Bad World Building

Science Fiction has an obsession with Empires, at least that is the case you believe readers who do not know much about sci-fi or a recent article in Time which criticised the world building in books such as Dune and Foundation. Undeniably lazy world building is a problem in science fiction and can ruin a great idea, too often authors fall back on simplistic ideas borrowed from the real world, such as Empires, rather than thinking of imaginative ways in which the societies of the future could be different.

However, to criticize the entire genre based on a few lazy authors or established classics from the past is a gross representation of the vibrant imagination of science fiction authors. Many science fiction authors have thought of creative ways in which future societies could be formed, from the autonomous anarchistic collective of the Culture, to the totalitarian military state of Starship Troopers.

The notion of a pan-galactic civilization structured around an Empire is an element of only a minority of science fiction novels. Most in fact have no pan-galactic civilization at all and imagine a future of many complex competing political entitles made up of groups of different races, see Michael Cobley’s Humanity’s Fire novels for a good example of this.

My point is that imperial science fiction novels were a feature of the 50s and 60s when classics such as Foundation and Dune were written, but sci-fi is much more diverse now. However the stereotype remains, backed up by examples from films such as Star Wars. Films have a much narrower scope than novels and thus cannot develop as complex worlds. Galactic Empires are useful short hands for a social structure that can be quickly established in the audiences mind and thus sci-fi films use them in this way. In the greater scope of a novel it is possible to develop interesting and complex imagined future societies such as the severely hierarchical matriarchal world of Glory Season or the severely hierarchical patriarchal society of The Hand Maid's Tale.

I agree with David Berri that a Galactic Empire is an unlikely structure for future society, but speculating with any degree of accuracy about the far future is almost impossible and most predictions end up saying more about the time we live in now than the future. Berri is clearly influenced by the bias of today's established economic thought, namely that there are free, prosperous and innovative societies and restrictive, poor and backwards societies. This overlooks a wide range of economic, political, geographical and social factors which influence how societies develop and are a structured.

Berri is simply repeating the common belief in the superiority of capitalistic societies over other forms of societies onto his vision of the future, this has been the case of so many science fiction authors in the past, who let their view of the present shape the future. A good example of this is Greg Bear’s Eon, which is rooted in Cold War politics and imagines a 2005 which has moon bases but still a divided East and West Germany.

The economic, political, geographical and social factors that influence a society’s development are the building blocks of an interesting science fiction world to set a story in. These are the foundation of good world building and science fiction writers frequently experiment with these to see what sort of societies altering these factors might produce. What if it was hot all the time and there was no water, you might get something like the Fremen in Dune. What if we decided that everything the land offered was wrong and returned to live in the sea, we might get something like the United Aquatic Nations in Alastair Reynold's Poseidon's Children novels.

Once a sci-fi writer has an idea or world, it is up to them to make the world believable to the reader. Even this is a centralized Galactic Empire like in Dune or Foundation, or society governed by AIs like in Dan Simmons’s Hyperion, the author still needs to find a way to make this world believable, populate it with relatable characters and weave a compelling story out of them. The nature of the world is not the issue, what the writer does with it is.

Science fiction will always be coming under attacks for being either ridiculous or not inventive enough, like in this article. What is important is that fans remember how diverse the genre is and call out clearly baseless opinions or those based on a prejudice against science fiction. Bad world building is always a disappointment in a book but having one specific feature of an imagined society (such as a Galactic Empire) does not necessarily mean bad world building. There are no bad ideas in science fiction only the bad execution of ideas.