WorldBuilding – Your Sterile Population

One of the tenants of science fiction is the what-if aspect of things.  We tinker and experiment and try out ideas. Some of the ideas have to do with a projected humanist intent: What if mankind really did evolve, what would he evolve into? What if we could have John Lennon’s religionless world?

Some writers have gone down that road, and projected that the sensible post-religious people managed to colonize the stars and stopped believing in that religious nonsense and hoey.  See Phillip Athans’ excellent review of Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars. Notably, Phillip points out in his Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction that “Researching religions both contemporary and historical is a worthy pursuit for any author, though if you’re writing the farthest of far-future science fiction you may imagine a post-religious society.”

But those post-religious populations and characters are sterile.

They do have religious beliefs, it’s just that it’s a one note wonder.  Everyone is in accord (“there is no religion” is the religion) and this of course means you have no religious conflict. Because, you see, everyone believes the same about religion, which is the lack of religion (which is a religion itself).

What happens when you have no conflict? You get a nice book where there’s no conflict, at least nothing over what we really get worked up about.  Where’s the passion, the joy, the intensity? No religious conflict? What’s the matter with you!? Why would you eschew that in favor of your cold, scientific Christopher Hutchinism? Think about it. Some of the most rational people you know are religious. Some of the most irrational, too. The elements of their beliefs make them interesting and put them in conflict. Why, just yesterday I was reading a on-line magazine where the religion of choice was worshiping “diversity,” which for these adherents was a narrow definition of accepting certain people and excluding others because, well, because the certain people had been excluded before so now it was only fair to exclude the other people. Hum. It is this sort of thinking that has produced feuds lasting hundreds of years.

It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to be a belief system that people can adhere to. People worship cars, money, sex, rocks, the universe, themselves, politicians, entertainers, their family members, their children. Some of it is disguised or in place of organized religion.

They do religious things all the time. Knock on wood (naturalism). Think good thoughts (pantheism). Karma (hinduism). People are like religious packrats, collecting any old idea that comes along and cobbling it to their ideas of How the World Works.

The flavor of the future worlds is often dystopian, which reflects, I think, the writer’s ability to see the seeds of our own dystopia in the society we’ve created.  Community is destroyed by relentless, selfish individualism, and then people living their empty lives wonder what’s the meaning of it all (all of that is a value statement)? I visit these future cities where no one connects, everyone lives in little tiny sterile cubes and they have no religion, no hope, they have nothing to sustain them, and no real reason to OBEY.

Without underpinings of morality, people tend to become mass murdering jerks. For reference, Joseph Fouché and Collot d’Herbois in France (1790), Hitler (1938-1945), Mao Ze-Dong (1949-1969), Leopold II (1886-1908), Stalin (1930s-1950s), Tito (1945-1980), Pol Pot (1975-1979), Darth Vader (fictional), Ted Bundy (1990s), Domitian (81-96), Nero (53-68), though you could probably argue the last two thought they were Gods. What keeps you from pulling the trigger if you don’t have any controlling morality other than whatever you feel in your heart is right? Apparently, nada.

This isn’t to say that you couldn’t take the stark excesses of the above and put them in your future universe; you could, but don’t George Lucas the moment.  The deaths of a couple billion people shouldn’t just be a statistic and “a great disturbance in the force.” You want to get a national sense of mourning? Look at 9/11 in the U.S. There. That. The Howard Lutnick, the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, gave an awesome speech after that event which resonates deeply with the listener/reader,  which I can’t find at the moment but someone else probably can. Edit: Note that the speech apparently was decried as mere propaganda, but I liked it anyway.

To conclude: People are messy. Sometimes they incorporate that into their daily beliefs. Your future humans are going to believe stuff. To take that away is to take away an essential of their humanness.

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

Infodumps and your personal opinions

I’m finding that I like to go back and do revisions on a piece as I go, rather than waiting for the End.

I look for tense problems, awkward working, MRUs, conversation that seems stilted or out of place, observations that do not contribute to flow of the narrative, infodumps (even microdumps) and the dreaded author’s opinion peeking out.

Using the cell phone standard which Dave Koster kindly tossed out at On Writing Dragons, the essence is that your reader needs to know only as much about the tech as an average ordinary person would know about, say, a cell phone.  We don’t know how they work, except you need a signal, there’s cell phone towers, and that’s about it.  Why explain more to your reader than necessary? An infodump or a pulpitdump both interrupt the narrative with non-flowing information or opinions which contribute zero to the process.

With that in mind, you wouldn’t write a story thus:

William looked at the phone in his hand. It’s amazing that this thing is a 4G phone and allows me to download so quickly! It was a difficult transition from 3G, but it’s really a great standard.

Yes, even in his thoughts, William is awkward. Some people think that way, but the average ordinary person might do this instead:

William looked at the phone in his hand. A text! He opened it. “I can’t wait to see you tonight, baby.”  This was unexpected. He didn’t know the picture or the name, but whoever she was, she was dynamite looking. Time to text back. “Where are we meeting?”  A moment later, the return chime signaled a response. “Who is this? William? I don’t no U. Don’t text me again.”

Raise your right hand and take the oath:

“I, state your name, solemnly swear I will not infodump if I can avoid it.  My text will only serve the purposes of the narrative. I will advance the narrative with only the information the reader needs. I will have my characters supply the information if I can, and it will not be awkward. So help me, God.”

You can put your hand down. Don’t you feel awesome?

Right, now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about your politics and religion.

If you’re writing fiction, I should not be able to tell who you voted for in the last election. No special reason, although I don’t care comes in pretty handy for it. Your characters should not be you, and they should be written fairly. It’s no fair to put in a strawman and belittle the other side through your fictitious characters.  And there’s a fantastic reason why.  (“Why, Pontius, why!” you chant.)

Here it is. It is a disservice to the reader. I am not reading an opinion piece, it’s fiction. If you write your character beautifully, I may connect emotionally and maybe I’ll agree with their sentiments. That’s the beauty of it.  If you’re writing the book Pol Pot Goes to Hogwarts, then make me see through Pol Pot’s eyes and understand that even though he’s a vicious mass-murdering muggle, he still had a reason and a drive to wipe out thousands of his countrymen and then attend the premier wizarding institution in Britain. It isn’t writing a character that is easy to agree with that makes you shine, it’s the characters that are disagreeable and nasty and mean and immoral and who aren’t you who show your talent.

You can use a character as a mouthpiece, but we’re going to call you on it if you do. It’ll take your writing down a few notches and add it to the slush pile of average to barely adequate writing.  The narrow-minded villagers with pitchforks, a.k.a. Amazon laymen reviewers, will also come for your work with torches and burn it and you.

The next time you write and you start to pontificate, shut up.  Write substantively, eliminate the pontification, the moralization, and the opinions.  The only opinions I want to hear is your characters, and that done honestly. If the politics of the world you show are so messed up, let me draw the conclusions for why through the thoughts, speech, and actions of your characters.  I’m not stupid, and I will do the work necessary to see the entire canvas you’re painting without you drawing on it in black paint saying “see this part? Their politics suck.”