Plausible Science Fiction is anticlimactic

We come for the star ships but we stay for the alien cultures.

I

Sci-Fi is about ideas

Science Fiction takes place in a setting of great scientific advancements. That is usually, but not necessarily (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”) the future. This is a future of intelligent machines, powerful weapons and scientific advances that push the envelope of what we consider the limits of physics and space-time. Good Sci-Fi discusses familiar concepts in a new context; eg. Star Trek places post-scarcity economy at the feet of great personal freedom and responsibility and Dune explores power structures and climate change. Sci-Fi rewards the reader with a new understanding of familiar concepts, but teases them with the gateway drug of colourful pictures. Attentive readers will notice that the concrete scientific setup influences the plot very little while individual choices of the pro- and antagonists do very much.

Sci-Fi is about colourful pictures

Story authors of galactic proportions have, ironically, a very down-to-earth problem: they need to sell. People wouldn’t read Sci-Fi if it was only about ideas; that is what novels and philosophy are for. Sci-Fi lures the reader deep into the rabbit hole by (thinly) veiling its ideas in exciting pictures. We come for the star ships but we stay for the alien cultures. Sci-Fi needs to be flashy and controversial more than it needs to be plausible for the new reader.

Nothing to see here

Armed with first-hand experience of how life and work changed in the last decade (yes, I am looking at you, Digitalisation) there are some plausible extrapolations we could make into a mid-distance future which get by without fundamentally new discoveries (eg. no faster-than-light travel).

Communication used to be shouting at each other, then writing, then telephoning and now texting. Travel used to be wandering on foot, then riding, then sailing, driving, flying – and as of recently, not travelling at all because the need for it often disappears. Surviving meant building skills, being healthy, amassing wealth and building a strong support network while nowadays in many places around the world it means paying taxes and enjoying the support of social welfare. There is a common trend here: things rationalise. Things always take the path of least resistance. If something is easier and cheaper to do, that is how it will be.

Sci-Fi often depicts an implausible future as the technology available in that future is not (plausibly) used to rationalise tasks (I’ll explain in a minute why). Taking Star Trek (TOS, TNG) as an example:

  • People take flying cars to meetings when they should just sub-space message each other
  • People take shuttles when they could teleport
  • The Federation hasn’t developed (almost) any androids, although there is plenty of evidence that it has the know-how of advanced AI (eg. holodeck’s character behaviours)
  • People use communicators although advanced implants are available
  • A remarkable lack of information (scanners, surveys) drives the plot to comic absurdities when even contemporary state surveillance far exceeds that of Star Trek

The issue with those plausible applications of technology is: it doesn’t looks good on TV. People communicating over implants, AI reading thoughts and people telecommunicating instead of teleporting robs Sci-Fi of its pictures which are so necessary to keep the reader engaged.

Summary

Good Sci-Fi uses the lore of technology to create the necessary vacuum for its core ideas to develop. Good Sci-Fi isn’t about aliens, space ships and robots: it is about the man’s struggle to relate to himself and the world.

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