In Defence of Wallpaper Science Fiction

A few days ago, Paul Weimer pointed me on Twitter to this post by Charles Stross in which Stross laments the current state of the science fiction genre, because a lot of SF writers these days focus more on plot, action, characters and their relationships than on worldbuilding, particularly on economics, which is the aspect of worldbuilding that is closest to Stross’ heart. It’s clearly an issues that he feels strongly about, since Charles Stross writes variations of this post nearly every year, such as this three part rumination on space opera and its clichés from 2016 or this post on why he prefers urban fantasy to science fiction from 2014.

Here is a quote from the most recent post:

Unfortunately, we get this regurgitated in one goddamned space opera after another: spectacle in place of insight, decolorized and pixellated by authors who haven’t bothered to re-think their assumptions and instead simply cut and paste Lucas’s cinematic vision. Let me say it here: when you fuck with the underlying consistency of your universe, you are cheating your readers. You may think that this isn’t actually central to your work: you’re trying to tell a story about human relationships, why get worked up about the average spacing of asteroids when the real purpose of the asteroid belt is to give your protagonists a tense situation to survive and a shared experience to bond over? But the effects of internal inconsistency are insidious. If you play fast and loose with distance and time scale factors, then you undermine travel times. If your travel times are rubberized, you implicitly kneecapped the economics of trade in your futurescape. Which in turn affects your protagonist’s lifestyle, caste, trade, job, and social context. And, thereby, their human, emotional relationships.

Whenever Stross posts a variation of this “other people are doing science fiction wrong” rant, it inevitably gets my hackles up and also reminds me why I have bounced hard off every Charles Stross novel I tried to read. By now I have accepted that Charles Stross and his work simply are not for me, to the point that I only check out new work by him, when it finds its way to the Hugo shortlist and I am eligible to vote. Where I inevitably bounce off his work yet again. Because the things he values in science fiction are very different from the things I value.

For starters, an overexplanation of any aspect of worldbuilding at all will quickly land you in Alfred and Bertha territory and that way lies madness. After all, there is a reason why the Alfred and Bertha stories are parodies of a certain kind of overly infodumpy hard science fiction (though military SF can be just as infodumpy – it merely infodumps in other areas). And indeed, in The Three Quarters Eaten Dessert, I spent a full paragraph explaining the concept of VAT/sales tax and another explaining the concept of paper money in response to one of Stross’ rants that science fiction writers care too little about economics and never talk about VAT/sales tax.

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a kernel of truth in Stross’ post. Because all too often, things show up in science fiction, just because “that’s the way things are”, whether in genre or life, regardless if this makes sense in this particular setting. The prevalence of Galactic Empires vaguely modeled on the Roman or British Empire in science fiction is a result of tropes being imported from other genre works unexamined, as is the fact that every future military ever is either modelled on the US Marine Corps of the 20th/21st centuries or the British Royal Navy of the 18th and 19th centuries and that every starship is modelled on a modern aircraft carrier. Not that there cannot be very good narrative reasons for choosing these particular models over any others that are available, but all too often the answer to the question “Why is there a Galactic Empire rather than any other form of government?” or “Why is the future military modelled after the US Marine Corps or the British Royal Navy?” or “Why does this future starship function like a 20th century aircraft carrier?” is, “Because that’s the way things are done in this genre and besides, franchise X does it that way.” Hell, I’ve even seen writing advice explicitly stating, “Pick an existing SF franchise and use that as a baseline for how things work in your universe.”

But unexamined assumptions also creep into SF worldbuilding in other ways. For example, Star Trek Discovery (and Voyager, for that matter) assume that of course prisoners will be used for forced labour, because that’s the way things are and have been since the late 19th century at least in the US, whence the writers hail. Never mind that using prisoners for forced labour makes no sense in a post-scarcity quasi-utopian system like the Federation, where replicators are common and manufacturing is largely automatised. But prisoners have to do slave labour, because that is just the way things are. Just as prisoners wear overalls in garish colours, a convention that shows up a lot in filmic science fiction (also see the bright yellow prison uniforms in Guardians of the Galaxy), even though garishly coloured prison uniforms are a purely US thing and something that came in only in the last twenty to thirty years. Before that, prisoners wore denim shirts and pants or the traditional striped prisoner garb or the broad arrow on British prison uniforms or the plain white sarees (for women) or pants and shirt combinations (for men) worn by prisoners in India. And indeed, many countries have abolished distinctive prisoner uniforms altogether. But while many readers, viewers and writers would roll their eyes at prisoners dressed in outfits bearing the broad arrow in the far future, the garish yellow prisoner uniforms in Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Trek Discovery pass unremarked, because that is just the way things are and will always be. Just as it is totally normal that there will be such a thing as prisons and prisoners at all, that there is such a thing as a life sentence (common in the US and UK, but abolished or about to be abolished in many European countries) and that life sentences are handed out for crimes such as mutiny (which is of course a very serious crime – another unexamined assumption) rather than that they are reserved for serial killers and rapists, i.e. people who pose a huge danger for society. But while I and other continental European viewers point out that Michael Burnham’s fate in Star Trek Discovery is excessive and grossly unfair, most American viewers just accept it with a shrug. Because that is just the way how things are and always will be.

Coincidentally, Star Trek used to be much better at imagining the future of crime and punishment. The brainwashing shown in the original series episode “Dagger in the Mind” may seem incredibly creepy these days, but it was actually forward thinking at the time and indeed goes back all the way to Doc Savage and his crime college, if not further. Not to mention that the focus of the prison colony in “Dagger of the Mind” is on reform and not punishment or exploitation. But the writers of Star Trek Discovery simply cannot imagine a world where prisoners are not exploited as cheap labour. Just as the writers of the original Star Trek couldn’t imagine a future, even a highly utopian one, without the death penalty, as “The Menagerie” shows, though at the time the series was made in the real world most western countries already had or were in the process of abolishing the death penalty and both executions and support for the death penalty had dropped to an all-time low in the US.

And for that matter, why are Federation citizens so keen to join Starfleet anyway, when the death rate is extremely high and there is no financial incentive to join up, since the Federation’s post-scarcity future has abolished money? And why is Starfleet organised along military lines with a military rank structure and hierarchy, when their main mission is exploration? Why do Starfleet ships have huge crews with hundreds of people, when modern research vessels, the closest real world equivalents to either the Enterprise or the Discovery or the Voyager, have much smaller crews? The answer is probably because the original Star Trek writers and the writers of the works they borrowed from were far more familiar with Navy vessels (there have always a lot of military veterans among SF writers) than commercial or research vessels. And after a while, it simply became the way things have always been done in the genre.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have aircraft carriers in space (for example, it made sense for either version of the Battlestar Galactica to be based on an aircraft carrier, because the Galactica was an explicitly military vessel in a way the Enterprise wasn’t) or forced prison labour or even chain gangs in space, if you want to. You absolutely can and indeed, an upcoming In Love and War story will be set in a hellish prison camp where the prisoners are basically worked to death. However, if you want to have such a setting, you have to first answer the question “Why is this system in place and why does it make sense?” My answer was that the world in question has a lot of natural resources and exports agricultural products as well as minerals and resources. However, they have little to no manufacturing, so the machinery and software required for automation have to be purchased for foreign currency and the exchange rate is shit, making this extremely expensive. Human labour, however, is cheap and if you can get away with not even paying the humans for their labour, since they are convicts, you can cheaply harvest/extract natural resources and agricultural products and export them for valuable foreign currency. And since violent criminals are not all that good at following orders and complying, you will want mostly non-violent prisoners and you’ll need a way to keep them in line, too. Hence, even small infractions (in one case a parking meter violation, which is borrowed from Cool Hand Luke, the movie where the punishment for demolishing parking meters is death) are turned into crimes that result in lengthy prison sentences. And whole families are locked up, so prisoners can be kept in line via threats to their loved ones. Of course, once I had come up with a reason why there was something very much like a late 19th/early 20th century American chain gang on a planet in the far future, it completely derailed what was supposed to be a simple prison break story, because the system I had come up with was so evil that merely escaping wouldn’t do. The system had to be dismantled as whole. And indeed, Anjali and Mikhail insisted that “we have to stop this, because it is evil.” Which posed all sorts of new storytelling challenges.

So if all that Stross’ post did was implore science fiction writers to interrogate their worldbuilding choices and ask themselves “Why did I choose this?” and “Does this even make sense for the world that I built and if not, how can I make it fit?”, I would probably have heartily applauded. However, that’s not all he does. Because Stross does not just ask science fiction writers to make sure their worldbuilding is makes sense and is internally consistent. No, he also insists that all science fiction, at least the science fiction he is willing to consume, adhere to his personal worldbuilding standards and preferences and dismisses works that fail to match his particular standards. And this is problematic.

For starters, different writers focus on different aspects of worldbuilding. Charles Stross seems to focus on economics. J.R.R. Tolkien focussed on language and linguistics. Hard SF writers like Greg Egan or Stephen Baxter focus on physics. Ada Palmer focusses on philosophy. Brandon Sanderson focusses on magic systems. Military SF writers focus on military equipment and tactics. As for myself, I am interested in food and fashion and culture and architecture and will of course focus more on those aspects than e.g. on economics or physics, both of which I don’t particularly care about. This doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t at least have a vague working knowledge of other aspects (or be able to research whatever they need to know to tell the story they want to tell), just that writers will focus more on areas and aspects that interest them than on those that don’t. And if Charles Stross dismisses Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota quartet in the comments to the post with “It didn’t work for me, because the flying cars were not plausible”, he misunderstands the series, because the flying cars in Terra Ignota are just a tool and plot convenience to quickly move characters from one place to another. Flying cars not what those books are about and in fact, you could replace them with a Star Trek transporter, mini-wormholes or even magic pixie dust and still have the same story.

If a work focusses too much on an aspect of worldbuilding (or indeed any aspect) that you don’t care about, it’s perfectly normal to bounce off the work in question. I tend to have this reactions to certain types of military SF and also some thrillers, which make me think, “Enough with the weapons porn. Could we maybe get back to the plot?” Meanwhile, the steamier sorts of science fiction romance or paranormal romance occasionally make me go, “Okay, I get that the sex is great. But could we maybe get back to winning the galactic civil war now? And while we’re at it, could you explain this cool worldbuilding aspect a bit more?” Finally, I once said about Tom Clancy, “I will only read submarine tech specs, when I’m paid to translate them. I certainly don’t want this stuff in my leisure time reading.” Not that it isn’t possible to enjoy a work, even if it focusses a lot on aspects of worldbuilding you normally don’t particularly care for. For example, I’m not overly interested in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, but I nonetheless enjoyed the Terra Ignota books a whole lot, even though the characters spend a lot of time talking about philosophy. Finally, even if I don’t particularly care about a book and find the endless discussion of some worldbuilding aspect I’m not interested in duller than watching paint dry, that still doesn’t make it a bad book or mean that nobody else will like it. It merely means that this book is not for me. And that’s okay, because not every book has to be for me.

But Stross doesn’t merely complain that people are writing books he doesn’t care for, he also pulls out science fiction’s biggest cudgel, namely “This is not scientifically accurate.” And it is a big cudgel, so big that fear of getting hit with it stopped me from writing SF for years (which, to be fair, has nothing to do with Mr. Stross, but was my own reaction to years and decades of similar articles and essays). For as a young person who loved science fiction and desperately wanted to write it and who was scientifically literate enough to realise that movies like The Black Hole or Armageddon were complete and utter bunk and that nuclear reactors don’t require slaves to shovel radium into the atomic furnace (looking at you, Flash Gordon), I was utterly paralysed by the fear of getting the science wrong. Never mind that the sort of SF universe I wanted to create – a big universe with lots of inhabitable planets, alien races and regular FTL travel between them – was scientifically impossible.

It didn’t help either that I read about other science fiction writers who would calculate and plot out the orbits of their fictional planets or who regularly mined science magazines for story ideas. Still, this was the way “real SF writers” did things, so I forced myself to read science articles that often bored me to death, hoping for a nugget of SF inspiration to fall out. And when no nuggets of inspiration appeared, I sadly concluded that I was simply not meant to be an SF writer and focussed on other genres.

Meanwhile, the truth is that I’m simply not that sort of writer. My stories usually start with a character, a situation or a scene, not with a big idea, scientific or otherwise. Nor do I create the story to fit the science, but I research the science to fit the story. It’s a different approach to writing SF (or any other genre), but it’s just as valid as calculating and plotting orbits and drawing GA-plans of spaceships before even writing a single word.

To be fair to Stephen Baxter, he gets this. Take this quote from the article I linked to above about his collaboration with Terry Pratchett on the Long Earth series:

“It was a great idea but Terry’s strength did not lie in landscapes and things,” Baxter says. “He’d get a story by having a basic idea, get two people in a room talking and see where it went from there.”

This is not how Baxter works. His fiction, whether about the colonising mission sent to a planet orbiting a nearby red dwarf star, in Proxima, or the exploration of different evolutions of humanity in the Destiny’s Children series, is meticulously planned and pinned down, rooted in the scientific background from which he comes.

My own way of writing is a lot closer to Pratchett’s than to Baxter’s. I start with characters, too, and not with the science and the worldbuilding. Nonetheless, I found myself paralysed and unable to write in the genre I loved most for years, simply because I was a character-driven and not a big idea writer.

Meanwhile, I was well aware that a lot of the SF I read (or watched) and enjoyed was far from scientifically accurate. A lot of the time I made excuses along the lines of “It’s an old book/movie. They just didn’t know any better back then”, though even I knew that the radium shovelling slaves in Flash Gordon (around the 6 minute mark) made no more sense back in 1936 than when I first saw the serial in 1989. And there was absolutely no excuse for The Black Hole, since everybody should have known about vacuum and decompression by 1979. As for Armageddon, I simply decided to view it as a comedy set in space, much to the consternation of the other cinemagoers, who seemed to take it seriously and were mightily irritated by me laughing out loud during various tense moments.

Even so-called hard science fiction contains mistakes all the time. Here, James Nicoll finds scientific, anthropological and other flaws aplenty in two recent hard SF darlings: Seveneves by Neal Stephenson and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. And don’t even get me started on novels which get all the science right or at least not glaringly wrong, but still manage to be set in utterly implausible futures entirely populated by straight white American men who never ever seem to eat, fall in love, have sex or indeed experience any human emotions at all.

But even though I saw plenty of other SF works get away scientifically impossible nonsense and had absolutely no problem with lightsabres, aliens crossbreeding with humans, Star Trek transporters and other tech I knew could not exist, I still would not give myself permission do the same and just write the SF I wanted to write. Because I never wanted to be the person who committed the idiocy of the radium shovelling slaves of Flash Gordon or The Black Hole or Armageddon.

Nor am I the only SF writer who ever felt paralysed by the fear of writing something that contradicts currently accepted scientific fact and getting laughed out of the room. In fact, this creative paralysis seems to be quite a common phenomenon, particularly among women and writers of colour who already have a harder time gaining a foothold in the genre and who are more frequently given the message that people like them just don’t get science and so of course cannot write SF. Nor does it help when works by women and writers of colour are disproportionately accused of being “not real science fiction”, when there is a great hue and cry from certain quarters that science fiction is dominated by English majors and MFAs now rather than by the scientists and engineers who used to write it and that those nasty English majors and MFAs are too stupid to understand either science nor what proper science fiction is and want to ruin the genre because they suffer from literary status envy and that any awards won by women, writers of colour and LGBT writers are due to affirmative action rather than merit. In an atmosphere like this, it’s no wonder that budding writers, particularly women and minority writers, are terrified of writing something labeled “not proper science fiction”.

Take for example this post by Catherynne M. Valente, in which she discusses the intense pressure on science fiction writers to keep their work realistic and scientifically accurate and how it paralysed her, wondering whether she was allowed to write something set in a universe that we know does not exist that way. Never mind that anybody who reads as much as the blurb of Radiance, the novel in question, should be able to tell that Radiance is not set in the solar system as it is, but in an alternate solar system as early 20th century pulp science fiction imagined it to be. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay.

Now don’t get me wrong. If you write something billed as hard science fiction, you’d better get the science right. If you write something that is set in our solar system in the fairly near future, then the solar system should look and behave as it does in reality. But hard SF is not the only mode of science fiction out there. And if you want to have steampowered spacecraft, vampires and werewolves in outer space, swordfights on the decks of spaceships, thrilling chases through the asteroid belt, a Mars, Venus or whole solar system straight out of early 20th century pulp science fiction, a planet full of homicidal toys (looking at you, Simon R. Green) or even slaves shovelling radium into atomic furnaces, then yes, you can do that, too. You’ll just have to have find a way to explain it and make it internally consistent with the world you’ve built.

There is also another cudgel hidden in that post, namely the “This story isn’t science fiction, it’s just an adventure story/romance/western/mystery set in space/in the future”. This accusation has always baffled me, because how on Earth is a love story or a murder mystery set in the future or in outer space not science fiction? Sure, if you took away the science fiction trappings, you’d still have a murder mystery or a romance, but it wouldn’t be the same story and this goes even for something like the near future Eve Dallas mysteries by J.D. Robb a.k.a. Nora Roberts.

Nonetheless, the accusation that a given story isn’t science fiction enough, because it uses the SF elements as furniture, is surprisingly common and resilient, from Bat Durston, whose adventures would never see print in Galaxy via Ian Sales’ Ruritanian science fiction to accusations that latter day Cyberpunk tales such as Sam J. Miller’s (lovely) novelette “We Are the Cloud” or the recent streaming video series Altered Carbon, based on Richard Morgan’s eponymous novel, are just a gay love story (“We Are The Cloud”) or a standard noir detective story (Altered Carbon) set in a shopworn and exhausted Cyberpunk future that is in itself a nostalgic retro setting.

My reactions to such criticisms is always “So what?” There is no reason that every work of science fiction always has to focus on new ideas and new technologies and a new, never before seen vision of the future. Sometimes, it is perfectly okay to use science fiction elements merely as furniture or wallpaper to tell a story that focusses on some other aspect of the human experience. Not to mention that saying that “We Are the Cloud” isn’t doing anything new with the genre is wrong (I haven’t seen Altered Carbon and barely remember the novel, so I can’t comment), because what “We Are the Cloud” or other SF stories by Sam J. Miller such as “Things with Beards” do is inject LGBT characters into stories that normally had no space for such characters. And that definitely brings something new to the shopworn urban dystopias of Cyberpunk or the claustrophobic SF horror of Who Goes There?/The Thing. It might not be a new aspect that the critics of these stories care about or even recognise, but it definitely does something new with old tropes.

And indeed, whenever I hear a “my science fiction is purer than thine” critic ask why an author didn’t just write a contemporary or historical novel, if all they do with the science fiction elements is use them as furniture, I always think, “But it’s not possible to move that story to a different time period and/or setting and still tell the same story.” Because if you move a work of wallpaper science fiction (an analogue to wallpaper historical romance) to a different time period, the social and political conditions of that period may well render that story impossible to tell or at least irrevocably alter it. A gay romance between two fighter pilots cannot simply be moved to a WWII setting, because the vicious homophobia of the time would make the story impossible. A tale about a pirate captain who happens to be a lesbian of colour wouldn’t be entirely impossible during the age of sail (there were pirates of colour as well as female and LGBT pirates), but it would still be a very different story and its protagonist would face very different challenges. Or maybe, you simply want to set your story in a world with indoor plumbing, in a world where travelling long distances without grinding the plot to a halt for days, weeks or months is possible (see Ada Palmer and the flying cars of Terra Ignota), where your protagonists don’t have to worry about dying of infectious diseases or other treatable conditions or – if they have wombs and ovaries – dying in childbirth. There are all very good sorts of reasons to set a story in a science fiction world, even if the story itself is a romance or murder mystery or adventure story and the SF elements are merely furniture and background details. Though you should still take some time to consider if you are using these particular SF elements, because your story requires them or just because that’s the way things are done in this genre and whether the elements in question even make sense in the world that you built.

More than other genres, science fiction is always concerned with defining itself and also with policing its borders. Quite often, this involves embracing and absorbing works that use science fiction elements, whether they want to be embraced or not. This is why Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, Never Let Me Go, The Plot Against America, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, The Underground Railroad or The Power all came to be considered science fiction, even if their authors occasionally had other ideas. However, this boundary policing is also directed at excluding works for not being science fictional or innovative enough. Even though quite often, the ones attempting to eject a work from the genre cannot even see what is innovative about it (same old cyberpunk, only that the protagonist is gay; same old space opera, except that everybody uses female pronouns, etc…). And you’ll find these boundary policing attempts both on the right (I don’t have to link to that Nutty Nuggets post again, do I?) and the left (many of the links in this post). But whatever direction it comes from, it’s problematic.

If the author considers their work science fiction and if it includes elements generally considered science fictional, then it is science fiction. It may not be the sort of science fiction you like, but that doesn’t make it any less science fiction.

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