I was talking about the recent events in the US "economy" and my latest fiction writing project the other day, and while the connection between the two seemed more direct in the moment and doesn't bear repeating I found that I uttered the following statement:
"You know, there isn't a lot of materialist space opera/science fiction out there."
And as soon as I had spoken the words, I knew that I had to be wrong. Or at least I hoped I was.
It's understandable that science fiction often isn't terribly materialist. I suspect many SF writers are attracted to the genre because SF is a great platform for exploring new (and old) ideas, in a setting that's just enough different from our contemporary setting to make us think. While the spaceships and aliens certainly helped draw me in when I was a kid, the ideas are what have kept me as a bigger kid/adult.
And let's be honest dealing with ideas about material is difficult in the space opera type setting. To assume that goods--food, clothing, fuel, technology-- will continue to be scarce in universes that have faster than light travel, and amazingly decked-out space ships, can be a bit tough to swallow. Similarly, with that kind of technology, might we just assume that no one has to work in the factories or the mines, and really that does seem to be the more logical assumption.
Often, even stories that have economic themes, or plots (about trade or political intrigue) aren't particularly grounded in a material understanding of economics. By which I mean, we don't often read stories that deal with how capital is created (labor,) transported, or consumed. If stories even have some sort of in-world money, we so rarely see where the value that currency comes from. Right?
I suppose I should clarify that my thought process started with space opera and expanded outward from there. Clearly Space Opera is probably the most prone to these sorts of non-materialist stories, but other areas of the genre suffer to varying degrees.
My next project was to think of stories and novels that we're materialist in some way. So here's what I came up with:
Empire Star by Samuel Delany turns on a very materialist plot. The story would be hard to summarize, and I wouldn't want to spoil it, for anyone who hasn't read it, but in a way, it's all about the alienation of labor and rebuilding capital after a war. In contrast, Babel-17 (also Delany) isn't particularly materialist at all: while there is a war that certainly has effects on capital, labor, and trade that's not particularly relevant to the story, except in the abstract. I mention them in the same breath because, Empire Star is the companion to Babel-17, and they were published together (and their both great, if very different, stories). Empire Star, is a novella and gets anthologized with some regularity as it is both awesome and a great early example of the Space Opera revival.
"Who's Afraid of Wolf 359?" by Ken MacLeod, was my second idea. The story was published in 2007 in the Stranham/Dozis The New Space Opera anthology, and was also on Escape Pod this year. The story tracks the redevelopment of a fallen colony and in doing so manages to trace the economic development of the galactic civilization. Though I would expect nothing less from MacLeod.
There has to be more. I'm sure of it, I'd like to use the comments of this post to collect other examples of materialist science fiction, Space Opera or otherwise, and I/we can collect the results and add it to the Feminist SF Wiki, or as a follow up post.