Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.