Divided Sci-fi Worlds


Basic sci-fi plot: Earth is unified, humans explore space, humans find other alien species that have unified their planets and are exploring space, shenanigans happen.  The only problem is that, well, people don’t really unify that well.  Why is it that most sci-fi limit themselves to unified species and bulk actions by races… almost to a spiciest level.

The most notable exception to this rule, is that of the Romulin – Vulcan divide in Star Trek, but even then each nation is almost referred to as a separate species, one is simply an off-shoot of another.  Is this because in sci-fi we are expected to believe that a race must always unify their philosophies or governments?  This didn’t use to be the case.  Take a look at Babylon 5 and the original Star Wars movies.  The humans in both were primarily at war with themselves… but even then the plot centered around civil war, assuming that the planet or species had already unified and division is a break in the status quo.  Star Wars originally had a break from this in the first movies, but in the second movies and subsequent television shows they moved entire species around as if they were nothing more than minor tribes with completely unified governments.  Again the only exceptions are generally human.

There are several explanations for this, one is that the writers were lazy… you heard me L-A-Z-Y!  It isn’t hard to come up with diverse factions within every civilization and give them a back story, in fact the only true requirement is that you be a decent writer, know your history, to draw upon of course, and that you invest some time.   The other is that the writers thought that you would find it odd or strange that an alien force would fight itself.  This again is fairly lazy as most alien forces fighting themselves are simply rebellions, an example of this would be the Elites’ rebellion against the Covenant in Halo.

What then is the primary cause behind this assumed unification-ism?  I say that it is a lack of historical understanding and a lack of critical thinking about the development of each species as a civilization.  Basically, they done did screwed up!

Lets examine the question from two perspectives, the first is historical, how your alien or human species would develop at the three 0-1-2 Asimovian stages of civilization that matter for good sci-fi.  The second would be the racial and cultural components a civilization would need in order to successfully defend itself from an alien invasion; which generally is required for an alien to ‘make the cut’ as it were, to star in science fiction.

Take our own civilization for example.  We developed into many different countries with different priorities, religions, social morays, and values.  To assume that the space age man would unify because resources can be run more efficiently or for common defense is quite a stretch.  In fact, resources and defense have almost never, in our history, caused countries to merge.  What they do successfully, however, is cause alliances to form.  These alliances can, but seldom do, succeed to create a new nation.  Normally these unification’s occur in peace time, such as the European Union.  Now the EU is experiencing major turmoil because of economic partisan-ism and political differences.

Basically there are far too many differences between people groups to say that they would naturally unify.  Normally it takes an extreme threat to their very existence that is prolonged and requires group action to unify people, and the unification only lasts so long as the emergency; at which point people will again divide themselves along geographic, cultural, and religious lines.  In fact, these divisions can occur from the very existence of the civilization, such as class warfare.

Were mankind to develop advanced space travel with heavy contact among alien races, there would be no more reason to believe we would unify rather than not.  The idea that we have a ‘global power’ in the UN and that the world would just let it take over should contact be made with aliens is preposterous.  In all likelihood each nation would develop as much of a space industry that it could muster, seeking to colonize and explore the galaxy for their respective homelands and personal interests.

There is historical precedent for this, Europe had much more advanced sailing technology for many years and colonized the rest of the world in competition with each nation, rather than cooperation.  It is true that there was some order, preventing all out war between the European competitors, but the Pope could only hold them in loose cooperation, otherwise they went to war where they wished.  With these aspects understood it is far more likely that both us and many aliens we encounter would be diverse, unique, and competing civilizations going to war with each other just as readily as with an alien power.

Now a second concept to consider, that any species capable of repelling an alien invasion would by necessity be a violent and divided race.  This assumes that the development of the powerful weapons used in planetary defense would come from internal conflict and seeking to defend oneself from one’s fellow man.  That such war allows said species to be wary enough and assume that an alien might, and probably will be hostile.

Should an alien species be pacifist they might assume that intelligent life by its very nature would abhor violence.  This species would be virtually defenseless when alien contact is made, unable to wield great weapons that have never been developed, nor fight them physically with a species unprepared and ill fitted for combat.  Even if this species had time to prepare a defense of their home world after making contact with aliens, there is nothing for them to base their defenses from; no tradition, no basic understanding of war, great weapons, or tactics.  Basically, they are screwed.

Now take the violent and divided race.  Their violence teaches them how to attack and defend, it teaches them to suspect all enemies and prepare in advance.  It teaches them the nature of fighting other intelligent beings.  They are divided because they know that others are untrustworthy, that they raid, war, murder, and are violent.  I would venture to say that the very nature of individual sentience is divided, the knowledge of the difference between me and you, us and them, human and alien.  This difference breeds fear, fear breeds preparation, preparation brings readiness and the will to fight to the last breathe to defend what you value.

That value, having something that you believe to be important, be it selfishness and yourself, you’re family, your religion, your philosophy, anything, is the core of a divided species.  Once this division exists, and the violence is there to test it, forge it, and allow the intelligence again to build off of it, is what creates the power and technology to become an inter-species player.

Therefore this war faring, advanced species would probably have many countries or factions, all mistrusting each other, but capable and willing to defend themselves from an alien invasion.  This would leave your sci-fi with a strong, interesting species, however, the race is probably not unified and need not be unified.  In all likelihood there would be at least three players, everyone needs a Switzerland for their galactic WWII.

Essentially my message to writers is this, just because you can make your new alien race unified does not mean you should, in fact give them any planets that are powerful, not just the divided home world.  Don’t make it home world vs. colonies, that has been done to death.  You are smart, think of something new, and make it fun for the readers.


About Author

Joshua Done was born in Long Beach, California and grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley of Washington State. He recently finished his Bachelor of Arts in Political Economy at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan. During his last year of college, Joshua developed the world of the Hyperion Empire and wrote his first novel, The Exile Empire. When not working, studying, learning something outdated centuries ago, or writing; Joshua is known to hang around local coffee shops and is a self-proclaimed connoisseur of all things caffeine.

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