Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Generational Social Variance in Future Histories: Sexual Mores of the American Mandate


Too much science fiction creates only one set of social customs for "the future" -- it basically assumes that things change a bit from today until they have adapted to "future technology," and then remain frozen in that form from now until the heat-death of the Universe.  Well, maybe not that long, but it sometimes seems that way.

In this article I'll show a simple way that this can be avoided in the construction of a future history, by charting in a very basic fashion the variations in sexual mores of an imagined future society, my "American Mandate."

The American Mandate

The "American Mandate" future history is based on Spenglerian and Toynbeeian cyclic history.  It assumes that, over the 21st century, the present-day global order coalesces around the United States of America  as the Universal State of the West.  In the West's last great burst of creativity and expansion, other worlds of the Solar System are colonized, but then the West sinks into its cultural "winter."  America, now a semi-fascist republic under "Chief Commanders," sometimes referred to as the "American Mandate," rules the Inner System; while new cultures, collectively called the "Outies," are born and grow great out beyond the Asteroid Belt.  Eventually, America declines and is conquered by the more vital and energetic "Outie" civilizations.

The Sexual More Rating System

Since I'm being simple here, I will analyze the population in "generational" cohorts of 25 years (an oversimplification as real "generations" are more on the order of 20-22 years).  This allows me four cohorts born per century, as follows "01-25," "26-50," "50-75" and "76-00."  The precise length chosen for one's cohorts is arbitrary, though note that real human customs rarely change drastically over any period of time shorter than a decade, and when they do change that rapidly it is usually under some extreme stress such as a devastating plague, disastrous war or major philosophical upheaval.

Again keeping it basic, we will analyze sexual mores on a unidimensional "strictness of morality" (which is a major oversimplification) with five levels:  from least to most strict we shall call them "Licentious," "Free," "Normal," "Restrained" and "Puritanical."  We shall set "Normal" to be the equivalent of American morality in the mid-20th century, with "Free" being the equivalent of American morality today, "Licentious" the "free-love" subculture of c. 1965-75, "Restrained" being Edwardian middle-class and "Puritanical" Victorian middle-class values.

Here we go:

Period         Level                       Comments
2001-2025:  Free                          Present-day.
2026-2050:  Normal                     Continuation of current conservative trend.
2051-2075:  Free                          Period of foreign and civil wars:  fall of the Republic.
2076-2100:  Normal-Restrained   Formation of American Mandate, new idealism.
2101-2125:  Restrained                Heavy propaganda preventing renewed sexual liberation.
2126-2150:  Restrained-Normal   Moral decline under the mad Commander, Lee III.
2151-2175:  Normal-Free             Continued moral decline under the two later Lees.
2176-2200:  Free-Normal             Lees fall, Mandate reformed, public morality recovering.
2201-2225:  Normal                     Moral recovery, but not to restraint of earlier Mandate.
2226-2250:  Restrained                Despite First Solar War, the Inner System long stable.
2251-2275:  Normal                     Social exuberance in first decades of Long Peace.
2276-2300:  Free                          Society relaxes in the enjoyment of Long Peace.
2301-2325:  Normal                     Moral reform under Murasaki the Great.
2326-2350:  Restrained                America at apogee:  great morality and public pride.
2351-2375:  Restrained-Free       Near social collapse under the shock of the Metaplague.
2376-2400:  Free-Normal            The Mandate recovers from demographic devastation.
2401-2425:  Normal-Licentious  Second near collapse due to defeat in Second Solar War.
2426-2450:  Licentious-Free       The Mandate begins a partial recovery.
2451-2475:  Free                         Society remains troubled:  plots and finally a civil war.
2476-2500:  Licentious               The Time of Troubles:  all values are adrift.

(Note:  split-values means that the early part of that generation learns the first-named value set, while the later part of that generation learns the last-named value set.  Change is usually only by one level per generation, but under exceptional circumstances can happen more rapidly).

There you have it:  five hundred years of social history (in the single aspect of sexual morality) condensed into twenty lines -- very much oversimplified, but providing a quick way to imagine part of the background of any character from this universe -- and containing a hidden complexity.

The complexity lies in the fact that a person's basic values are formed in their first decades of life.  A person born in, say, 2088 ("Restrained") will by age 60 in 2148 in a "Normal" era, but this does not mean that his own values will have changed as rapidly as those of the younger generation.  He may well look at the immorality of the younger set with disapproval and disdain.  Likewise, the person born in 2288, in the "Free" times following the conquest of the Jovian System, will at 60 in 2348 be living in the "Restrained" period of Murasaki the Great, and may find the younger folk to be boringly strait-laced by his standards.


What this does to science fiction is offer the prospect of social change:  and not just the unidirectional social change of "In the Past we lived [like we do in 2011], but now we live [like the author's ideological hobbyhorse].  Real history doesn't work like this:  customs change back and forth, often in a rather cyclic fashion.  Technology enjoys a "ratchet effect," as I've described, but society does not:  it drifts about under the influence of various forces.   Even if it moves in one direction for a long time, eventually some new factor will push or pull it in another.

I demonstrated how to do this for sexual customs, but social change can be charted for any social factor.  Liberty, economic growth, the popularity of novelty fake-noses-and-moustaches -- anything.  This is a tool of considerable power and versatility, which can help a future history come alive, and I urge its more general use.


  1. This is a problem with alternate history too.

    I think your sexual mores suffers a little from the problem of contraception, which will change the future. It produces differential fertility by attitude -- and it favors the more restrained views. Well, not invariably, but that's the tendency.

  2. Mary, I agree with you regarding the tendency of contraception to in the long run increase the evolutionary success of "dad and coy" over "cad and easy" reproductive strategies, even though in the short run it erodes sexual morals. This, coupled with the tendency of the sexually hedonistic in the later eras to disappear into erotic-fantasy "berlds" (virtual reality subworlds) is one of the main reasons why I didn't just write a Free Love Future.

    The countervailing tendency, of course, is that at-will contraception (by the mid-22nd century you can literally toggle fertility on and off at will) and the widespread availability of virtual and artificial-person-provided sexual experience allows hedonists to be even more hedonistic than would be personally-practical today. The tension between the two keeps customs changing over time.

  3. Addendum: As far as I know, the first person to make your point, Mary, was Elaine Morgan in The Descent of Woman. She pointed out that, if people who no longer wanted to reproduce no longer reproduced, this would select for the desire to reproduce. While she didn't conclude that this would lead to greater sexual restraint, the implication that this would lead to at least a recovery of the link between sex and marriage (because single parents have trouble supporting children) could easily be seen. Note that when she made that point, almost all the experts were expecting the Sexual Revolution to last forever: hence all the Free Love Futures.

  4. I think it was Michael Schirmer that most prominently observed that the popular conception of evolution (both biological and cultural) is of a deterministic river that will always flow slowly in one direction toward an ultimate end. Since we were hairy apes with small brains that grew less hairy with bigger brains, Schirmer (I think it was) wrote that so much forgotten science fiction depicted future man as completely bald geniuses with heads so big that all of us will be born via a Caesarian operation.

    But of course natural selection is not a deterministic river taking us anywhere. It's about adapting to environment. We may think more smarts will always be our mode of adapting, but it may not always be the case. Pol Pot, after all, aimed to cleanse Cambodia of anyone suspected of being intelligent, leaving only those thought to be suited for the primitive agrarian communism he considered most pure. Who knows what else may weed out intelligence in the future?

    Culture, likewise, isn't necessarily heading in any direction. If anyone can draw a straight line from Byzantine chants to contemporary pop music, I'm not really seeing it.

  5. This is kind of interesting but not really sure if it serves any purpose. Sexual mores are effected by so many factors and each societal grouping would have differences that would make ones head spin. If plotting out a story or character description I could see the use of having why certain things are a strong part of it's personality.
    I.e. Sandoz being a NewMan, one of the genengineered beings from a city on Saturn's ring, has both male and female sexual characteristics. Sandoz looks like a tall underfed female child (insert hair, eye, skin colors etc). Sandoz's upbringing was somewhat sheltered and doesn't normally consider non NewMan attractive and has a Restrained view of sexual relations.

  6. Actually, Bob, I agree with you on this. My little chart represents only one dimension of sexual mores within the American Mandate, and is intended merely to demonstrate the method and serve me as a springboard for more complex sociological speculation. Especially starting in the late 23rd century (when Outie populations grow large and sufficiently long-term resident on their worlds) there is extensive cultural divergence in every aspect of society.

    I like your example of how to apply this to individual characters, by the way. I have considered running my Mandate Solar System as a SF RPG campaign but am currently not in touch with people who find hard SF adventures interesting. Though the Mandate is only (heh-heh) semi-hard, because there is psionic and time travel stuff going on secretly in the background.