One of the great advantages of writing science fiction is that I can create a society from relatively whole cloth and try to make it real to my readers, but there are certainly dangers in making that effort. If you don’t understand some of the basics of societies – such as economics, trade, politics, the role of beliefs, etc. – you may still have a wonderful story, but one that many readers will not finish, or if they do, they’ll being saying that the society or culture really wouldn’t work. Most professional writers understand that, but a number of those fail to ask another question: How did the society/culture get that way? This was a point brought up by another writer at a recent conference I attended [LTUE], who made the comment about a well-known best-selling book, “The society would work, once it reached this point, but I can’t see how it ever got there, given human nature.”
The reason I bring this up is two-fold. The first is to point out a few things to aspiring writers: (1) gross errors in world-building can hurt, and (2) given the example, so long as it seems to work, even if there’s no way to have gotten there, it probably won’t hurt your sales. The second is to suggest that, even in our world, political ideologues don’t seem to understand that, no matter how good an idea or principle is, you have to have a way, technically and politically, to get there.
I often get comments on various blogs suggesting idealistic solutions to various problems or difficulties we face today. Many of these comments suggest “whole-cloth” solutions, whether it be a total free-market system or the replacement of the entire income tax system with a value-added tax, or… There’s been a substantial number of these idealistic solutions over the years, but the difficulty all of them have is… there’s no practical way to get there from where we are now, except via catastrophe. History suggests, rather strongly, that civilizations either make gradual changes or ossify and collapse… or sometimes, just implode into revolution or chaos.
What that means is, for example, that short of a civil war, a takeover by a dictator, or the complete and total meltdown of the banking and economic system, we are not going to see the total abolition of the welfare system as now practiced in the United States and its replacement by a totally new system. Why not? Because there’s no way to get there from where we are now, because too many people will oppose such radical change – unless our system collapses totally. Even the threat of total collapse won’t do it.
The same thing appears to be true of dealing with global warming. Until a few island chains cease to exist, until Miami and New Orleans are drowned, until New York City suffers such a storm-surge and hurricane or Nor’easter that all the subways are flooded and inoperative and the east coast is blacked out for weeks, there won’t be the economic or political support for meaningful measures… and by the time that there is, the problem will be so big that no amount resources will be able to save large sections of the planet where literally hundreds of millions of people live… and given who lives where, it appears likely that a great number of those who oppose gradual but meaningful change are going to be hit the hardest – along with a lot of those who would like change, but don’t have the power to effect it.
In the end, while ideals can prevail, they have to change underlying political or social conditions first, but when ideals conflict with physical reality, reality wins.