Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Future in Sci-Fi

Bringing unibrows to a whole new level.
As a kid, I loved Star Trek, Deep Space Nine. My fondest memory is of Quark's Bar. And it wasn't just that the bar was owned by two of the cheekiest back-stabbing alien brothers, Quark and Rom. It was also because, even though the series portrayed the unusual sci-fi situations, we viewers always knew there would be a place where everyone could unwind and raise a steaming glass of rainbow vodka.

Because people, even intrepid 24th-century astronauts living in the middle of who knows where, still need those little terrestrial pleasures.

Lately I've been asking myself: How far has mankind really come? Sure, we've made remarkable breakthroughs in the last couple centuries in many fields, but have we really changed that much? Have we evolved as much as we think?

All these questions arose some while back when I received a certain critique through Critique Circle. In a nutshell, the critiquer urged me not to have my main character drink beer. Because this character was living 200 years in the future, he had to drink something exotic and hard to pronounce.

I can't agree with that advice.

Let me give you a little bit of context: Serving Time takes place a little over 200 years in the future. In this time period, mankind has left the confines of planet Earth and many thousands of people are living in space colonies. The moon has more or less been colonized (mainly for research), and Mars is a terraformation disaster.

From the very start, I knew I wanted the technology surrounding my characters be no more
than a backdrop. Serving Time is character-driven, so the story relies on the characters in order to move forward. Of course the story is littered with sci-fi technology: Tristan is an interplanetary pilot while his younger brother Eneld is a biorobotics engineer. However, while their professions are without a doubt character traits, they don't define the heroes.

While sharing chapters of my novel with my writing buddies, I sometimes received kind suggestions to make certain things more "futuristic." I remember the characters' food was one of those things on the list. But I honestly don't get it. Why should my character eat a monkey brains and mustard sandwich instead of a delicious roast beef? Because he lives in the future and everything's weird over there? Okay, in Serving Time there's a character who actually enjoys tentacle sandwiches and spicy octopus and tomato soup, but that's his personal problem and he's working on it. Plus, I also enjoy my share of tentacles so who am I to judge.

Heaven on a plate!
In Serving Time, Tristan and Eneld drink beer. They button up their shirts. They eat bread with tomato (the typical Catalan way--see image). Why shouldn't they? Oh, because they live in the year 2225? What difference does that make? Beer has been around for about seven thousand years, so why shouldn't it still be a popular drink two measly centuries into the future? The first buttons (used for decorative purposes) date back to around three thousand years ago, so why shouldn't they live on during the space age (along with other fastening methods, of course)?

Tristan's piloting a positron reactor cruiser, for crying out loud! Let the man kick back and enjoy a cold beer while he watches E-Wok: Cooking with the Pros and scratches his unmentionables.

I guess my opinion on the matter is:

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

And here's where I have my gripe. It seems that some sci-fi authors can't conceive of a world where a phone is called a phone, and a car is called a car. Everything has to have a high-tech, sometimes unpronounceable, name because "Hey! In case you forgot: we're in the future!"

In my opinion, this draws attention to the technology, not the story. That might not be a good thing. I vividly remember one disgruntled Amazon reviewer complaining about a sci-fi author's complete lack of regular words. Every single object the characters interacted with required an obscure techie name.

"Why can't a watch be called a watch?" the reviewer said, and he was right. Objects evolve as our technology evolves, but many names stick. Pocket watches from the early 16th century look very unlike our modern-day watches, yet the name persists. So why shouldn't these details survive into a futuristic sci-fi setting?

Think of the daily objects you interact with... Drinking glasses, forks, knives, and spoons... How many of these are centuries old, yet they still persist and are still part of our day-to-day along with i-Phones and self-parking cars? I'm not saying these objects won't evolve or even fall into obscurity over time, but why should we immediately disassociate them from a sci-fi setting?

So what do you think? Out with the old and in with the new? Or if it ain't broke, don't fix it?


  1. "Beer has been around for about seven thousand years..."

    This pinged in my brain as soon as I read about the anti-beer critiquer. As far as I can determine, it's not a drink that's planning to fade over time. It's highly possible that'll be around for a few more -thousand- years.

    So yeah ... ain't broke, don't fix ... and all that.

  2. This is an excellent post. I've been hit a few times with the "insufficient techno babble" complaint too. I don't understand it.

    I write a lot of character driven stuff myself. I've always thought characters are what make or break books. It is the reason I loved Serving Time so much.

    Great post.


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