Analysis

Five Bad Ideas Science Fiction Teaches Us to Love

Kirk and crew getting sprayed by alien flowers.

A fate worse than death, so far as Kirk is concerned.

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

Concept art for a Martian colony. This would be awesome, but it won’t save us from extinction.

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

Data walking underwater with a fish. You’ve gone too far, Data!

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

Kirk in a pile of tribbles. Kirk will even struggle against furry balls of adorable.

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

Two characters from the Expanse looking at each other. I promise we have non-heteronormative relationships, just not here.

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

Three daleks. We can have character development or EXTERMINATION, not both.

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.

(Psst! If you liked my article, check out my magical mystery game.)

 

Comments

  1. Bronze Dog

    While I did like the bright future of Star Trek for a while, yeah, projecting our sins onto the weekly planet of hats doesn’t send the best message. There’s a lot of suffering caused by people who are so convinced of their own righteousness, they won’t bother with self-examination. If they’re convinced of their own culture’s perfection, they’re more likely to think of different cultures as inferior or evil.

    Lifeboat colonization: This definitely needs to get shot down. We’ve already got too many survivalists who think civilization is going to collapse and responded by buying MREs.

    Twist that comes to mind: Long scene focusing on the Chosen Ones boarding the spaceship bound towards Alpha Centauri or wherever with panicked crowds trying to get past security to stow away. We view the ship take off, and then we focus on our real protagonist, watching the lifeboat colony ship flying away. And then we get into the lives of everyone left behind in the mess we created, since a lot of people just won’t roll over and die.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’d read that story.

      I have a lot of sympathy for the proponents of lifeboat colonization, because all the ones I’ve found have also been in favor of solving our problems here on Earth. They don’t want to abandon the planet, they just want a last resort available. Sadly, that last resort is almost certainly out of our reach, and we need to recognize that.

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, I’d like to read this story, too. And then imagine an expedition of the people who left coming back ages later and discovering a wonderful, modern civilisation there instead of blackened ruins.

      • Christina

        Or even better: an expedition sent from Earth (now a prosperous society, having repaired the damaged planet) searching for evidence of what happened to those who fled. Perhaps they discover a planet that they’d attempted (and failed) to colonize, a few said ruins (or perhaps even just the rusted remains of their spaceship) being all that remained of that colony. Or, maybe they survived, barely, but were unable to establish a technological society.

        Honestly, it seems quite likely that those who would be privileged enough to be on the escape ships wouldn’t be the best choice for building a society from the ground up …

        • Cay Reet

          Which would also give the story a nice social commentary content. Those who were left behind actually managed to rebuild society and make it even better while the elite who was supposed to do so failed abysmally.

  2. psikeyhackr

    Science Fiction does not love anything. Some science fiction writers may love or promote certain ideas but SF is an abstraction.

  3. Bronze Dog

    Given the sci-fi motif going on my my Changeling: The Lost chronicle, I’m starting to think of a new antagonist group based on one of these: The Return to Wilderness.

    Fae are often associated with nature, and the Hedge is essentially the woods you’re not supposed to go into (mixed with the wrong side of town, sometimes). A real location near my fictional city is the Mad Island Wetland Reserve. With a name like that, I needed to put something in it, and this post has inspired an idea: A cult lead by a Loyalist Changeling who sees Arcadia as the idyllic wilderness, where people aren’t “coddled” by civilization. This Loyalist leads a bunch of anti-technology survivalists on Mad Island, getting them used to worse and worse wilderness conditions (possibly giving them “The Innsmouth Look” in the process). Eventually they’ll open a gate into the Hedge and from there head to a swamp-themed Keeper’s realm.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s a fantastic idea. Side benefit: It can reward that one player who actually took Survival!

  4. 3Comrades

    I think the static civilization bit is both understandable and, depending on how you view history, not unrealistic. I agree we need more sci-fi that treats social equality as a norm, but we need more fiction in general to recognize this. It just makes sci fi more obvious due to being from the future.

    What I mean is that partly civilization is static so we can relate to it more. The more different to what we understand today the harder to get readers/viewers immersed in the characters themselves. Add on to that, civilisation may look like a straight shot, but there are dips and turns and whether we want to recognize it or not, there have been times in the past which were accepting of women; LGBT, and racial diversity. I feel like this reflects some of the problems with Fantasy that we feel all achievements made in this era socially are unique to this era, which is a harmful belief in itself.

    My least favorite sci-fi ideas are the mono-cultural species. Humans are one culture, aliens are one culture. Sometimes you have a weird cult whose basic precepts are to be different than the usual beliefs. This is less about them being simple hats, but also the certainty that a space faring race one culture will agglomerate the others, it’s an uncomfortable thought that feels very anti-diversity.

  5. Emma

    I think it’s worth pointing out, as someone else did in response to a previous Mythcreants post criticising the ending of Battlestar Galactica, that their choices weren’t only about preventing a repeat of the Cylon cycle. By the time they reached Earth, they had been trapped on slowly-dying spaceships for years. They were desperate for fresh air and greenery, and extremely ready to leave the fleet behind.

    They also had reason to believe that keeping their technology would lead to another Cylon war. They’d recovered bits of their history, including information about their origins on Kobol, that told them this had all happened before. There were strong implications throughout the entire series that the only way to avoid another Cylon uprising was to abandon technology altogether. Add that to their desperation to have solid ground underfoot and I could completely understand why they sent their ships into the sun.

    Yes, the finale ended as you said. It was a deliberate posing of the question: are we truly doomed to repeat history no matter what we do? Are humans doomed to evolve in the same way over and over again, brought to the brink of destruction by our own hubris and invention? The final scene, for me at least, did not undermine the choices Adama and President Roslin made to destroy the ships and return to the wilderness. If anything, it made the show’s ending all the more moving because you’re made to realise that, for all the tragedy and losses they went through, it was probably all for nought.

    Finally, I want to point out that the reason Adama split the survivors up into groups was to ensure the best possible chance for ongoing survival. They were well aware of the risks posed. Each group was provided with leftover supplies for building simple shelter and food until they could become self-sufficient. They were also, from what I could gather, divided up so that civilians were accompanied by soldiers with better survival training. They were given the best chance they could possibly have while abandoning the technology that had brought them to suffer so much.

    You made some good points, but I don’t feel the criticism of Battlestar Galactica was fully considered in terms of the show itself. If you look at it from outside, as one of many science fiction stories, then yes, the ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But the characters’ final choices do make perfect sense in the context of the show and all they had suffered.

  6. Anton Sherwood

    Malcolm Reynolds was into antiques?? What am I forgetting?

    #4: Someone needs more books and less television.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Serenity herself is pretty antique, but leaving the ship aside, Mal’s gun is a very old looking revolver, plus he likes to say things like “Advice from an old tracker: you wanna find something, use your eyes.”

  7. Samuel Penn

    Possible spoilers for Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson, which turns around #1. Literally. After a generation ship reaches its destination the colonists decide that it was a really bad idea and that their ancestors had been absolutely insane to want to try, and decide they want to go back home.

  8. Sheikh Jahbooty

    Oren, I respectfully disagree with you on your second topic. BSG does not take first prize. First prize absolutely has to go to Avatar, a film whose entire raison d’etre seems to be pimping this horrible message.

    The protagonist (whose name I can’t remember or bother looking up) is given a clear mission. Humans need resources the natives control, so establish commerce with them. He immediately abandons his mission in order to romance the alien princess, because aliens that look like a cross between tree frogs and stick insects really do it for him. Then he flat out tells his bosses, these aliens can not be reasoned with at all.

    Then the other humans are like, “But you told us to attack. What did you expect? You said commerce with them was impossible. So we had to choose between sulking while you gleefully had freaky alien sex to your heart’s content or chasing them away from the resource we need. Ultimately we decided that your kinky perversions were less important than getting work done.”

    So the protagonist human had to hijack the natives’ entire culture in order to save them from science, commerce, wealth, prosperity, social progress, medicine… ultimately he had to save them from violence he practically called down on them. And he did it. He won and lived happily ever after, banging his furry space princess until his mutant clone body died from an easily treatable disease that could have been cured by science and medicine, which to reiterate, he saved his new people from.

    The end, where he died from an easily treatable disease was only implied, but I understood.

  9. psikeyhackr

    House of Quark of Deep Space Nine should teach us all to love accounting. Then we could recognize that economists can’t do it because they ignore Demand Side Depreciation.
    http://www.spectacle.org/1199/wargame.html

  10. Tumblingxelian/Vazak

    A fantastic article, kudos!

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