So, anent nothing in particular, I was contemplating another of James Nicoll's essays on Tor.com the other day—this one concerning utopias in SF—and found myself trying to stare into my own cognitive blind spot.
Like all fiction genres, SF is prone to fashion trends. For example, since the late 1970s, psi powers as a trope have gone into steep decline (I'd attribute this to the death and subsequent waning influence of editor John W. Campbell, who in addition to being a bigoted right-winger was into any number of bizarre fringe beliefs). "Population time bomb"/overpopulation stories have also gone into decline, perhaps due to the gradual realization that thanks to the green revolution and demographic transition we aren't doomed as a direct consequence of overpopulation—climate change and collapsing agriculture are another matter, but we're already far past the point at which a collapse into cannibalism and barbarism was so gloatingly depicted in much 1960s and 1970s SF. And so are stories about our totalitarian Stalinist/Soviet overlords and their final triumph over the decadent free western world. These are all, if you like, examples of formerly-popular tropes which succumbed to, respectively, critiques of their scientific plausibility (psi powers), the intersection of unforeseen scientific breakthroughs with the reversal of an existing trend to mitigate a damaging outcome (food production revolution/population growth tapering off), and the inexorable historical dialectic (snark intentional).
Oddly enough, tales of what the world will be like in the tantalizingly close future year 2000 AD are also thin on the ground these days. As are tales of the first man on the moon (it's always a man in those stories, although nobody in the 1950s thought to call the hero of a two-fisted space engineering story "Armstrong"), the big East/West Third World War (but hold the front page!), and a bunch of other obsolescent futures that were contingent on milestones we've already driven past.
Some other technological marvels predicted in earlier SF have dropped out of fiction except as background scenery, for they're now the stuff of corporate press releases and funding rounds. Reusable space launchers? Check. (Elon Musk really, really wants to be the Man who Sold the Moon.) Space elevators/tether systems? Nobody would bother writing a novel like "The Fountains of Paradise" these days, they're too plonkingly obvious. It'd be like writing a novel about ITER, as opposed to a novel where ITER is the setting. Pocket supercomputer/videophone gadgets in every teenager's pocket? No, that's just too whacky: nobody would believe it! And so on. (Add sarcasm tags to taste.)
We are living through the golden age of grimdark dystopian futures, especially in Young Adult literature (and lest we forget, there's much truth to the old saying that "the golden age of SF is 12", even for those of us who write and read more adult themes). There's also a burgeoning wave of CliFi, fiction set in the aftermath of global climate change. We're now seeing Afrofuturism and other cultures taken into the mainstream of commercial SF, rather than being marginalized and systematically excluded: diversity is on the rise (and the grumpy white men don't like it).
Which leads me to my question: what are the blind spots in current SF? The topics that nobody is writing about but that folks should be writing about? (Keep reading below the cut before you think about replying!)
I can immediately think of four blind spots, right now (and this is without engaging my brain and trying to work out what topics I have, as a pale-skinned male of privilege, been trained to studiously ignore):
In the 1950-1999 period, tales of the 21st century were everywhere. Where are the equivalent stories of the 22nd century, that should be being told today? (There are a few, but they are if anything prominent because of their scarcity.)
The social systems based on late-stage currently-existing capitalism are hideously broken, but almost all the SF I see takes some variation on the current system as a given: in the future, apparently people will have these things called "jobs" whereby an "employer" (typically a Very Slow AI controlled by a privileged caste of "executives") acquires an exclusive right to their labour in return for vouchers which may be exchanged for food, clothing, and shinies (these vouchers are apparently called "money"). Seriously folks, can't we imagine something better?
What does a world look like in which the (very approximately) 2,500-10,000 year old reign of the patriarchy has been broken for good? The commodification of women and children that followed the development of settled agricultural societies with ruling/warrior castes to police and enforce laws casts a very long shadow, even in societies that notionally endorse gender equality in law. (Consider, for example, that a restricted diet stunts growth, and that average adult stature tracks food availability by a generation or three, and ask why men are, on average, taller than women; or why rape culture exists and where it came from: or where the impetus for #MeToo is coming from ...) Even if the arc of history indeed does bend towards justice, we're still a long way from finding it (whether it be for racism, sexism, or any other entrenched, long-standing historic injustice). Which in turn leads me to ...
Blind justice: "the law in its majesty forbids the millionaire and the pauper alike from sleeping under bridges". Stable societies need norms of behaviour and some way of ensuring that most people comply with them, but our current approach to legal codes is broken. One size does not fit all (if the pauper and the millionaire both face a $50 fine for the same offense, then the law is a hideously onerous burden on one of them and trivially ignored by the other—yes, I know there are jurisdictions where fines are proportional to income, but they're the exception rather than the rule and they rely on the concept of a fine as punishment). Nor is it clear that punishment by incarceration or state violence achieves anything productive, or that our judicial systems produce anything that can reasonably be termed justice (in strict Rawlsian terms). What does a future social contract look like? Hell, what does a future legal system look like? Malka Older ("Infomocracy") and Ada Palmer ("Too Like the Lightning") have been ploughing that field, with a side-order of trying to conceptualize what a new age of enlightenment might look like, but again: being able to name them just highlights how few authors are exploring these vital issues in SF. Indeed, law enforcement is a huge blind spot for many Americans, as witness this think-piece in The Atlantic (How Mars Will be Policed) which seems to assume that the current American quasi-military police caste is a universal constant.
So: four themes (the world as it might be an entire human lifetime hence: what could replace the ideology of industrial-era capitalism: how would a world without entrenched hierarchies of race, privilege, and gender look: and what the future of law, justice, and society might be) are going under-represented in SF.
And here is my subsequent question: what big themes am I (and everyone else) ignoring?
Do my homework, please. Comment thread provided below for your mutual entertainment.