NOTICE: This Website Will Be Turned Off May 1, 2018

Final Staff

Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
Dave Noonan


  • Mishell Baker
  • Bluejack
  • Amy Goldschlager
  • Emily Lupton
  • R. K. MacPherson
  • Scott James Magner
  • Robin Shantz

Copy Editors

  • Sarah L. Edwards
  • Yoon Ha Lee
  • Sherry D. Ramsey
  • Rena Saimoto
  • Paula Stiles


  • Marti McKenna
  • Bridget McKenna


  • Geb Brown

Publisher: Bluejack

October, 2009 : Essay:

All Work and No Play

What Science Fiction Leaves Out of the Future #3

So, does anybody really enjoy being in the future?

Based on the science fiction I am familiar with, the answer would usually appear to be no.

I first became aware of the problem in 1991, when I participated in a scholarly conference devoted to the topic of "Food in Science Fiction and Fantasy." Both the late Frank McConnell and I pondered the subject and produced papers (later published in a collection I co-edited, Foods of the Gods: Eating and the Eaten in Fantasy and Science Fiction) pointing out that, as a general rule, the food in the future worlds of science fiction is absolutely terrible—including the ubiquitous "food pills," the liquefied "scientific food" of Hugo Gernsback's Ralph 124C 41+, and other indelectables I gleaned from my research like "plankton chowder," "zymoveal," "termite compress," "fishmeal bread" and "soy raspberry paste." And this was puzzling, since one would expect that, due to ongoing scientific advances, the people of the future would expect, and would be able to enjoy, only the most delicious of foods. Instead, all too often, they were contentedly tolerating the most unappetizing comestibles imaginable.

And eating well is not the only sort of pleasure that the people of the future seem to be avoiding. Despite exceptional cases ranging from the stories of George Alec Effinger to the short-lived comic book Strange Sports Stories (1973–1974), one rarely finds references to our descendants engaging in stimulating athletic activities, unless they are driven by some deadly serious purpose (as in Robert Sheckley's "Seventh Victim" (1953), filmed as The 10th Victim (1965), or the Rollerball films (1975, 2002)). Our envisioned descendants rarely seem to devote any time to currently popular hobbies like knitting, gardening, coin collecting, taxidermy or working on antique cars (though I can't help mentioning one singular story about cosmic stamp collecting, Clifford D. Simak's "Leg. Forst." (1958)); stories about art, music, dance, and theatre—both as professions and as avocations—exist, but they are far from common.

And science fiction remains surprisingly silent about futuristic variations on that most intense of bodily pleasures, sexual intercourse. Yes, I have been told for the past fifty years that the target audience of science fiction is adolescent boys, who must be protected from explicit sexual content in order to avoid protests from concerned mothers; but while this may have long been the accepted wisdom among editors and publishers, it is surely no longer true today. For nowadays, when I go to a bookstore, the adolescent boys are hanging out in the manga section, while the science fiction and fantasy section only seems to attract aging hippies and matronly middle-aged women. Can anyone sincerely believe that there would be widespread outrage if a contemporary science fiction novel speculated in explicit terms about how advanced technologies might alter or enhance the joys of sex?

For further evidence that characters in science fiction tend to avoid pleasure at all costs, consider the evolution of the Star Trek universe. Early episodes of the first series (1966–1969) included scenes of Kirk and Spock enjoying games of three-dimensional chess, and crew members sitting around the lounge listening to Uhura sing while Spock played his Vulcan harp. But somebody clearly didn't like these interludes, or found them incongruous, for there is little evidence of the crew of the Enterprise enjoying their leisure time in later episodes. The second series, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987—1994), did introduce the holodeck, ostensibly as a place for crew members to relax after a hard day on the bridge, but their interludes there increasingly took on the aura of a second job instead of a vacation, the ultimate example being the scene in Star Trek: Generations (1994) in which the crew of Captain Picard's Enterprise takes a break from the grueling work of running a spaceship to indulge in the grueling work of running a nineteenth-century British warship. As for the Star Wars series, the first film (1977) does include a fleeting scene of characters playing some sort of board game with holographic pieces, but when it comes time to celebrate their victory over Darth Vader and his Death Star, Luke Skywalker and company are only observed enduring a dull ceremony. The conclusion of the third film, Return of the Jedi (1983) begins more promisingly, with the victorious heroes joining the Ewoks in a sing-along around a campfire, but Luke is in no mood to party and instead wanders away from the crowd to commune with some friendly ghosts from his past. (When reissuing the film, George Lucas did endeavor to re-edit the ending to make it seem more celebratory, but the original version remains more telling.)

All of this seems especially strange because, as many will recall, there was a time in the 1950s when many futurists, observing ever-decreasing work hours and the rise of automation, were predicting that people in the future would need to work very little or not at all, and that the major problem facing society would be helping idle citizens come up with satisfying activities to fill their endless hours of leisure time. Yet on those occasions when science fiction writers envision future worlds of people who never have to work for a living, they do not, by and large, devote their imaginative energies to developing new ways for them to relax—though Fritz Leiber's "The Beat Cluster" (1961) qualifies as a rare, though brief, exception—but rather criticize them as worthless slackers and treat a society of unemployed people not as a boon to be enjoyed but rather as a problem to be solved. Thus, in Philip José Farmer's "Riders of the Purple Wage" (1967), the author does little to conceal his contempt for the childish, hedonistic inhabitants of a future America where everybody is supported by welfare, and the novella ends with its hero being urged, essentially, to get back to work. The attitude throughout science fiction, in other words, is fairly consistent: the future is not supposed to be a vacation; it is supposed to be a job.

In arguing that characters in the futures of science fiction generally tend to avoid any form of pleasure in favor of their professions and their missions, I have already noted some exceptional cases, and I am sure readers can think of many more; still, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to show that a general pattern is in place. I should also acknowledge that there is precisely one leisure activity that is incessantly observed in science fiction, and that is drinking alcoholic beverages; seedy spaceport bars are an established trope, and there are any number of appealing concoctions for imbibers, ranging from the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979) to the Cardassian brandy recently referenced in the film Star Trek (2009). But excessive drinking is known to be the frequent pastime of people who are otherwise unhappy with their lives, again suggesting that, overall, people are unwilling or unable to relax and enjoy the experience of living in the future.

Asked to explain the phenomenon, many readers are no doubt squirming with impatience to shout out the obvious answer: well, duh, it is interesting to read about future people battling implacable enemies or solving cosmic mysteries, while it would be boring to read about future people puttering in their gardens or installing new batteries in their antique Priuses. Yet this, again, is an attitude characteristic of prepubescent males, demanding exciting adventures at every moment, not of mature readers who are prepared to be entertained in a variety of fashions, and as already noted today's science fiction is increasingly attracting readers who are visibly mature. Surely, no one can seriously maintain that intriguing science fiction must avoid persons of leisure, and J. G. Ballard is one writer who has repeatedly demonstrated that one can produce fascinating fiction about idle people, whether it is the artists and bored aristocrats inhabiting the far future resort of Vermillion Sands (1971) or the drifters haunting the ruins of Cape Canaveral in the stories of Memories of the Space Age (1988). In sum, I am confident that a science fiction writer could tell the story of an intergalactic golf tournament which would be just as imaginative and involving as the story of an intergalactic war; yet we have more than enough works in the latter category and few if any in the former.

One might also theorize that, generally speaking, the most successful science fiction writers, and hence the ones who provide the most common and most popular visions of the future, would tend to be the hardest working writers—and thus writers naturally inclined to create heroes and heroines who share their obsessive work ethic. But this would be assuming, incorrectly, that writers invariably create characters who are similar to themselves, and only neophyte writers seem prone to this tendency. Ballard again would be the obvious counterexample, an energetic, productive writer who crafted stories about enervated, aimless characters.

Another factor generating hard-working heroes may be that science fiction writers, like everyone else, can fall victim to the logical fallacy of false analogy, in particular the false analogy that species grow and progress in the manner of individual beings. Thus, just as people living today may regard themselves as adults in comparison to their more primitive, childlike ancestors, writers envisioning advanced future humans may consciously or subconsciously depict them as even older adults who would naturally see today's people as children. And just as children are invariably associated with play, adults are invariably associated with work. Thus, even in depicting future humans who may seem as rash and headstrong as any modern adolescent, writers may tend to think of them as a bit too mature to really care much about childish pursuits like sports or dancing. (The irony here is that biological evolution often appears to achieve progress through a process of neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics in adulthood, so that it would really be more logical to envision future humans as more like children than ourselves; and there are also faint hints of that in science fiction—recall the stereotypical future humans who have large, bald heads, just like babies, even though they tend to pontificate like adults).

However, I believe that there is actually a deeper and more provocative reason for the tendency I have discussed, and I will frankly confess that, this time, I didn't come up with it. I say "frankly confess" because, well, I got the idea from a man named Frank. For when Frank McConnell and I independently concluded that the typical science fiction future was a gourmet's nightmare, we were compelled to devise some explanation for the phenomenon, and mine was both narrow and flippant: noting that the most commonly experienced present-day environment resembling our envisioned future is the hospital—stark, sterile corridors filled with mysterious items of advanced technology—I deduced that science fiction writers were correspondingly expecting that our future food would resemble the archetypically terrible hospital food. But McConnell's essay—now available again in the collection of McConnell's Eaton essays I recently edited, The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science (2009)—provided a broader, more stunning conclusion, regarded by McConnell as so important that, for the only occasion in his writings that I know of, he placed it entirely in capital letters:


This represented, he went on to say, science fiction's affirmation of the ancient Christian heresy of gnosticism, the belief that only the spiritual world is significant and valuable and that the material world is inferior and, well, immaterial in the other sense of the world—or as McConnell more memorably put it, "SF asserts the human as the vector-sum of cosmic forces far transcending the human, and among whom the human can hope only for annihilation or assimilation into the Holy Other." This revelation literally changed McConnell's career; for having previously denied that science fiction was really a distinct form of literature, he came to acknowledge its covert gnostic agenda as a unique characteristic that truly defined the genre, and the links between science fiction and gnosticism became the dominant theme of his later Eaton essays—so much so that I subtitled his book Collected Essays on SF Storytelling and the Gnostic Imagination.

Indeed, if you think about it, science fiction is filled with predictions that humanity is destined, in one way or another, to eventually abandon our bodies for a more spiritual sort of existence. There were crude intimations of this in older stories about human brains transplanted into robot bodies—as in Neil R. Jones's Professor Jameson stories (1931–1968)—or disembodied brains hooked up to machines, as in Curt Siodmak's Donovan's Brain (1942) and its numerous official and unofficial film adaptations. These have been supplanted by more sophisticated visions of cyborgs, with a human will augmented by machine parts, as well as more explicit predictions of disembodied existence, such as living one's life in cyberspace (like Bobby Newmark in William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)) or having one's consciousness downloaded into a computer (like Robinette Broadhead in Frederik Pohl's The Annals of the Heechee (1987)). There are also depictions of advanced aliens who are made of pure energy, presumably representing the natural end of the evolution of intelligent life, as well as various forms of group intelligence which would make individual bodies unimportant—though this development has been presented both positively (Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (1937)) and negatively (the Borg from the Star Trek universe).

McConnell's insight was that, while only explicitly presented in certain texts, this expectation of eventual transcendence of the human body was implicit throughout the genre. Thus, if humans are indeed destined to someday leave the material world and exist only on a spiritual plane, why should future humans bother to create and enjoy the most delectable of foods? Or, to recall McConnell's subsequent discussion of why medicine is so often marginalized in science fiction, why should future humans bother to devise new and better ways to preserve the human body when we eventually will no longer need it? And, to refer back to the curious omissions I have pointed out here, why should future humans bother to exercise their bodies in sporting events and dances, to engage in new and extravagant forms of sexual activity, to collect and cherish memorabilia, or to create memorable works of art? Someday, they will be leaving the material world behind to become creatures of pure spirit who, one assumes, will derive pleasure solely from placid contemplation of the mystically infinite.

Furthermore, if one looks carefully, such prophecies can be detected in popular science fiction stories apparently focused on future humans who look and act exactly like ourselves. For the holodeck of Star Trek, in addition to serving as a place for crewmembers to work at their second jobs, can also be interpreted as a trial run for a future human lifestyle in which people will no longer travel to real places and interact with real beings, but will instead spend all of their time within computer-generated fantasy worlds. And when Luke Skywalker drifts away from his human and alien companions in Return of the Jedi to greet the ghosts of his father and his mentors, the clear message is that, all things considered, it is better to be a ghost than a physical being. This posited desire to escape from the material world also accounts for the only physical pleasure that future humans continue to constantly indulge in—drinking alcohol—since the temporary elation brought by excessive drinking can be regarded as an ersatz substitute for the genuine ethereal bliss of spiritual existence that people aspire to but cannot yet achieve.

Surveying the futures of science fiction from this perspective is, in one respect, rather depressing, because it appears to verify the assertion that science fiction, instead of employing scientific information and logical deduction to predict plausible futures, is actually impelled to colorfully recycle the myths and legends of our ancient religions—the Joseph Campbell-derived argument that George Lucas always trots out when defending the shopworn aspects of his Star Wars adventures. After all, the prediction that humans will someday ascend out of the mundane world into a higher, spiritual plane is a standard doctrine of several religions. And the attitudes of our posited descendants do seem uncomfortably similar to the attitudes of our Puritan ancestors—that one must work as hard as one can, eschewing all pleasures as frivolous diversions, in order to qualify for entrance into heaven and a blissful, spiritual existence for the rest of eternity. The dream of humanity fighting to conquer the universe so that we may someday merge into a group intelligence or achieve immortality as computer programs, in other words, may represent little more than a secularized version of the Book of Revelation, proving Ecclesiastes' point that even in science fiction, there is really nothing new under the sun.

Still, there may be a modern insight, as well as ancient beliefs, lurking within the ways that science fiction portrays the future; for it would seem evident enough that the future is going to be dominated by the people who work the hardest, and play the least, which would logically explain why they are so often the protagonists of our imagined tomorrows. Certainly, for the longest time, Americans were viewed as the workaholics of the world, which would provide a reason other than chauvinism for the fact that, for the longest time, the futures of science fiction, even those crafted by Europeans and Asians, seemed to be so all-American in their features and their characters. I mean, I do not wish to be overly critical of certain European citizens, but can we really believe that the future will be controlled by people who routinely take month-long vacations and habitually fight for the privilege of working fewer and fewer hours per week and retiring at younger and younger ages? And it is hardly surprising, then, to find that recent science fiction often posits a future more influenced by Japanese or Chinese culture—for many would argue that our Asian counterparts are now working much harder than most Americans.

In sum, it may indeed be true that, as the old proverb suggests, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy—but it may also be true that Jack's ultimate reward for all of his hard work will be the future itself.

Copyright © 2009, Gary Westfahl. All Rights Reserved.

About Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-four books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005),The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the co-edited critical anthology Science Fiction and the Two Cultures (2009), and the recently published Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009) and its companion volume, The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009).


Oct 8, 07:07 by IROSF
Comment below!
Oct 8, 18:00 by Athena Andreadis
Great article! I registered the Victorian prudery clearly while writing my book on the biology of Star Trek and the joylessness of the Star Wars universe while writing my article for Strange Horizons. A few SF authors, Le Guin prominently among them, do celebrate everyday living, which includes music, sex, making and eating food.

If Jack Dull indeed earns the future, we may question what kind of a future it will be and if we really want to live in it (and what we'll become if we do create such a future and live in it). The distaste for the body and its perceived or real limitations is another aspect of dualism. Body versus mind, this life versus the next, nature versus culture. The fact that it's a central tenet of many religions (transhumanism included) is not surprising, given the gender and worldview of most religion founders. It's also worth noting that most pagans considered the body and the mind/spirit equally worth of nurturing (the Greeks, for example).

I discussed these issues in my essay If I Canít Dance, I Donít Want to Be Part of Your Revolution! Brief excerpt:

After all, neither transhumanism nor cyberpunk are monolithic, they come in various shades ofÖ and then it hit meÖ gray. Their worlds contain little color or sound, few scents, hardly any plants or animals. Food and sex come as pills, electric stimuli or IV drips; almost all arts and any sciences not related to individual enhancement have atrophied, along with most human activities that donít involve VR.

Athena Andreadis
Oct 8, 23:19 by John Shirley
I like the All Work and No Play article. Much truth in it. I'll just say that Robert Sheckley (there are plans for a Sheckley homage anthology I am supposed to be in) and Rudy Rucker provide fun in the future. Along with some grim stuff...There is of course a small subgenre of humorous science fiction stories including, even, my Quill Tripstickler stories (The Mag of Fantasy and Science Fiction long ago). Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick Tock Man comes to mind...

The smart money re sf and spirituality is with a recognition of a balance struck, as humanity discovers that the material is spiritual and the spiritual material ("My teaching is more materialistic than materialism"--GI Gurdjieff). The Tao of Physics, yes, but also there's the Zen of Physics, one presumes, wherein one works in the physical world with Zazen mindfulness: another area where, in fiction, Rudy Rucker has been a frontiersman...
Oct 18, 01:47 by Aaron Singleton
two words for you: Jack Vance. One more: Hussade. Featured in all of the Alastor Cluster novels, it is a sport played over a deep pool the object of which is to denude the opposing team's Sheirl (girl in white dress with pull ring). Sounds like fun to me!
Oct 18, 15:26 by Athena Andreadis
Would have been far more fun if the object were a Dick: boy in white loincloth with pull ring. More challenging, too (smaller target, in many senses of the term).

Want to Post? Evil spammers have forced us to require login:

Sign In




NOTE: IRoSF no longer requires a 'username' -- why try to remember anything other than your own email address?

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now!

Problems logging in? Try our Problem Solver