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.      

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