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Thrills! Chills! Pointless Staff Meetings! Mediocre Performance Reviews!

20 December 2012

I admit it — I love sci-fi. It would probably be weird if I didn’t, though, especially as I write about it a lot (and write books of it on occasion). But I hate to say I’m going to have to call bullshit on most of the popular, non-near-future stuff. And just so no one feels particularly picked on, I’m going to pick my favorite all-time sci-fi franchise to illustrate the point.

Consider the original Star Trek series. Yes, it was completely groundbreaking at the time it aired, and was probably the most out-there thing on TV at the time. But even then, I got the general feeling that the people on the Enterprise were kind of just showing up to the office every morning. Sure, their commute was minimal — they lived in their workspace, like an oil rig — but mostly, they were just showing up for their jobs every day, kind of like your average person in 1966.

It gets even more apparent when you move to the first couple of seasons of The Next Generation. Picard is always calling meetings where he gets the opinions of all his staff — kind of like the PC late 80s and early 90s when the show was filmed. Go back and count the number of conference room scenes in Season 1 and 2 of TNG — some of which happen at the most insane times — and it could be like you’re watching a show about a corporate entity rather than an adventurous space crew.

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The strength of science fiction is that it can highlight the issues of its time using allegory, but that strength also shines a light on its weakness — that it’s a product of its time. It’s written through the lens of someone living in 1989, not someone living in 2270. For contrast, look at the cultural and societal differences from 1750 or so to 2012. It’s a huge divide, powered by technology, changing societal norms, new discoveries, and on and on.

Now look at the cultural divide between 1990 and whenever the boardroom meetings took place on the Enterprise-D. They’re just… not that different. Even though they’ve met countless alien cultures, none of those different societies have really seemed to have much of an impact. You don’t see humans suddenly embracing Klingon philosophy or Romulan techno-thrash, but look at right now, when tons of white, middle-class Americans embrace Chinese philosophy and meditation, or dig on Japanese pop music. Today, you see people checking their phones obsessively, but the massive technology of the 24th Century doesn’t seem to impact the day-to-day habits of the crew in any meaningful way. They read their 24th Century iPads only when someone hands them a report… kind of like a faxed memo back in 1990, and not like a tablet even today.

Thing is, I’d love to see a sci-fi where people projected the massive societal shifts a couple of hundred years out. These predictions don’t need to be accurate, of course — I pointed out yesterday that we’re nowhere near 2001. But I’d love to see how things change societally, culturally — how humans react to a changing universe.

So what’s been the sci-fi that’s pulled that off the best? Which one has been the worst offender about plunking 20th-century characters in a future setting?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 December 2012 0502

    “Even though they’ve met countless alien cultures, none of those different societies have really seemed to have much of an impact.” Excellent point! I also suspect the writer(s) unintentionally (or intentionally) use their own cultures as a frame of reference for the sake of accessibility.

    I think Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” approaches an appreciation for massive societal shifts.

    • 21 December 2012 0647

      Heinlein was good at that kind of thing. Larry Niven made attempts, too. But it’s easier to do that kind of thing in a book than a sci-fi TV series; you have to sell the series to network execs. If it’s too out there, to weird… It probably won’t make it to air.

      Except now, when it might just get released to the Internet. Which is kind of a great thing.

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