Lately, I’ve been downloading some classic science fiction from Audible. I finished “The Robots of Dawn,” by Isaac Asimov and am more than half way through “Player Piano,” by Kurt Vonnegut. Both stories were written in the mid-twentieth century and set in the future. Vonnegut’s is in a near future that could be now, and Asimov’s is in a far flung future in which humans have colonized multiple planets and built “humaniform” robots who can do much of the hardest work and are kept in check by the three laws of robotics.
Asimov predicts a world with interstellar flight, advanced robots, and sexual morays vastly different from those of mid-twentieth century earth. Vonnegut predicts a much closer world in which efficient machines have taken over most human jobs, so that only the very intelligent are employed as engineers and managers, only a tiny proportion of the population has the chance to go to college, and even secretaries and barbers need a PhD to be qualified for their jobs. Everyone else must join the army or work on a road crew and settle for government pay.
The thing that amazes/annoys me is that neither one of them, in all their intelligence and imaginative capacity, conceived of a future world in which women could fill roles beyond wife/lover, secretary, or homemaker. There are no women taking significant roles in the work force or in the course of history in either novel. Are the 1950’s really so far away? Both these men were very intelligent, but boy did they get it wrong about human potential. I mean, I don’t have a single robot to my name, but I’ve had a significant job since finishing college. My family relies on my income just as much as my husband’s. In fact, I’ve been gainfully employed in my field since before finishing high school. I also have a high (erroneously labeled as “genius level”) IQ and a physics degree, both of which would have placed me in a desirable position in the world of either book. But no, women figure in both books as objects of attraction for the main characters, secretaries, or wives whose sole function seems to be party attendance and social climbing. In Player Piano, most housework is finished in seconds by automated machines, but still the women do not work. Yes, most of the populous is underemployed in this story, but the men are still sent out to do something.
I’m hoping that both authors changed their minds over the course of the next fifty years. Both lived long lives but are now dead, so I’ll have to take this up with them in the after life. (Both were secular humanists, so I’m not sure we’ll actually be able to contact each other in the after life. Maybe there are day passes to other eternities?) I won’t stop reading their books, but I sure do find science fiction stories written by women to be a relief after this stuff!