Fantasies of Homelessness

A few months ago, Michele Marchand and I wrote an article analyzing the roles of homeless people in modern mystery novels. But when I announced that I wanted to do an article on homeless people in science fiction, Michele told me I was on my own.

I had a lot of my own background to draw on, though. I've been reading science fiction and fantasy for over 40 years. I grew up on my father's science fiction collection.

What fascinated me as I began examining how various science fiction authors treated homeless people was how closely their attitudes corresponded to opinions that we deal with today.

I Know How to Fix THIS!

Several early science fiction writers -- H.G. Wells, Jack London (yes, he wrote science fiction too: Before Adam, The Iron Heel, and others), Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward) -- used science fiction for social criticism, with a strong socialist bias. To modern tastes, however, most of these early books are long on diatribe and short on character development.

Some social reformers still have a tendency to put theory before people. Safe Harbors could be a case study of good intentions in theory which never made contact with the real concerns of the individuals affected.

Heroes and Losers

The Golden Years of science fiction -- the 40's and 50's -- primarily featured heroic science fiction: "The Rational Man Conquers the Universe." The heroes who repaired their own spaceships, cured the plague on suffering planets, and cooked gourmet meals from plankton didn't have a lot of sympathy for people who couldn't overcome their own obstacles. These novels usually ignored homeless people, unless they were portraying either the Evils of Tyranny or the Evils of Drugs.

Homeless people are growing more visible each year, but there are still many people who don't see them, who easily rationalize poverty as "their own fault," or who play on the conditions of the poor for their own political agenda.

"We Are All Homeless"

Whole cities, countries, or everyone on the planet may become homeless as the result of natural disaster or war. John Varley even projects a future in which the human race has been exiled from the solar system by aliens who favor the survival of dolphins and whales.

A disaster in which everyone is caught up in, however, is a different experience than being permanently "on the outside looking in."

One interesting twist on the disaster novel was The Jericho Iteration by Allen Steele. I and others caught up in the controversy over legalization of homeless encampments have pointed out that if we had a flood or earthquake, tents would immediately be put up for the displaced survivors, for the duration of the emergency. In Steele’s novel, an earthquake strikes a major city and thousands of people are housed in tents in the city’s largest park. Eight months later, most of the Federal disaster relief has gone to rebuilding the business district and rich people’s houses and the poorer citizens are still living in tents. Federal troops are starting to harass them. Politicians are starting to say, "Anyone who really wanted a job or housing could have found it by now." Those displaced people have begun to be regarded as permanently homeless.

Note: Steele doesn’t say that this happened because the folks were put in tents to begin with. It happened because things stopped there.

A Breed Apart

Some science fiction authors, however, did help us see the outsiders among us by using the analogies made possible by fantasy. Cordwainer Smith (pseudonym of Paul Lineberger) wrote a series of mythic-quality stories about the Underpeople, genetically engineered humanoid animals exploited by a corrupt society, in the process of creating their own freedom. Among today’s writers, Charles de Lint is one of the strongest creators of "urban fantasy," in which street-people and the creatures of myth deal together with the problems of life, meaning and relationships.

The Revenge of the Nerd

A science fiction theme as common as "The Rational Man Conquers the Universe" is "The Outsider Hero." The despised misfit turns out to be the mutant progenitor of an improved human race, the lost heir to the Galactic throne, the fugitive possessor of the key to a new scientific revolution, the Second Coming of Christ — or God, as in Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series.

This is a pleasant fantasy for most science fiction fans, who often grew up "nerds" or "geeks." It can correspond, however, to the myth of "the good homeless people" and "the bad homeless people" — the attitude that most homeless deserve their lot, but some are special.

The Quest

Science fiction, and even more so fantasy, has many characters — like Edgar Pangborn’s Davy or Horty in Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels — who, whether they leave home by choice or by force, become fond of the vagabond life and use it as a journey of discovery. One of the common themes of science fiction is "What does it mean to be human?" and being isolated from society and material possessions is one trick that authors use to cast a character in on himself — or herself, as in Amy Thomson’s Virtual Girl — to ask "Who am I?"

Any of us can use our circumstances for growth, whatever they are. But that is a far cry from saying that homelessness is always beneficial, or even personally chosen.

Nightmares and Visions

As in mystery novels, homeless people are used in science fiction as a symptom of a system gone wrong — and there are a growing number of them. SF short stories, especially, can be poignant vignettes of humanity in the midst of chaos. One of the most important uses of fiction is to show us our common humanity, as in Walter Moseley’s mystery/sf crossover novel, Blue Light. One of the most important uses of science fiction is to help us imagine new ways of being: as individuals, as a community. Octavia Butler’s novels The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents or such stories of the tranformation of a society starting among its misfits.

As the awareness of the world-wide emergency of homelessness grows, I expect science fiction writers to write about it more and more. If we are ever to create a world without a permanent underclass, our writers will be among those who help us do it.

© Anitra L. Freeman September 28, 2000

More of Anitra's Bookshelf