Peaceful Science Fiction? Karl Schroeder and the trend to less violence.

Almost all of our science fiction involves some form of violent conflict.  The space operas, often as not, involve galactic wars and battles (even the Culture gets into fights with others).  The cyberpunk and near future sf tend to involve smaller scale conflict, but violence is common and even widespread.  Part of this is a function of the genre: if people want to read about suburban angst or midlife crises they generally stick to mainstream fiction where it is widely abundant.  Those of us who enjoy fiction with an adventurous bent tend to expect at least the threat of violence as a catalyst in the story.

Karl Schroeder raises some very interesting points in his discussion of the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  The gist of Pinker’s argument is that human history is marked by a consistent long-term trend towards non-violence, and he backs it up with considerable evidence.  None of us are likely to see this as a bad thing, but Schroeder rightly raises the challenge it presents to sf writers trying to create a plausible setting.

For us as SF writers, this fact constitutes a new constraint that we have to acknowledge. These days, if you write an SF story set thirty years in the future without either having a technological singularity in it, or having an explanation as to why one hasn’t happened, then some fan is going to call you on it. After learning about the scope and robustness of the historical trend towards peacefulness (and once again, Pinker’s not the only author of this idea) I’m not going to buy into any SF story about a future where societal violence or war are even holding steady at our level, without the author at least coming up with some mechanism stronger than ideology, religion, economics, resource crashes and poverty, or a proliferation of arms to explain why.


Shaun Duke over at The World in a Satin Bag argues that Schroeder misses the point of SF, that the goal is not to predict the future but rather to reflect the present through an sf lens.

It isn’t meant to be totalized in terms of predictive qualities.  Rather, it is supposed to look at our current world and to do two things (both/either/or):  1) think through “problems,” and 2) explore such problems through allegory, metaphor, and estrangement.  That is why SF is about the present, not the future.  That is why SF is set in the future, but is not necessarily about it.  The setting is coincidental for the SF author, whether he or she acknowledges it or not.  What separates the various forms of fantasy from SF isn’t the setting, but the method/way/style/approach the author takes to explore his or her present.


Respectfully, I disagree with both of them.  Karl Schroeder seems to make the argument that the (apparently) inexorable trend towards zero conflict makes any setting which includes any major conflict somehow unrealistic.  That seems a little too complete for me.  Though conflict has in general declined, there are many places in the world where that is not currently the case.  A similar assumption can be made about the future.

On other words, even if the level of violent conflict has shrunk dramatically over the next 30 years, I would find a setting where that level has reached zero to stretch my credulity to the breaking point.  General trends do not always apply to local events.  It is not hard to imagine or accept a peaceful world in which a violent event happens, nor is it hard to accept that a story would include or focus on that crisis.

I also disagree with Shaun Duke’s assertion that sf settings are ‘coincidental’ to the story, which is really about the present. Of course, anyone reading classic sf is going to find themselves constantly stumbling over assumptions, perceptions and worldviews that are easily identifiable as being rooted in a particular era and culture.* More importantly, sf is at least part futurism, and must at least make an effort to present a plausible future. Though I enjoy the occasional fantasy novel, I cannot ever imagine a chain of events that result in myself or anyone I know plausibly living within a fantasy setting. On the other hand, the structural logic of sf expects at least a minimal effort at plausibility on the part of an author. Creating a futuristic setting full of impossibilities is jarring and off-putting to me as a reader, and terrifying to me as a writer.

Because of this sf ‘plausibility imperative’, Duke’s dismissal of Schroeder’s argument as irrelevant misses the point somewhat. If the hypothesis that humans will become ever more peaceful over time holds up, then sf authors need to account for that in their writing. I don’t see it as hard to do either.

*I’m currently reading The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven, which is chock full of mid-20th century cultural stereotypes and assumptions. An excellent novel nonetheless.

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