Tag Archives: world building

Democracy deficit in SF&F

So the US election – wow, what a long drawn out painful affair that’s been, one that we sincerely need a break from. Okay so let’s talk about democracy in science fiction and fantasy.

Democracy isn’t actually all that well represented in SF&F, instead it’s fair to say that empires and other non-democratic governments are staple of both, sure there are exceptions but that’s what they are – exceptions. Where they do appear it’s particularly noticeable in SF they appear on the heroes side, although often poorly defined, while the opposition will be often described as as an empire or some other less than benign term. In fantasy the difference between the heroes and villains tends to be even more wafer thin, with the goods guys getting the wise and fair king, the bad the blood thirsty despot. Either way they’re usually the absolute ruler.

Fantasy’s default setting is a version of Medieval Western Europe. Now I’m not a scholar of medieval history but I do know a reasonable bit about English history of the period. In the case of the English kings of the medieval period, even the strongest of them were not absolute rulers. In theory they were but in practice below the monarch were the various nobles, these were people that had to be kept on side. Kings who failed to do so found themselves coping with either a lack of cooperation or outright rebellion – King John of England 1199 – 1216 being a case in point. Certainly it isn’t a democracy as we would recognise it but is still well removed from the idea of one-guy-calls-all-the-shots. The medieval or ancient period did see more formalised democracies, notably in ancient Greece. These would be more recognisable for us although the franchise would still be limited to people who were: male, free, wealthy, middle aged and landing owning – a franchise that was only exceeded in Britain in the late nineteenth century.

So if fantasy often takes its cues from a perceived version of history what about the future? Well if science fiction is a guide, empires and other non democratic forms of government have a fine future ahead of them. Obviously there are a few science fiction democracies, Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets is probably the best known although is pretty weakly defined in the films and television episodes. It also has the very underused Romulan  Star Empire, which despite the name was also described as having a ruling senate (which was wiped out in a virtual after thought in the underwhelming Star Trek Nemesis). There is also the Expanse Book/TV series that does portray both Earth and Mars as being democratic governments – at least on the face of it. Earth in particular elected officials appear to be borderline figureheads with the real power wielded by a tiny number of un-elected officials.

So why does SF&F have a problem with democracy? Three reasons I think 1) due process, 2) personalities 3) removal of ambiguity.

Even allowing for the excitement of 2016, politics is often a dry affair of committees, budgets and the various checks and balances, the more robust that democracy is, the more road blocks there will be between intention and action. Possibly this explains why in the Star Wars universe the first Death Star seems to have taken twenty odd years to build but the second, once the imperial senate was ‘swept away’, was banged out in a couple of years – no funding committees for the project to bog down in. Score one for for the totalitarian regime, yeah sh*t gets done!

Only problem is if we take a look at one of the most famous regimes – Nazi Germany – what you find is one that was horribly inefficient. Hitler had the final say so everything revolved around getting his ear, if you could manage it, then all kinds of pet projects could be authorised. Projects that ranged from mere duplication of effort to full on droolingly crazy. The same has proven true of various other despots, the top guy has a notion and there’s no one there to stop them. The really is that a lot of that due process, committees, going to tender and all the rest of it are in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. True out in the real world democratic governments have managed some massive screw ups but non-democratic governments have done the same and more. Where they manage to match democratic nations it has usually only been because standards of living being massively lower.

The other thing about democracies is elections, constant bloody elections, one that can see the sudden removal of leaders for reasons that have little or nothing to do with their actual performance. Take for example President Barack Obama, he has apparently a high approval rating but he will gone within weeks because that is the process within the USA. From a story telling view though it would be a pretty horrible way to deal with things if half way through, the established character disappeared to be replaced with one the writer and reader would have to get to know. Which brings us to our next area.

Now I write military science fiction, many years ago I remember reading someones comment that if you wanted to do a scientifically accurate space war, then your story would be about the life and times of Z-571 the nuclear tipped interplanetary missile. While you could certainly write it, finding someone to read it would be tricky.  So by extension a realistic democratic political system will see political figures removed with resulting changes in policy. Imagine Return of the Jedi, with the Alliance about to launch their attack on the second Death Star, only to hear that the Emperor has lost a vote of confidence and the new administration is proposing peace talks. That would be the point where you’d either walk out of the cinema or wing the DVD out the window.

Stories are about people. Writers create and develop characters then tell stories via them; generally there is limit to how many major characters a story can successfully support. In reality democracies tend to have a lot of people involved in the decision making process – even one like America where there’s a strong single executive officer. Trying to realistically portray this is likely to burn a lot of word count on an area that the reader might regard as secondary to the alien invasion, robot uprising, zombie apocalypse or whatever is the main point of the story.

If having a portraying functional democracy is tricky then doing two steepens the difficulty curve significantly. It is probably no wonder that the opposition side so often is described as an empire, if they’re a empire and the side the protagonists are on isn’t, then the implications are clear who are the good guys.* Sometimes this is the right decision – for the like of Star Wars (the originals) this worked because it went for the tropes. It needed the lack of ambiguity. For others it can be a missed opportunity for some real grey morality and added depth. Personally I’ve always felt that an author has to decide where the core story is going to be and to this the majority of the word count is dedicated, still that doesn’t mean the subordinate sections need default to cliché. I’ve only really touched on the various forms of government but history provides plenty of possibilities for those who go looking for them.

* I wonder a bit whether the preponderance of fictional empires can be traced back to the dominant role in entertainment that the USA has – a country formed when it successfully fought and broke away from an empire?

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Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?

History is packed with predictions of the future that proved hilariously inaccurate  but just how close are we getting to becoming a society where cosmetic and utility based implants are as common place as tattoos?

First off what is a Cyborg? Well according to the the writer Manfred Clynes and scientist Nathan S. Kline, it is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, the term being first coined in an issue of Astronautics Magazine about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. Now that’s a pretty loose definition which could lead you to calling anyone with a heart pacemaker or a cochlear ear implant a Cyborg – which we really don’t do. Instead when we use the term we’re generally referring to someone along these lines, if we we’re feeling cheerful


and these lines if we’re not

cyborg1Both of which are well beyond what we can currently do. If we look at the real world I think we can divide prosthetic into two groups, those that are designed to replicate natural functions of the body and those that are not. In the first category I would include the likes of cochlear ear implants and artificial limbs. These, from what I follow, are working towards being both functional and discrete; currently however even the very best of these are inferior to their natural counter parts, as are those that are currently under development. Not only do these artificial parts have to interface with our nerve-endings  – something that even the best do imperfectly – but also need an external power source.  So thus far their use is limited to individuals who’s organic parts have failed or are failing due to illness, injury or birth defect. It’s tempting to say we’ll figure these things out sooner or later but I think you can reasonably say that there is one significant threat to this version of the future, which comes in the form of another sci-fi staple – cloning.

Again, from what I follow, the science of cloning is making steady progress. The real holy grail is how to take cells from a subject and make them turn into stem cells; if that can be done, then they can be changed into any other kind of cell. This would certainly open the door to growing replacement parts, ones that unlike current transplants would avoid the need for anti-rejection drugs or separate power supplies. This seems to be a technology that more a case of when will it be developed rather than if. So if prosthetics that replicate natural functions are a technological way-station or possibly dead-end, what about ones that are designed to do things that are not within the natural capabilities of humans?

Now I’m probably not the right person to try to answer this kind of question since a relative described me once as an inverse techno snob, that said I wear glasses, a watch and usually have a smart phone upon my person (although the Wifi and data options are switched off most of the time). There are those however who live and breath technology, for some it is a necessity of their jobs, for others it is a question of image – look at the publicity the surrounds the launch of each new I-Phone. Also the concept of body modifications in the form of tattoos, piercings etc go back to the very dawn of our species. So will there be a market for built in mobile phones, glow in the dark tattoos or whatever?

For that kind of thing on a mass market level I personally I doubt it. Now for anyone coming across this blog in ten or twenty years time who is considering laughing at my Luddite lack of imagination, then I refer you back to the very first line of this blog.

The reason I doubt it is skill level required for implantation, recovery time and infection. Odds are you’ve read about or heard of someone having difficulties caused by a piercing or tattoo. The more invasive the nature of the surgery needed the higher the skill needed to perform the surgery and greater the risk. There will be a rehab and learning period for the next implant which is hard to see as being compatible with our current product life cycle where phones and their like are expected to have a lifespan of a couple of years. Unless medical technology in terms of surgery becomes a lot easier and cheaper, cost and potential legal liability are going to make mass implant of technology difficult.

However as I wrote this blog I was reminded something in one of the Red Dwarf novels, there was a one line reference to individuals having a sort of built in encyclopedia. An interesting idea, a kind of internal data hub into which all human knowledge could be placed, ready to be accessed at any time or place. Arguably in the age of the internet it’s already an obsolete concept but the internet includes so much that is either wrong or difficult find. A sort of Encyclopedia Britannica might mean every person has reliable information on every topic reality to hand at any moment.

Where utility implants might really become common or even simply necessary is in environments that the standard human can not operate in, which going back to the first paragraph: ‘advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space’. We can definitely say that space is an environment in which humans do not operate very easily. Keeping a human alive moment to moment is tricky enough but over longer term periods we sort of degrade. If we found ourselves with permanent space societies it might be the one environment where replacement of healthy tissue with mechanical parts could be justified. Again this depends on how other technologies develop and whether utility implants can offer enough utility to offset the complications. Quite how society would view cyborgs could be another limiting factor, could it become something to aspire to, adopted by those who are seen as being at the social peak or undesirable if it becomes a mark of the lower social/economic groups.

It is worth noting among those complications is system security. In recent years it has been discovered that a number of existing medical implants (pacemakers, insulin pumps etc) are potentially vulnerable to unauthorised access. Having your bank account accessed can be a major problem but that would be nothing compared to having parts of your body turned off or a months worth of insulin dumped into your system at once. Some science fiction has brushed across this and it is reasonable to assume the more common implanted technology is, the more of a problem this is like to be.

So to conclude things, this had been fairly brief run through of the issues of Cyborgs, the original question was ‘Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?’ and my answer is a solid No. There are inherently a lot of practical problems that go with it, now the higher the technology level of society as a whole, the less those problems might matter but that same technological advancement could render it it obsolete as a concept. Basically what I’m saying is that is becomes a question of personal taste for the reader. While for the writer it becomes a question of good world building and making sure it fits logically within the setting. At this point in time a world without cyborgs is just as possible as one where we all are.

Thoughts, comments or observations?



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Let’s talk about alien sex…

in world building. First off minds out of the gutter please, I’m not about to start writing alien erotica ( although I understand a living can be made that way… ) I’m instead going to talk about it as a part of a book’s background development.

With the time travel project currently in a holding pattern while I await feedback from my test readers, I’ve been making a tentative return to the Battle Fleet setting. Now as is my way I charged into the writing without a lot of formal planning… before coming to a fairly screeching halt.

As readers of the the Nameless War will be aware, while aliens did appear in the text as speaking characters, they were very much bit parts; it was first and foremost a story about humanity. A number of reviewers did comment about the fact that the Nameless War is not set very far into the future – while I do have an explanation for that, in part it was because I wanted the human race to be still recognizable. It also saved mightily on the world building. Once you start on alien life through, well it’s best to start from the bottom.

Before we go on I suggest you take a quick look at THIS, don’t worry I can wait.

Welcome back. Now those are all terrestrial species, go back far enough and they (and us) all have common ancestors. An alien species won’t have that commonality so that leaves the writer free to come up with all kinds of wacky ideas.

Or does it?

Life in any sense that we might recognise it will seek to perpetuate itself, basically living things will look to produce more living things. If we take the terrestrial experience as a guide there is (very) broadly two basic methods – quantity Vs quality. The quantity approach is where the species produces a lot of young, with limited resources expended on each one. Most will not reach sexual maturity but by sheer weight of numbers enough will to perpetuate the species. The quality method – which we use – is the place a lot of resources into producing a small number of young. The more complex an alien ecosystem is, the more likely you’re going to see a mix of both. The other thing that terrestrial experience indicates is once you get to complex life a two gender system is the norm, (with exceptions) males – sperm, females – eggs, hermaphrodites – both.  So does that mean that an alien species to be plausible should follow the Earth model with just a few tweaks ?

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let's keep this classy

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let’s keep this classy

Well no.

Life on Earth – as it currently exists – is a product of the environmental conditions as they have existed and changed over the past few hundred million years. Different conditions, different life forms but there has to be a logic to it. So if for example you want an alien race with six different genders, you need to come up with a set of environmental factors that make this a route with enough advantages to offset the disadvantages. Bare in mind that as the saying goes, no man is an island and neither is any species, if  one has a six genders, then odds are so do all of its evolutionary cousins and so did its ancestors.

So how do we go about coming up with a different but plausible alien race?

First off what is the end point we want to reach, both in terms of physiology and culture. Possibly don’t get too wedded to any of it because some points may not mesh together. Now the temptation is the start with the culture, which I have come to the concussion is like trying to build a house by first doing the tiling. You need to foundations to be there to build everything else on top of. It is easy to come up system that works for a technologically advance species but how well does it work for their stone age or pre-sentience forebears?

Let’s go back to the human model for a minute. In the western world the average woman is capable of baring young from her teens to late forties/early fifties*. So a period of fertility of over twenty years. But a woman can complete one pregnancy each year so the average woman has a far greater fertility period than she needs to produce her and her partner’s replacements. At least by twenty first century western civilization standards. Dial things back a few million years and firstly she won’t live as long and childhood mortality from illness, injury, predator deprivation etc, means many children have to be had just to get a few to adulthood. As I said this is the human experience, which for sentient lifeforms is the only model we have to work with. It isn’t to say something really wacky can’t be done, but you have to take a cold hard look and see if its internal logic works.

An example in media of a failure to consider the practicalities is the Ocampa from Star Trek Voyager, a humanoid race with a mayfly like lifespan, who’s females the series blithely told us, only breed once during their lives, having one child. This would have the obvious problem that your species would at least halve at every generation even assuming every child reached maturity*2. A much better example can b found in Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which features an alien race, the majority of who’s members must breed at regular intervals or die. In an environment where there was a high mortality rate this system made sense. What makes this book well worth a look though is that the writers having come up with a system, then worked through the consequences. In the case of this species the result is run away population grown and eventual social collapse due to over population.

Once we have the mechanics of how a species can function we can move onto how this will shape its culture – or more probably cultures. A hermaphrodites race for example may not have any such thing as gender roles. A race with different subgroups with clear physiological or mental differences may have clear ruling or subject classes. History will also do massive things to shape how a species reacts. A history of internal warfare might produce an aggressive species or a peaceful one because it knows how destructive war can be. It’s all a question of how you spin it. In short this is the fun bit of alien race world building you just have to make sure it makes some kind of sense.

There’s one aspect of alien world building that I wasn’t sure if I would touch on – the matter of sexuality. What has already been covered is really a matter of imagination and following a line of logic but if we can for a moment pay attention to the man behind the curtain, should a writer be willing to tackle the matter of sexuality? My answer is I don’t know. When it comes to writing I’m best known for Military SF, a genre that tends to lean to the political right and conservatism. On the other hand, homosexuals and other groups have long complained that they are effectively written out of the picture. Finally there is the question of whether an attempt to include matters of different sexuality will backfire. As I was writing this piece the point was made to me that some groups of human society wouldn’t like the terms ‘hermaphrodites’. Terms change and when you aren’t personally a part of a particular group, it’s hard to know how something will be accepted because let us be honest here and admit to ourselves that the political left, can be as rabidly unreasonable as the right. Writing for payment by its nature mean producing something people will be willing to pay for. Most people aren’t going to pay to be metaphorically bludgeoned over the head with something they don’t agree with for whatever reason. In my own opinion the answer is found in the old writing adage ‘kill your darlings’ – if it isn’t relevant remove it. That said a couple of brief mentions of different sexuality types can go a long way in terms of expanding the inclusiveness of a work.

Now finally it has to be said that even if you have worked out the complete evolutionary history, culture and politics doesn’t mean it all has to go into your book. I’ve certainly come across books where the writer got lost in the world building and forgot about the characters and plot. The reader is there for the story but just to have this worked out and in your head will build a richer world and if nothing else, help with the internal constancy.

As ever I’ll be interested to hear any additional thoughts.

* Granted at diminishing levels of fertility as time passes with higher risk to both herself and the child.

*2 I’m aware they tried to fix it in later related works but it still leaves a gaping hole in the internal logic and is something of a warning to writing about the problems an ill thought out fact can create.

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