Column Moves; Living in Science Fiction Film Universes

Big change with my AMC column this week: It’s moved to a new site, FilmCritic.com (owned by AMC), where it will stay for the foreseeable future. And for the moment the comments to the column are off, although that might be a temporary thing (they’re still in the “shaking down” portion of the move). Otherwise, it’s the same column as ever, focused on science fiction film. And this week, I’m looking at science fiction film universes and whether it would be cool to live in them; would having your own land speeder make up for living in a despotic empire? My thoughts await you.

Normally I tell you leave comments over at the AMC site, but since the comments don’t appear to be activated there, I’m keeping the comments open here on this thread. Knock yourself out, kids.

61 thoughts on “Column Moves; Living in Science Fiction Film Universes

  1. Star Trek was designed to be utopian! Awesome medicine, no poverty, no major environmental issues to worry about…that’s gotta be above a B-.

  2. Given that we live in a post-cyberpunk SFnal world now, I’d suggest that yeah, the tech makes it worth it. That is, we look at what we have and we see the glimmers of hope and potential, even if the state of society makes us sigh. Grimdark futures may not look that grimdark to the inhabitants, after all.

  3. Great column as always – but always leaving me wanting more. What about the world of Planet of the Apes? Logan’s Run?

    And Buck Rogers’ 25th century has a lot going for it, including great military uniforms for women, great princess garb, an acceptance of swashbuckling chest-hair showing garb for men and the very best dancing money can buy.

    On the other hand, it also has Tweeky.

  4. As I think Scalzi (may I call you Scalzi?) implied in the column, universes you’d want to live in are boring to read (and write) about. Larry Niven wrote a short story to illustrate this point, but I’m afraid I can’t remember the title, and don’t have time to wade through Wikipedia entries to find it.

    But as this is supposed to be about movies, how about the Thunderbirds universe? Nothing really bad happens, and space travel is cheap and easy enough for island-owning tycoons. On the downside, too many strings attached ;-)

  5. Unmentioned downside of Star Trek universe, especially if you live anywhere near Starfleet Academy: space cadets. They’re too clean-cut to be allowed to live. No wonder everyone’s gunning for San Francisco.

  6. For me the obvious choice of what SF world to live in would be the Culture. Sure, horrible things happen at the edges sometimes but if you stay well inside the borders it’s just about as utopian as you can get.

  7. I’m all for a Hitchhiker’s Guide existence. Sure you might get eaten by a Ravenous Bugblatter Beast or have your planet demolished by Vogons but a universe that has parties attended by Thor has gotta be a happenin’ place.

  8. Unmentioned downside of the Star Wars universe: mind-numbingly bad dialogue. Sure, I could have my very own light saber … which I’d end up using to commit seppuku.

  9. Seems like you’re a bit too “average” here on your grades. I mean, fine, you don’t want to live in Star Trek Earth, but the Matrix is only a D? I’d think that world would be a guaranteed F…

    I imagine the Star Trek universe would be pretty much an A – for your average person there’s really little downside, I’m sure there’s as much drama there as there is in, say, my current life, but at least I have free healthcare (via tricorder!) and all the replicated food I can eat. The Star Wars universe is probably in the middle somewhere, as the totalitarian element is a bit of a pain, but most people probably are just as well off under the Empire as anywhere else… so a B perhaps.
    The Serenity[/Firefly] universe isn’t really all that well fleshed out, but to the extent it is I wouldn’t want to live there as it seems more Wild West-ish than most of us would be happy in [or at least alive in]. C- or D depending on your ability to fire a sidearm and pilot a freighter.

    That makes me think of another question… “Which SF character would you like to see in another SF series/movie”. Hans Solo in Serenity? Riddick in the Fifth Element? Data in The Matrix?

  10. How could you forget Starcrash?

    Pros: David Hasselhoff, Marjoe Gortner, Christopher Plummer, and an Imperial battleship that can halt the flow of time.

    Cons: It doesn’t matter – there’s an Imperial battleship that can halt the flow of time!

  11. Jimon@5:
    The Larry Niven story you are thinking of is “Safe At Any Speed”,originally published in 1967.

  12. Planet of the Apes

    Plusses: No facial-hair taboos or potassium shortages. It’s an equestrian’s paradise. Some of the inhabitants wear lab coats so geek culture has clearly survived. Probably great dry-cleaning and personal grooming franchise opportunities. Time Travel!

    Minuses: Umm, humans are slaves spending their nasty, brutish and short days in endless toil under the glares of shotgun-toting overseers; ’nuff said? The humans are mute, so ’nuff probably isn’t said. Uncontrollable and random time travel!

    Logan’s Run:

    Plusses: Damn, EVERYONE’s good looking. Fetish/scanty clothing abounds. Nobody seems to have to freaking WORK for a living.

    Minuses: You get whacked while quite young. Earth is supposedly a radioactive hell-world outside the domes, and is a primitive wilderness in reality; what’s the over/under on the mean lifetime of the soft and scantily clad dome-horde once their city blows up?. I suspect that dome is probably located where Minneapolis is today, which means they better start building some beeeg fires.

    Bonus – the Duniverse:

    Plusses: Enough settled worlds that you can probably do or be anything you want to be unless it involves computers in some nontrivial way. If you’re rich you can prolong your life by gobbling an addictive hallucinogenic drug that turns your eyes blue (I predict a healthy contact lens market). Personal shields so you can brawl without actually getting hit. Laser guns! Pew pew! You might meet Kyle MacLachlan if you’re in the right place at the right time.

    Minuses: The occasional galaxy-wide crusade by a thundering horde of (i) anti-technology crusaders bent on destroying ur interwebz and/or (ii) blue-eyed religious fanatics whose spiritual grounding combines the worst of Buddhism and Sunni Islam bent on converting ur religion to worship of a drug-saturated once-human slug dude whose imperfect prescience is so fascinating that he abdicates most of his human duties and responsibilities. Atomic weapons owned by noble families (inbreeding and nukes: what could go wrong?). Umm, those shield things blow up if you bounce a laser beam off of them. You might meet Sean Young if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  13. As someone with chronic pain, I’ve been joking that I’d like to sign up for the Matrix for years. I will gladly accept being used as a living battery in exchange for being pain-free. :)

  14. The theorem implied in #5 is in fact true, and I have discovered a remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain.

    (I think I’ll stop there.)

  15. Darth Sidious has forgotten more about egalitarianism than the Republic ever knew. At least under Palpatine’s empire a young man could join the Imperial armed forces and work his way up to grand Admiral (really, LOTS of room to move when Vader’s in charge). In the so-called Republic if you weren’t filthy with mitochlorians, possessing a title of nobility or some sort of freakin clone you might as well stay home.

  16. Y’know, some of these ‘verses are not all that different from where we are NOW, depending on what region of earth you live in. We have the hegemonies and the despots and so on, and sporadic danger from differently-sane people (hell, I live in NYC), with safety determined by how far away from the center of the action you live, and the well-to-do running stuff and the people scraping by on the sidelines through questionable means. Unless the question assumes me to be actively seeking out a Utopia, which I am not — I think I could deal with the Serenity-verse. (Or at least, the Firefly-verse, which was more complicated and less exciting overall.) Which (damn) I think would mean I’d have to be able to deal with the Star Wars-verse — it has a similar level (similar level, though higher probability) of danger.

    Matrix-verse can bite me. I could live in the Trek-verse, but as a normal, non-adventuring type, I’d be in the heart of the Federation and I think at the back of my mind I’d always suspect that I was secretly in the Matrix-verse.

  17. Dave H @12

    Pros: David Hasselhoff, Marjoe Gortner

    These are pros in your universe? (My astonishment actually extends to just about any way you care to read that.) You need help.

  18. the nagging feeling that your universe isn’t as popular as you think it should be.

    Okay, that got a chuckle out of me. (My first date with my husband was to see Serenity on opening night at midnight.)

    Logan’s Run Minus: I’d be dead already

  19. Thank you, Captain Button @13. I had a feeling that someone out there would know :-)

    rikchik @7: I definitely second the Culture universe as the one for me, but I was trying to stick to movies.

  20. I laughed hard.

    But, at the risk of seeming humorless: you’re not really getting a fair sample of what it’s like to live in a particular universe when you only see the high-adventure conflict-rich areas of it.

  21. Hey, what about the Fifth Element? I would love to live in that world. No downside except for the police car grappling hooks.

  22. Thank you, Dave H. I had NEVER heard of Starcrash but now it’s a must-see, based on your description alone.
    I wouldn’t mind living or working in the DS9 section of Star Trek myself. It was my favorite Trek series.

  23. @TomG
    DS9? The Station was under constant threat of destruction, A horde or aliens could drop through the wormhole at a moments notice, and Bajor, while a lovely place to visit, had a devastated economy, was in political upheaval and is dominated but a world-wide religion. No thanks.

    I slightly less radical Universe to live in…Back to the Future.

    Flying cars, Review Sunglasses, Hover Boards, Auto-dry clothes, lace-less shoes,dust repellent paper, Perfect weather forecasts. The only con I see is the bionic bully population.

  24. [Deleted for being completely off topic. Tinker, if you want to repost the question in the appropriate place, you may; I’m not snipping it out because of what you asked, just where you decided to put it — JS]

  25. Downside of the Trek Universe: time paradoxes allowed in any way someone with enough chronons to burn can imagine. The likelihood of everything/everybody being wiped out and then replaced with something more or less the same is very high. I’m also with McCoy on the transporter beams inability to transport me rather than produce a copy.

    Upside of the Trek Universe: If you have a life lesson to learn it gets solved the same day it crops up.

    Barbarella’s universe looks pretty good to me.

  26. How the universe of the original Battlestar Galactica?

    Pros: Scantily clad women on the gambling ship and those cool Egyptian looking outfits.

    Cons: Only one Battlestar to protect you from hordes of robots bent on your destruction. Oh and a robotic dog.

  27. Best universe from what objective?

    Raise your kids?

    Live a productive and safe adult life?

    Productive and safe life, but with the option to go somewhere and do dangerous fun things if you want?

    Exciting, dangerous, on your toes type of life comes to you regularly whether you want it or not?

    Relatively few people actually like the latter. Most people fall into the first three categories.

  28. Demolition Man: Pros: female police uniforms, self-driving ultra-safe cars. Cons: Taco Bell everywhere, those three seashells. B-

    The Fifth Element: Pros: fun city life of Coruscant without the stuffiness, warming bandages. Cons: cramped apartments, crime and corruption. C-

    Westworld/Futureworld: Pros: robots that can fulfill your every fantasy. Cons: robots that disobey Asimov’s First Law of Robotics. C+

    The Truman Show: Pros: you feel as if the universe were created just for you. Cons: total lack of privacy. B

    Waterworld: Pros: the real thing has to be better than the movies. Cons: maybe it IS like the movie. D-

    If you were to open discussions to TV universes; some interesting ones might be: Farscape, Lexx, Buck Rogers, Babylon 5.

  29. One more slightly off but kind of on topic comment.

    I seriously hope the new AMC site has a better comments section. The old one was just plain painful.

  30. TomG@29: Uh, wait’ll you see it before you thank me. I need the head start.

    I’m not so sure living in the Star Wars universe would be as bad as all that. Sure, the Empire wasted a populous planet, but that’s one out of how many? (Look at the size of the Senate chamber in Phantom Menace.) You’re more likely to be run over by a landspeeder.

  31. If the Matrix got an ‘F’ there’d be no room left for Terminator…

    2001/10 seems like a good candidate for an ‘A’

  32. A part 2 to this post should also include Sleeper; give me an Orb and an Orgasmatron and I won’t care who the Leader (or his nose) is.

  33. Well, Star Trek’s Federation for the win in terms of movies/TV sci-fi. All your needs are met, you’re safe, and there’s tons of cool toys.

    Literature: the Culture is even 500 times safer than the Federation and I really want my own personal GSV.

    Fantasy: If I could hang out in a post-war Shire with occasional trips to Rivendell to steal from Elrond’s library, that would be just about perfect. Ale is plentiful, no pollution, and when you tire of short but enthusiastic hobbit partners you can frolic with the elves who want a little human action. Oh, it would be sweet.

  34. Ah, but you don’t get your own GSV. You CAN’T get your own GSV. A GSV is a full citizen (in fact, it’s three of them, all of which are unimaginably smarter than you are). You can’t own slaves in the Culture.

    On the other hand, if you’re the kind of person who would want such a dangerous and impracticable idea, Contact would like to speak with you. Visit alien worlds! Make friends! Feel superior to these savages and feel good about helping them out!

    And if THAT is too boring for you, well, there’s always Special Circumstances.

    And if you’re not suited to the above, you can always be slap-droned and be avoided at parties. Kinda a downer, y’know?

  35. _Film_ sci-fi universes seem so much more limiting than the literary ones, this is a hard call to make. Probably Star Wars (post-Jedi chronology, thanks) for me. Wouldn’t want to have to deal with the worst of the Empire, though I’m sure the space trains ran on time (OR ELSE). I’d really love a military surpolus TIE Interceptor (with hyperdrive). And a light saber, yeah, though I’m sure I’d accidentally kill myself in short order.

  36. A+ for the universe of Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

    Consider:

    1. A bacon sandwich, coffee and cigarette for breakfast constitutes a healthy start of the day.

    2. Dystopia ruled by a disembodied nose.

    3. The storm troopers are less dangerous than cranky TSA agents.

    4. Huge vegetables.

    Finally the Orgasmatron.
    Nuff said.

  37. Yeah, films…well Barbarella all the way. I shouldn’t have to say why should I?

    Literature…yeah, the Culture. I wonder if they’d let me blow up a planet or two?

    TV, the Red Dwarf-verse. Hanging out on a fully equipped starship that can cater to my every need and no annoying cold callers.

    Anime-verse, crazy as it sounds the Eva-verse. Giant cyborg robots then we all get a hug before dying.

    I wonder if I could combine all four?

  38. My fantasy is to live in a Firefly/Dark City mashup. It’s like Firefly, see, but instead of asking “Why is it never daytime?” you fly around trying to solve the riddle “If the Chinese took over the galactic culture, then where are all the Chinese people?”

    (The answer has something to do with Kiefer Sutherland with a bad stammer wearing fetish gear, conducting a high stakes beagle rustling operation. I’m still roughing out the details.)

  39. Part two must include the universe of Babylon 5. Neither a utopia nor a distopia, but the future we would most likely end up with.

  40. You know, that’s how I pick whether or not I like science fiction stories.
    Whether or not I’d want to live in that particular world.

    And I’d probably give serious body appendages to live in the Old Man’s War universe.

  41. On the topic of the Culture;

    I think I’d personally love it.

    But I want to point out that it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea.

    It’s at best a benign dictatorship , at worst a totalitarian state, run by AIs. Leaving is possible but likely difficult (and apparently only done by complete psycopaths, don’t know what this says about the place). It gets into wars and/or diplomatic wossnames with other societies, without any pretence of getting support from the populace.

    Oh, and you can’t own a GSV. GSVs are people. Indeed, they are *more important people than you*.

    It’s either a utopia or a really really creepy distopia.

  42. If we extend it to literature, I’d love to live in Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe — specifically in Chasm City during two hundred years of Belle Epoque. You are effectively immortal (can be killed, but it is not very likely), all material needs are taken care of, there is greatest art scene in history, brain implants provide augmented reality on par with any Fairyland (but can be turned off if you want to see only real reality), and you can modify or add body parts pretty much at whim — whether you prefer biological or cyborg. Not sure if smugness is a plus or a minus — after Melding Plague has come, one of the characters says “Unlike every other Golden Age in history, they damn well knew it.” For that matter, even after Melding Plague it can be fun place in a noirish sort of way — if you are rich and live in the Canopy. Then, of course, Conjoiners restore Chasm City. Then Inhibitors come…

    That’s the problem with Reynolds’ universe — all good things come to an end. He put it this way in an interview: “In the long run, humanity is doomed. But we still have a few thousand pretty good years ahead of us.” Which is better than vast majority of SF universes, IMO.

  43. What about comparing sci-fi film universes to “realistic” film universes?

    There are problems with the “real” film universes, especially with the romantic comedy universes. If I could go live in the universe of a “realistic” film, I think I might pick an action movie, and then become an Olympic marksman– if the movies are any indication, those universes are populated by some REALLY bad shots.

  44. You could stretch this column into a book, Scalzi. There are a lot of appealing universes in science fiction, at first glance (presumably the editors reject those that aren’t.) On contemplation, though, a lot of them become less appealing.

    If you’re Lazarus Long, a lot of that universe (setting aside the question of which of the 6^6^6 universes it is) is interesting, but even he became bored and had to be tempted back to life. For many (most?) of the other folk there, it was much more terrifying and much shorter. I’d love to have Gay Deceiver in the garage, though (do continua-equipped devices have real m.p.g. worries?)

    You really need conflict to have interesting stories (c.f. Wilder’s Our Town), and the bigger the conflict, the bigger the story. The life of Fassin Taak was going to be pretty boring to anyone else, but then he was drafted and … you could probably make a movie of The Algebraist with modern tech, but it would be best made, like LotR, in three parts, with special extended editions. Live there? Any of those theres? Maybe as a Dweller.

    The Culture. I suspect that I’d run away to Contact or Special Circumstances. A wonderful place to visit for R&R..

  45. I’d probably give serious body appendages to live in the Old Man’s War universe.

    Oh, no way. Earth is pretty well unchanged since our time, except for the nagging knowledge that all the fun advanced stuff is happening elsewhere and they won’t let you play or even watch unless you sign up blind for the CDF or for colonisation (depending on country of origin). And there’s some nasty disease around called the Crimp. Sounds painful.
    If you decide to go for the CDF, you get to spend your next ten years fighting in a continual, horrific war which you probably won’t survive.
    If you do survive, then you get to retire into a great big galaxy where pretty well every other sentient being is trying to wipe you out.

    Count me out. I’ll be over here on my GSV.

  46. What’s interesting about this is how you’d choose Earth over all of the other options. It made me think of my favorite book, The Giver, and how people in that world (assuming they had some semblance of knowledge about things like cars, and guns and whatnot), if given these same options, with Earth among them, would probably still choose to live in their own world because hey- they may not have amusement parks and romance and books, but at least they don’t have wars and fighting and disease. Very reminiscent to these comparisons in that you’d choose the safer option with less of the good because there was equally less of the bad. Interesting to think about certainly.

  47. The United Federation of Planets is by all indications a functioning representative democracy;

    I’m far from being a Trek fan. I’ve watched a lot of the shows, TOS and TNG. I do not recall them mentioning what kind of a government they have, or voting or .. well no civics lessons for sure.

    As far as I can tell Star Trek’s earth and Federation is ruled by a junta composed of Star Fleet admirals.

  48. John, John!

    Inside the matrix. Outside the matrix. There is no outside the matrix for humans in the Matrix film trilogy.

    Late in the second film Neo starts doing inside Matrix like moves in the outside matrix world of “Zion.” Then in a later conversation, the Architect tells Neo fact to face that the machine designers of the matrix knew they needed to provide an outlet (valve so to speak) for humans intolerant of the inside matrix. So they provided “Zion.” Zion–just another matrix designed to look like the real world outside the matrix. Surely, everyone saw these subtle hints and disclosures in the three films. If you are human in the world of the matrix film trilogy, you are always a battery. Even when you think you are not one.

    So give the matrix an A. You can live inside it in late 20th century America or inside it in “Zion” thinking mistakenly you have excaped the machine created world. Whichever cup of tea you prefer.

    Consider this…

    Not only could you expand this column to book length for science fiction film worlds, you could do so for fantasy film worlds. Now, if you move from film to literature, you shall have to write an encyclopedia.

    As for me, I should like to live in Tolkien’s middle-earth as part of a wandering troop of actors moving about from place to place. Patricia McKillip’s world of the Riddlemaster of Hed might be nice as well, if I could be the High One and shape the wind.

  49. I wouldn’t mind living in the Mass Effect universe… just not out on the frontiers. Oh and not on colonies with Prothean ruins or where research corporations are actively running experiments.

  50. I really wouldn’t want to live in the HalfLife 2 Universe. Can’t think of any pros at all. And though it has lots of nifty technology, from what I’ve read so far of Infoquake so far I wouldn’t want to live in the Jump 225 universe.

    About the column-movement: I miss reading the comment section, and hope that gets turned on in the new location.

  51. I’m one of those crazy nutters who believes that Star Trek and Firefly are essentially the same universe. Firefly just shows you what’s going on in the dingier corners of the Federation. Watch Firefly/Serenity when they show Alliance offices and crewdecks on ships, they bear more than a passing similarity to Trek. And the propaganda the Tams hear growing up in the Alliance core worlds sound very much like the Star Trek utopias that everyone is so fond of.

    And I do feel that the empire isn’t getting a fair shake. All we ever see are the rebel worlds (which by and large are not all that great). All I know is the rebels are led by an incestuous princess and a bunch or criminals and fish people, with a saber wielding psychotic running around blowing up space stations. For some reason, everytime I hear how bad the empire is, I keep thinking of the Romans in the “Life of Brian.” “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

  52. I would love to live in the Star Trek universe – no poverty, hunger, or crime on the member worlds. And you could join Starfleet and travel to distant worlds! Yes, UFP gets attacked now and then, but they always end up winning!

    Another universe I would like to live in is the Stargate SG-1 universe – as long as I get to join the Tok’ra! They have their share of attacks by bad guys, but the bad guys have lost so far.

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