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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