Worldbuilding is a core aspect of speculative fiction. Not only do fantastic worlds provide critical novelty, but they also allow for fun new plots and powerful messages! But when storytellers aren’t careful, seemingly minor worldbuilding details can have major implications. Sometimes, those implications are really dark, undermining the rest of the story. Let’s take a look at some of the more horrifying examples roaming free in the wild.
Spoiler Notice: Redshirts and Star Trek: Discovery
1. The White Witch Is Invincible, Prince Caspian
After defeating the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, our heroes find themselves back in Narnia for the sequel. This time they’re fighting the Telmarines, human occupiers who conquered Narnia long ago.*
As is standard operating procedure for Narnia, the good guys are supposed to triumph by keeping faith in Aslan, even when Aslan clearly has no idea what he’s doing. But beware, for along comes temptation: instead of relying on Aslan, the heroes could appeal to the White Witch. She’s more Narnian than these Telmarines, after all, and she is certainly powerful.
This is a really interesting idea, but of course it’s immediately quashed because Narnian morality tales are nothing if not simplistic. Disappointing, but not surprising. No, what’s surprising is that any of the White Witch’s old followers can bring her back to life at any time. And according to these same followers, this holds true for all witches in Narnia.
This opens a number of immediate plot problems. If the Witch’s followers could bring her back, why didn’t they? She’d have made short work of the Telmarines and taken over Narnia again, which is theoretically what they want. But on a deeper level, this means that defeating witches in Narnia is pointless.
As long as even one of a witch’s followers escapes, they’ll just work a little resurrection magic, and the witch is back in action. Witches effectively have unlimited lives, so they’ll win every conflict eventually, since they only need to slay their enemies once. This isn’t just a problem with the White Witch either. We know there are other witches in Narnia, and it sounds like they’re all equally unkillable.
The 2008 film version of Prince Caspian tried to correct this problem by implying that the White Witch could only be brought back through a special ritual involving the blood of kings, but no such limitation exists in the book. Narnia really should be up to its ears in witches by this point.
2. There’s No Ethical Force Use, The Last Jedi
It seems that the Force is one of those things that can only get worse the more we learn about it. First, the prequels introduced the idea that the Jedi wanted to achieve “balance in the Force,” which was obviously ridiculous. Why would you ever want a balance between good and evil? That’s like saying you can’t have ten people without cancer – that’s unbalanced! Better give five of them cancer.
But until recently, we could at least make the excuse that this was just a weird idea the Jedi Order had and then chuck the whole thing in the garbage along with the rest of the prequels. Then The Last Jedi came out, and we lost that luxury.
In The Last Jedi, we find out that balance in the Force isn’t just a terrible idea, it’s a cosmological constant. Both Luke and Snoke explain to us that when there’s a powerful light-side force user, an equally powerful dark-side user will rise to match them, and vice versa. This just happens, like it was a law of thermodynamics.
At first, this just sounds like the light and dark are locked in eternal battle, neither side ever able to win. That’s certainly frustrating, but the full implications are far worse, because the battle itself is bad for everyone. Even when the light side wins, the dark side inevitably destroys a few planets in the process. So the best-case scenario is a never-ending war with billions of civilian casualties.
It seems like the only solution to this existential crisis is to abandon the Force altogether, since any attempts to use it for good will only create equally powerful evil. That’s even what Luke is doing, until the film walks back his entire motivation at the end and decides that, actually, using the Force is good. But since the film never deals with the actual issue it raised, so as far as we know, the Star Wars universe is doomed to continue an unwinnable war for the rest of eternity.
While it’s hard to say for sure why any given decision is made in a giant film like Last Jedi, this feels like a writer trying too hard to be clever. Someone noticed that in fiction, narratives are conveniently aligned so that powerful heroes arise at the same time as powerful villains and thought, “What if we made that literal?” It gets horrifying, that’s what.
3. Writers Still Kill People, Redshirts
Redshirts is a novel that lovingly parodies Star Trek, in particular the original series and its predilection for killing off unnamed security personnel. Our heroes are a group of lower-ranked officers serving aboard the flagship when they notice something is amiss. Their ship has the highest casualty rates of any in the fleet, but it’s never bridge personnel who die. The senior staff conjures solutions to complex problems out of thin air, even when they have no relevant expertise. Something very strange is going on!
Eventually, after many thrilling heroics, they figure out the truth: their entire universe exists within a television show. The reason people keep dying for no reason is that the show’s writers are lazy and want to create cheap drama. Well, this shall not stand! The heroes quickly assemble some technomagic and travel to the real world, where they give the writers a stern talking to.
The writers are naturally horrified. They had no idea they were killing people – they just wanted to get paid! But everything turns out all right: the writers agree not to kill any more characters because that would be horrible. Wait, hang on, I read that wrong: they won’t kill characters, unless it’s dramatically appropriate and makes a good story.
Um. I think I see a problem with this. Namely, people are still going to die! Real people with thoughts and feelings who can enter our world if they have the right technology. For some reason, the heroes decide this is fine and head back to their own reality, but that doesn’t let Redshirts off the hook.
Imagine how this would work within the heroes’ world. Their friends will still suffer completely unnecessary deaths, but at least they’ll have the comfort of knowing those deaths were super dramatic. They haven’t solved the problem; they’ve just given the uncaring gods who govern them some instructions.
This is another situation where the story is taking a narrative trope and making it too literal. Yes, in fiction we can more easily accept a character’s death if it’s part of a meaningful arc. But in real life, we’d still avoid that death if we could, no matter how poignant it might be. By making this dynamic literal, the story forces us to view it through real-life lenses rather than fictional ones.
4. Section 31 Is Normal, Discovery
Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets has always been portrayed as a utopia, or at least as close to one as you can get on TV. Not only does everyone have enough to eat and comprehensive healthcare, but the government actually cares about civil rights. The Federation upholds its own standards and does not, as Picard might say, discard those standards when they become inconvenient.
While there have been characters who didn’t hold to the Federation’s principled stance, they were always portrayed as exceptions. One such exception is Section 31, a secret society of powerful individuals who think silly things like morality shouldn’t get in the way of Federation interests. They’re happy to use abhorrent tactics like murder and even total genocide if it accomplishes their goals. At the same time, they’re clearly a rogue organization operating without any official sanction.
At least, that’s how they were first established in Deep Space Nine. In Discovery, Section 31 is an official organization with stations, admirals, and anything else they could want. They even have special black badges, because of course a secret organization would want to announce who their agents are. Obviously, I do not love this retcon, especially the badges, but whatever. Section 31 is just Starfleet Intelligence now – I could have gotten over it.
But then we find out that Section 31 has officially sanctioned extrajudicial powers, and no one bats an eye. When Spock is accused of murder, everyone on Discovery takes it as a given that if they don’t find him first, Section 31 will whisk him off to some black site where he’ll never be heard from again. This isn’t portrayed as weird or unusual, just part of life in the utopian Federation.
Except a society where people can be held indefinitely without trial can hardly be considered a utopia by any definition. From the characters’ reactions, it seems like this is something that happens all the time, which makes the Federation little better than our own society in terms of respecting personal liberties. It would be nice for optimistic science fiction to show us a world where it isn’t commonplace for security forces to take people off the street without any due process, but I suppose that’s too much to ask for in a show where Section 31 is basically the CIA in space.
The most annoying thing about this is that Discovery’s writers clearly didn’t intend to portray the Federation as a society that abandons its own principles at the drop of a hat. That much is clear from how often the characters wax poetically about how moral the Federation is to the point where they feel that even the most justified use of violence in self defense is bad. No, this horrifying implication came about purely through carelessness.
5. All Animals Are Sapient, The Dragon Prince
Content Notice: This section discusses the death of animals.
At first, The Dragon Prince seems like a pretty straightforward fantasy story. It’s got elves, magic, castles, and a quest that involves a lot of walking. But then the show raises an unusual question: are all the animals in this setting sapient? That is, do they all possess human-level intelligence, including the ability to understand English?*
That’s a pretty serious claim, so let’s examine the evidence. First, the protagonists meet a blind sailor with a service parrot named Berto who is clearly sapient. Berto is fluent in English and is a skilled sailor in their own right. Plus, they have a sense of humor!
So that’s weird, but Berto is only one bird. Maybe they were enchanted by a weird wizard or something. But shortly afterward, we learn that Bait the Glow Toad also understands English. Or at least, he reacts to the characters asking for things like he knows what they mean. In one scene, he’s walking out of the room when a human asks him to stay, so he turns around and walks back. The human’s request did not have the tone or cadence you’d expect when calling a pet; it sounded like a request made to another human.
But that’s not all! One of the heroes, Ezran, has a special power that lets him talk to animals. On its own, this doesn’t suggest the animals are sapient, but then we learn his power extends to dragons, which are established to be sapient. That really makes it seem like the other animals he talks to are sapient as well.
While this evidence isn’t 100% conclusive, it strongly suggests that all of the animals in Dragon Prince can think and reason like humans. That would certainly explain why there’s a major conflict over the villains using animal parts in their magic. But it would also make Dragon Prince one of the most horrific settings ever imagined.
The most obvious issue is that despite how many characters claim it’s evil to use animal products in magic, they all happily eat meat and wear leather. It seems likely that they also use horses to pull carts, feathers to stuff pillows, and so on. Human societies use animal labor and animal products in a lot of different areas, which is all slavery and murder in the world of Dragon Prince.
It goes further. Even if every human in Dragon Prince became a vegan and swore off animal products, their society would still be steeped in murder because raising crops kills a lot of animals. In fact it’s pretty much impossible to have an urban or agrarian society without killing animals.* What’s more, animals are out killing each other in the wild all the time. Being an obligate carnivore in this setting doesn’t sound like fun.
I honestly cannot tell if the Dragon Prince team created this implication on purpose or not. On the one hand, it seems too horrific to be anything but an accident. On the other hand, their conflict over magic doesn’t really make sense without it, since people who eat meat are unlikely to have many qualms with killing an animal in order to get miraculous healing effects. Maybe we’ll get more information in season three, but I suspect it’ll be left in the background, an implication the writers need but are afraid to fully embrace.
It’s easy to get carried away with worldbuilding. There are so many shiny options, and we want them all! But if we’re not careful, seemingly unimportant details can create implications we didn’t want, and then the story suffers.
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