November 12, 2016

Science Fiction Worldbuilding: How Some Significant Franchises View Government, and the Hero’s Place in the Universe

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:33 pm by chavalah

Next science fiction series on my TBR!

Next science fiction series on my TBR!

Second installment of my #NaNoBlogMo project!

Note: I actually kept meaning to write this blog post since the summer, but more pertinent events kept bumping it down my list of topics. Perhaps it was foresight, because the contentious U.S. election has proven how differently various Americans view the country and their place in it. Though American politics aren’t a direct feature of what’s to follow, perhaps they inspired the creators and writers of these television shows, movies and books. Like all good science fiction, these franchises probe the diverse issues that come out of the conflagration of government, culture and war.

Also, warning: there will be spoilers. 😛

So back in July I saw Star Trek: Beyond in theatres, and I had a brief conversation afterwards with a Trekker friend (see, I’m getting better, guys, and not calling Star Trek fans “Trekkies” anymore. :P) She said that one of the major ways that the film deviated from the original essence of Trek was that the bad guy, Balthazar Edision aka Kroll (as played by Idris Elba) wasn’t “reformed” at the end to toe the party line. Edision was a former human captain who grew disillusioned with the Federation dogma to make peace with one’s enemies. In the movie he’s ultimately killed off, whereas according to Rodenberry’s vision, perhaps he’d realize the error of his ways and embrace a pluralistic, peaceful society. Talk about a utopia! 😛

I admit, I’m most familiar with the reboot movies and pretty vague on the original series. Such a vantage point might be made even more indefensible by the fact that most of the other franchises I’ll talk about wouldn’t have even gotten their feet off the ground if it weren’t for Star Trek. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the information I’m leveraging. I thought I’d take a look at various science fiction government systems, and how the “heroes” are supposed to fit into the broader narrative. There might be some truths in here about how human beings probe these issues in the real world.

And I’m also using this blog post to solidify my own excitement in a new(ish) book duology, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers! I gave into temptation and bought the shiny, UK covers from Book Depository, which also means I got my hands on book two before it comes out in the States next March. 😀 Booyah.

Book one chronicles the voyage of an inter-species crew aboard a vessel that creates wormholes. It’s supposed to be character driven, so much so that on BookTube it’s not only popular with the “SFF” crowd but the literary buffs, too! Then, science fiction TV fans started comparing it not only to Firefly, but to my favorite show of all time, Farscape. I wonder what they mean by that! Will the worldbuilding resemble the stuff that I go into below? I hope to find out shortly, after NaNoWriMo ends!

Star Trek
Takes place around the 23rd century, when sovereign planets, including Earth, are governed by the United Federation of Planets. The planets are all semi-autonomous in how they govern their people, and the Federation exists as more of a United Nations construct. In order to be a member, your planet has to agree to live by the Utopian principles of universal liberty, rights and equality. The UFP is in charge of space exploration, where multi-species crews explore space and make peaceful contact with new worlds.

The “heroes” of most Star Trek media, as far as I can tell, are the crews of these space exploration ships. They believe in the mission of the UFP, although they are sometimes beset, in the reboot movies moreso, with various forms of conflict. Again, I’m not as familiar with most of the characters as I should be, but it appears that they are not super-human…or super-vulcan or what have you. 😛 Every species has its own strengths and weaknesses, but no one’s from Krypton or has been bitten by a radioactive spider. These are just folks, trying to get through their lives.

Years ago, I think I remember the ScapeCast referring to this show as a “dark Star Trek.” In Star Trek, human characters come together with other species, and are known to be intelligent and resourceful. In Farscape, our early 21st century hero, John Chrichton (Ben Browder), is thrust into a galaxy of distrustful aliens who are much more advanced than he is. Granted, that “distrustful” part goes away rather quickly, followed somewhat later by John’s naiveté. John is a fugitive, stuck on board a living ship with a bunch of escaped prisoners. There are two major ruling parties at play here—the human-like Peacekeepers and the lizard-like Scarrans. Each has built a fascist empire, and both are aligned with and/or subjugating other groups.

The Scarrans and the Peacekeepers are in a Cold War-esque standoff situation, and John inadvertently becomes a key player when alien forces frell (Farscape speak for you-know-what) with him, and implant coveted wormhole intelligence in his brain. But the story isn’t just about black hat aliens chasing our white hat hero across the universe. John and his crewmates grapple with the price of infamy and trauma, the desire for home and their evolving relationships. Thematically, the show probes the cost of violence and revenge, and the possibility that each of our steps may lead to alternate realities.

I love this show, but sometimes I think it stole Farscape’s thunder, because it came out around the same time and gained a cult status after a swift cancellation. Firefly takes place in the 25th century, after humans have colonized a new star system. Civil war breaks out between the central government, called the Alliance, and fringe elements called the Browncoats. We enter the scene after the Alliance has won, and we follow a rag tag crew of former Browncoats and other outsiders as they try to scrape by, living on a spaceship and largely committing petty crime for hire.

Empathizing, as we do, with these outsiders, the Alliance comes off as dictatorial and brutal. One of the main characters, River (Summer Glau) was taken from her family as a child and tortured into becoming a martial arts expert and a psychic. I tend to like “just folks” characters, and her superhero qualities kinda grate at me, but then I’m drawn into her trauma. I love me some female characters with good trauma (hello Katniss, my old friend…I’ve come to read Mockingjay again…. :P) Like with Farscape, there’s a lot of focus on interpersonal relationships, and the “villains” are often those who stand in the crew’s way of their objectives. This culminates in the movie, Serenity, when they are hunted down by an Alliance agent as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It ends on a Star Trek utopia note, with the agent seeing the error of his ways and leaving our heroes alone.

The Hunger Games
I mentioned Katniss, so you can’t expect me to leave out my favorite YA franchise, can you? 😛 Set in an unspecified future, in what’s left of North America after environmental disaster, Panem is a dystopia and a dictatorship. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) keeps the disenfranchised districts and privileged Capitol isolated from one another, particularly with a piece of propaganda called The Hunger Games. It’s an annual duel to the death between 24 teenagers, played out until one survivor remains. The Capitol citizens and some of the wealthier districts buy into the national narrative about honor and atonement; the rest understand it as a fear tactic. Rebellion’s been brewing underground for awhile, but it gets a certain push when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) “wins” the Hunger Games.

There’s really no question that the lightning rod for the revolution would have to come from the Victors pool, seeing as they’re the only people whom the entire country would recognize. But Katniss is not imbued with superpowers like River; she’s just a girl with the unusual story of being from one of the poorest districts, and also being able to save her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More to the point, she’s immediately swept up into dueling propaganda schemes, with the Capitol trying to showcase to the public that “she’s one of us,” and the Rebellion trying to fashion her into “the Mockingjay,” a symbol of freedom. Katniss wants to take down the brutal Capitol, but in the face of the ensuing war, author Suzanne Collins turns the story on its head. Members of the resistance become corrupted by vengeance, innocent Capitol citizens, including children, suffer, and the rebel leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) embraces dictatorship. It’s a more complex approach to war and oppression than white hats and black hats. At the end of the day, this series touches me so thoroughly because it points to interpersonal relationships as being the light in any darkness.


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