I love sci-fi like Captain Kirk loves befuddled green women in miniskirts: passionately and against all the laws of nature and man. When I say "passionately," I don't necessarily mean that I like to dress up at conventions or anything; I mean that I believe science fiction is one of the most important, relevant and often overlooked genres. How many times has science fiction altered, predicted or warned against the impending fate of humanity? From Fahrenheit 451 to Cat's Cradle to Neuromancer, sci-fi has proven again and again that it knows where we're going and what's going to happen when we get there. Yet we still marginalize and ignore it, stuffing it into that one cramped, shameful little section of the bookstore that always smells like a combination of Fritos and Raid. And when I say "against the laws of nature and man," I mean, dang -- you do not want to know what I do to my copy of Foundation. Those pages don't just stick together, brother; they're so fused and full of nutrients that the wood pulp has started laying down roots again.
Like this, but y'know ... awful.
That's probably why
The bulk of the workload in writing science fiction/fantasy is creating your whole world from scratch. It's a hell of a lot of fun, but it also has some unique problems. Characters, by being from this world you've just hand-built, are naturally going to be referring to places and objects and sometimes even speaking in a language that is completely foreign to the reader. To deal with this issue as a writer, you can fill the narrative with clunky exposition, rabidly notate the entire thing and hope your readers like cross-referencing as much as they like space battles (
Or you could take the other option: Chuck a dumbass into your story who literally doesn't understand a thing, thus forcing all of the other characters to constantly stop and explain every aspect of the world to him. Like so:
" General Klogg's Pogofighters are bouncing over the city walls! Quick, to the rhythm-cannons!" N-dah Gaim, robo-temptress of the Seventh Veil, screamed in alarm.
"General who's whatfighters are doing huh now?" Biff Manface asked (manfully).
"I forget, Manface, despite your chiseled jawline and just ... really, truly rockin' pecs (seriously, they're so, so good) ... that you are but a human, and a stranger to our lands. General Krogg is the former leader of Klogglandia's dancing warrior caste, you see, and his elite band, or 'crew,' of Krumping assassins have ..."
And so forth.
If you think that's a hack move that you, as a discerning reader, wouldn't tolerate, think again. It's been utilized in nearly every famous sci-fi work in history.
There are easy ones to spot:
"And also to teach these future-chicks how to bone!" -- Gil Gerard (not even in character).
The only reason their hero existed was to provide the show's writers with an easy excuse to explain everything from technology to politics in terms the audience could understand.
But there are subtler ways writers do it, too: It's no coincidence that Luke Skywalker was a hillbilly from a backwoods planet. "Shucks and golly geez, y'all, you'd best explain the back story of this here space war to me, 'cause I ain't never seen no 'Em-peer-eee-alls' before, much less no big ol' hairy 'Walk-ees.'" Paul Atreides was a recent transplant from a foreign planet when
"OK, listen, I know it's a desert planet and all, but caves are still chilly, keep in mind ..."
It works the other way, too. You can actually track the downfall of a series by its increasing lack of a loveable, moral, idiot lead. I'm talking about
"In this program, we'll learn how both the Agents and your own hasty erections work, Neo."
But then came the sequels -- most notable for setting the land-speed record for the fastest time anything has traveled all the way back up its own ass. They failed largely because they lacked what the first had in abundance: a sci-fi bumpkin to be the audience's avatar. After the first movie, Neo became a detached, jaded expert in the world of the Matrix, and we stopped seeing things from the sci-fi straight man's POV. Thus we got characters who quickly strolled through dazzling set pieces, barely taking time to gawk at places like Zion, because why would they? It's all old hat to them. And the plot had to be relayed through bizarre, clunky, long-winded exposition from characters who should rightfully already know the information and certainly have no reason to be explaining it to each other.
Once you recognize this trick, you may be doomed to examine every sci-fi movie for the presence of the sci-fi straight man, rolling your eyes every time the writers find an excuse to make him say something like, "
As I hinted in the opening paragraphs, a big part of science fiction is a kind of sociological fortunetelling. We tend to assume that sci-fi writers are introducing us to these fantastic new technologies only after carefully basing them on actual research. No matter how outlandish the conclusion, General Krogg's Breakdancing Vacuumech Armada is all just the hyperbolic endpoint of a current trend, right? Orwell imagined cameras on every corner and a system of speech carefully regulated so as not to say anything too inflammatory, and lo, now we have CCTV and political correctness. When you think of him coming up with that, doesn't it bring to mind images of a serious man carefully poring over government reports, marketing releases, camera patents and books on the anthropological progression of speech? And, hey, maybe he did. Maybe he sat down to write
"And they've all become obsessed with reality shows! It's the future, damn you! No, not the Thorazine! Believe! BELIIII-"
But it doesn't matter either way, because at a certain point, to tell the actual story with his actual characters, he had to throw all that carefully researched constraint right out the window. We all do. Lightsabers went from slightly-better-than-swords to invincible mini death rays that can cut through anything, because goddammit, doesn't it look
And what, exactly, is NOT awesome about this?
That's why science fiction and fantasy are grouped together: They're both set in worlds where the rules of reality are totally irrelevant, and even the made-up ones are going to be broken eventually. I started off
So, hey, robot magic.
Once you realize this aspect of science fiction, you'll have to reluctantly cede that the glaring errors and contradictions in every single episode of
I've said it twice already in this article, because it's a common perception: Science fiction authors often double as futurists, keenly predicting the twists and turns of humanity's progress via their faultless vision and masterful storytelling. But if they do so, I promise you, they do it reluctantly. William Gibson wasn't trying to predict the Internet. I'm sure he extrapolated the idea based on some real stuff, but go reread
He did it because he saw the potential for a good story in this neat thing that he made up. Aldous Huxley didn't write
Pictured: Aldous Huxley(?)
But this retroactive prescience has happened enough times now that we kind of expect any book set in the near(ish) future to be, in some way, trying to predict that future. Everything a sci-fi author invents will get read as a symbol of something -- was the Fangpriest of Black Mars intended as a commentary on the increasingly public perversions of the Catholic church? Nope, the author probably just thought a space monk who prays by biting virgins with his nano-teeth was a cool villain. Like I said, while writing my own book, I started out carefully and exhaustively researching developments in fringe technology (in part because I was stumbling into the pitfall of futurism). I think the end product retains some of that predictive attitude, yes, but I sure as hell didn't have
Although some efforts have been closer than others.
Once you realize this simple truth, that even the most eerily accurate futurists in science fiction are more concerned with telling the best story than gazing into their crystal ball, some of the sheen might come off of your favorite properties. You may have to grudgingly admit that
When I talked about Lincoln fighting a dinosaur in my book, that was (shockingly) not just another case of me being a juvenile idiot man-child. (I know, I know -- I'm just as surprised as you are.) But I'm actually not alone in this particular, seemingly random obsession. For example, this is my laptop wallpaper right now:
I did not draw or even commission that piece. It was pre-existing. I Google searched "badass Abraham Lincoln" and it popped right up, because science fiction just loves the hell out of the Emancipator. You can see it in everything from modern, intentionally schlocky stuff like
I have a theory, though. At his most basic metaphorical level, Lincoln is the epitome of an old-school sci-fi hero. He's almost alien in appearance: a gangly, freakishly tall, absurdly strong man in a bizarre, anachronistic uniform. He came from humble beginnings to play a vital role in a tragic war between factions of a torn superpower. Even the "bad guys" he fought were in favor of something as basely, immediately evil as slavery. That's a huge fallback in science fiction. If you want instant shorthand for your villains, have somebody toss off that they're "slavers" and not another word needs to be said before your heroes can start gleefully mowing them down. If you grabbed a biography of Lincoln and replaced all instances of "the South" with "Kloggian Nebula," and "ratified" with "laser-blasted," you'd have a pretty epic space opera. Hell, it's all right there in his nickname:
That's an epithet that belongs on a giant, holo-chainsaw swingin' battlemech if I've ever heard one.
"Fourscore and seven Kloggian slave raids ago, our cyber-fathers brought forth on this moon a new nation, conceived in blood ...
Once you realize this particular trope, you'll either start to see presidential history as a thrilling historical predecessor to
But you know what you won't fall asleep to? My f*****g book!
Oof, Jesus. Just buy it already so I can start respecting myself again.
You can buy Robert's other book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Or you can just buy his book. He will give you safe passage in the Wasteland. Just buy his book and there will be an end to the horror.
For more sci-fi from Brockway, check out Choose Your Own Drug-Fueled Misadventure: Flight of Terror and 5 Real Ways to Get High Straight Out of Science Fiction
Movies are never more unrealistic than when they're showing us exactly what a dollar can buy.