Read this Stross essay on science fiction. (You can read “read” however you like, as red or reed – either message works here.) I have a couple of thoughts on it. Not agreements or disagreements, just shit that occurs to me, you know? Anyway . . .
Talking about inconsistencies in world-building, advocating for consistency, he says:
“If you play fast and loose with distance and time scale factors, then you undermine travel times. If your travel times are rubberized, you implicitly kneecapped the economics of trade in your futurescape. Which in turn affects your protagonist’s lifestyle, caste, trade, job, and social context. And, thereby, their human, emotional relationships. The people you’re writing the story of live in a (metaphorical) house the size of a galaxy. Undermine part of the foundations and the rest of the house of cards is liable to crumble, crushing your characters under a burden of inconsistencies.”
All of that may well be true. But I think that this “burden of inconsistencies” is not a flaw in these media items but pretty much their point, particularly in those forms that use the most world-building (science fiction and fantasy) and in serialized forms, which overlaps with science fiction and fantasy. (Let’s face it: every science fiction or fantasy piece is seen as, at least, a potential serial) A lot of this media is devoured with the sole purpose of seeing how these inconsistencies will be resolved. (I never saw Lost but that was my impression of its appeal. And it’s almost impossible to view the numerous inconsistencies in Blade Runner 2049 as being anything other than the attempt to build a franchise under cover of an affected ambiguity.) It should be noted that in an economy like the one we have, where art is often understood as product, there’s no need for these inconsistencies to ever be resolved into some sort of integrity. The show can just end. The movie franchise can just stop. True, this is not playing fair with the audience (as fair is traditionally understood) but cheating seems to be a profitable model and the point of these items is the extraction of profit. Shit, the fans probably wouldn’t care about the lack of resolution between inconsistencies anyway because, for any of these franchises or serials to end, they would have had to have become unprofitable, which means that the fans stopped caring long before they were disappointed. These are problems that are not meant to be resolved. They’re simply there to complicate. Basically, these motherfuckers have a lot of fans chasing the dragon. And it works.
“Similar to the sad baggage surrounding space battles and asteroid belts, we carry real world baggage with us into SF. It happens whenever we fail to question our assumptions. Next time you read a a work of SF ask yourself whether the protagonists have a healthy work/life balance. No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity interplanetary future?”
This sort of questioning is, of course, important and a lot of science fiction is just pretty plain lazy about itself but there’s also this kind of thing where, like, what the fuck is this post-scarcity future shit? No, really: what is this thing called a job, and what is it doing in my post-scarcity present? I have some doubts about a post-scarcity, interplanetary future even being possible. That science fiction constantly proposes more technology as a route to this thing, which seems perpetually twenty five years away, seems based on some pretty wonky assumptions about the nature of scarcity, poverty and the systems that produce both of them. It’s important to realize that scarcity is not a natural condition that our technology is meant to correct. It is a condition that is manufactured by the same systems that produce our technology. This, of course, allows us to glimpse where these connections can, perhaps, hopefully, be severed, allowing us to have our cake and letting us eat it too, but more disturbing than the inconsistent world building that troubles Stross, is, to me, the sort of bourgeois, colonial conceptions of progress and future that often seem embedded in the science fiction project.
Hell, Star Trek had its sort of stages of directed evolution leading inevitably to a certain bourgeois conception of utopia with Q at the top and final goal, The Borg standing in as an alternative path – a terrifying sort of proletarian deindividualization. The CEO gets to be an individual. You, on the other hand, the faceless mass of undifferentiated labor.
Coming at this problem from the view afforded from the other side of The Iron Curtain, the Strugatsky Brothers handled history with a bit more wit than Star Trek. But even Hard to Be a God pales, in my mind, next to their work that embraced a sort of pessimistic inconsistency as a consistency of their worlds – such as The Doomed City and Roadside Picnic.
And this is probably where I should wrap things up with some pithy summary or point or some shit but this blog thing is more of a notepad than an essay generating machine so I’ll just embrace the lack of resolution and leave you with a couple of, I hope, helpful links, which I probably should have embedded somewhere in the body of this thing.
Anyway . . .
The Original Affluent Society, which deals with the post-scarcity world of pre-agricultural peoples.
Man as Idea, which can, perhaps, shed some light on my thinking about the conceptions involved in science and science fiction in general and Star Trek’s Q as end-point of evolution in particular.