A defining feature of science fiction is that it teaches us something. Even the more outlandish stories can inspire us to think about the future by asking interesting questions: How will we use new technologies? How will we overcome pressing problems of the day? This is the province of scifi. But what if stories teach us lessons we really shouldn’t be learning? This is more common than you might think. No matter how much we might love science fiction, it isn’t immune to bad ideas like these.
1. Lifeboat Colonization
Space colonies are a very real possibility that we should absolutely pursue. There’s unimaginable scientific data to be gained from setting up colonies on Mars, Venus, and beyond. Plus, it’s just cool, and we should never underestimate the value of doing cool things. This doesn’t become a bad idea until we start talking about lifeboat colonization: using a colony for the survival of the species in the event that Earth becomes uninhabitable.
Science fiction loves this idea. From the Martian Chronicles to Firefly, the genre is full of stories where humanity escapes extinction by leaving Earth and settling in parts unknown. Mars is a favorite destination, and why not? It’s relatively close and relatively Earth-like, if you stretch the definition of “relatively” enough. Even in settings where Earth isn’t uninhabitable, setting up a self-sufficient colony is portrayed as rather easy.
This isn’t a problem until people start making crazy suggestions in the name of preserving humanity. Last year, the influential Elon Musk suggested we could colonize Mars more quickly by detonating a bunch of nukes at the poles. The idea is that these nukes would vaporize a bunch of the Martian ice, throwing huge clouds of carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere. This would start a greenhouse effect and warm the planet.
Musk may be right, but he fails to consider a host of other factors. For one thing, warming Mars could still take quite a while. For another, it wouldn’t solve the much more immediate problem that Mars is covered in poisonous, corrosive dust. Oh, and it would make Mars even more radioactive than it already is. Most damning, it would likely destroy priceless scientific data on any life Mars might or might not have.
The truth is that a self-sustaining colony on Mars is a long way off, and doing something extreme in hopes of bringing it a little closer isn’t going to help. The Expanse books understand this; extra-terrestrial colonies depending on Earth to survive is part of the conflict, but most stories assume it’ll be as easy as beaming down with a tent. In the event that we ever do figure out the technology to live independently on other planets, this will render the very point of a lifeboat colony moot because we could just use that technology to survive on Earth. No matter what happens here, it’s unlikely to make our planet less habitable than Mars.
Elon Musk’s remarks were off the cuff, and people say half-baked things off the cuff all the time. The problem is that when someone like Musk says it, people actually take it seriously. Worse, his idea sounds reasonable because we’ve all gotten used to the idea of fleeing Earth when something goes wrong. In reality, if we want to preserve the species from global warming, nuclear war, etc., the only way to do it is to solve our problems here on Earth.
2. Going Back to the Wilderness
Who doesn’t love the idea of building a cabin in the woods and living away from all the technology and the distractions of modern civilization? Note that I didn’t say going back to nature, because nature is everywhere. Humans are part of nature, and we can’t get away from it. This trope is really talking about going back to the wilderness, and for some reason science fiction just loves it.
Star Trek is a big proponent of going back to the wilderness with The Next Generation devoting an entire movie to the idea, but first prize goes to Battlestar Galactica. In BSG’s finale, the characters all decide that they’ll be better off chucking their technology into the sun. That’s not a metaphor by the way. They literally send their ships and all their technology into the nuclear furnace of a star. Then they start new lives in the wilderness of a planet they’ve known for all of an hour or so. This couldn’t possibly go wrong.
They do this, as far as I can tell, with the idea that getting rid of technology will stop them from making cylons again. Right, because getting rid of all their records and knowledge of the cylons will be so much more helpful than a manual explaining how the cylons originally came about so later generations can avoid making the same mistake. The show’s epilogue even jumps ahead several thousands years to show cylons being made again, so…yeah.
The pampered officers of Starfleet could be forgiven for not understanding how hard it is to survive in the wilderness. If they don’t like it, they can always call for a beam out. But the BSG characters have spent four seasons dealing with one shortage after another. They know what happens when you run out of medicine or can’t find enough food, and they should also know that few of them, if any, are trained survivalists. I predict half of them die from infected cuts before the year is out.
Surviving in the wilderness is hard. It’s even harder if you’re not able-bodied and physically fit. The slightest quirk of nature can lead to starvation, or you might just die from an easily treatable disease. There’s a reason humans invented all this technology.
Wilderness is beautiful and has a lot of value to humans. Those who are properly trained and prepared can certainly live in it if they like. But when science fiction glorifies this hard way of living, it encourages poor lines of reasoning. This is the same thought process that pushes people to discard vaccines because humans “got on fine” without being vaccinated for so long.
3. Constant Struggle
There’s nothing Captain Kirk hates more than being content. To him, if you aren’t struggling, you aren’t really living. This is most obvious in the episode This Side of Paradise, when the Enterprise discovers a type of flower that makes people healthy and happy. So happy, in fact, that they don’t see the point of flying around on a starship. Kirk gets mad, so mad that the plants can’t affect him, but he isn’t mad that a plant has mind controlled his crew. He’s mad that anyone the plant affects no longer feels the need to build spaceships, fight Klingons, or otherwise struggle. The same theme is repeated in other episodes, with Kirk raging against anyone who suggests he should just settle down and be happy.
This theme also pops up in classic novels like Brave New World. There’s a lot for a modern day reader to be terrified of in Aldous Huxley’s world state, like how entire classes of people are intentionally given developmental disabilities so they’ll be happy with menial work, but that isn’t what the story focuses on. Instead, what’s really supposed to scare us is how people in the future do a lot of side-effect-free drugs and have a lot of casual sex. Oh, the horror! John, the viewpoint character, clearly wants sex, but he’s disgusted with Lenina for just offering it to him. He even calls her a “strumpet” because she doesn’t make him work for it. Later, he has a line where he claims to want freedom instead of comfort, as if the two things were mutually exclusive.
This idea sounds really weird when first considered. After all, if we’re not trying to be happy, then what are we trying to do? Did the United States Declaration of Independence not guarantee all citizens* the right to the pursuit of happiness? That phrasing turns out to be key, because it refers to the “pursuit” of happiness, not actual happiness.
No doubt you’ve heard some variation of the proverb that work is good for the soul. People who say this often don’t give much thought to what kind of work. They just know that hard work builds moral character. This is the same attitude that Kirk and John push, and it’s problematic for several reasons. For one, it stigmatizes those who cannot do or cannot find what is generally considered “work.” Anyone with serious disabilities or who is stuck in a bad job market, sorry, your soul is languishing.
On a grander scale, this idea tells us we are in a race with no end. Because we need to constantly struggle, nothing will ever be enough. Perversely, once we’ve solved all existing problems, we’ll need to seek out new problems in order to be happy. If we ever achieve the post-scarcity utopia where everyone has everything they can reasonably want, those who think it’s a pretty sweet gig will be somehow less human. That’s a messed up idea if ever I heard one.
4. Static Civilization
Science fiction has always been really good at imagining new technologies, from touch screens to cloud computing, but it’s less good at imagining social dynamics. Consider how much our society has changed because someone thought of adding touch screens to phones. Now consider Star Trek, where they have the ability to fabricate anything with the push of a button, yet they live more or less the same way we do.*
Most science fiction, especially science fiction made for the screen, is reluctant to explore anything outside of our current societal mode. The TV show Defiance briefly featured a character with two husbands, but she was a minor villain and her relationship quickly fell apart. The Expanse books mention non-traditional relationships, but they almost always happen somewhere offscreen. The main characters are still primarily interested in monogamous, usually heterosexual relationships.
Beyond romance, science fiction rarely shows us a society running in ways other than the top-down hierarchies we already have. Nearly everyone still uses money. Even in the supposedly currency-free Star Trek, characters routinely talk about buying things. Across the board, it’s common for characters to enjoy the “simpler things”; Classical music and old sports are a favorite. Plus, nearly every space captain is into antiques.* Taken together, much of our science fiction paints a world where everything is basically the same as it is now, plus or minus the addition of a few gadgets.
Exceptions exist, of course. The Culture books, for example, are wonderful for portraying a world that is very different from our own. But in so many stories, we see a society that hasn’t really changed. This not only presents a problem for representation but also limits our imagination. A lot of words have been spent talking about how important technologies were inspired by something a future engineer saw in their favorite scifi story. We need that same inspiration for social issues as well as technological ones. If we can’t imagine something, it’s hard to do.
Our current society, even in its idealized form, is hardly perfect. There are better ways to do things, but we’re less likely to discover them if society is always the same in our imagination.
5. Fear of the Other
Way back in the day, before the world had ever heard of Vulcans or Prime Directives, Gene Roddenberry had an idea for a bright future. In this future, humans would have gotten past all the ills that currently plague us. But how could they create conflict in this world? The answer was to project all of humanity’s negative traits onto alien species. That would allow Roddenberry to write his morality tales without getting dirt on the shining future. And so the evil Klingons were born. Why are they evil? Because they’re evil!
Roddenberry wasn’t the first to use this strategy, and he won’t be the last. Later in the Star Trek franchise, Voyager ran into countless aliens who were evil without any apparent motivation. They just liked being evil. Doctor Who, another pillar of the genre, also loves to make use of the unquestioningly evil aliens. If ever we get a Dalek or Cyberman who isn’t evil, they’re some kind of weird exception that rarely survives the episode.
This idea was so entrenched in Star Trek that when Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country tried to show that maybe the Klingon-Federation conflict was a two-sided affair, a lot of fans hated it. Those fans included Roddenberry himself, and they felt the film betrayed Star Trek’s bright future, even though all it did was show how real conflicts between groups defy simplicity.
We’re all used to the evil orcish hordes of fantasy, but it’s a little surprising to see that attitude in the more forward-looking science fiction. Even though most science fiction is past the point of portraying groups of humans in such a one-sided manner, doing it to aliens is just as bad. No matter how many forehead ridges or cybernetic upgrades you give the bad guys, treating them as monolithic is still promoting a fear of the other. This same fear causes real people to do terrible things. Shutting out refugees, promoting marriage discrimination, telling people which bathrooms to use, all of it is caused by a fear of the other.
Fortunately, signs point to our science fiction moving away from the simplistic tale of good guys vs a monolithic evil. More and more of our stories examine the why of a conflict, not just the how. Heck, Battlestar Galactica devoted a considerable amount of time to explaining the Cylons’ motivation, and that was a story that started with a nuclear holocaust. If we can move away from our fear of the other, then there’s hope for these other bad ideas as well. Science fiction doesn’t predict the future, but it does give the future context, and we scifi storytellers need to think about what we want that context to be.
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