will probably never change. But while they might not understand the science they sure as hell understand the technology – maybe not the way it’s taught, maybe not the way it’s meant to be used – but increasingly they seem to be understanding the potential.

Take a look around. Right now, in those places in the cities and edgelands that middle classes are too scared to venture, there are working class kids creating new forms of music on stolen laptops and pirated software. There are working class kids hijacking corporate networks to organise violent protests against police death squads, and riots against corporate gentrification of their homes – protests that don’t just pack up and go home when they’re told to, or snitch on their never-really anonymous buddies at the first sign of law enforcement. And there are working class kids talking a language melange made from tech jargon, emoticons, repurposed slang and SMS message shortcuts that makes Nadsat seem antiquated and pedestrian.

Put simply the working classes are living an often fraught, uneasy but always fascinating science fictional future right now, and are pushing the present in directions it is near impossible – but thrilling – to try and predict. If the genre continues to sneeringly ignore them, what they do and the futures they are trying to shape for themselves then it risks continuing to destroy it’s own relevancy and existence.

The street finds its own use for things. Almost certainly. The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. Perhaps, but maybe not in the way you think.

Tim Maughan writes science fiction about the near future, probably sentencing him to commercial obscurity. His short story collection Paintwork is out now.

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July 30, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

13 Comments

  1. Your assertion that the genre sneeringly ignores this working-class science-fictional near-future that you have described, doesn’t ring true to me. Where’s your evidence?

    Comment by thremnir | July 30, 2012

    • Like I outline in the post, there’s little interest in non-middle class characters or situations in contemporary genre fiction that I can think of – sub-genres such as steampunk even seem to revel in a nostalgia for class hierarchies. But perhaps I’m missing examples that counter this – where’s your evidence? :)

      Comment by Tim Maughan (@timmaughan) | July 30, 2012

      • It rings true to me, though I don’t (for example) read Bill Gibson, and I’m not sure of the demographics/sales figures to those who do.

        Comment by narrativeeschatology | July 30, 2012

  2. I really agree that enquiry into class is absolutely vital. Really interesting article. Sorry to have to disagree with one key point – have been meaning to write about this at length for some time, but the losing battle being fought against austerity in Spain and here in the UK is frankly guttingly depressing.

    What you refer to here as “middle class”, in the sense that “we are all middle class now”, is sociological class. What we eat, what we aspire to, much of the daily language we use, and, of course, habits and social mores depend on sociological class. Sociologically, the middle classes have grown. In addition, under Thatcher and later under Blair in this country, working class identity has ceased to function as any kind of effective site of resistance – union culture is dying, the working class culture of literacy is dead, we can all sing along to middle-class Jarvis’ “Common People” regardless of experience, and so forth.

    In order to be taken seriously now, one must aspire to and present oneself as sociologically upper-middle class. This is not called this – it would be called “media friendly”, “sensible”, “trustworthy”, and all sorts of other circumlocutions, however it is most certainly true.

    This process is certainly not what is and has happened in terms of economic class. As Marx described, the proletariat are those who are dependent on selling their wages for labour, i.e. they do not own the means of production. Petit-bourgeois own some – small businesses, many farmers, someone starting a factory, and so on – but still must input a lot of their own labour into the mix; bourgeoisie do not input any significant labour. Capitalism grew because of the rise of the bourgeoisie, who extracted labour from everyone else through exploitation (very roughly, the part of the profit obtained by each worker not given as wages) and systemic coercion.

    What we see now – as the recent New Scientist on inequality touches on, I believe – is that the means of production (whether measured purely physically or in terms of media, knowledge production and so on) are concentrated in increasingly few hands. This means that what has happened in terms of expansion of the sociological middle classes is *not* what has happened economically. In fact it is precisely the opposite: more people are more dependent on selling their labour than ever, whether it is to get by once sanctioned off benefits or whether to pay the mortgage and aspire to send little Tarquin to private school. If they do not sell their labour power, their fate is the same: repossession, homelessness, and so forth.

    The parent of little Tarquin may wish to make a million and live on the interest – become bourgeois in truth – however the structure of social relations will make it extremely difficult for them to do so. They are expected to have a job, “do the best” for their children, and so on.

    Now, in 2012, the means of production are in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. This may well mean – and I have not yet looked to see what figures there are, so you might be able to shoot me down here – that there are fewer bourgeois than ever.

    Therefore, in the first world, *economically*, the middle class may well be shrinking, throwing up the spectre of regression, zombie-like proletarianisation, a new feudalism, and so forth. It is certainly not growing.

    (Globally, well, the picture may be different, with the rise of global middle classes – but how many of them own means of production?)

    What does all this mean for anglophone SF? Well, as you said, there’s not much in near-future SF for the traditional market, for new writers at least. (When I worked in Greenwich for the Census I had a look at a few market traders’ & other well-off bookshelves, and, yes, none of the near future. Good bit of Reynolds.)

    What is there to predict in the near future but more technologies of social control, and personally an increasing scramble of denial and moral compromise in a bid to avoid increased proletarianisation? (Graeber on the SF Imagination here: http://www.thebaffler.com/past/of_flying_cars/print/ , though he’s not alone, only the most articulate; haven’t so many SF panels ended up admitting we’re living in the “bad future” recently?)

    And, though many of us don’t feel that way, aren’t most of us working class now?

    Many of us may be trained and educated in science, but that alone doesn’t let us shape the future, doesn’t let us turn our minds’ visions into reality, doesn’t give us praxis. instead – if we can get employed in our field at all – we work for corporations, or bureaucratised researchers muddling through balkanised journals and subspecialities to produce massively less tangible innovation than earlier generations.

    The street finds its own use, and, with more austerity to come, more and more of us are closer to the street than we’d like.

    The future does indeed belong to the workers, but not (quite) in the way you think.

    Comment by narrativeeschatology | July 30, 2012

    • Interesting reading – and to be honest I can’t disagree with ANY of it. I must confess one thing: I was a sociologist many years ago in a previous life, and my field was popular cultural studies, so yes – i have a more sociological, cultural approach to class than a strictly Marxist definition. It is, however, getting harder to avoid Marxist analysis in the current global climate, I must admit.

      I’d agree totally that the bourgeois is shrinking, which is why its continued hold over many aspects of genre-fiction is increasingly depressing. Like you say there is much to predict about ‘technologies of social control, and personally an increasing scramble of denial and moral compromise’ – but there is also the counterpoints to that. For me the riots in the UK last year were a far more interesting and effective form of protest than the cozy, low commitment protests of both Occupy and Anonymous – despite media and government attempts to dismiss them as nothing but thuggery. They were also more interesting from a science fictional perspective – all of the open source fetishism of the ‘geek revolution’ seems very exciting at first glance, but by its very nature it has barriers to involvement for those that are not ‘hackers’ themselves. It’s almost another exclusive club for the educated middle class. I’m far more interested in the subversion of ubiquitous, corporate platforms such as Blackberry Messenger and even Facebook. Extrapolate that to a current SF idea: a small group of enthusiasts with homemade drones are interesting, yes – but not as interesting as a whole nation with shop bought ones. Technology only becomes truly interesting on a cultural level when it falls into the hands of the masses.

      Comment by Tim Maughan | July 30, 2012

      • “the bourgeois is shrinking, which is why its continued hold over many aspects of genre-fiction is increasingly depressing.”

        Like you suggest in your original post, it rather explains it. SF as a safe space.

        I’m not totally certain, but I wonder how much of this may also be explained simply in terms of who’s writing and what their backgrounds are. Beside the obvious, even within the broad range of the “middle class”, there might have been shifts – I wonder how many engineers go to Clarion, for example. And looking across media, I remember some recent stats (wish I could find the link) about the rising percentage of top-50 singles that were made by people who had been to public school. Arguably top-50 singles are a genre in decline in themselves, but that doesn’t necessarily spoil the analogy, does it?

        Comment by aelilea | July 30, 2012

  3. ‘I’m not totally certain, but I wonder how much of this may also be explained simply in terms of who’s writing and what their backgrounds are.’

    Of course – and that’s the major issue I conveniently side-stepped in the post. Who is doing the writing? If working class writers are not tackling SF, do we even want middle class writers writing about working class characters?

    I think the first part of that last question is the important part – if writers from working class backgrounds are not interested in SF, is it because it’s already too much of an exclusive club? What can we do, if anything, to change this? I know from first hand experience it hasn’t always been that way and doesn’t have to be – I inherited my love of SF from my father, who discovered it as a working class kid in the 1950s. What was SF saying then that it had a broader appeal?

    Comment by Tim Maughan | July 30, 2012

    • “What was SF saying then that it had a broader appeal?”

      You could ask him? ;) My guess would be that a lot of it (the “competent man” stuff especially) contained a certain kind of agency, and on a large scale. There was something about this that struck a chord completely independent of class barriers, precisely because the apparent enabling factor in the stories wasn’t class, it was technology. But that kind of agency just doesn’t ring true anymore, especially among the middle class (as they used to have more of it than they do now or expect to have in the future), so it doesn’t get written.

      “What can we do, if anything, to change this?”

      Good question. I have no idea. I don’t expect it to be called SF, somehow. My hope would be that someone puts together a new archetypal trope or two that captures the present, that might set things off…

      Comment by aelilea | July 30, 2012

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