I had an idea for a story just now – a full-length sci-fi story that may or may not contain elements of erotica – which set me once again pondering Western culture’s attitude to sex. Because, truth be told, I’ve always been drawn towards tales of transformation; no doubt because of my own awareness of how poorly I fit into various categories. So this novel will explore an issue which I believe we will face, probably some time within the next 50 years: the consequences of a deep and full understanding of how our minds work.
That thought led me again to pondering the often transgressive nature of science fiction, and the extreme importance of that genre for humanity’s sake. SF, by exploring possible alternate worlds, lets us see the dangers and threats that face our societies and even our species, and provides us with well-thought out starting points for considering what might be. If the future is a vast dark unknown, then science fiction (and fantasy) act like torches illuminating areas near the path we tread through that immense cavern of night. A path that will hopefully one day lead us to the stars and finally allow us to place some of our species’ eggs in more than one fragile basket. So SF is important: the story of Dr Frankenstein’s monster resonates so deeply with us because ill-considered technology, or technology developed without considering how it can be used to do more good than harm in the long term, is a real and genuine threat. It’s crucial for us to devote the necessary time and money to think things through, and to talk to the people who will be affected by the changes.
Anyway, the idea for the novel is one of those important threats we’ll face from technological change and the advance of our understanding. For those of a deeply religious bent, who fear technological change and believe we should stop learning and growing – that we should never have picked the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge – I would argue that God would never have given us our wonderful brains, our inquisitive nature, nor set up the world so that something as magnificent and robust as Evolution shepherds all life through Change, if that free will were not a big part of whatever mysterious plan he has for us. In truth, I’d go further, and argue that given God’s avowed interest in free will, he must not have a Plan for us: it must be a Hope. One in which our free will and our minds will play a major part. And how would we judge parents who wanted their children not to grow and learn and develop; not to exercise the gifts they were born with and developed through hard work and passion? Provided of course that their actions are driven, at heart, from love; or at least respect?
I think one of the West’s great tragedies is the idea that all sex (or most sex) is sinful. How harmful has the enforced celibacy of priests been, how much misery and pain has that simplistic idea caused? I’ve heard of the Japanese idea of “shikata ga nai”, which I understand means “it can’t be helped;” it’s human nature, just accept it. To me, that seems a much more honest attitude. Like so many things, sex can be good or bad, beautiful or ugly; it all depends on the spirit that motivates the act.
And a big problem, and perhaps a growing problem, is that our cultures have not yet adapted to the rate of change that technology and knowledge bring to our societies. In Australia, some people argued against the free offering of vaccination against cervical cancer, arguing that it would promote promiscuity. (That “sex is sin” idea again: better to let some young girls die!) Even in the West, we haven’t invented good mechanisms to protect society as a whole from the potentially-immortal entities we’ve created: we don’t require companies and other organisations to produce a 5-yearly Ethics report, with an honest assessment of the pluses and minuses their actions have wrought. We stumble into global climate change and look about in dismay, wondering how we got here and resisting investment in engineering solutions, until the truth is towering over us like the wall of an onrushing bushfire.
We don’t have to walk off cliffs in the dark, you know. We can collectively look ahead and choose safe routes if we’re just willing to be open and honest with ourselves. We don’t have to try to stuff genies back into bottles: we can choose how we phrase our wishes, how much or how little we use those genies. Because, let’s face it, not all individuals are good, and not all organisations are good; and if we don’t understand how this newly-discovered “fire” invention works, well, some day one of those not-good organisations will figure out how they can use it to serve their own mean purposes; and then we’ll be on the back foot and at a disadvantage. We can’t pull the blankets over our heads, we have to face our fears. It’s one of history’s major lessons for us as a species, over and over and over again.
So I think that all sorts of speculative fiction, whether it be sci-fi or fantasy or whatever, is crucially important for us. And it can be fun, and moving, and even sexually exciting if we wish. Sex isn’t sin. Technology has moved on: we have birth control, we understand how to have safe sex, women are equal to men, we’re all different…. Thousand-year-old moral or ethical guide-books that tell us to not suffer witches to live, or that tell us it’s okay to own slaves, or to kill homosexuals or infidels… those maps are out of date in some areas. Update them!
Societies evolve. Things change. We adapt or we wither and possibly die. Things that once worked may stop working; things that were once essential to the smooth operation of society can start working to its detriment. Things that once meant one thing change beyond all recognition, too; so that even the people who set those mechanisms up might stare in dismay at what those practices have evolved into. Just because it used to work, or used to be good, doesn’t mean it’s beyond examination. We need to look at what we do, and why we do things, with clarity; and then honestly discuss and work out what we should be doing. Collectively.
And there’s scope for variation. Variation and difference is not just allowable, it’s essential. If history teaches us one thing, evolution certainly teaches us another: the vulnerability and fragility of too much uniformity.
So I’ll end my little rant by welcoming the technological changes that the ebook is bringing. Sure, they’re awful in some respects compared to “real” books. But in some ways real books are awful compared to ebooks. They’re similar but different things. And ebooks grant privacy of purchase – you no longer have to face our collectively-stated (and individually-ignored) lie that sex is sin: you can browse and buy what you want in private. And sure, you can’t show easily display the spines of your collection of ebooks on your shelves, to spark off conversations like “Oh, you like Janet Evanovich too, you might like…”; but you also don’t need to worry about people saying “Eh, what’s this? You’re into bondage? You’re sick!” Fifty Shades of Gray was a bestseller not just because it met a need, but because you could buy it without suffering public embarrassment..
So ebooks allow us to follow our true desires in private; and I think and hope that in time, the gap between the public lies we all solemnly pronounce and agree on, and the private truths we all practice, must surely narrow?