Friday, July 29, 2011

And now for something different, common problems in a science fiction setting

I apologize for this being a day late but, since everything was a day late this week I suspect most expected this. Anyway, science fiction! I've been on a bit of a science fiction kick ever since school let out (so about three months) and all the things I've read/watched have reminded me that while I really do love some sci-fi it has an awful lot of problems, mainly in the setting. Now, I don't really care about how hard or soft the science is in these stories since, I mean, I watch Doctor Who which really isn't hard science fiction at all and I'm loving Steins;Gate (the premise of which is that two guys modify their microwave so much that it can now send text messages through time which has caused a bad future). But part of the reason these two series works is because their settings work (DW's changes every week but work goes into each setting and S;G is careful to show exactly when each episode is taking place) and so many creators don't seem to understand that settings make or break their stories. So here's a list of common problems in science-fiction stories, not really tropes or cliches, and just why this bug me so much (warning, it's going to get long).

Over-powered governments with no opposition

I'll admit it, I pay more attention to politics than many people and I also have faith in many democratic/republican governments in the world. I also have noticed that in general, during the course of the world, governments have shifted from monarchies, with a single person in absolute power, to officials elected by the common people for set terms. Clearly this isn't the case in every country right now but look at the recent uprisings in the Middle East and Africa, people like having a say in their government and protest/fight for it even if they don't have huge numbers or the military might intervene and possibly kill them. So, in a science fiction setting that is even farther in the future (ie, most of these governments probably became more progressive at some point) then why are there only oligarchies or no government at all? In Black Hole Sun (which, as I've said before, has absolutely nothing to do with the title) there is an oligarchy on Mars, one powerful enough to stop the terraforming on Mars, and it sounds like a good sized population of rough, tough people who don't seem to care that they have a crappy government. Heck, the police force there don't even do their jobs (yes I know it's actually a metaphor for samurais and rounin and such but still) so WHY haven't the people done something yet? To make matters more interesting, Mars is still in a colonial stage and colonists (if US history is anything to go by) really don't like governments telling them what they can and can't do (having a nice planet being one of the things you can't have) so why are they putting up with it? This is just the most recent example I can think of, I'm hard pressed to think of a science fiction story that has a good, active, competent and nice government that isn't actually evil, these authors just seem a bit obsessed with the idea of people abusing power and then using it a cheap way to establish setting.

Seriously screwed-up environment

To start this with, I agree with green ideology more than any other ideology and I've been part of a email list (for my state) since 2008 so I've fired off many emails to local representatives going "hey, stop that, stop that right now, STOP MAKING MORE STUFF FOR ME TO CLEAN UP DAMMIT!"^ It doesn't always work, think there is a bill right now that is going to pass that I don't like, but bugging the hell out of your local government officials does work for protecting the environment some of the time (and that's hardly the only way to do so), so why does it (apparently) not work in the future? Personally I think that green ideology is one that you can get a lot of people to agree with at least some of the time (I mean, we all do live on this planet) and you can spin it so many different ways* so why do so many stories take place when the Earth is nearly uninhabitable/destroyed/lost because everyone moved off planet/people don't want to live their anymore? It just makes no sense that, similar to the government, people have been more and more concerned with the environment in each generation yet so many sci-fi stories just ignore this. There are series that have a good reason for crappy environments** but by and large many creators seem to screw over the environment just to force setting even though it doesn't make sense.

General ignorance about Earth

First off, this complaint does not apply to series that have either completely destroyed the planet or have been away from it so long that they have actually lost it (yes, I can think of several stories for both of those categories, doesn't inspire faith in humanity I know), if you don't have Earth then it's a little more understandable why you don't know at least basic knowledge about the origin of humanity. Likewise, if the story takes place with a censorship-pro government then I'm not going to expect the character to know a lot about their surroundings, this is everything else. However, I was reading a book the other day (Spacer and Rat, it's gonna be a little bit before that review goes up) and one of the characters scoffs at the idea of their being a body of water larger than a hydroponic tank/big enough to put a ship in, which makes no sense. The character in question does live on a space station but Earth is still around (hell, the character he is talking to is from Earth) and he's been given a basic education, so you're telling me that not once in his education a teacher pulled out a map of Earth and explained just how huge an ocean is? Heck, they've colonized other planets at this point and you're telling me there are no lakes there? I believe I  remember a scene in Firefly where one of the characters (Jayne, the dumbest character in the crew) doubts that Earth-That-Was existed but the smarter characters (Simon and River who have had a formal education) never seem to doubt that it was real, now that feels more realistic (plus, they aren't anywhere near Earth at this point, although even Jayne probably knows what an ocean is). 

Think that's mostly it, I'm also not that fond of dystopias but that mainly falls under my complaints in the politics and environmental areas (it can literally be summed up as "you did WHAT now and nobody complained?!?") and there are some well done dystopian stories (just like there are stories that avoid all the problems listed above). I want to like science fiction, I really like seeing stories where, one way or another, humans got it right and are living in a decent future that's full of hope so why are there so few of them? You can have drama/intrigue/mystery in a happy setting just as easily as in a dark setting so someone make it happen!

^I mean that literally too.....
*by that I mean (I meant spin in a good way), say there's a factory that is polluting into a river which is legal under current laws. Tell people, hey, it's killing wildlife! and some people will complain. Point out that the water treatment plants might not be able to clean it up and it could get into the drinking water and more people will complain. Or, point out that this pollution is going to cost the area tons of money to clean up so why not make the factory responsible instead and some people will like that idea too. You can get a lot of people behind the idea of "keep this area livable." 
 **Cowboy Bebop comes to mind, there the Earth is not so nice because one of the gates (structures that allow for hyperspace travel) exploded and left it's mark. The plot of one episode revolves around one scientist who worked on the gates as they were being built, discovered some corruption/negligence (I forget exactly which) in the system and I think that was meant to imply that no, these gates were not being built to snuff and that the technology was new enough that there wasn't a lot of government oversight/civilians who were keeping an eye on what was going on and that's why it went boom. That is a good reason for environmental destruction in fiction, it just really couldn't have been prevented and happened because not everyone knew about the risks (or at least enough to protest it).