Other Times, Other Places Would Be Different

It's said that science fiction is based on the question 'what if?' That is, SF asks, 'If such-and-such happened, what might it be like?' Among the questions most frequently asked by SF are: 'What might it be like if humans went to live beyond the Earth?' and 'What might it be like if humans met aliens?'

Good SF explores these possibilities. We can imagine a great variety of different possibilities. Thousands of books have been written about aliens coming to our solar system, and they present very different possibilities.

Aliens and other worlds would be different

Of course we don't know exactly what other worlds or alien races would be like, if we were ever to encounter them. But one thing seems pretty certain: they would be different. Other planets would be different from Earth. Aliens would be different from humans. The excitement of SF comes from the huge varieties of difference that could be.

Unfortunately, much popular SF throws all these exciting possibilities out of the window, and just gives us what we are used to seeing instead. Of all the possibilities that could be imagined, they make the most boring choices possible: they give us other worlds that look just like Earth, and aliens that look just like or almost like humans. Not only do these aliens look similar, but their natural environment is utterly identical with ours, making them comfortable at the same gravity, temperature and pressure as humans and able to breathe the same atmosphere.

It's utterly unrealistic that beings from a different world should be so like humans, and it's also boring. I object to the fact that these pieces of so-called SF are so unrealistic, but I also object to the fact that the writers have discarded all the wonderful things that they could do with their imaginations and have just given us something boringly familiar.

Human societies would be different

If you looked at two photographs of a London street, one taken in AD 1900 and one in AD 2000, what do you think you would see? You would see that the people look different, superficially at least. The way that people dress can change a lot in a century. The organisation of society in London changed hugely from 1900 to 2000 as well. In 1900 distinctions of social class were much more important to people, and harder to circumvent, than in 2000. The underlying principles of human behaviour and social organisation may be unchanged, but superficially things can change a lot in a century. Appearances change and names change.

But a lot of SF rejects change, and keeps things superficially the same as we know when there is no reason to suppose that they would stay so. A lot of SF simply recreates its author's native society in space. JM Straczynski's Babylon 5, set in the mid-23rd century, is a classic example. Human society in B5 is simply the USA in space. The military structures are based on those of the USA. The Earth President's personal spacecraft is called Earth Force One, in a deliberate reference to the US President's aircraft Air Force One today.

And like so much other SF, the mix of racial types resembles that of the country in which it was made, meaning that in B5 (and most cases) the majority of people in it are white. But most human beings on the Earth today aren't white, so why should the majority be white in the future? The simplest assumption is that future racial types should approximately reflect present racial types; if they don't, some explanation is deserved. If, for instance, deliberate genocide or the starvation of the economically powerless wiped out most non-whites in the late 21st century, I would expect that to still affect people's opinions in the mid-23rd century. People would be aware of it as part of their history, and it would colour the way they think.

The Alien films are another example. There are time gaps of many years from each film to the next. We would expect society to change, superficially at least, with passing time: as the centuries draw out, modes of dress and social organisation should change. Yet through all the films, the military personnel still look like the Vietnam-era US military. Their racial distribution is like that of USA. In the fourth film, Resurrection, the interstellar government is called the United Systems and is governed by a body called Congress. Once again, the writers have tried to recreate the USA in space, full of familiar names and styles of dress.

Why do people make SF like this? I can see two possibilities: either they are so thoughtless that these obvious things really don't occur to them, or they deliberately make things familiar because that's what the audience expects. I suspect that many writers, including those of Babylon 5 and the Alien films, are guilty of both these crimes.

I doubt that Straczynski has ever thought about the racial mix of characters in Babylon 5. I believe that it has literally never occurred to him to think that the racial distribution in a future society might be different from that of the society in which he lives. If I'm right, then he really can't see beyond the end of his own nose. That is the mark of a bad SF writer. The job of an SF writer is to think about possibilities and have ideas about how things could be different. I strongly suspect that Straczynski simply hasn't made that effort, and that makes him a bad SF writer.

Mindless slop for the masses

There, I've judged and condemned writers who give us familiar things due to not thinking; now we turn to those who deliberately choose familiarity. Many writers, I am sure, write things that their audiences expect to see because the audience would be turned away by anything unfamiliar. Across the world, millions of sluggish couch-potatoes sit staring vacantly at their televisions, their jaws hanging open, slobber dribbling slowly from their slack mouths. These pieces of pond life are the target auience for mass-market SF like Star Trek and B5, and their minds (if we can dignify them with that term) would revolt at seeing something that was not comfortingly familiar to them. The effort of having to think when they see something they don't recognise is acute pain to couch-potatoes, and the few neurons that fire inside their brains respond by grasping the TV remote and flicking the channel at random until they find some soft, balmy pap to soothe them into their usual addled vegetative state once more.