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.