Home About Me My Books FAQ Reviews Essays etc. Space Miscellany Contact

The Relevance of Roots

by Sylvia Engdahl

This essay is based on a speech presented at Parkway School District, St. Louis, May 16, 1990.

I was especially pleased when in 1990 I was asked to participate in a “History: Fact and Fiction” program because it suggested that there was new interest in the relationship between past and future. During the early seventies, when I was writing for young people, my mother, MIldred Allen Butler [Engdahl], was also writing for them. I wrote about the future, whereas she wrote about the past. We thought this was an interesting combination, and we attended some meetings together where we tried to focus on it. But at that time, it was felt that most young people didn’t care about history. It reached the point where my mother could no longer get her books published because history wasn’t popular. Aside from her personal disappointment, she was sad that so few seemed to see history’s relevance. I was, too—I even turned one of her stories into a time travel story for an anthology I edited, hoping it might make the connection plain. But we concluded that on the whole, it was a losing battle.

So I was really delighted when I discovered that interest in history was reviving among young people, and I wished my mother were alive to see it. Also, I was glad that there was enough awareness of connections between eras for someone who writes about the future to have been invited to join a history panel. Too often before, I’d encountered the view that the past is dead, gone and irrelevant to real life—in the late 70s, a brilliant young friend of mine felt that way, and I wasn’t able to argue him out of it. His interest was focused on the future, and he believed that’s all that matters to younger generations. Yet everything we know about life is based on past experience. When we speculate about the future, we do so only in the light of the past. We can be sure there’ll be many changes, but it’s not possible to guess changes without knowledge of how things have changed before.

Today, young people have little difficulty thinking of the universe as having a vast space dimension. Paradoxically, however, modern teenagers’ conception of time has narrowed as their view of space has widened. Unlike earlier generations who were taught world history, they know nothing of the past, except perhaps that of their own geographical region. Yet the time dimension extends both ways, and I think any book about our place in the universe is incomplete if it fails to acknowledge this. It’s impossible to believe in future progress without being aware of past progress; maybe that’s why so many people have lost faith in the future these days.

In my own work, I try to show my readers not only that our planet is just one among many worlds, but also that our age is just one among many successive eras. Furthermore, it is not the first era to have had problems, and it will not be the last. I have little sympathy for futurists who claim we’re creating worse problems for ourselves with technological advances, much less for those who pronounce us on the verge of inevitable doom. On the other hand, I am not a utopian. Problems are part of life; as we solve them, more advanced ones appear and are solved in turn. This is as true on the cultural level as on the individual one, and it’s something I think fiction ought to show.

I am not, here, referring to science fiction in general, for the criteria by which it is usually judged are not the same those relevant to future-fiction intended for audiences without extensive background in that field. A serious science fiction novel, to be issued by the major publishers that specialize in the genre, must contain concepts that strike long-term SF fans as original. This means they must be far-out imaginative concepts, as remote from life as we know it as possible. Usually no actual speculation about the future is intended in such novels. Neither are the familiar metaphors of Space Age myth permitted, as they are in books for young people and in space films for the general public. I consider these meaningful; in fact I’ve taught a course on space fiction as the emerging mythology of our era. But to some SF fans, they are merely banal.

Actually, this was the main reason why I wrote for young people in the first place. While there’s certainly need for novels meant for the science fiction genre audience, I myself prefer to address a wider one. I think there should also be room for novels that happen to be set in the distant future, for one good reason or another, and are intelligible to the public at large. The reason I emphasize this is first, to make plain that in the remarks to follow I’m not trying to attack the literary standards of the science fiction genre, which are appropriate in that specialized field. And second, to suggest that the only fiction about the future suitable for children is that which does not attempt to meet them, that is, to portray newness merely for the sake of newness, deliberately departing from all that has been seen in the past. A reviewer once said something to the effect that he could think of better ways to “turn kids on to SF” than give them such old stuff as the sort of stories I’d chosen for my anthology. This infuriated me, because my aim was not to turn them on to SF, but to show them a future inhabited by people they could think of as real.

Limiting this discussion, then, to fiction that does deal with the future and not merely with hypothetically weird universes, I’d like to say something about various approaches to it. A common one is the use of a future or alien setting for the purpose of satire. This type of story is fine when recognized as satire, but by children, it frequently is not. Children are apt to interpret foolish or evil behavior on the part of the characters as a statement about the future, or as disparagement of alien cultures, rather than as commentary on our own customs of today; they do not view such settings as if they were fantasy like Gulliver’s Travels. Similarly, moral fable set in the future but without true relevance to the future is apt to be misinterpreted: for example, fiction portraying mechanical robots with human feelings—unless they’re as obviously imaginary as R2-D2 and C-3PO—is in my opinion seriously misleading to the young readers to whom it’s often offered. I think that unless an author really holds this opinion of artificial life, it’s false to foster the notion that there’s no underlying difference between a human being and a robot.

Another major approach—common in nonfiction as well as fiction—is projection of some current situation into future years with the idea of pointing out that if the trend isn’t reversed, the result will be catastrophe. There’s a place for that technique in adult fiction, and I havel used it myself in an adult novel (Stewards of the Flame) about trends in our society that I find disturbing. But I feel that as far as young people are concerned, such an approach is destructive. Young people don’t know enough about the past to see the fallacy inherent in it, and in fact, many older people don’t seem to see it either. Yet all the evidence of history—and of evolutionary theory, as far as that goes—shows that change is a law of nature. We don’t have to worry about trends continuing to the point of disaster, because factors we can’t foresee are bound to enter the picture. The pressures on adolescents today are great enough without adding groundless fears about what would happen if there were no breakthroughs in human advancement. There will be breakthroughs, and to suggest otherwise is to present what in my eyes is a false view of the universe.

A related approach that’s often used in space fiction of a less serious type is simply to dress up past situations in futuristic settings. At the lowest level, there are Westerns of the “shoot ’em up” sort transformed into space operas about fights with ray guns. A little higher level, yet based on the same principle, involves interplanetary wars, the decline and fall of future galactic empires, and so forth. This is okay when there are mythological depths to it; it was fine in the film Star Wars, for instance, and also in Star Trek, which is a mythic expression of our era’s hopes and fears. And in Enchantress from the Stars I did something similar very deliberately, as a stylistic device. The portions of the story told from the viewpoint of the invaders were stylized myths of the future, just as the fairy-tale portions were stylized myths of the past; the stereotyping was equally purposeful in both cases, though not all reviewers recognized this. (Unfortunately, readers less familiar with space operas than with fairy tales sometimes got the impression that the invaders were stereotyped accidentally—or even that the portrayal of them is a realistic picture of how humans will behave on alien worlds.)

I don’t think stories showing civilizations of the future acting just like past civilizations are harmful to young readers in the same way prophecies of doom are. At worst they’re entertainment without substance, and at best they are often metaphorically valid. They can be used to illuminate many truths about life here and now. However, unless they contain some other speculative level, as Star Trek does, they cannot be said to have anything to do with the real future—at least not by anyone who believes that humankind will continue to evolve. Whatever the future is like, it won’t be mere repetition of the past; and whatever other worlds are like, they are not duplicates of this one.

Still, there are relationships between the past and the future that do hold true, and I feel that it’s in ignoring these that genre-oriented science fiction—particularly the serious kind rated highest by critics within that field—fails to meet the needs of a more general audience. Many science fiction writers, recognizing that the future is incomprehensible, feel the best route to “realism” lies in making their stories incomprehensible. There’s a place for this approach, I suppose; but whatever that place may be, it is not in books for young people. Young people don’t need to be shocked out of complacency by concepts utterly alien to all the concepts of Earth. They don’t need to be told that things change from era to era and from world to world; they already know that. They know it better than most adults, often at the price of feeling alienated themselves. What they need is to discover is that some concepts are universal and stay the same.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe that the actions of civilizations are repeated at different levels of evolution (although of course, evolution is a long process; I’m not saying this doesn’t occur in the near term). They may be taken by different species at comparable levels, but they can’t be extended to ones more highly advanced. The feelings of individual people, on the other hand, do stay the same in different eras. They are modified by culture, as we all are influenced to some degree by the cultures in which we live. But underneath, human values—values concerned with the human spirit—are universal in both time and space.

They are, I believe, universal even with regard to sentient species other than the one that inhabits this particular planet. We aren’t in a position to really know that, but in my opinion no good purpose is served by portraying arbitrary differences through sheer invention, thereby implying that even our deepest values are relative. I realize, of course, that many people disagree with me on this point, but I don’t believe such values are derived solely from culture, and even if I did, I’d feel that saying so is harmful to the young. Relativism is hardly a firm basis for the establishment of emotional security.

Dogma is also harmful, to be sure. We wouldn’t want to impose a view that’s controversial in our society by offering only stories about the future that support it. But there’s no real danger of this happening as long as we have authors with different views writing about the future. The main thing we have to watch out for in this area is the influence of fashion. Sometimes particular views become so fashionable among writers, editors and educators, and so popular in terms of what will sell, that very little appears to balance them. This is not deliberate censorship, but the effect on young people is the same as if it were. The best remedy, I think, is to get a wider range of writers interested in dealing with the future, which is something that can happen only if the need for stories about it is divorced from the needs of the specialized science fiction category.

Fiction about the future must not be viewed as literal prophecy; neither, however, must it be interpreted as mere allegory about our own world in our own time. In cases where it’s made close enough to real life to be credible to non-specialists, these misinterpretations sometimes occur. Adult readers, more than young ones who take concepts such as extraterrestrial life seriously, tend to think that if the characters seem human then the story’s action is meant as a parable. Enchantress from the Stars was sometimes seen this way, to my dismay—I never meant it to be applicable to intercultural relationships among members of a single species. It is about relationships between different species, and was intended to counteract the prevalent notion that UFOs will come and solve Earth’s problems for us. Yet because none of the beings shown were really alien, some readers were confused.

This, I think, was the lesser of evils compared to the science fiction’s field’s insistence on distortion for its own sake. In a novel one can’t give an exact portrayal of reality—not even of the reality one has experienced. Literature, like other forms of art, must be selective; it must concentrate on basic ideas rather than minor and immaterial details. To me, the true physical shape of alien beings, as well as the specific form of their culture, is not only unknowable but immaterial. Even if I could know anything about them, I’d have to portray them in terms familiar to readers in order to focus on the really important things, the things I believe hold true throughout time and space. It’s certainly unrealistic, in one sense, to show peoples of other worlds looking as much like the people of our world as I do—but it’s scarcely any less so to make them look like giant reptiles, which is unlikely to be any closer to actual fact. I therefore feel I come nearer to truth by fostering a sense of our kinship with other inhabitants of the universe.

In any case, I think the consequences of portraying aliens this way are preferable to the consequences of portraying them as either godlike or hostile. And this is important not just for the future, but for right now. After all, most of today’s young people believe literally in extraterrestrial aliens, and form their attitude toward the universe in terms of how they picture them. Possibly no ETs exist in space; this is debatable—but their existence as a metaphor in our culture is unquestioned fact. Imagining them as gods has more serious implications than are generally recognized; and the emotional result of viewing them as devils is all too obvious.

Above all, what young people need today is faith in the future. This can be gained only through knowledge of how we’ve progressed in the past, combined with the conviction that it’s possible and natural to go on progressing. Most of the time, looking at current news fosters only discouragement. In order to be rationally optimistic, it’s necessary to take a long view that includes awareness of our roots and how we’ve grown from them. And there’s just one way for the young to acquire such a view: through fiction that brings to life earlier times, as well as stories about the times that are yet to come.

Copyright 1990, 1998 by Sylvia Louise Engdahl
All rights reserved.

This essay is included in my book Reflections on the Future: Collected Essays.