Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Why are your aliens wearing Prada?

Writing science fiction opens up a plethora of fascinating aspects to explore: "physics"-enabled magic, cool weapons, thought experiments on everything from economics and ethics to the viability of a nitrogen-based lifeform. It can be what-ifs for how we would deal with disaster if it struck in the next week to far-future scenarios on Earth or Earth-parallels or on spaceships dealing with revolution or alien encounters or just internal politics or relationships against this new background.

That last part is key: no matter how futuristic and strange the world, there are characters acting on that stage. And, unless those characters are all time-travelers, they come from a society shaped by the technology available in the story.

That's what baffles me most in some sci-fi stories I read: the world changes, but the social mores don't: in fact, they're about mid-90s and a little conservative, with no obvious in-world reason they'd be that way. Technology alters culture. Look at what the printing press and the industrial revolution and the Internet have done to society. It's the industrial 'revolution' for a reason.

How human beings react to new situations is the point of all fiction. More so in speculative fiction, where inherent social conditioning can be more easily examined by removing or changing the conditioning the characters have. If their conditioning is the same as that of an average modern person, it's removing an entire dimension from the story.

Of course, one doesn't want to completely remove those elements of a character which make them relatable. But everyone needs air, food, shelter, companionship no matter their environment nor their relationship with it. How they approach their search for their basic needs (are they employed? living in luxury in a post-scarcity economy like someone from Heinlein or Doctorow or Stross? do they get their social interaction in person? for pay? online?) illustrates a world as well or better than all the ray guns you can fit in the prop room.

So when an otherwise promising story has characters who might as well have grown up in the 90s in North America, I'm disappointed: we can all do better.

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