Monday, June 1, 2009

Shooting Sci-Fi Tropes in a Barrel

Via Winch of Atomic Rockets (don't leave Earth without it), a link to Six Sci-Fi Movie Conventions (That Need to Die). 'Convention' here means trope, not a hotel full of people in funky costumes. They are listed in 'countdown' order - rather appropriate, since the countdown itself originated as a movie gimmick - and I'll summarize them in the same order here:

6. Ships' bridges with exploding computer panels and no seatbelts
5. 'Newton, Einstein, Sulak': potted future history in three names
4. Magic character saver / plot killer tools
3. One planet, one culture
2. The 2D ocean of space
1. 18th century infantry of the future

Of these, #6 and #2 pretty well explain themselves. Trek is the iconic violator of #5, naming a couple of Famous Historical People plus one more from our future. Corny, yes, but I'm inclined to give it a pass for at least conveying the idea that there is a history between our present and the era of the story.

The Sonic Screwdriver of Dr. Who is the exemplar of #4, and author John Hart calls such magical gadgets 'plot fixers,' but in fact they are just the opposite. They save the main characters, but at the price of killing plots, or at least sending scriptwriters frantically searching for a retcon. The most notorious such device, unmentioned in the article, is the Trek transporter room. This was originally a simple, innocent budget saver; too late did Roddenberry discover that it made getting out of tight spots all too easy. The implications, and awkward workarounds, have bedevilled Trek right up to the new film.

If colonizable planets are plentiful (for whatever value of 'colonizable'), they plausibly get a pass on #3. The initial colonizers are likely to be a cohesive group, and other groups will look for other worlds to settle. Yet even under this assumption, subsequent immigration could produce 'Chinatowns' - and the more developed, cosmopolitan, and therefore important the colony, the greater the chance that it will draw enough varied immigrants to form their own communities. Alien intelligent races might have a single planetwide culture on their homeworld, but if they are human-like enough to be played by Screen Actors' Guild members with latex foreheads they probably won't.

For the last, #1, the author badmouths infantry in general, ignoring recent historical evidence that boots on the ground still have military utility. (Even more recently we learned the same about naval boarding parties.) But this is no excuse for having future infantry form in line, apparently ready to fight the Battle of Blenheim.

Often, to be sure, this blunder flows from a more general one, unfathomably stupid bad guys, no different from the half dozen ninjas who attack our hero one at a time. In fact the only movie I can think of that showed equally stupid good guys - at least, the protagonist's side - is the film version of Starship Troopers. This movie also had an unusually vivid instance of #2, the crippled Rodger Young 'sinking' out of orbit. Newton weeps, or laughs until he cries.

(Heinlein's book is problematic in far subtler ways, but that is for another blog post.)

None of these bad tropes, as Hart acknowledges, is due merely to unfathomably stupid Hollywood. 'One planet, one culture' is in part a borrowing of the conventions of terrestrial travel literature. If, per Shogun, you want to portray the encounter of Europeans and Japanese, trying to deal with the Ainu would just clutter things up. SF aliens also tend to be metaphors, and one metaphor per metaphor is a pretty solid guideline. Likewise, in various ways, with all the other lame tropes. Even those notoriously unrealistic Hollywood spaceships are perfectly realistic when viewed from a relevant frame of reference:

The general audience is historically happier watching space ships woosh by shooting glowing bolts of energy than they are watching a slowly rotating spaceship lazily drift across the screen. If you're putting tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, you go for the shooty-wooshy space ships every time, pure and simple.
What could be more realistic than that?

All the same these tropes are long past their sell-by date. But they will only get pulled from the shelves when scriptwriters (or authors of books intended to pimp themselves to Hollywood) come up with better alternatives, meaning a) they work at least as well in dramatic terms, and b) they can be seen to work well, by directors who frittered away their youth learning filmmaking instead of physics.

As one example, consider the spacegoing equivalent of #1: space battles fought at ranges more appropriate to Trafalgar than Jutland, let alone Midway. One starting point is to borrow from the well-established film convention of 20th century seafights: Bad guy ship shown firing toward the right, then cut to good guy ship shown firing back toward the left. For added impact, position one ship in low orbit of a moon or planet. From the other ship we see the moon in the distant backdrop - making it instantly and vividly clear that these ships are duking it out at Stupendous Range.

What tropes of Hollywood sci-fi (or fantasy, period-piece, etc.) annoy you? And how would you deal with them, if Hollywood came knocking at your door?

31 comments:

Anonymous said...

All those do bother me; however, one that isn't addressed as often as I'd like is when they either randomly send people off to explore a planet or all the highest ranking officers from the ship go off to trapse around an unknown/dangerous planet or what-have-you. What part of "dedicated-and-specificly-trained exploration/security team members" does not make sense to the people who write/produce Sci-Fi movies?
No wonder most of Starfleet's officers are so young; most of them don't live to see middle age much less retirement! Of course this isn't just confined to Star Trek, although they are the worst offenders.
Ferrell

Anonymous said...

1) Humanity seems to have lost the Fashion Wars. Men dress in jumpsuits, women dress in even tighter jumpsuits or dresses that would embarrass a webcam girl.

(Hollywood varies from very bad to very good on this point. It depends on how much money the producers threw at the costume department.)

2) What do you mean 'the future', white man? These days most people are brown, but Earth's future demographics seems to match those of an expensive US East Coast college. And the white folk all seem to be American white folk...

(Semi-acceptable from Hollywood, which is a group of US-based companies making movies for Americans with high levels of disposable income. But still kind of creepy, when you think about the level of ethnic cleansing implied in the Star Trek Earth future.)

3) Forgotten Tech. Not the same as Poorly Thought Out Tech, but related. The classic example is how Starfleet seems to have forgotten about seatbelts and circuit breakers, but people in the Star Wars setting have apparently lost the ability to do c-sections (Amidala's death scene) or basic cosmetic surgery (Luke's facial scarring*).

(* Of course, there wasn't much they could do about Mark Hamill's facial scarring, so that one point is forgiveable.)

4) The Loooooooooong Future, wher all historic references are at least an order of magnitude greater than they should be. Star Trek was bad for this, with all of the series throwing around references like 'a thousand years ago' or 'a million years ago' for events that would have been much more plausible happening within the past century or so.

(Not justifiable at all. It's just an attempt to impress the audience with big numbers. Bad writing.)

5) Lousy tactics. Sending the bridge officers to handle security problems, lining up infantry to march into a hail of automatic Death Ray fire, using ground troops to handle problems that could be solved by aerial/orbital bombardment, using aerial/orbital bombardment to handle problems that should be handled by infantry, no one uses future scanning tech to study the battlefield terrain...

(Just bad writing again.)

Ian_M

Rick said...

Have I mentioned how much I love the high protein comments I get on this blog?


Ferrell - Oh yeah, let's send the senior commanders as a boarding/surface party!

Hollywood struggles with a double contradiction. They want to focus on the decision makers, who normally tend to be middle aged. But they also want a) physical action and b) studly/babelicious 20-somethings in key roles.

I would take a page from West Wing, and have an age-appropriate mix of top commanders and younger action types. It would take a bit of finesse to hit the right balance, but if done well it would also allow a nice play-off between the more cerebral plot elements and the action stuff. Also between worldly cynicism and youthful idealism, etc.


Ian - For #1, see the 'Apparel' entry in my Tough Guide link. Future costume is tricky, getting the look of a different era without simply ripping off the historical past.

For its time, Trek TOS did pretty well, but that was 40 years ago. (The new movie could hardly change the characters.) Hollywood casting is going to reflect the core audience, but it would be nice to stretch the envelope just a bit in an SF setting! Maybe even casting a Brit as a good guy. :-)

I could go on in discussing all the listed points. What they mostly call for is a little self discipline ... which (alas) may be a lot to ask for.

Anonymous said...

In Hollywood's defence (Sorta) there are real reasons behind most of these points. They boil down to logistics (Who has time to create a plausible aesthetic for a future society? The release date is 9 months away, and you want to write a treatise on the evolution of the suit in European society?!) and audience expectations. The ones that bother me are the ones that boil down to bad writing and/or contempt for the audience. Forgotten Tech, Lousy Tactics, and the Looooong Future are my three pet peeves. One Planet One Culture and Magic Tools are two others.

I'm willing to give most of this a pass in a movie or TV series (For the reasons explained at Atomic Rockets), but finding them in books tends to make me froth at the mouth. And the Mighty Whitey future creeps me out no matter where I see it.

David Gerrold's The World of Star Trek had a good discussion on the 'beam down the entire command team' idea. He also pointed out how much story potential would be created by the conflict between the NCOs and junior officers of a landing party ("Beam us up beam us up! Oh God the teeth! The claws! Beam us up!") and the bridge personnel ("We'll be out of transporter range until we deal with the Klingon battle cruiser. You're on your own, Ensign Deadmeat.").

Rick - I remember your Apparel commentary. I agree, the decadent civilizations at least have some fun with their clothes. Everyone else seems to have settled into the Frumpy Era. Even the supposedly repressed Victorians had more fashion sense.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Ian - with regard to costume and in fact all visual details - what do cities look like, etc. - Hollywood has the problem that they have to show it. Books can bluff their way past it. (On the other hand, I'm visually oriented, and something I really struggle with mentally is what a future era should look like.)

Apparently there's been a contentious discussion of late in the SF discussosphere about Mighty Whitey - I've only read enough to know it is happening, not the context. In books, a subtle challenge is that unless characters are described in some detail you may only know their backgrounds indirectly, by cues such as personal names. Which if simply lifted from what's familiar (say, to me) can make a whole rainbow of people sound awfully 'Murrican, and implicitly rather pale.

Gerrold is spot on about the inherent tension between command team and surface team!

Kedamono said...

One of my gripes is when Hollywood gets basic science wrong. Sometimes they try and when they do, the mistakes are even more glaring.

Take for instance the movie Sunshine. (I didn't see it in the theater, I Netflixed it.)

For some reason the Sun has "shut down", yet still blazes hot enough that they have to build these massively shielded ships to deliver a bomb that will "restart" the sun through some sort of technobabble.

(The bomb was to enter a "polar" channel and go deep into the sun before detonating.)

Some of my gripes:

1. It's cold in space! Lordy, lordy, it is cold in that blackness of space. Cold enough to give a man third degree frostbite from 2 minutes exposure and freeze a man solid in less than 3 minutes. Um... No, that's not what happens.2. Zero-G in vacuum, Gravity in air. Literally, in the above scene where two of the crew have to make a trip in vacuum along with a spacesuited compatriot, they enter the airlock and float in the chamber, right up until the chamber is re-pressurized. Then *Bang* they crash into the deck. Which leads to...

3. Artificial Gravity. They can control gravity and the best they can do is send a titanic fission bomb to restart the Sun? If they can control gravity, then why not use that to restart the Sun? Yes this falls under "Unintended Consequences", but sheesh!

4. The Power of the Atom! According to the plot, they had mined every bit of fissionable material on the Earth to make the bomb. I don't know, maybe as a tamper, but theoretically, you'd want to build a fusion weapon. Theoretically, there is no maximum size to a fusion weapon, but, to be blunt, any bomb that we could build, would be the equivalent of a gnat's fart in a hurricane. If we could build a bomb big enough to restart the Sun, we could build our own star!

5. Unobtainium. This movie had a lot of it. The ship's shields were capable of protecting the rest of the ship from flash melting into slag. And they were no more than an inch thick. Why didn't they coat the rest of the ship in this stuff? Especially the vulnerable antennas?

6. The Ships of Misfit Crews. For some reason, the Powers That Be, decided to send an earlier ship, captained by a man with a messianic complex. The second ship has crew going at each other over little things. One crew member is definitely a loose canon with a short fuze. They have no problem with killing two of the crew to save the mission, and the man in charge of the bomb is an emotional basket case.

These are the major issues I had with this movie, along with palpable light and people spouting scientific nonsense.

Rick said...

Kedamono - good to see you! I missed even hearing about 'Sunshine,' but I certainly don't miss paying to see it. Yikes.

Curiously enough the first item is semi-demi correct. If fusion somehow ceased in the solar core (never mind how!), its surface radiance would not change, at least not quickly. We'd only detect fusion cessation by changes in neutrino flux.

What would cause fusion to cease, and why a big fission (?!) bomb would restart it is another matter.

The part about vacuum and gravity is downright funny, though I suspect it wasn't meant to be. I appreciate that microgravity for interior shots is a problem till we have orbital studio facilities, and accept that they'll generally cheat and show interior gravity. But that's no reason to CALL ATTENTION to the fact that you're cheating.

Come to think of it, practically everything in this film sounds like (unintentional) comedy.

Kedamono said...

Hi Rick!

If I remember correctly, if the Sun had shut down, we wouldn't know for about a million years, since it takes that long for the last photons to random walk their way out of the core.

As for being a comedy... it wasn't. The final sequence when the "bomb" is manually detonated by the emotional basket case is... is... total fantasy. It has nothing to do with detonating a fission or fusion bomb and more with mystical claptrap they tack on to Skiffy movies to make them palatable to the masses.

Rick said...

Kedamono - as in Star Wars, which is essentially a fantasy with sci-fi trappings. Or, putting it another way, a plot swiped from Lord of the Rings in a setting swiped from Foundation Trilogy.

Carla said...

"I would take a page from West Wing, and have an age-appropriate mix of top commanders and younger action types. It would take a bit of finesse to hit the right balance, but if done well it would also allow a nice play-off between the more cerebral plot elements and the action stuff. Also between worldly cynicism and youthful idealism, etc."

I read somewhere that this was the original idea floated for Star Trek, but it got vetoed by the top brass. I can't remember why - maybe keeping the number of characters down, or having a single hero figure who's both the captain and the action man.

Anonymous said...

Carla- apparently those same studio types thought that the captain, first officer, chief engineer and medical officer (plus a marine or two) of a modern destroyer would be boarding susspected pirate ships to conduct inspections. Obviously they didn't ever think about it-they just knew that they were paying for a big name star so they better use him as much as possible. Oh, and the best use of curcit breakers/fuses I've ever read in SciFi was in a spoof "The Adventures of Bill, the Galactic Hero", funny as all get out- it routinely punctures bad SciFi tropes! You should read it.
Ferrell

Rick said...

Carla and Ferrell - I had not heard that particular story, but it wouldn't surprise me. (The network suits did famously veto having a woman as XO.)

I can understand producers' desire to have the hero both in charge and in the action. If they wanted to do it and still be believable, they should have made the Enterprise a galleon and set the show in the 16th century. :-) Don John of Austria was 23 when he defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

Anonymous said...

I did a little digging on the early days of Star Trek (Mainly because of my fondness for Laurel Godwine. Mmmm, redheads...). Turns out the studio execs were fine with having a female XO, they just didn't like having Roddenberry's mistress on the payroll. Gene probably could have kept the female first officer, but he'd written that role specifically for Majel. So he dumped the role and gave Spock a higher profile.

The script and characters for Trek changed constantly, largely because Roddenberry didn't have the budget to do most of what he wanted. In the first pilot (The one with Jeffrey Hunter) the Captain beamed down to a shipwreck with a large security crew, and beamed down outside of the wreck to approach it on foot. In later episodes time and budget concerns meant the captain seemed to deliberately beam down into the middle of raging firefights...

Which identifies the main problems of writing TV (Or movie, but especially TV) SF, time and money. Money is less and less of a concern these days, when even the BBC can afford decent CGI, but you still have a limited amount of money to spend on ship effects, weapon effects, sound effects, on and on. So if you want to set your show on a ship with occasional trips to planets, you're going to end up with some very good ship sets and effects and a handfull of planets made up of rubber rocks and matte backdrops. If you set your show as a time-travel multi-setting travelogue, you'll end up with a lot of decent world sets and a time-travel device that looks like a big blue wooden box. And the more sets and props you build, the fewer actors you can hire...

And you have 22 to 46 minutes to tell a story, so it helps if you have characters who can cover a range of rolls without bringing in new people who need five minute introductions.

Firefly had one major set (Serenity) and a bunch of secondary sets that could be redressed as mining facilities, Alliance ships, or what-have-you, and a story background that allowed the set designers to re-use pre-existing Western backdrops and costumes. Doctor Who uses the BBC's old costume-drama sets and props and Britain's historic ruins to keep its budget down. I tried to sell a Canadian production company* on a series set in a major Canadian city in the near future, using a combination of pre-existing sets and costumes with minimal new props and cheap CGI. Reduce, Re-use, Recycle was the mantra of TV production long before environmentalism came along.

Something along the lines of David Drake's RCN series could probably work well as a ship-based TV SF series. The aliens are human cultures recontacting each other after a long dark age, the ship's are tiny, the crews are even tinier, and while the officers mainly deal with diplomatic missions their idea of diplomacy comes right out of the 'we're right, you're wrong, and we've got the guns to prove it' school of politics.

Of course it is David Drake, so you'd probably have to tone down the 'skulls explode, everybody dies' parts of the story...

(* Now out of business, just like every magazine I've ever worked for. Okay, I admit I'm lousy at personal finances, but I had nothing to do with running these companies. Is it just me, or do other people start to feel like they're jinxed...?)

Ian_M

Carla said...

"Don John of Austria was 23 when he defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571."

I was thinking about this yesterday. Some of the Royal Navy ship captains in the Napoleonic Wars were surprisingly young, e.g. Cochrane was capturing enemy frigates in his mid-twenties. Richard III (as Duke Richard) had command of the vanguard at Barnet aged about 16. Henry V was aged 29 at Agincourt. Edward I before he was king was 26 when he won the Battle of Evesham. (OK, you can argue that kings and kings' brothers are figureheads and the real decisions were all taken by a grizzled veteran who isn't mentioned in the history books, but while that may be true in some cases it isn't the case in all). Young senior commanders go with an aristocratic social structure, where the sons of the nobility can take a short cut to senior positions as a result of Daddy's money and influence, and some of them turn out to be really rather capable. (Some of them, of course, turn out to be hopeless). It also goes with an expectation of a shorter period of childhood than we have now, which, by the way, seems to be a fairly modern invention. In the 1950s in Britain it was normal to speak of a fourteen-year-old as a "young man".

So The Future could reasonably have handsome 20-somethings in high command if it has an aristocratic social structure with lots of short cuts for the privileged, and/or a relatively short period of childhood/ adolescence/ training before someone is considered an adult. Not an impression I get from the Star Trek universe, although to be fair I don't think the show says much (anything?) about the underlying social structure, so for all I know Captain Kirk could have been the son of a duke...

Rick said...

Ian - Interesting about the, umm, studio politics that played out regarding a female XO and Roddenberry's casting wishes.

Budgets constraints are a big limitation on what can be done on TV, especially cast size, since you can't (yet) really use CGI to replace actors. Speaking of CGI, a bad habit peculiar to modern times is cluttering the screen with a zillion spaceships.

A post-interregnum scenario would indeed be a good way to finesse 'aliens' that human actors can play. It also explains why they are not only humanoid, but sexy to boot. No need to strain convergent evolution to the extreme!

I share both your weakness for redheads and occasional sense of being jinxed. My fictional redhead, Catherine of Lyonesse, was lost without trace by two different editors the manuscript went out to, along with successive agency nightmares. Aarrrgggh!


Carla - For having youthful leaders, aristocracy helps! And at least in the case of Don John there's little doubt that he was really in charge. He had seasoned advisors, but it was a coalition fleet, and he had to make key 'diplomatic' decisions, notably intermingling the ships instead of leaving them in separate national squadrons. (As in the fiasco at Preveza in 1538.)

Going back a ways farther, there's even less doubt in the case of Alexander the Great, King of Macedon at age 18, conqueror of Persia by his early 20s.

I've read arguments that adolescence was extended basically to restrain competition for jobs. A fair number of major tech companies, including Google, were started by people in their early 20s.

Anonymous said...

You could have young starship commanders just by assuming some sort of educational reforms. Say that trades or professional training starts at 14, send your young hero to military school at that age, then the reserves at 17, then start their career as a junior officer at 20 or 21. If the character is talented either at command or politics, they could plausibly have command of a corvette or other small ship as a 23-25 year old senior lieutenant. At this point they would have trained for that position for nearly half their life. Throw in some shortcuts due to the right background or implausible heroics, and you could make that character captain of a large ship.

As Carla points out, our modern extended adolescence is a historic oddity. Supposedly it's due to the need for an extended learning period in our complex modern society, but most office jobs don't really require a business diploma. Personally I think a lot of it is due to over-population and the need to warehouse excess labour. Toss a planet-wide disaster into your background's deep history, and suddenly you have sixteen year olds handling office jobs (Earth population 2 billion = Jimmy Olsen at the Daily Planet).

The original Star Trek writers seemed to assume a kind of generic SF technocracy for Earth. In that case, I guess we can just assume that Kirk did really well on all his exams. Starfleet was also involved in a couple of long-running border disputes with its major neighbors, had a number of quick shooting wars with smaller groups, had an appallingly high rate of attrition for security officers (Or maybe that was just the Enterprise...), and lost two large starships in a three-year period. They may not have had much choice other than promoting young officers to command.

Ian_M

Jim Baerg said...

Another possibility in an SF scenario is advances in biology & medicine that give you centenarians with the body of a young athlete. So both experience & physical capability.

Rick said...

Ian - we're cross posting!

A colonial setting would also lend itself to pervasive labor shortage and thus shortened adolescence. They can't afford to warehouse capable teenagers for several years. And my impression is that kids with an academic bent are as ready for college-level work in their mid-teens as a few years later. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds might benefit even more from challenges to sink their teeth into, rather than being left to the streets.

Maturity can't be taught in a classroom, but by and large it comes from living an active life with adult challenges - compare Elizabeth I to Mary Queen of Scots.

The new Trek movie implicitly has both attrition and outstanding demonstrated talent as the reasons why Kirk ends up commanding a major starship in his early 20s.


Jim - That's another plausible solution!

Anonymous said...

Jim - I suspect that the people who are really interested in life-extension aren't the sort of people who want hazardous command duty. They'd probably be more like Japan's hikikomori or Earth's population in John Barnes' Thousand Cultures series.

Another point about young officers and older NCOs: Even now, with college educated adults in the role of young officer, they're told to trust their sergeants and listen to their advice. And I don't know about the American system, but in the Commonwealth armies knowing when to kill your officer is an explicit part of a senior NCO's duties. The aristocratic young officers of the past were probably more scared of their advisors than their battlefield opponents.

Ian_M

Rick said...

Ian - it probably differs heavily on whether life extension is something you have to specially pursue, or is either readily available or a consequence of public health measures, the way sanitation, pasteurization, etc., have prolonged the life and improved the health even of people who rarely see a doctor. (And youth extension might easily be sought even by reckless people. Life fast, die middle aged, and still leave a pretty corpse.

Wow, I had no idea that Commonwealth forces were so open about that particular function of NCOs!

Anonymous said...

"1) Humanity seems to have lost the Fashion Wars. Men dress in jumpsuits, women dress in even tighter jumpsuits or dresses that would embarrass a webcam girl.

(Hollywood varies from very bad to very good on this point. It depends on how much money the producers threw at the costume department.)"

Ok, costums are important (and not just as the difference between a G and NC-17 rating), but they tend to show details of the culture those characters come from; a simple tan or green jumpsuit with only a bare minimum of dodads as opposed to a multicolored, complex uniform with all kinds of shiny/flashy crap all over it. The civilians' clothes are even more important; does everyone wear basicly the same costume? Are their clothes more individualistic? Are they naked or wear elaberate body paint? Little clues as to culture and outlook of your characters don't have to be expensive, just well-thought-out.
Ferrell

Rick said...

Ferrell - Costume done well should achieve exactly the things you outline. In practice, not so much. I don't know why Hollywood sci-fi costume is usually so bad, at any rate to my eye. They can turn out gorgeous period/fantasy costumes when they want to ('Ever After,' for example). So it probably isn't lack of talent.

I suspect that a Hollywood person with knowledge in this area could give an answer, probably with a lot in common with the one about Hollywood spacecraft, and probably having a lot to do with what the general audience expects.

Jim Baerg said...

Ian:
I think the psychology of the populations in Niven's Known Space stories after the development of boosterspice seems plausible.

Most people stay young indefinitely & keep doing whatever interest them even though almost any activity has some finite, however small, risk of killing you.

Rick said...

Jim - That is pretty much my take as well. Some people are going to be obsessively risk-averse, but there is nothing really new about that.

There's a whole 'nother question about what people with indefinite lifespans might do after hundreds of years. Become terminally bored? Terminally reckless? Radically change their way of life just to try something different?

Jim Baerg said...

"3. One planet, one culture
...
If colonizable planets are plentiful (for whatever value of 'colonizable'), they plausibly get a pass on #3. The initial colonizers are likely to be a cohesive group, and other groups will look for other worlds to settle."

I would also give 3 a pass if a world has had fairly swift transport & communication for centuries or millenia. How long would there be more than one language per planet given at least 20th century tech levels?

Rick Robinson said...

Interesting question! I suspect it depends more on culture and politics than tech. In Western Europe Latin supplanted nearly all earlier languages, then with fragmentation eventually split into the Romance languages. (Basque survived; Breton was probably introduced or reinforced by post-Roman immigration from Cornwall.)

My guess is that a lingua franca is more likely, as English seems to be in modern India. But over a few hundred years the lingua franca might drive local languages out of use. Or flip side, a language might split as Latin did, if local populations become attached to their own dialect and start adopting it even in formal usage.

John Barnes said...

Hi, discovered this while avoiding work and ego-searching, the two main activities of writers. Something that used to upset me a little and fascinates me now is that the One Planet One Culture trope is so dominant in the field that a very large fraction, probably a majority, of both professional and reader reviews of the Thousand Cultures series kept missing that the main character is odd because he's from one of only three monoculture planets; all of the Thousand Cultures are scattered across just 26 planets, with eight worlds (not counting earth) that have more than 100 cultures each, and then numbers ranging gradually downward. But the great majority of reviews -- even though that point is repeated many times, and the considerations about how many cultures each planet was assigned in the colonization era are discussed more than once in all four books -- refer to it as the Thousand Planets (or sometimes the Hundred Planets), and begin by explaining that "every planet got a culture, and they have all been isolated from all other cultures..." and so on. Even when you do it, a large number of people don't -- maybe can't -- see it.

Rick said...

John - Welcome to my humble blog!

I'd guess that a couple of things are going on. We use 'planet' much as we do 'world,' for a mental universe, as in 'What color is the sky on your planet?' I could easily slip from Hundred Cultures to Hundred Planets. It has a natural ring to it, natural at any rate to SF convention.

And space colonization ideology gets mixed in with a lot of exclusionism; everyone gets to have a planet of people just like them.

Plus also a tendency in space oriented SF to treat planets as adventure towns. The 'planet' is whatever is outside the spaceport gates, and when you want a different atmosphere (!) you go to a different planet.

Isn't that what FTL is for, after all?

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