Analysis

Five Good Ideas Science Fiction Teaches Us to Fear

A replicator from Star Trek

Food and drink whenever we want it - the horror!

The future is coming, whether we like it or not. Science fiction has a long history of helping us imagine that future, but what if it’s twisting our imagination in a negative direction? Optimistic scifi is a wonderful thing, but for every story that promotes diversity and justice, there’s another that tells us to fear important ideas. Here are five of the big ones.

1. Contacting Aliens

The finger touch from ET. This is nice and all, but what if ET had been a jerk?

The alien invasion is among scifi’s most widely used tropes because it’s exciting and allows us to tell a heartwarming story of humanity uniting against a common foe. From War of the Worlds to Independence Day,* aliens just can’t get enough of our little blue marble. Even in the optimistic worlds of Star Trek or the Culture, aliens would totally invade human worlds if we didn’t have spaceships and weapons to stop them.

That’s all well and good until people start saying it in real life. The fear that aliens might invade is very real, and it’s lead to many people demanding that we call off the search for intelligent life. Even Stephen Hawking’s gotten in on the act, so you know it must be serious, right? Wrong.

Hawking and others liken contact between humans and aliens to that of Native Americans and Europeans. That’s a powerful comparison to make. Native Americans were devastated by European conquest and colonization on a scale that’s difficult for us to imagine. Fortunately, any contact we might make with aliens is extremely unlikely to go that way, for a few reasons.

First of all, it’s too late to stay hidden from aliens. We’ve already got a 100+ lightyear shell of radio waves moving out from our planet at the speed of light. Any aliens advanced enough to cross interstellar distances, a requirement for invasion, can easily pick those up.

More importantly, we have no reason to fear alien conquest because they’d have no reason to attack us. Consider that Europeans colonized the Americas because it was easier to sail across the ocean and take what they needed than to produce it domestically. Europe wanted resources and land, which America had in abundance, and the journey was relatively easy. A little conquest when they arrived was a small price to pay.

Aliens, on the other hand, would have to cross the void of space, and in order to do that at any reasonable speed, they’d need to produce incredible amounts of energy. A species that can produce that level of energy can easily get whatever they want without coming here. Construction materials? Uninhabited systems are lousy with them. Living space? With that kind of energy, building huge space habitats would be a cinch, with no need to slum it on a planet they didn’t evolve for.  

It’s always possible that aliens might want to harm us for some completely irrational reason, maybe their space god decrees that any species with ten fingers must die, but with that kind of extreme, edge-case logic no one would ever leave the house. After all, it’s always possible lightning will strike you the moment you walk out the front door.

2. Post-Scarcity Economies

Humans from Wall-E I don’t want to just survive, I want to starve on the wasteland that is Earth!

Unlike alien invasions, post-scarcity economics doesn’t get named a lot in science fiction, but it’s still very common. Scarcity refers to the idea that there isn’t enough of something for everyone to have the amount they want. If we all want five hot dogs, but there aren’t that many hot dogs in the world, then that’s a scarcity. Scarcities require money to regulate who gets what, and this is the system we currently use.

Post-scarcity occurs when a society produces so much of everything that there’s plenty for everyone to have as much as they want. You can only eat so many hot dogs, no matter how plentiful they are. Some science fiction stories, like the later Star Trek shows, treat post-scarcity as a good thing.

Others are not so generous. Often, post-scarcity is seen as some kind of existential threat to the human condition. In The Expanse books, Earth’s post-scarcity economy has lead to something called “basic,” an income citizens can get from the government that provides for all their basic needs. A significant percentage of the population is said to be “on basic,” and this is clearly looked down on, like these people aren’t doing anything worthwhile; they’re just mooching off the work of others.

The movie Wall-E is even more direct. Humans aboard the Axiom have everything they need without having to pay or work for it, and that’s bad! They need to go back to the wasteland that is Earth and do some farming or something. Otherwise they’re not really living. Both examples push the idea that humans with all their needs met will just laze about, not producing anything of value.

That’s a pretty messed up view, but it’s all too common in real life. You can see it any discussion over a universal basic income.* There’s this idea that people would take this assistance they don’t deserve and just use it to sit on the couch playing video games.

Here’s a secret: post-scarcity is coming whether we want it or not. As a species, we’re getting more and more productive as technology advances. Soon, barring an apocalypse of some sort, we’ll have enough of everything to go around. Some would argue we’re there already. We need to learn how to use this new model to our advantage, not reject it out of fear. Otherwise we’ll be missing out on the greatest opportunity of human history. Just think how much great culture could be produced if all the aspiring artists out there didn’t have to spend their time working to keep a roof over their heads. So what if a few people decide to use their extreme abundance to play video games all day? If that’s what makes them happy, we should leave them to it.

3. Restorative Justice

Kirk in a mind control chair. This certainly looks humane.

A justice system’s ultimate goal is to prevent crimes. There are two basic methods for achieving that goal: retributive justice and restorative justice. In retributive justice, criminals are punished for their crimes with prison sentences, work requirements, beatings, and the like. The idea is that these punishments will both deter the criminal from re-offending and discourage others from tempting the same fate. In restorative justice, the idea is to help criminals get to a place where they aren’t likely to re-offend. This often takes the form of job training, therapy, and medication.

There’s a huge debate in the real world about which method is more effective and in what ratio they should be used, but science fiction has an unfortunate habit of portraying restorative justice in a super negative light. Any aliens the protagonists run into who claim they have a “more humane” way of dealing with prisoners are bound to be hiding something nasty up their sleeves.

Star Trek in particular is fond of this trope. Way back in the 1960s, Dagger of the Mind showed us a Federation prison that uses the newest technology to reform inmates. Of course, that new technology is a terrible mind-control ray that the inmates themselves take control of. Even if the technology had stayed in its proper hands, that’s pretty horrifying. The Voyager episode Random Thoughts has a similar premise. Some aliens tell the crew that they’ve eliminated all crime without anything so barbaric as prisons. How do they do it? By putting anyone who has a violent thought through a dangerous procedure that removes the thought from their memory. That certainly sounds just.

Scifi writers do this because it’s an easy subversion. If a justice system seems beautiful and enlightened, it’s easier to surprise the audience by showing that it’s actually bad. Unfortunately, when repeated often enough, this trope teaches us to distrust restorative justice systems. Not only do they sound like code for a terrible dystopia, but it pushes the idea that trying to change someone is pointless and harmful. You can’t reform a criminal without going so far that you become the bad guy.

This view has consequences in the real world. The US justice system claims to be restorative, even saying “correctional facility” instead of “prison,” but in practice it’s mostly retributive. Offenders serve long sentences in miserable conditions, and face discrimination once they get out. But no matter how much we punish criminals, it doesn’t seem to reduce crime rates. Restorative justice might work better, but many Americans are resistant to the idea of being “soft on crime.” Scifi’s insistence that restorative justice is secretly evil doesn’t help.  

4. Automation

Cylons from Battlestar Galactica Don’t worry – they have no plan.

As technology improves, we can do more work with less human labor. Using a lever and fulcrum, one human can lift a boulder that would normally require a team of workers. On the more advanced end, robotic waldos operate automobile factories that used to employ hundreds if not thousands of people. This is automation, and science fiction thinks you should be very afraid of it.

First, there’s the threat of robot uprisings. You know how it goes. Humans invent robots to do all our work for us, robots get mad at humans,* robots rise up and kill humans. Sometimes, the robots plug us into unnecessarily complicated artificial reality, just for fun. Other times, they chase the remnants of humanity across the galaxy, all the while insisting they have a plan.*

Even when the robots don’t rise up, scifi is pretty convinced they’re not so great. In the words of a magic space elf from Star Trek: Insurrection, “When you build a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.” If that doesn’t convince you, Star Trek has plenty more. In the TNG episode Booby Trap, the computer helps Geordi devise a plan to save the ship, but somehow the message is that we don’t need computers. In the DS9 episode Paradise, Sisko and O’Brien crash on a planet lead by an anti-technology cultist who brutally punishes anyone who suggests that modern medicine might be helpful. That episode’s message is that the cultist went too far, but isn’t her idea neat?

So not only will robots kill us, but they’ll somehow take away our essential humanness. People in the real world are equally afraid of automation, terrified it will take their jobs. It’s true that labor saving technology does often hurt livelihoods, but that’s not a problem with automation, it’s a problem with our current economic model. Consider: if a factory workforce of five hundred people is replaced by a robot, that factory is still producing all the stuff it did before, and much more cheaply. The problem is that the former workers don’t see any benefit from this increased efficiency; it all goes to the factory’s shareholders. If we could find a more equitable way to distribute the benefits, there’d be no issue.

Instead, too many people focus on automation itself. They insist that jobs be “saved” from automation, even when doing so is more expensive all around. Sooner or later, we’ll have to recognize that every year brings advances requiring less and less human labor. If we figure out how to share those benefits, it’ll be great. People will work fewer hours in exchange for a higher standard of living. But we’ll never get there if we’re overly focused on the existential threat of automation.

5. Transhumanism

The main characters from Gattaca You’ll never be transhuman enough for Uma Thurman to love you!

If you’re not familiar with transhumanism, it’s the idea of increasing or transcending human ability via technology. An early example of transhumanism is birth control. From daily pills to IUDs, women all over the world exercise far greater control of their body’s internal workings than could be managed without technology. In science fiction, transhumanism tends to be flashier, with laser cannons grafted onto arms and consciousness uploaded to computers, but the basic idea is the same.

Some science fiction is very upfront on its fear of transhumanism. The film Gattaca paints a picture of genetic manipulation used to create a permanent underclass of those whose parents didn’t have the money to get their babies optimized.* Others are more subtle, but only a little. Cyberpunk stories like Deus Ex: Human Revolution are full of characters who never stop reminding you that they didn’t ask to have awesome cyborg powers installed as part of a life-saving procedure. Even Star Wars pushes the idea that incorporating machine parts into your body makes you more evil somehow.  

Star Trek is a little more positive in its portrayal of transhumanism, with devices like Geordi’s visor helping people to cope with various disabilities. But even in Star Trek, transhumanism is used only to address a problem. The idea that an able-bodied person might want to see the way Geordi does is never addressed. In fact, modifying a person for enhanced abilities is seen as a terrible thing, with genetically engineered genius Julian Bashir held up as a rare exception. Most people in the Star Trek universe who receive genetic enhancements end up with severe mental health issues or go on world conquering rampages.

How does this matter to us in the real world? For one thing, transhumanism has a lot of potential to help people. Not only can it be useful to people with disabilities, but it can make us more resistant to disease or able to withstand harsh conditions. Plus, there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to run faster or lift more than a baseline human physically can. It’s counterproductive to be afraid of advancements like this. More immediately, transhumanism is becoming more visible, and a few people have reacted very badly. At its heart, the fear of transhumanism is the fear of something different, and we should always be extremely skeptical when we’re afraid of something that isn’t like us.


The people who wrote these stories probably weren’t trying to instill fear in us. They just hit upon plots that resonated with their audience, and those plots got reused over and over again. We can’t say for certain what attitudes would be like without these stories, but there’s no question their message resonates along with their plots. If we’re to be good science fiction writers and readers, it’s important we understand what our stories say about very real ideas, lest we end up holding people back rather than pushing them forward.      

P.S. I just published my first game. In it, the PCs have to figure out who they are, solve a supernatural mystery, and avoid their doooooom. Get it here.

 

Comments

  1. FictionalPhilosopher

    While you made some excellent points, I have to disagree with some of your conclusions. For instance, in the concept of justice systems, you argue that restorative justice is more effective and should not be feared. However, over the past seventy years or so, the American justice system has began to reflect this method with greater intensity, and yet the crime rates rise. You say it’s more effective, yet the opposite seems to be true, based on actual statistics. Thus, it would be reasonable to assume that it is not more effective, and may even be detrimental. But this brings me to my greatest concern. We are talking about science fiction. That is, fiction based upon or inspired by actual scientific theories or concepts. The fact is that there are many different scientific theories out there, some less well-known than others, but still valid. To say that one theory is false or harmful is ignorant. Theories are unproven ideas, and are all free game to sci-fi writers. Honestly, if you look at older examples of science fiction you’ll find that some of them were pretty spot on about whatever future consequence they were writing about; others were dead wrong. But it is fiction based on the opinions, ideas, and knowledge of whomever wrote it. I believe the best science fiction is that which causes you to think, to wonder about the conclusions and opinions of the author and weigh the implications of their assumptions. But to say that some theories are wrong or shouldn’t be explored through fiction is narrow-minded and is the anti-thesis of what sci-fi is all about. It is one thing to say an idea has been overdone and is getting old, it is entirely another to say that an idea is damaging society.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Just a point of order so we’re all on the same page. Crime rates in the US have actually been dropping noticeably over the last few decades, though the reasons for it are many and hotly debated.

      https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/what-caused-crime-decline

    • Devlin Blake

      It always bothers me when people say we have more people in prison than ever before. It’s a skewed fact. We also have more people NOT in prison than ever before. The reason is because we simply have more people in than ever before.

      Percentages are a much truer representation, and percentage wise, in America, we have fewer people in prison.

      This is also one of the most peaceful times in history, with fewer rapes, murders and violent crimes and people dying in war than is ‘normal’ for a population this size. This even takes into account the shootings. Scary, thought, isn’t it?

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I actually haven’t been able to find good data on the historical percentages of prisoners world wide. If you have a source I’d love to see it. I can tell you that the percentage of people in US prisons has spiked dramatically since 1980, far ahead of population growth, but I think the real issue that people are upset about is the total percentage of people that we lock up compared to other countries, many of which have more people than we do and are supposed to be far more authoritarian.

        https://www.bop.gov/about/statistics/population_statistics.jsp

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/04/30/does-the-united-states-really-have-five-percent-of-worlds-population-and-one-quarter-of-the-worlds-prisoners/

        • Shane

          Have you read, or at least seen, Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature”? It’s very good on this topic. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature

          • Shane

            Sorry, to be clear, it’s not on proton rates, it’s on the prevalence of violence and crime compared to the past.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            I have not, although I did read Pinker’s “Blank Slate” and honestly wasn’t that impressed.

          • Cay Reet

            I’m not really sold on the book from the pitch, to be honest.
            Everyday violence was much higher in the past, that is true. But to mix up executions and war with murder is a difficult thing. While, essentially, all three are about ending lives, they are on different moral grounds. Executions are done by the government and thus are considered legal (even though one could argue that even the government has no right to kill people). Killing in war is considered legal as well and civillians did always die as colleteral in wars (although modern warfare might actually have raised the percentage quite a bit).
            Slavery still exists in certain cultures today and where it is legal, it happens. It’s modern laws (born from the idea that all humans are supposed to be treated equal and there are no ‘lesser’ races which can be enslaved) which have cut back on slavery. Society has adapted to that and frowns on it as well. There’s also hidden slavery today (in trafficking humans for sexual or domestic services) which probably does not figure in any statistics, but exist.
            Modern society has cut back on violence, because it’s considered unwanted these days. In the past, violence has been part of the ‘rule of the strongest’ who usually was strongest by being more prone to violence than the next person. And, to be honest, some modern mindsets might be bringing that back (see rape ‘culture’ and suchlike).

    • Ty

      Speaking as a medieval historian, throughout the majority of recorded human history the preferred system of justice has been predominantly, if not wholly, retributive. If retributive justice were so effective, would it not have reduced overall crime rates? Throughout history, it doesn’t appear to have had nearly as positive effect as restorative justice, which is a fairly new concept.

      • Tyson Adams

        Thanks for the insight, Ty. And it makes sense when you think about it, as retributive justice doesn’t really address the cause of crime and change the behaviours of those who commit them.

  2. FableArchitect

    You bring up some interesting points, and it makes me curious to seek out stories that portray these elements in a positive light to show how they might work productively. Would you consider writing a follow-up article along those lines?

    Also, I’m not sure I agree with your statement that Star Wars paints cybernetics (is that the right term here?) as evil. Sure, you had characters like Darth Vader and General Grievous, but I don’t think they were regarded as any worse than their fully organic comrades simply because they had machine elements. Luke Skywalker was also given a robot hand at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, and he didn’t succumb to any kind of face-heel turn. Could you elaborate more on this idea?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      So it’s a little subtle in the original trilogy, but it’s there in Return of the Jedi.

      First, you have Obi-Wan saying that Vader is “more machine now than man, twisted and evil.” He says that like those two things are definitely linked.

      Then later, when Luke has nearly given in to his anger, he sees the wires in his robot hand, which look like the wires coming out of Vader’s severed arm, which is a reminder of the darkness inside him.

      This point is made a lot more blatantly in various soft canon sources–In the RPG, having cybernetic parts straight up gives you darkside points–but it’s present in the original work as well.

  3. Tyson Adams

    I’m only halfway through The Expanse series, but my understanding of Basic was that it was more akin to welfare than a basic income. If you want to go to uni, vote, etc, you have to get off of basic. The example used in Caliban’s War was the people wanting to go to uni were spending a year working service jobs to qualify as being off Basic to be allowed to apply for university.

    That sounds far more restrictive than what basic income models are pushing for.

    But I find it interesting that basic income actually ties into the automation issue. Some futurists are talking about a post-work society and what sort of economy underpins this.

  4. Jesse

    I enjoyed the article. A few thoughts,

    1) I think a misunderstanding with an alien society is more likely than a resource battle. Enders Game is an example of this. Considering how completely different other intelligent life could be, it does not seem unreasonable.

    3) There is considerable difference between job training and mind control. I would argue mind control or any other method of “rewriting” a person’s freewill is retributive. But, as I’ve never heard that argument made in any stories, your point is well made.

    2 & 4) These are linked, increased automation is required for unlimited resources. A considerable culture shift would be required, as the danger of machines taking over increases with the increase of detachment of humanity (ie, just videogames 24/7). That being said, humanity has proved itself to be quite adaptable (that huge percentage that worked in factories in the 1940s have decreased, but service profession percentages have increased) so Im not particularly worried about it.

    5) This one is kind of tricky. Yes, if everyone got super tech upgrades, it would be great, but all too often in history those that perceive themselves as better do terrible things to those that they perceive as lesser. If only the powerful initially receive these benefits, due to wealth or whatever, its not hard to imagine these same people restricting it from the masses. I think this one requires more debate than this forum allows (or at least my time) allows.

    And I did not recall Star Wars RPG giving dark side points for cybernetics, that messed up.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’d thought it was in the old West End d6 system, but it’s actually in the D20 “Hero’s Guide,” pages 127-128.

      • Jesse

        Clearly Anakin turned to the dark side because he lost most of an arm instead of just one hand like Luke.

        You’d think the Jedi would be alot more hesitant to sever limbs if this is the case. Or perhaps Palpatine should have required mandatory cyber upgrades to slowly corrupt the populace.

        • Cay Reet

          In the no-longer-canon “Dark Empire” comics, Luke actually falls to the Dark Side, but later on rejects it again.

          Psychologically speaking, Anakin turned to the Dark Side, because he thought he might lose his wife and children and later on believed he had lost them. None of this is connected to the cybernetic limbs.

          I also don’t think it would corrupt people who aren’t force-sensitive in the first place.

  5. 3Comrades

    For automation, I have to disagree that sci-fi is so against it, I agree it used to and many things referencing old sci-fi does as well, but this is already changing. Robots are likely to be friends and lovers in sci-fi, even complicated species who are the wronged parties.

  6. Bronze Dog

    Decided to go back to sci-fi related posts for inspiration in my Changeling chronicle.

    Automation: I recently had an idea for a Hedge encounter with a creature whose life is pretty much is an assembly line nightmare, carving rune-covered stones out of a cobblestone path. It doesn’t remember the last time it had a break. It doesn’t know how its work fits into the ‘big picture’ or even if there is one. Part of the idea is giving characters a chance to show some compassion.

    Think I might extend it a bit further: Gentry and Hobs using slave labor in place of automation simply because it’s how they’ve always done things, out of lack of compassion, or just because they can’t see an obvious solution. Or just because they can boast about everything being handmade. Might even try coaxing some players into having a Durance of repetitive labor that we already automated in real life. (Natural candidate out of fairy tales: Spinning thread.)

    Transhumanism:

    I’ve got an NPC who’s kind of my GM’s pet (He won’t be stealing the spotlight. He’s recruiting the PCs because he can’t be everywhere.) He’s big into self-modification because he essentially had to create his current body to escape his Keeper. He’s not afraid of or angry at the Gentry because of the physical changes done to him, but because of the hardships he was forced to go through. Turning fae magic and human technology (or both) to his advantage is how he works, and why he’s the current Champion of Autumn.

  7. Sam Victors

    For number 2, are you insinuating that humans should have everything done for them via technology? I mean I find nothing wrong with that, I would like that, but I wouldn’t want humanity to be lazy and spend all their days playing video games and whatnot. The human body needs to be active (and I think that was the point of Wall-E (at least in my opinion).

  8. Steve Fey

    I think that your most interesting point is that all of these things seem to be in our future whether we like them or not. Many people fear the implications of that fact, which probably explains the popularity of these tropes in science fiction movies. Transhumanism, in particular, is becoming more and more popular in real life even as it is feared in fiction. Check out all of the remarkably effective artificial limbs you see walking around (or, I guess, helping people to walk around.) I suspect that all of these things developing at once will be the background nobody notices during the next decade or so, as we are distracted by whatever world-shattering social cataclysm we’re dreaming up as I write.

  9. Vipoid

    With regard to #2, I really don’t think Wall-E is about the dangers of ‘post-scarcity economics’, so much as the dangers of sloth and addiction to electronic devices and communication.
    – These people had access to dozens of means of exercise (swimming, running tracks, treadmills etc.) and no jobs or work to eat up their time, but all they did was sit in chairs. They wouldn’t even walk the shortest distances, nor do anything that couldn’t be done for them by a robot.
    – Likewise, they were constantly talking to one another, but never face to face.

    If anything, it seems more akin to a dig at the *current* lifestyle of many people or the logical conclusion of such lifestyles. Post-scarcity economics is obviously necessary to allow that sort of lifestyle, but I couldn’t see anything to suggest that it itself was being criticised for such.

    Also:

    “In The Expanse books, Earth’s post-scarcity economy has lead to something called “basic,” an income citizens can get from the government that provides for all their basic needs. A significant percentage of the population is said to be “on basic,” and this is clearly looked down on, like these people aren’t doing anything worthwhile; they’re just mooching off the work of others.”

    I haven’t read the expanse books, but you seem to neatly counter your own argument here. These people *aren’t* doing anything productive, and they *are* mooching off others. So, why wouldn’t that life be looked down on?

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