Sunday’s post on the Unquestioned Assumptions of SF was a little strange as the post I was referencing was really more about pet peeves than unquestioned assumptions, so I figured that I should rename this post to add my own pet peeves to Matt Johnsons’s list. So without further ado:
- Aliens That Aren’t Really Alien: Most alien species you see in SF are basically humans with weird ears or bumps on their forehead. In other words, they’re just humans with superficial differences. Sure many of them will have strange customs or psychological ticks, but most of the time, such differences aren’t even as severe as cultural differences here on earth. The most egregious violator of this is Star Trek. Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans… they’re all just humans with various traits magnified (impatient aggression, steadfast logic, and passionate cunning, respectively). One notable exception in the world of film is Alien (though sequels tend to diminish the more alien qualities). In the world of literature, the big exception is Vernor Vinge’s Zones of Thought books, A Fire Upon The Deep (reviewed on this blog a while back) and A Deepness in the Sky (which I also wrote about once). Fire‘s wolflike aliens, in particular, were great examples of what is possible, but rarely even attempted in SF. Regardless, examples of human-like alien races far outweigh the truly alien aliens in SF, and that’s always bothered me. To be sure, this does present something of a challenge to authors, as it requires them to think in ways unaccustomed to humans.
- Monolithic Planet Ecologies: Star Wars is particularly bad in this respect – the ice moon of Hoth, the desert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon Endor, etc… The thought of an entire planet with only one type of climate almost boggles the mind. I’m sure there are some planets like this, but if Star Wars was any indication, every planet has one and only one dominant climate. Sometimes this sort of conceit can be used to good effect, as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s excellent The Left Hand of Darkness, but it’s still a pet peeve of mine.
- Language: Rarely is language used as anything more than simple flavor in a story with alien species. Most of the time there is some sort of unexplained technology, typically called the “Universal Translator” or something, that will automatically translate alien languages. Rarely does the translation aspect receive any scrutiny. At best, we get some sort of throwaway reference to the universal translator, then the story moves on to other things. If you think of the way all the various human languages interact with one another and the inadequacies of translations, it seems really unlikely that alien species would even come close to being easily understood. For instance, human translators working to convert a text from one human language to another aren’t working in a vacuum – they bring their own cultural and historical context into the picture when translating that text. Take a Greek word like pathos; there isn’t really a single English word that corresponds with what Pathos represents. You rarely get that sort of depth in SF. One notable exception to this is Mary Doria Russell’s exceptional novel, The Sparrow. The novel has many themes, but the way it uses language to precipitate a tragic outcome is unsurpassed. Interestingly, Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash has a more thorough exploration of the nature of language than most stories with alien species (and Snow Crash doesn’t even feature any aliens!)
- Artificial Gravity: Another concept often relegated to a throwaway reference, there exists a lot of potential here that goes untapped. It’s not so much that it’s impossible to control gravity as that if we had that ability, the applications would extend far beyond being able to stand on the floor of a spaceship. Implications for weaponry are enormous, and energy manipulation in general seems ripe for this sort of technology. But no, we’ll just use it to simulate earth level gravity, thanks. I guess tractor beams could be explained in such a way, and a lot of SF does at least attempt to account for this by explaining that the spaceship is spinning in such a way as to simulate earth gravity, but it’s still a bothersome trope.
I think that’s all for now. I was going to write one for manned interstellar travel, but that topic is just too large (for example, it encompasses FTL travel, which is, in itself, a rather large subject) for a quick paragraph (Nevertheless, the way interstellar travel is depicted in SF is often tiresome and thoroughly unrealistic – one notable exception, Greg Egan’s Diaspora). One interesting thing about writing this post that I didn’t really expect were the number of exceptions to each of the above pet peeves. It turns out that there are a lot of books that really do address these issues (perhaps another reason why the phrase “Unquestioned Assumptions” is not appropriate for this discussion).