There is a venerable saying with much truth to it that the golden age of science fiction is 14. And it was certainly golden for me at that age. I could imagine myself as Kimball Kinnison, fighting the Boskonian menace and making the universe safe for Civilization. And I certainly inherited the Baslim Reflex. People like Smith, Heinlein and Asimov helped to make me the man I am today, and I like that. I imbibed some good values that way.
But one of the things that Science Fiction does to an impressionable youth is give the idea that the future may be different. Heinlein in particular focused a lot on social change and how mores would shift over time. Reading about line marriages in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, or about the polyamorous nest in Stranger in a Strange Land had me question exactly what values I had about that, and even more so, why I had them. And I remember the idea in Space Cadet that you need to doubt received wisdom. So I questioned and doubted as I looked for the values I would stand for, all the while remembering that they might not be the values that the current society promoted.
Does that mean I rejected all of the current values? Not at all. I am very happily and monogamously married to a woman I adore, and and have adored for 39 years. I don’t think that is going to change. But I know some other people have different ideas in this community of Science Fiction, and as long as they don’t try to hurt me it comes under the heading of “none of my damn business” (a very Heinlein-esque value; he always derided the “Mrs. Grundy” types.) I am also firmly heterosexual, something else that is not likely to change, but I don’t get upset with people who have different preferences, again just so long as they don’t try to hurt me. Something I never gave much thought to in my younger days was transgendered people, but then I ended up knowing some, and that tends to alter your view a bit. And then there is Samuel R. Delany, a one-man wrecking crew for your inbuilt prejudices.
So to me Science Fiction was always about social change as much as about technological change. I think Science Fiction fans live in the future, and when I am at a Science fiction convention I always feel like I am with “my people”, the ones who also try to live in the future. Unfortunately, living in the future is not universally liked by all Science Fiction fans. I think some of them are like Francis Fukuyama, who famously wrote about the End of History. They think that a variety of questions have been answered for all time. Among these are:
1. Free Market Capitalism is the only possible economic system that can work.
2. Nationalism is the only way for people to experience freedom.
3. Equality of the sexes violates natural law. And by the way, there are only two sexes, and that is determined by chromosomes.
I suspect a certain amount of this comes from Social Darwinism in their thinking. And that is bad Darwinian thinking, as any good biologist can tell you. In biology, you cannot legitimately claim that there is a ladder of progress to evolution, such that each change in the organism makes it “better” in any sense. All you can say is that some organisms fit their environment well. And similarly, Nationalism and Capitalism are not better than other arrangements, just things that seemed suited to particular circumstances. A true Science Fiction fan should subject all of this to questioning, to Heinlein’s “doubt”. And the same thing goes for sexual identity and sexual practices, and indeed for any social arrangements. Science Fiction is about raising alternatives and seeing how they might work (or not; both cases are worthy of study).
So when someone says Science Fiction has to go back to some golden age in the past, I think that would be a betrayal of everything Science Fiction is. The only golden age is 14, and if you cannot find that 14-year-old sense of wonder any longer, I feel sorry for you. The Science Fiction community will, I hope, continue to live in the future. Anything else is betraying who we are.