The Scale of Our Solutions: Ethical Limits in Secular (Sci-Fi) Storytelling

The Scale of Our Solutions: Ethical Limits in Secular (Sci-Fi) Storytelling January 28, 2019

NASA,, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a story. When my eldest nephew was a wee sprog of four, and on his annual weeklong visit to Aunt M L’s, a dear friend of mine joined us for a raspberry-picking adventure. She is a radiant human being with a beautiful smile, but my nephew was immediately afraid of her because of the clothes she was wearing. All black! Just like the “bad guys” in ever so many shows he learned from at his age. I had to coax him into seeing that the clothes didn’t make the person before we went out. Oh, so frustrating! I thought. What an impact poor media representation makes!

But then raspberry-picking proved to be its own Herculean task, because he was four, and he’d just entered into the very common rigidity children have at that age. “I don’t like raspberries,” he said when he saw them. “I’ve never liked raspberries!”–even though we had absolutely eaten raspberries the day before. It’s a perfectly natural process for mammalian species, though: at that age, a child is gaining more independence from its parents, and uses conservative categories of good/bad and right/wrong to help navigate the world more on its own. It’s a taxing process, for sure, but one we ideally move through to arrive at a great deal more nuance about the universe and its inhabitants.

Except that… we don’t really outgrow our knee-jerk conservatism as cleanly as we might like, especially when we try to figure ourselves as critical thinkers. We might undergo significant periods of openness to new ideas, granted, but habits and rituals nevertheless form in our lives: Work routines. Friends-group routines. Commenting-on-blog routines. And even those among us who see ourselves as ideologically radical can become so repetitive in our radicalism that it becomes an automatic comfort rather than the result of careful consideration of all the facts on hand. We also carry ideas with us for years, and they shape our way of viewing the world so much that, when evidence emerges to contradict them, we struggle sometimes to put those ideas aside. (Shem the Penman wrote more on this, recently, in “The Myths We Tell Ourselves”.)

I try my best to embrace being wrong, and take comfort in instances when I let new information change my mind–but the greater comfort comes from immersing myself in storytelling traditions that celebrate nuance from the get-go. They’re not easy to find, though–and they’re not always embraced when they do. For instance, upon reading my last essay, one family member remarked to another that I still hadn’t said which “side” I was on. I thought I’d been fairly clear, actually, that I’m on the side of doing whatever we can to deliver unto the people of Venezuela more agency to decide for themselves… but I understood the underlying frustration with not simply picking Maduro or Guaidó. Right/wrong, good/bad: long after the raspberry fields of our youth, these are still useful rigidities in a world with ever so much to process every news cycle.

Which is why, when it comes to sci-fi and fantasy storytelling, it makes sense that we try to tell our stories in miniature. Fewer variables makes for cleaner lines in the sand, right?

But when we choose to focus on such stories, we have to be careful, because the scale of our storytelling says a lot about the usefulness of any conclusions it might draw.

Of Desolate Wastelands and Trait-Based Races

I consumed a perfectly healthy amount of sci-fi and fantasy as a Yute. Perfectly. Healthy. So let me be clear that I’m not suggesting there is a dearth of intricate worlds in either genre. We have our Star Treks and our Xanths, our Discworlds and our Dunes, among myriad of others. And I will, of course, be discussing The Expanse below.

But two tropes crop up time and again when we reach for easy storytelling dichotomies… and these can still be found in the most intricate tales either genre produces–because large-scale worldbuilding is not guaranteed to be ethically complex. And indeed, therein lies the danger, because when we’re impressed by the magnitude of a given fictional world we can sometimes lose sight of how effective a cipher it really is for our own.


The first of these tropes is our predilection for wiping out huge swathes of humanity in order to set the stage for our stories. The desolate wasteland that follows in the wake of a global epidemic, zombie outbreak, or natural disaster is fun, because it means that individual choices suddenly matter a whole lot more… but for precisely that reason, it’s also moral-reboot-wish-fulfillment. We love our stories about rag-tag survivors in such circumstances because suddenly the outcomes of private dramas, the will-she-or-won’t-he of our loves and losses, take on species-wide importance.

Interestingly enough, though, one of the first in the contemporary genre, Night of the Living Dead (1968), firmly repudiated this fantasy with its ending. Sorry to spoil for folks who haven’t caught up on their classics yet, but when all of a farmhouse’s nighttime strife between a motley group of survivors finds only one man surfacing in the light of day… he’s promptly shot at a distance by a group of men restoring order after the outbreak. There is, furthermore, a strongly racialized component to this death, as a black man shot unhesitatingly by a white authority figure (oh, hi 1968! I’d say we missed you, but…)–and this too calls attention to the idea that we are still part of larger discourses than our microcosmic lives sometimes lead us to believe.


Related to this notion, though, of small-but-meaningful-us (versus apocalyptic emptiness or a large-but-meaningless-them) is a flattening of other groups to singular traits. This emerges in alien-stories where the “Other” is a mono-culture, and it emerges even in sweepingly nuanced fantasy worlds like Lord of the Rings, where species like orcs are little more than battle-fodder, with their physical grotesquery used to highlight a sense of moral depravity. As a teen, I was carried away by a similarly sweeping approach to military fantasy, David Eddings’ Belgariad, Malloreon, Elenium, and Tamuli sequences, which at the time impressed with the scale of their universes… but later proved an excellent storytelling lesson in the difference between scale and complexity. Eddings could masterfully describe the progression of military units through intricate landscapes, but the groups that peopled his worlds remained significantly uniform with regard to their respective traits.

As such, whether it’s desolate wastelands or trait-based peoples, races or species, the consequences in sci-fi and fantasy are the same: You as the reader get a smaller playing field of characters with meaningful agency, and… very little to suggest how that agency would scale up to a whole world full of characters with distinct motivations, each in a microcosmic drama all their own.


The Expanse: An Object-Lesson in Large-Scale Moral Landscapes

What makes The Expanse (both the book series and TV show) stand out even from other major sci-fi-and-fantasy vehicles is its commitment, instead, to a multiplicity of humanistic perspectives. Imagine Star Trek if it weren’t located on a single ship or space-station, dedicated to learning different ways of being solely through how the crew responds to new situations and species. Imagine Game of Thrones if there were less fixation on who’s fornicating with / murdering whom. The Expanse shape-shifts as a storytelling beast, depending on the motivations of its central characters. Sometimes it’s more of a space-operatic noir-mystery, other times it’s an action-packed military brawl, other times it’s a scientific whodunnit, other times it’s a taut game of inter-solar diplomacy, and other times it’s the story of a more-or-less merry little crew.

There are unifying threads, profoundly humanistic in nature, but characters retain individually sympathetic motivations all throughout. Moreover, you as a viewer and/or reader are challenged to remember that in any given stand-off between human beings… Earth has its reasons, Mars has its reasons, the Belt has its reasons, and the motley stragglers who slip from port to port have their reasons, too.

Most importantly, though: all these perspectives do not flatten culpability. Many characters are engaged in wrongdoing–some wilfully, some unintentionally–and only some of the former have reasons for their actions that most would find sympathetic. You have some real assholes in this universe, in other words, and knowing their motivations does not make them less so.

Why does this matter?

The Expanse thus avoids the academic danger of equivocating between perspectives as if all are equally valid on an ethical playing field. This is that dread spectre of “moral relativism” that many religious folk somehow believe a) only exists in secular spheres, when the Christian deity absolutely sanctions different behaviour at different times, and they’ll be the first to use this argument to defend against rotten parts of the Good Book; and b) means that atheists have no moral argument against the big nasties like rape, murder, slavery, and torture, the likes of which are… again, sanctioned in the Bible itself “for a different age.”

It’s a strange one, this religious argument against atheism from moral relativism, but academic “but on the other hand”-ism is itself a worthy moral-bankruptcy to avoid in secular storytelling. Because the point of illustrating a multiplicity of perspectives is not to free people from responsibility for their actions. Not at all.

Rather, what we in the humanist sphere are striving for is a deeper understanding of what makes us act in certain, destructive ways, so that punitive justice for specific violations can be joined with restorative and preventative justice. So that we can reduce the number of future incidents in which others are driven by private logics, needs, and capacities to do harm in the first place.

The Take-Away

I’m not advocating against following sci-fi and fantasy series that flatten externalities–whether by creating monocultural foes, trait-based species, or desolate wastelands. I’m just asking that we be a touch more mindful of what we’re buying into when we do. Even the most expansive worldbuilding, in terms of sheer scale, does not always guarantee psychological depth in our portraits of why other sentient beings employ their moral agency differently. Conversely, as satisfying as it can be to see our microcosmic dramas suddenly gain greater relevance for the species on whole… that kind of fantasy rarely maps well into the real world, where we’re still ethically beholden to a multitude of forces outside of our immediate social circles.

Instead, if you can, lean into the stories in your life that develop moral complexity without fully equivocating between every individual decision on the moral landscape. And this time, when I say “stories”, I don’t just mean in sci-fi and fantasy. I mean in your news feeds, too. I mean in your choice of infotainment websites, and your go-to op-ed journals, and the conversations you have in general about the world. I mean the way you talk about yourself and your communities every day.

Because we’re not four years old anymore… and even if we were, the challenge upon every four-year-old is to grow past their knee-jerk rigidity, and to embrace more of this wild and wonderful cosmos in all its shades of grey.

How could we ask more of them than we’re willing to ask of ourselves?

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  • Cozmo the Magician

    My fave line from this week’s ep of ‘Discovery’ “Lucky for you I’m Vulcan, we don’t do funny” at which point Captain Pike laughs… Brilliant (:

  • Illithid

    This is what bugged me the most about Battlefield Earth. Yes, I read it. Deal with it. Not the jets that still worked after a millennium, not the hero bailing out of a supersonic aircraft and rolling on the ground to break the fall, not the “virus-based” Psychlo aliens… I could go on for a while.

    No it’s that every alien race was a single human in a rubber mask, exemplifying one or a few human traits, endlessly cloned. One race is arrogant and militaristic, all of them. One race is basically shark-accountants.

    Oh, and there are no female characters of consequence. And every non-human is stupid. Bleagh.

  • guerillasurgeon

    Post-apocalyptic wasteland fiction seems to have increased exponentially over the last few years. And I confess I simply don’t read it anymore. Because the worst of it is also a moral wasteland. Simpler the story of some individual or some group of individuals trying to survive against evil nature/people. I haven’t come across anything nearly as good as Ellison’s “A Boy and his Dog” – I think I might have the title correct there. But I’m a fan of moral relativism within reason. I had a ferocious argument on one of these blogs about Mohammed marrying an eight year old or something. People condemned it completely out of context, and for that matter every king/aristocrat who did the same. It’s not that simple didn’t go down very well, but then they didn’t know anything about history on the whole. I pisses me off most those ascribing human motivations to alien species. There might be some congruence, but then again they might have completely different aims in life.
    I do like The Expanse though. I read the books before I even heard about the TV series. I like the attempt to make the characters more than two-dimensional, although the “Belter” parts of it reminded me of Hinz’ “The Paratwa” Dammit have to go – maybe more later.

  • abb3w

    I wonder what would be the monocultural/trait-based species counterpart to the how-not-to-worldbuild line “On the jungle world of Gnirob, it was raining that century”. (Maybe the Erob species who inhabit Gnirob were murderously grumpy?)

  • This emerges in alien-stories where the “Other” is a mono-culture

    The thing I most like about Vernor Vinge is how well he avoids falling into this trap.