Charlie Stross on the sorry state of science fictional worldbuilding

Originally published at:


There is also some sad news for regular readers of Charlie’s Blog in the comments.


Shit. I had no idea. Dammit.


Do you really mean “teratology”? The study of monsters & fantastic creatures?


" Take a random grab-bag of concepts and try to imagine the following without capitalism: “advertising”, “trophy wife”, “health insurance”, “jaywalking”, “passport”, “police”, “teen-ager”, “television”. "

Each and every one of those exists in every “People’s Republic”, “Worker’s Paradise” and “Democratic Socialist Peoples’ Liberation State” you can find.


Not that they are gone, but all of them are very different. Also, every People’s Republic has a great deal of capitalism and its infrastructure.

Also, is Marxism-Leninism the only alternative you can see to Capitalism? Gene Roddenberry didn’t have that problem.


A bit interesting that Stross get a suggestion about Ada Palmer’s work and inmediatly says he bounced hard on it :stuck_out_tongue:

I loved/hated her first book and I’m thinking it fails at worldbuilding precisely on the opposite direction - it tries so hard to do that “the future is not just today with nicer toys” that some of the foundations are there just to make a counterpoint of today, but arent really supported. Stross, on the other hand, finds the idea of One Earth Culture ridiculous.


When I think of the “clomping foot of nerdism” in terms of world-building, I tend to think of Tolkien’s influence on poor imitators (especially with world-building in games), but this reminds me, yet again, that Star Wars has a lot to answer for. In this case, a lack of world-building. I know Star Wars has had a huge impact on science fiction films, but I hadn’t really considered how influential he is for authors. Pastiches of familiar elements that don’t make sense together serve as a means of serving up spectacle - that’s a sad dumbing down of what science fiction movies could be, but for novels, that’s tragically so.


Oh… that’s weird. I was at school with him.

Jaywalking seems to be a specifically American thing. It’s just ‘crossing the road’ most places.


Oddly, I’ve been trying to write a story kinda about what kind of world that would be in transition between our world driven by market economies and one driven by other needs and desires. I can’t say I got a clue how to solidify it yet at least for me. It’s been more of a mental exercise than a legitimate attempt to write fiction (I got no skills when it comes to that, heh). Maybe I’m on the right track considering that I think social concepts will have more influence over future civilization than technology. At least inasmuch as that social concepts define the rules of play when it comes to law, religion, sexuality, and so forth. Technology, in my opinion, doesn’t play that large of a role beyond making things easier. The only real influences technology has had on human life is the amount of work we do and when we do it (our entire work schedule is artificial if you’ve ever experienced working third shift you know what I mean). And those are still largely social factors and not inherent to the technologies that we utilize.

I couldn’t get away with it myself. I might give it another go though.

Just by writing here you prove the importance of technology. It has changed ways of communications fundamentally, making it much easier to create virtual communities of like minded people, for better or worse.


I often have similar complaints about the futurist/futurology community that commonly fails to think-through the fractal-like spreading impact of technology on society, culture, and economics. The foundation of a culture is in how it makes things and how that shapes the logistics of everyday life and even the physical footprint of civilization. We often overlook how the paradigms and conventions of industry have influenced the culture elsewhere, and how that might change with those paradigms. Perhaps it’s because I grew up watching James Burke, but, as an amateur futurist, the shallowness of the commonly portrayed future often annoys me. Space futurism in particular is remarkably–infuriatingly!–retrofuturist today.


Yet a web forum is just a form of commons which humans have re/created for centuries. We went from the town square to the church to the library and now to Facebook and other social media. The form is the same and most of the norms attached to them. What’s different is we have more freedom in terms of time to respond like how electrification affected our schedules for work and rest. That’s the only real significant change just as we’ve seen in related areas. But the core social relations remain intact.

That’s why I think the emphasis on technology has always been the wrong way to write science fiction. Not many scifi writers seem to want to touch on such things. I mean even the Moon is a Harsh Mistress at least touched on the fact that exiling multiple ethnic groups would inevitably lead to multi-racial households and even different marriage relations without the need to pin it on one technology. Just the fact they made a penal colony was enough to set the stage for the change. This is the kind of writing that really makes you question where the world is heading regardless of the latest gadget.

1 Like

Oddly, it’s one norm that came about due to car manufacturers. Prior to their involvement, the US public didn’t like cars all that much and there were movements to restrict their access to cities and small towns. It was such a problem that you can political posters of mothers clutching her dead child which were part of anti-car campaigns. The car industry struck back hard and created the term jaywalking (which in this case jay was slang for country folk) and won through lobbying and other related efforts. You can still find many photos from the time before the creation of the term jaywalking and the legal adoption of anti-jaywalking laws where people lazily walked the wide streets of New York and other such cities with very few incidents. So it wasn’t the technology that spurred the change but rather the car industry interests that did it. If there wasn’t much more than a tinkerer’s movement for cars back then we’d probably never see the world we live in today.


Yeah, this one struck me as way over my head. The only ones that don’t make sense are advertising and health insurance. Anyone that gets it care to explain wtf I’m missing?

This is kind of why I don’t read post-singularity, post-scarcity sci-fi, myself (including Stross’s). Same reason I generally prefer “low” to “high” fantasy.

When you’ve got to spend so much of your effort on building a post-everything-we-know world, there’s that much less left for plot and character.


This is why I mourn the loss of Iain Banks so much, as he managed with his Culture series to capture exactly what Charlie Stross seems to be missing: a post-capitalism society so utopian, we need to see it at its edges, most often from the viewpoint of those who are not part of it.

It must be Scotland that makes the authors so inventive and weird, I guess.