Thursday, February 27, 2014

Sci-Fi Imagination Failures

This post from Tam got me thinking about sci-fi, and I’ve fleshed out a few things about sci-fi universes that bother me, and that seem sort of universal within the genre, at least to me.

Planets in the galaxy are treated more like nations on Earth than distinct planets

We’re pretty good and branding and stereotyping “the other” here on Earth.  The Irish are red-headed, temperamental, drunken brawlers with questionable potato farming skills.  The Germans are technocratic, emotionless machines, driven by a sense of efficiency and motivated by perfection.

Und de poop fetishes.  Vergessen Sie das nicht!  

Italians are dark-haired cassanovas who would rather fuck than fight, and who have no work ethic and would rather cruise through a life of leisure than accomplish anything.


Americans are ignorant, stupid, nationalistic jingoists who are overweight and clueless about anything outside of their area of influence.  Africans are superstitious tribal people who rub hippo manure into their ears to avoid getting AIDS and think that the rivers have spirits in them.

Of course, every one of these stereotypes is totally wrong for a million different reasons.  The biggest of all is that every population is made up of individuals, and there is such great diversity among individuals that assigning set-in-stone characteristics to any group of individuals is simply impossible. 

Tam put it perfectly in her article, so I won’t belabor this point any further, and instead, will quote her, because she makes the point eloquently:

All Klingons are honor-loving warriors. All dwarves are beer-swilling Lawful Good blacksmiths with, for some reason, bad fake Scottish accents. All elves are ethereal granola-munching bunny-hugging archers. But humans are people and therefore can be good or evil, horticulturalists or mechanical engineers, priests or physicists, saints or monsters. 
In Dungeons & Dragons, dwarves can't be rangers and halflings can't be magic users, but humans can be any character class…  …The most homogenous, conformist technological society on planet Earth has everything from tattooed yakuza to sumo wrestlers to lolita cosplayers, but you could title a documentary on Klingons “Fifty Shades of Worf.”

She goes on to make the point, and beg the question, if every Klingon is an honor-loving, noble warrior, who makes their snappy, pressed uniforms, builds their ships, mines the raw materials for the things they use, and grows their food?  Who bears their children, and then raises them? 

How did Romulans become, every one of them, spies, if all every one of them was doing was spying on another?  Doesn’t that seem sort of pointless?  Why spy on someone when you already know what he’s doing?  “What did your target do today, Romulan?”

“He spied on another Romulan!” 

“OHHH, that’s some news I can use to my benefit when I’m spying on my Roluman later today!” 

This is a relic of human kind seeing uniformity in other cultures, out of a lack of desire to understand them, and the ease of just labeling them all one thing and being done with it.  We did it to the Irish.  We still do it to African Americans.  It’s just easier that way.  The fact that this carried over into Sci-Fi is sadly as human as can be imagined. 

Societies either have little to no technology, or they have all the technology.  There is no in-between. 

Another thing that seems to be missing are the societies that are not primitive, but also don’t have interstellar travel just yet.  Such as our present day society.  In Star Trek, it seems to me that they either found “primitive” tribal type societies, or societies that had evolved to the point of having interstellar travel.  There were no “in-betweeners” from my memory.  You know, societies that have things like computers and the internet and satellites, but still haven’t quite perfected their first warp drive. 

We're still working on how to properly stop...

Planets that are capable of supporting life are treated more like bioregions on a large, galactic Earth rather than as distinct planets

The biggest perpetrator of this is probably the Star Wars franchise.  There is the Ice Planet of Hoth, and the Desert Planet of Tatooine, the Jungle Planet of Degoba, and the City Planet of Coriscant.

And the "Holy shit, fuck this!" planet of wherever NASA thinks this is.

These planets are all entirely uniform in climate, flora, and fauna.  There are no bioregions.  The desert planet is all desert.  The ice planet, all ice.  There are no planets in the Star Wars universe that have any biodiversity or geologic diversity in the slightest.  Earth has ice regions, jungle regions, and desert regions.  When we make movies on Earth about being in the desert, we put the movie in a desert region.  In Sci-Fi, when they want to make a movie about being in the desert, they put it on a desert planet, not on a planet with many different bioregions, including deserts, which the protagonists happened to be in. 

I don’t know why they do this, but I think it is because we look at things through the lens of Earth, and just end up making a theoretical universe a stand-in Earth by giving it diverse bioregions in the form of different planets.  On Earth, if we want to go to the desert, we go to a bioregion that is desert.  In the Sci-Fi universe, you go to the desert bioregion, also, but it just so happens that this bioregion is defined not with boundaries like rivers and mountain ranges and oceans, but by the fact that it is a planet of its own. 

It strikes me as pretty weak thinking to do this, because it simply reduces a limitless universe into a surrogate Earth.  I’d liken it to a massive failure of imagination. 

Every planet, for the most part, has multiple dominant, intelligent species on it.

We go to Tatooine, and find all sorts of thinking, intelligent, sentient creatures on it.  We go to Naboo and there are two intelligent, sentient species living there.

Okay. Sort of...

So it goes throughout the universe, where seemingly every planet has a couple different species of intelligent, sentient creatures on it, and this is never considered to be as impossible, as it most likely is. 

The fact is, we have trouble sharing resources within our species – why would we deem it necessary to share resources outside the species, unless there was never, ever an overlap of resources (which is pretty unlikely).  Even if one species was marine and the other terrestrial, eventually they’d get into a fight over fishing rights or water usage or something, and once that happened, it is likely that whichever one of the species was the weaker of the two would be wiped out. 

Do you really think that the Huts would have put up with Tuskan Raiders for more than a couple of weeks before they got into their sand barge thingies and had themselves a Tuskan shoot?

Because fuck those guys, amiright?
Think about humans, and how they’ve never really had qualms with wiping out groups within their own species when competitions arose.  Now imagine what we’d have done, if instead of human Gauls, the Romans were facing off against a species of sentient river otters?  They tried to exterminate the Gauls, and only stayed their hand when the Gauls surrendered and allowed themselves to be assimilated into Rome.  Do you think that the Romans would have assimilated the Otter People?  Fuck no, they’d have just killed them all, or enslaved them.  Either way, the only way the Otter People survive is if the Romans allow because it is to their benefit. 


It is my firm belief that under the paradigms presented by Earth, and realistically, under the paradigm that any other civilization would be under if they were “stranded” on their own planet and unable to travel to others, two distinct species would never rise to the top and stay there for long.  One would wipe the other out at some point in time, al la the Neanderthals on Earth. 

Because, seriously, i can't stress this enough: Fuck those guys!  


  1. " How did Romulans become, every one of them, spies, if all every one of them was doing was spying on another? Doesn’t that seem sort of pointless? Why spy on someone when you already know what he’s doing? “What did your target do today, Romulan?”

    “He spied on another Romulan!”

    “OHHH, that’s some news I can use to my benefit when I’m spying on my Roluman later today!”

    Oh, man, that was perfect! :D

  2. You raise some excellent points about biodiversity, and bioregions, As well as monolithc cultures. This is something that has always bothered me about Sci-Fi, particularly Star Wars and Star Trek, but at the same time, with star wars and the presence of multiple intelligent species on a planet you run into a bit of a problem. In the star wars universe, interstellar travel has existed for Milena. The Hutts did not originate on Tatooine, they came there, although the Jawas and the Sand People do present a bit of a problem. All of the other diverse forms of sentient life were seen in the cantina in the starport. Every one of them came from somewhere else, not just as a species, but personally.

    Likewise on Naboo, the Gungans were likely the native intelligent species. The humans seen were likely transplants.

    1. “the presence of multiple intelligent species on a planet you run into a bit of a problem. In the star wars universe, interstellar travel has existed for Milena.”

      Understood. I probably didn’t help by mentioning the cantina, because it is basically an interstellar truck stop, so that was a bad example. But my example about the Hutts and the sand people is still valid.

      “The Hutts did not originate on Tatooine, they came there,”

      That must be a bit of “extended universe” info that I missed along the way. I did not realize that the Hutts were transplants, but I don’t think it changes the point that I made, either way

      “Likewise on Naboo, the Gungans were likely the native intelligent species. The humans seen were likely transplants.”

      Naboo is a decent example of what I’m talking about. I don’t necessarily think it’s important that both species are native to the planet. In fact, in a case where one species is the invader, it makes it even worse. The gungans, one assumes, would be the native sentients on Naboo. They weren’t wiped out, true, but they were forced to live underwater, which it is hinted at in the movie is not their natural state of being. They are terrestrial beings that were driven under the water because the Naboo forced them there at some point in time, likely after a conflict that ensued after the newcomers and the natives got into a little tussle. Probably started by the Gungans, trying to push away these new invaders eating their food and mining their ore.

      Look at Native Americans vs. White people for a good example. Really, the only reason the Native Americans were allowed to continue existing was the hope that they would integrate into white society because they are at least the same species as us, and given that there were once 80 to 100 million Native Americans and the census says that there are now about 2 million left, and that’s up from historic lows arund the turn of the last century, they didn’t exactly profit, even though they were the same species. On Naboo, no such thing would be possible, and there would be less sympathy for a being that is a completely different species. TO be honest, I doubt the early Naboo had any qualms about literally EATING Gungans, since they aren’t human, so who cares?

      Look at what the Aussies did to the Aboriginals down under. The only reason they weren’t wiped out is due to the fact that the Aboriginals were able to withdraw into an area the Europeans didn’t want to be, and so stopped competing for resources with them.

    2. Now I want to see a Tuskan casino outside the gates of the Imperial starport. :D

    3. If you knew me you'd know that what you just said is infinitely more funny to me than you could even imagine. I just finished building a tribal casino. It probably would warrant a pretty funny blog post of its own (maybe even a funny tirade) but I try to separate my professional life from my blogging life, just out of self-preservation.

      You've got a gift, Tam.

    4. Maybe this is why Firefly was credible with its fans. They were all human, but diverse; even the Reivers and the "Deputy Marshall on Justified"

  3. You miss the unintentional genius of Star Trek. Every high level species cloaks their planet. What first world civilization wants to be bothered by a poor immigrant tourist spaceship?
    They would look at humans, vulcans, klingons, ferengi, borg, and see one species squabbling internally.

    1. It's actually a good point. If you consider the physical dimorphism in some species, it really wouldn't be too much of a stretch for an outsider to look at humans, vulcans, klingons, ferengi, and borg and assume that they are different races or breeds of the same species. They are all humanoid, bi-pedal, with all the requisite parts in more or less the same places. Captain Kirk did a convincing job of proving that they can at least interbreed (if not proving for certain that they can all reproduce amongst themselves like humans and vulcans can do, but there is that one Green Girl in sector 5 that keeps filing child support claims, so...)

      Consider dogs, where you get everything from Chihuahuas and Bichon Frises to Newfies and Great Danes all wrapped up in the same species, and you'll see that it really isn't that much of a stretch to think that a society would make that mistake about the Crew of the Enterprise.

      That being said, I did not miss your point as fully as it seems I did in writing this. Just pointing that out. (They'd see us as the other, too).

  4. I think there actually was one Star Trek TNG episode that took place on a pre-contact ~1960s technology level planet. I don't remember much about the episode, except that there was a bit of an X-Files vibe to it, with individuals on the planet insisting that there were aliens visiting the planet and the crew of the Enterprise was trying not to let the cat out of the bag and violate the Prime Directive...

  5. There were at least two "21st century"-ish worlds in ST:TNG.

    One was the one Rob mentioned, where Riker got injured and was in an alien hospital, and got found out by Bebe Neuwirth who wanted to seduce him.

    The second was the one shown in "The Best of Both Worlds", with the time capsule that ran Picard through an entire lifetime in ten minutes; they were able to launch rockets just before their demise.

    I thought the one in "Who Watches the Watchers" was somewhat advanced, but I've not seen it in ages.

    Regarding Dustydog's point, there was that episode where they found out that all the hominid species were descendants of a common race, now long gone - so the hypothetical cloaked Vorlons (to steal a race and concept from Babylon 5) would actually be right.

    Regarding Tatooine, well, it's a desert planet. If it's all desert, where would all those native life forms gets started? Given the Wild West characteristics of Tatooine, my bet is that all of these species were transplants; natives, if any, got wiped out. (If Tatooine were Arrakis, of course, things would be different. Spice > midichlorians.)

  6. As a note on the while bio region thing, its actually more common to have a planet that as a whole is way too hot, or way too cold, than to have a multi-climate goldilocks planet. I mean exo planets aside, look at our solar system. You have no-atmosphere hot planet, super dense atmosphere hell planet, multi-climate planet, Hoth with less ice, gas giant, gas giant, gas giant, gas giant, where the only reasonable moons are "death by radiation plus sulfur", hoth minus atmosphere but add radiation, cold no atmosphere rock, cold no atmosphere rock, hoth with hydrocarbon atmosphere and lakes, and rocks.
    Seems to me that even with that sample, the universe is much more "desert planet, ice planet, water planet, rock" (mainly without atmospheres, but whatever.
    Point is, mono-climate planets/moons are likely more common that ones with distinct wet/dry zones plus temperature bands.

    1. Planets that support life, Marc.

      The thing all the planets you listed have in common?

      None support life.

      The likelihood of life supporting planets to be uniform is far less likely.

    2. If you clarified to say "planets that support human life", sure.
      But to use an apt scifi comparison, the EpI gungans would probably be just fine on Europa. But I will concede your point slightly. Since we don't know what exo life could be, I will keep my point, and clarify yours with "life similar to life on earth".
      Which is somewhat circular, as you are basically saying "life like that on earth would likely develop on planets like earth".

  7. Tam's and your points aside, I don't think its a creative failure, given that most scifi of the ilk you are referring is predicated on the premise of travel to other star-systems or planets, having mono-climate planets is a perfectly legitimate literary excuse to require travel (the story) to such planets.
    Also, judging by most recent discoveries, poly-climate seems to be an unstable point. Mars was once poly-climate, but slipped off the local maxima. Over the course of eons, given stellar evolution, its reasonable to say that only a small fraction of planets would ever be poly climate, and even then its likely transitory.. Hell, during the last ice age, except for a quite small region near the equator, earth was pretty much Hoth.
    And in prehistoric times, could easily have been Dagobah.
    Anyway, don't get me wrong, I agree with your points, I just think its either more complex than that, or a convenient literary device.

  8. He IS the worlds most interesting Romulan!
    All the other Romulans Spy on HIM!
    "I don't always drink Ale, but when I do,
    it isn't that ice-brewed Ty-D-Bowl stuff we
    smuggle to the Federation."
    "Stay thirsty my enemies!"