Science fiction has a shifting relationship with reality. In general, it tends to concentrate on the future, speculation about what the future might look like. Most often, even when it tries to be realistic and extrapolate from current trends in science, and social and political change, it gets it all wrong. The future is always turning on the unexpected, the unanticipated, and most often takes us in directions very different from those we expected.
The speed of change these days has created another problem for SF. Instead of staying one step ahead of the present, it finds itself trying to keep up. In the time it take to write, edit, and publish a novel, the world can change so drastically that the author’s imaginings are already out of date. Maybe this is why SF seems to be moving into vaster distances and times, and creating scenarios that are as much fantasy as they are extrapolations from the sciences.
But science fiction can also be a mirror to our current reality, an enhanced and dramatized picture of the way things actually are right now. Most often, this is deliberate. But not always, as I discovered today. I’ve been pecking away at a near-future novel in which criminals can be leased or purchased for work. That’s only a slight exaggeration of the historical past, and of current trends that may develop further if we’re not careful.
In the opening chapter, a vanload of prisoners has just been delivered. It’s a hot summer day, and when the van is opened, the people standing nearby are engulfed in a wave of incredible heat and the smells of sweat and urine. It turns out that the men have been shackled in the van for hours, and during that time, the driver and guards had stopped for lunch, leaving the van shut up, standing in the sun. When the men are released from their shackles, they are all close to collapse, and one man is unconscious.
That was all out of my imagination, so it was shocking to come across an article today in which real life echoed my words. It’s about the aging of prisoners and the lack of concern and humane treatment of men (and women) aging and getting sick while incarcerated.
“Phil Lyons sat with four other inmates, shackled and handcuffed inside a dark blue windowless van with no air conditioning. It was 2010, New York’s hottest summer in history. While they roasted in the van, according to the story that Lyons told his wife, their guards spent the day browsing swag at garage sales and motorcycle shops, sipping cold soda and bragging about their overtime pay.
“Their trip ended at the parking lot of the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, N.Y., fifty miles east of Attica Correctional Facility. The hospital was not expecting them so they waited for another three hours confined in the state van, drenched in sweat mixed with blood from cuts made by their skin-tight handcuffs.
“You don’t even leave your pet in the car with the windows rolled up. No windows or anything, a steel metal box for five or six hours. They were roasting them to death,” recounts Phil’s wife, Pat Lyons. “One man did pass out, that was the only reason they finally did get something to drink.”
“67 year-old Phil had endured pain from open-chest surgery for eight years, and that summer was suffering from emphysema and a stomach ulcer. By the end of the day, says Pat, he was suffering from severe heat exposure.”
On one level, I was shocked and sickened; on another, I wasn’t really surprised, because I’ve been reading intensively about prison conditions in this country, and I know that this kind of callous treatment of incarcerated men and women goes on all the time. But it does make me wish I didn’t understand it so well that my imagination would create something I thought was just fiction.
One of the bits of advice that old hands give new prisoners when they first come in is: Don’t get sick.