Over the holidays, I read Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. It’s a lovely little novel, though perhaps better as a commentary on science fiction than as an actual entry in the genre. One of my favorite parts of the book, about a semi-depressed time machine repairman searching for his missing father, comes in a description of the universe the story is set in:
At the lower end of the scale are the unincorporated areas, which have, as the name suggests, no particular look and feel, no genre. Although sometimes referred to as ‘reality’ it should be stressed that this layer of Universe 31 is quantitatively, but not qualitatively, different from the other regions. The difference is one of degree, not nature. On the other end of the scale, the affluent inhabitants of the upper-middle to upper-end neighborhoods, perhaps searching for authenticity, or nostalgic for a different age, devote significant amounts of their time and resources to the creation of a simulated version of the unincorporated areas. Considerable expense is required for the upkeep of these highly stylized ‘reality’ gardens, with the verisimilitude of one’s personal family garden being a point of pride and a symbol of status among this stratum of inhabitants…Although techncially SF, the look and feel of the world in these borderline neighborhoods is less thoroughly executed than elsewhere in the region, and outcomes of story lines can be more randomized, due to ac omparatively weaker buffer from the effects of 31’s incomplete physics. As a result, the overall quality of experience for the residents of these striving areas is thinner, poorer, and less substantial than of those in the middle and upper regions, while at the same time, due to its mixed and random and unthemed nature, less satisfying than that of reality, which, although gritty, is, at least, internally consistent.
There are a lot of interesting ideas in this concept, that the wealthier you are, the more you live in reality. Of course wealth gives you access to a greater range of experiences; to resources that can help you play around with different identities and different tropes of identities; and to the luxury of nostalgia and time spent defining authenticity whether you live in a science fictional universe or in this one. And of course it’s deeply irritating that our popular culture, science fictional or otherwise, so often resorts to trope to describe certain classes of people, whether it’s sassy lower-middle-class black women, Southeast Asian convenience store proprietors, or incompetent deputies. But I’m compelled by the idea that it might be a bad fate to be so low on the totem poll as to be unreachable by trope, cliche, or genre, that it’s worse to be ignored entirely than stereotyped. Before we want our stories to be authentic, to typify genre, or to transcend it, we want them to be recognized as worthy and listened to in the first place.