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Dramatic Conflict and the Future of Science Fiction

collateral tales

collateral tales

Dramatic conflict in science fiction connects to advanced aspects of a future society. With our accelerating technological progress, this is becoming difficult.

This is a follow-up on the questions I raised in my blog post “We Are Living in a Science Fiction Novel That We All Collaborate On” or, more precisely, on the second question that concerns the future of science fiction. Is it still possible to write science fiction that isn’t fantasy and that plausibly projects our current vectors into a future which a) wouldn’t look ridiculous in two years and b) wouldn’t have to come up with completely new, original sources of dramatic conflict?

For a good novel or screenplay, the dramatic conflict has to take place on several levels. You need at least the protagonist’s inner conflict and an external conflict to match. (And which of these conflicts is resolved or remains unresolved shapes the overall experience.) If we take the motif of distrust of technology that Ira brought up in a comment, a good example for how such an interlocked internal and external conflict would look like is Alex Proyas’s I Robot. The movie certainly has its weaknesses, but the conflict structure is pretty solid. The protagonist’s inner conflict is connected to the setting through his maniacal distrust toward robots, while the external conflict is brought about because this future society put way too much trust into their robots.

This kind of “in-world” source that fuels the external conflict, and directly or indirectly the internal conflict, has become increasingly difficult to come up with. In “true” science fiction, the story can’t be told in any other genre; if the story could equally well be told in, say, a Western or Hard Boiled setting, it wouldn’t be science fiction but that special kind of “SciFi” that we like to pronounce “skiffy.” In other words, the conflicts must be rooted in some advanced aspect of a future society. And this is exactly what’s getting harder and harder, with our accelerating technological advances right now.

Let’s take a recent example, Cameron’s Avatar. The external conflict is based on some ridiculous “Unobtanium,” which is a pile of piffle (and a McGuffin of the worst possible kind); watch how this alleged source of conflict is discreetly dropped toward the end. The source of the inner conflict is Jake’s paraplegia, the healing of which seems to depend on major resources and/or knowing the right people. How plausible is that in the year 2154, given current advances in bio- and nanotechnology! And Cameron again, by the way, manages to botch even this excuse of an inner conflict—a conflict which, for goodness’ sake, should have played out dramatically between being able to walk again in his own body or staying on Pandora.

Again, never mind that the Avatar screenplay sucks raging hurricane farts, as The Oatmeal would put it. Rather, it’s a pretty good example of how traditional sources of conflict in science fiction have become, through accelerating technological advances, a liability for good science fiction writing.


If you have something valuable to add or some interesting point to discuss, I’ll be looking forward to meeting you at Mastodon!

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6 Responses

  1. You make some good points about character being driven by internal and external struggles. A slightly different way to look at this issue is that internal struggles are pretty much eternal (greed, envy, desire and all of the other things that drive human beings, and also define us as human), while the external struggles change as the environment in which we live change. This is where science fiction can make a serious contribution to our understanding of the world: by playing what if scenarios, we are exploring how our deepest drives are affected by changes in the environment. I would argue that this exploration of what it means to be human is an invaluable part of science fiction, that it is largely what keeps many of the genre’s works (Nineteen Eighty-four and 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind) worth experiencing even after the worlds they have portrayed have been overtaken by reality.

    PS: Did you know that I, Robot was actually a Will Smith science fiction project that was only called I, Robot after the producers got the rights to the Asimov story well into production? This explains, I think, many of the problems with the film.

    PPS: SCTV has a sketch in which a science fiction story, a western and a detective story have exactly the same set-ups and dialogue. It is hilarious (and a good example of how skiffys work).

  2. I couldn’t agree more!

    Yes, this is why science fiction rocks, and let’s strive to keep it that way :-)

    But let me suggest, over and above, that these eternal kinds of internal struggle aren’t exempt from what you call “changes in the environment.” Research never stops, neither in the humanities nor in the social sciences—and, not to forget, neuroscience is just in the process of picking up speed and really taking off. The more we know, the more rich, complex, and interesting our concepts of these basic drives and conditions become, and we are able to tell powerful stories based on these developing concepts. Case in point, the movie I Robot again: The protagonist’s inner struggle is quite obviously fueled by PTSD, a fairly recent concept to describe complex human behavior, and within this frame especially by Survivor’s Guilt.

    Now I would argue that really ambitious science fiction writing might also try and shoot for “what if” scenarios that not only explore how our inner struggles are affected by changes in the environment, but by changes in concepts about human behavior which as yet do not exist or haven’t been formulated. (One more reason to keep up with current research.)

    And no, I didn’t know that about the movie’s title—but I indeed always wondered why they picked it, except for fairly gratuitous name dropping, of course!

  3. Ha! Found it: The SCTV Midnight at Dawn Triple Feature* from April ’78. First one’s not a detective but a jungle adventure story, but it’s gotta be the sketch you had in mind.

    THX! It will feature prominently in an upcoming Skiffy Post :-)

    [Note: It’s been taken down. That’s especially grating as there exists a campaign that has tried for quite a qhile to get SCTV to put that format on DVD.]

  4. It’s been a long time since I watched SCTV, and, what with my memory going and all, I’m proud that I was able to remember two of the three genres. Glad I could help. :-)

  5. Your memory going and all, why do I not believe that… :-)