It’s About People, Not Technology!

I often hear that sf should be about people, not technology. And I don’t disagree. There’s nothing worse than reading page after page of technobable (or watching Trek characters spout it for minutes on end). After all, future technology is really nonsense. But sf/fantasy is not just a story about people with a strange backdrop. I think it is strange kinds of people.

Sci fi fiction and fantasy present to us characters that have goals and motivations that are unlike any a human would have. The exploration of the psychology of these non-human characters is (for me) one of the most fascinating things about these genres.

Spock, Data, and Worf are the foundation of the Star Trek empire. The humans, by and large, were far less interesting. Of these three, perhaps Worf was the closest to human — we can all identify with someone who is cranky all the time. These characters alternate between human and alien. This allows you to identify with the character and then makes it possible for you to be carried in to its more alien mind. An episode of TNG, in which Data tries to start dating, draws us in as Data’s motives and actions in seeking romantic companionship seem quite human — but at the end when his girlfriend breaks up with him he is not even bothered.

Another interesting aspect of sf/fantasy characters is what I call “the hidden character:” a person in a place where you don’t expect one to be. In this regard we have Solaris, the illusory soldiers from John Carter’s Warlord of mars series, the lava creature in episode 26 of TOS, and Professor Moriarty in “Elementary, my Dear Data” from TNG, and probably many others.

But let’s come back to the idea that it is about “people” not “technology.” Certainly this line is blurred if we are talking about Hal or Data. But this is not the only way that it is blurred.

Technology, or some relevant bit of magic, can completely transform a society, changing the normal behaviors and motives of people. Indeed, utopias of various sorts are a common theme in sf/fantasy. A big part of sf/fantasy is the exploration of how new technologies and abilities change us. One of my favorite books is “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In this book, the Motie race itself is essentially a character.

So, for all you science fiction and fantasy writers or wanabees out there, it is not enough to remember that it’s about people and not technology, you have to consider how the sf or fantasy elements change your story. That is what the rest of us find the most memorable.

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