In their haste to depict strange new worlds, high technology, and futuristic customs, science fiction writers tend to forget that, although customs and cultures change, human nature does not. It is not infinitely malleable, and it definitely has limitations. All too often one has the gut impression that people in the future really wouldn't behave the way they are depicted under the circumstances.
Star Trek was notorious for that. A frequent criticism was that it makes no sense for the most important members of the crew, the captain and first officer, to be the ones to go down first into the unknown dangers of an alien world. The series would have been better off focusing on the members of a special "away team", with the captain acting as a background character providing directions. Less commented upon was the ages of the characters. It requires many years to climb the promotion ladder to the top job. James Kirk was just too young to be captain. The middle-aged Jean-Luc Picard was much more realistic. The high ranking women in the series were also, with few exceptions, too young for the positions they occupied.
Time LinesYes, we know that twenty years is a long time in today's world, and cultural and political changes can be quite rapid. But not too rapid. Both the Terminator and Matrix franchises dealt with the results of the rise of intelligent machines, to ultimately take over the world and replace or enslave mankind. The former franchise explicitly and the latter implicitly set the disaster just a generation from the present. But from the current rate of growth of technology, it should be obvious that this speed of change would be impossible.
Frank Herbert's Dune illustrates the reverse problem. The Empire, the Spacing Guild, and the Bene Genisset were well over 10,000 years old. No human institution could last that long - especially not an evil one (and none of them was exactly a hub of virtue!). Despite the writer's adage that "institutions endure", they in fact mutate with time as new people, new circumstances, and new power struggles develop. This is especially true for something like the Bene Genisset, which was portrayed as a semi-secret, semi-mystical society. Organisations like that are fissiparous. They attract people who enjoy the allure of belonging to an inner ring, with special knowledge and power denied to outsiders. They prefer to be the centre of attention and are always prone to quarrel with others and strike off on their own.
ReligionDune may have been a remarkable book, but another of its defects was its depiction of the near universal synthetic religion epitomized by the Orange Catholic Bible. Apparently, after a long series of religious wars, delegates of all major religions came together to iron out their differences and find a common denominator, which they eventually discovered in the commandment, "Thou shalt not disfigure the soul" (and presumably some other, more specific maxims). Thus they founded a universal religion.
When I read this, I thought: This author is not religious himself, and has no idea what motivates religious people. Most of them are extremely devoted to their God, or gods, and often enough this involves an ineffable, mystical experience, and a strong sense of the numinous. They are also liable to quibble over minor details. Furthermore, there are always individuals who, as a result of either genuine religious zeal or more worldly attention seeking, will come up with alleged new revelations or interpretations, and start a new movement. Often this presents as a reform movement within a moribund tradition.
The only way the Orange Catholic Bible would have half a chance of success would be if it were backed by the repressive machinery of the state. The irreligious and bandwagon followers will be prepared to leave what they perceive as a sinking ship to become nominal members of a favoured one, but once the repression is removed, the real believers will come out of the woodwork and start building up their numbers again. Besides that, the only way a religious minority can be destroyed is if the persecutors have a zeal for their own beliefs equal to that of the minority. Or, to put it another way, nothing is worth killing for unless it is also worth dying for. Otherwise, the fortitude of the martyrs will simply outlast the patience of the persecutors.
Apart from this, there are a couple of logical fallacies which believers will inevitably pick up on. For a start, it assumes that religion is produced by people sitting down and thinking about it. But monotheistic religions, by and large, claim the authority of revelation: not human minds reaching up to the unknowable God, but God sending His word down to earth. And the word of God will obviously trump feeble human reason. Also, there is the common sense position that, if you have reason to believe something is true, you just can't change your opinion because someone tells you to.
Of course, the silliest religious position occurs in Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, where characters exclaim: "Space!" where we would say, "Heavens!", and "Space knows!" instead of "God knows!" The height of ridiculousness came when a character was referred to as having sold his soul to the Space Fiend. Who the devil was that?
On the whole, science fiction writers handle religion badly because, by and large, they approach it as outsiders, and view it through a distorting window.
LanguageHaving a language common to an entire planet is obviously a boon to writers of planetary romances, but let's be realistic: it can only happen in a global village with mass communication. At any cultural level lower than the highest on present day earth it would be impossible. As soon as groups of people start living apart, they will begin to pronounce words differently, coin new words, place slightly different meanings and emphasis on existing words, and modify grammar. Even in Australia there are slight regional variations in vocabulary. The natural progression will be separate languages, usually in the form of a dialect continuum in which neighbouring dialects are mutually comprehensible, but the ones at the ends are not. A large empire can facilitate the use of a lingua franca, but we know that once the Western Roman Empire collapsed, Latin split up into several distinct languages.
Social OrganizationThis is where I start speaking as a zoologist, and particularly one whose degrees were in ethology, or the science of animal behaviour. Every species has its own behaviour repertoire and social organization, which are as much a part of its nature as its physical body and which, like the body, are adapted to the ecological niche in which it lives. The most familiar will be the personalities of dogs and cats, the one designed as a pack hunter, and the other as a lone hunter. A group of cats thrown together will never form a pack, a group of dogs always will. Of course, the greater the species' intelligence, the more the social system can be modified by learning, but it still acts like a rubber template. It can be distorted, but it always maintains the basic relationship of its parts, and it always tends to revert to the default position.
What we tend to forget is that the same applies to the human animal. Our behaviour is more varied, but the core programming is just as strong. All human societies are variations on a theme. The result is that there are some social structures which just will not work - except for a short time in some small, experimental groups doomed to dwindle. You can no more force our elastic template into them than you can teach cats to run in a pack.
Matriarchy is one. Patriarchy is recognized as an anthropological constant: something which is present in all cultures in all time periods. Not only that, it has been part of our ancestral background for at least the last 20 million years, so it is not going to disappear soon. Neither is the nuclear family. Free love, group marriage, or the collective raising of children conflict so much with core human nature that any society which practises them will soon fall apart. We only have to watch the social disintegration caused by our own sexual revolution to see this.
And, as have been demonstrated many times over the last century, socialism doesn't work either.
It is a reasonably safe bet that, if it the system doesn't already exist somewhere in the world at present, it probably doesn't work. You can go further, and examine the history of the great civilisations. They are the successful cultures: the ones which have spread over the largest populations for the longest periods of time, so what they have done obviously works.
What about alien civilisations? There is no need for their social organization to be the same as ours, but it should have evolved to maximise the number of the individual's descendants, because evolution works to advance the individual, not the species. In First Men on the Moon, H. G. Wells' space travellers encounter a race of moonmen ("selenites") with a society based on that of the social insects, every individual being bred for a particular occupation. Was this intended, a reviewer wondered, as a utopia or a dystopia? The answer is obvious: it is a utopia from the point of view of the selenites, a dystopia from the point of view of humans. Neither species could be forced into the mold of the other's.
Edgar Rice Burroughs' oviparous green Martians raised their children communally. Mating patterns were not described, but it appears there were no pair bonds. The eggs were collected, a handful chosen for incubation, and the hatchlings farmed out to the waiting females on a random basis. There was no affection between the sexes, and the young experienced no mother love or father love. The description was intended to be appalling, and one chapter was devoted to the tale of a couple who somehow fell in love and the mother raised her own child. Needless to say, such a system would never work among human beings. Not only would love constantly intrude, but children raised without a parent's affection - and there have been a few - would simply curl up and die. The green Martian system must be more or less natural to them, but it is hard to see what it could have evolved from, because no possible selective advantage exists for a female to raise someone else's child and leave her own to an unknown fate.
Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell has Earth invaded by a race of intelligent elephants. Like true elephants, they possess a herd mentality, and are uncomfortable in groups smaller than half a dozen. However, superimposed on the herd structure is a family structure not unlike ours, with a male breadwinner and a female homemaker and childrearer, but with the difference that the wife was the head of the house. Now, I won't say that such a system is impossible, but its evolutionary advantage under the circumstances is not clear. As I have explained in more detail elsewhere, human monogamy evolved because our big-brained offspring are slow to develop and require two parents to look after them. Who knows? Perhaps brainy elephants would be the same. Who would figuratively wear the trousers in such a case is anyone's guess. Nevertheless, the fact that the husband has to struggle for a living in the corporate jungle as his earthly counterpart has to struggle for mating rights might suggest that assertiveness and aggression would still be a selective advantage.
I suspect that the authors hadn't fully thought it out. They probably wanted to make the alien family structure somewhat similar to ours, but had fallen for the myth that elephant society is a matriarchy. In fact, bull elephants leave the herd upon reaching maturity, and either go solo or form herds of their own. Obviously, in any society like this the remaining herd will be dominated by an older female. But when the males return on discovering that one of the females in on heat, they are far too busy to dominate, or be dominated by, any female. Animal societies don't always fit into our neat categories of patriarchy or matriarchy.
A Couple of ExamplesLet's now look at a couple of examples to see how the human factor can be handled badly.
Terra Nova was a short-lived TV series from 2011, about a group of settlers in the Cretaceous period. The arrived through a fixed-focus time warp leading from AD 2149 to the days of the dinosaurs 85 million years in the past. It was a one-way trip: travellers could go to the past, but not back, although it appeared they were able to communicate with the modern day.
In one episode a character came down with a cold. Now, while this is theoretically possible, it demonstrates appallingly bad planning on the part of the colonising management. If you were going to send people to a distant world from which no-one could ever return, the one thing you would do at the point of departure would be a thorough quarantine of all colonists to ensure they were completely free of infectious diseases. Indeed, by 2149 it should also be possible to run a complete DNA scan to ensure the absence of hereditary diseases and weakness as well. This would be the place to get it right the first time.
But what really caught my attention was the high technology which filled the colony. It must have all come from AD 2149. I was alerted to this because I come from a country, Australia whose settlement was seriously afflicted by the fact that it was literally at the ends of the earth, as explained by one of our leading historians, Geoffrey Blainey in The Tyranny of Distance. The colonists could grow their own crops, and build with local stone and timber, but everything above the Neolithic level of culture had to be imported, mostly from the other side of the world. Not even something as simple as a nail could be manufactured until a local source of iron could be located. Even then, the only way the colonies could be economically viable was the use of cheap (convict) labour, and the discovery of a product, wool valuable enough to produce a profit even when shipped to the other side of the world.
Need I say more? Even the ammunition used on Terra Nova against the dinosaurs would have been impossible to manufacture on location. Even now, computers require rare earths, the most reliable source of supply being China. Perhaps the 22nd century computers are different, but you get the general idea: nearly every sophisticated device used by the settlers would have had to be sourced from all over the world, and manufactured in highly specialised factories. And, considering the fact that Terra Nova could produce no exports, one wonders why the home time was prepared to support them at all.
Now let's examine another case.
Avatar (2009) was the highest grossing film of all time - and rightly so, in my opinion. It was set in the year 2154 on the luxurious jungle planet, Pandora where a giant mining company, which apparently had the run of the place, clashed with the indigenous inhabitants called the Na'vi. It was magnificent, but to appreciate it, one has to suspend one's disbelief about the many physical and biological impossibilities. However I merely intend to concentrate on the human factor.
The first thing that didn't ring true was at the very beginning, when we saw the crippled Jake Sully propelling his manual wheelchair. Look! Motorised wheelchairs are not so uncommon even now; they should be de rigeur in 2154. Then we saw an exobiologist emerge from her "avatar" trance, and immediately announce that she needed a cigarette. Haven't they got rid of that pernicious habit by 2154? Most of the people were dressed in nondescript jeans and T-shirt type work clothing. Fair enough. But one of the leaders was wearing a suit and tie. Will that still be the fashion in 2154? And that's just the start.
Obviously, one cannot predict the socio-political situation a century and a half in the future, but we do get glimpses of it. Sully has been to war, apparently in Venezuela. We thus know that separate nations still exist; there is no world government. Someone complains that they have been trying to win the hearts and minds of the Na'vi with roads, schools etc, but they are not satisfied. We therefore know that they still have a social conscience. Another says, to the effect, the people of Earth want everything done according to the book, and in a humane manner, but the bottom line is, the need to make a profit. In other words, there is still a social conscience back on Earth.
Now, ask yourself: what is humanity's biggest dream about space exploration? Answer: finding LIFE. Right now everybody would be absolutely thrilled if even a few microbes were discovered on Mars. So what would happen when a planet was discovered which was not only living, but teeming with life? The imagination of the world would be overwhelmed. Everybody would want to know more. They would be waiting with bated breath on dispatches from the explorers. The investigation of the new world would be humanity's great new endeavour, no matter what the cost. A host of explorers, journalists, cameramen, geologists, physicists, and biologists would descend on the planet. Indeed, common sense tells you that they would have to have done their work long before the magic mineral was ever discovered. Even poor countries would attempt to get in on the act, if only by sending representatives. The planet would come under intense scrutiny, not only because of universal fascination, but also the desire that, this time, we get it right and not louse up the environment.
So now imagine what would happen when not only abundant life, but intelligent life was discovered. The world would go ecstatic. No matter what the expense, teams of anthropologists, missionaries, and general do-gooders would descend on the place. Philosophical and theological issues would be raised by the man in the street and discussed at high level international fora and on the world political stage. There would be no way any one nation, let alone one big company, would be allowed to monopolise the planet. I would envisage something equivalent to the International Whaling Commission, which placed an observer on every whaling ship to ensure the rules were followed. Likewise, you would expect some international observers to be reporting back on every move the company made.
Avatar was a magnificent movie, and I would recommend you watch it if you haven't already done so. But it doesn't ring true.
Here ends my dissertation. I hope any science fiction writers who may have discovered this site will learn something from it, and that any sci fi fans have not had their reading spoiled.
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