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Jobs in SF

Entry updated 4 April 2024. Tagged: Theme.

Though a theme which may be easily overlooked, sf is as concerned with the future of occupations as it is with technological developments, for the pair are interlinked (see also Slavery). Philip K Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968; vt Blade Runner 1982), for example, is equally a tale of the workplace as it is an examination of Technology. The protagonist hunts androids, itself a new occupation, his targets having abandoned the tasks for which they were built.

Jobs are perhaps most directly explored within Military SF. Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) by Robert A Heinlein, is both a political tract and a novel, arguing for the ongoing necessity of military personnel while describing a future in which veterans control governance. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (June 1972-January 1975 Analog; fixup dated 1975 but 1974), focuses on the lives of soldiers during interstellar conflict and the personal consequences of time dilation. Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; much exp 1985) by Orson Scott Card sees the military expand to make use of children, while John Scalzi's Old Man's War (2005) describes elderly army volunteers being swapped via Identity Transfer into new, enhanced young bodies to fight in an interstellar War until (for the few survivors) a second retirement. Ancillary Justice (2013) by Ann Leckie puts another spin on interstellar conflict, as shown from the perspective of a militaristic AI (see Future War).

The Colonization of Other Worlds reshapes the science-fictional workplace. Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965), the most popular Hard SF Planetary Romance/Space Opera to date, also deals with interplanetary conflict but in addition to trade and Agriculture. Similarly, the colonization of Terminus in the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov, requires encyclopedists to preserve the knowledge of previous settlements as well as interplanetary traders to fund construction. Downbelow Station (1981) by C J Cherryh focuses more closely on the difficulty of colonization, its central characters working for the Earth Company on a space station which orbits an exoplanet they intend to colonize; the anthropologists (see Anthropology) found in works by authors like Chad Oliver are normally employed (there are few freelance anthropologists in sf). Additionally, Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy deals with the practicalities of terraforming a planet, largely from the perspective of engineers, while in Adrian Tchaikovsky's Children of Time (2015), scientists orbit a pre-terraformed world to genetically engineer its inhabitants with a nano-virus. Interstellar venues that are treated as default domains where stories can be told are as a matter of course friendly to the kind of jobs that sustain them; almost any John Grimes/Rimworld tale by the prolific A Bertram Chandler can be seen a supportive in this fashion.

In The Skylark of Space (August-October 1928 Amazing; 1946; rev with cuts 1958) by E E Smith, arguably the first example of space opera, the protagonist establishes a business with a millionaire to fund the building of his Spaceship, eventually repaying his debt with resources from other worlds. Similarly, Samuel R Delany's Nova (1968) deals with the retrieval of a valuable substance from the hearts of exploding Stars. A more recent example of boon-seeking in space opera is Alastair Reynold's Revelation Space (2000) where the protagonist is an archaeologist, excavating the remains of extinct aliens from another planet.

Several stories explore the physical toll of working in space. The shipmates in "Scanners Live in Vain" (January 1950 Fantasy Book #6) by Cordwainer Smith undergo a surgical procedure to sever nerve endings to endure their work conditions. C M Kornbluth's "The Altar at Midnight" (November 1952 Galaxy) centres on occupational disfigurements resulting from exposure to vacuum and hard radiation. The Spacers of Samuel R Delany's "Aye and Gomorrah" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) undergo a procedure for the same purpose as in "Scanners Live in Vain", but one which makes them gender-free. Its protagonist also engages in Sex work while stationed on Earth, aided by a futuristic fetish for genderless people.

Cyberpunk, coinciding with the rise of the internet, introduced a variety of terrestrial jobs into the sf pantheon. The most notable among these is the computer hacker with the protagonist of Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson bringing the subgenre to the mainstream. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (1992) deals with the profitable manufacture of computer viruses and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One (2011) depicts professional gamers competing for a prize. Though body-modification is present prior to the origins of cyberpunk, such as in Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination 1957; rev 1996) by Alfred Bester and the already cited Nova (1968) by Samuel R Delany, it is presented as more of a career during this era. In Synners (1991) by Pat Cadigan, two related occupations are described; installers of cybernetic implants which allow people to directly interface with their Computers and the titular Synners, who use them to synthesize content for the net. Holy Fire (1996) by Bruce Sterling depicts radical life extension becoming available through technological means and The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells follows a cyborg, designed to work as a security unit.

Biological engineering is often explored under the banner of Biopunk. Blood Music (June 1983 Analog; much exp 1985) by Greg Bear, an important precursor to the subgenre, follows a biotechnologist who creates biological computers based on his own lymphocytes. The Windup Girl (2009) by Paolo Bacigalupi, the equivalent of Neuromancer (1984) within its subgenre in terms of prominence, explores multiple related professions. The protagonist works for a company that controls food production through gene-hacked seeds while other characters engage in paid bioterrorism and rent out the bodies of genetically modified humans for sex work.

Novels which deal with work in an evolving Media Landscape include Bug Jack Barron (December 1967-October 1968 New Worlds; exp 1969) by Norman Spinrad in which a talk show host criticizes the Foundation for Human Immortality owing to the exclusion of African Americans from cryogenic freezing. Stand on Zanzibar (1968) by John Brunner features news reports on the consequences of rapid population growth. The Girl Who Was Plugged In (New Dimensions 3, anth 1973, ed Robert Silverberg; 1989 chap dos) by James Tiptree Jr takes place in a future where Advertising is illegal but corporations affect consumers through manufactured celebrities for product placement. The protagonist works as a remote operator, controlling the body of a beautiful fifteen-year-old girl while taking direction from her supervisors (see Feminism).

Notable invented jobs within sf include the robopsychologists of Isaac Asimov's Robot Series, who study the personality and behaviour of intelligent machines; the pinlighters of Cordwainer Smith's "The Game of Rat and Dragon" (March 1955 Galaxy), who in Telepathic union with Cats fight off the space Monsters that threaten Starships; and the worldscapers of Roger Zelazny's Isle of the Dead (1969), who landscape or Terraform planets as works of art. Bizarre jobs like "contemplating options" in Frederik Pohl's "Day Million" (February/March 1966 Rogue) highlight the incomprehensibility of a truly different future. The central conceit of G K Chesterton's borderline-fantastic The Club of Queer Trades (coll 1905) is that to qualify for the eponymous society one must invent and successfully practise a brand-new occupation.

The Lensmen of E E Smith's Lensman series enforce laws on alien planets with the aid of Psionic abilities. The Martian Chronicles (coll of linked stories 1950; complete edition rev vt 2010) by Ray Bradbury and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K Le Guin concern diplomats to other planets; as more lightly (see Humour) does Keith Laumer's long Retief sequence about a smart career diplomat in space. Conversely, Aliens take the role of diplomats in Childhoods End (1953) by Arthur C Clarke. Aliens are also the minders of humans in several works by Octavia Butler, including "Bloodchild" (June 1984 Asimov's) and Dawn (1987) (see Slavery). Andreas Eschbach in Die Haarteppichknüpfer (1995; trans Doryl Jensen as The Carpet Makers 2005), describes the weaving of hair carpets to cover a world. [JM]

see also: Dream Hacking; Economics; Robotics.

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