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John Scalzi – Would You Want to Live in The Matrix? What About a Galaxy Far Far Away?

week’s column about how Hollywood doesn’t really try to get the future
prompted the following question in e-mail:

Okay, so none of
the science fictional worlds we see in movies are likely to come to
pass. Would you still like to live in some of them anyway? I wouldn’t
mind having my own land speeder, like they do in Star Wars.

truth to tell, I’d like a land speeder too; who wouldn’t? But I’m not
entirely sure I would necessarily want to live in the Star Wars
universe. Sure, the gadgets are cool, but the sociopolitical situation
is a little dicey, you know? The Rebellion isn’t out there just for the
fun of it. Indeed, in a great many science fiction films and franchises
we oooh and aaah over are places that are nice to visit, but not
necessarily great places to live. To make this point, let me lay out the
pros and cons of living in four science fiction film universes.


Pros: Droids to cater to your every whim; your own speeder
bike and/or landspeeder, fulfilling your need for a flying car; if you
learn how to manipulate The Force you’ll never have to leave the couch
to get a beer ever again; dude, your very own light saber.

You’re living in a despotic totalitarian empire; there’s a civil war
going on and even if you’re not actively involved there’s still a chance
your planet will get blown up by the Death Star, just for kicks; the
parts of the galaxy not run by the Empire are run by slug-like crime
bosses; possibly of being choked from a long distance by a tall masked
creep in fetish gear.

Overall grade for livability: C-. Too much
despotism and larynx crushing.


Pros: The United
Federation of Planets is by all indications a functioning representative
democracy; everyone is happy and provided a minimum (but nice) standard
of living; sexy green-skinned aliens unaccountably attracted to you;
Vulcans are plentiful and will be your wingman and do your mathematics
homework with only an occasional raised eyebrow for an objection.

Every few years the Earth is threatened by aliens who want to find
their creators or talk to humpback whales or drop a black hole into the
Francisco bay, and that gets tiresome after a while; The Federation is
actually kind of boring (unless you live on its frontier, in which case
it is all too exciting); wearing a red shirt increases your
chances of
death or injury far more than is naturally statistically explainable.


grade: B -. Think of the Federation as the gated community of the
future, and think of what the need for a gated community implies.


Pros: If you’re in the Matrix, technically
speaking you
don’t have to do anything, you just lie there and let the machines do
everything for you; if you’re outside the Matrix you can learn kung fu
in fifteen seconds; if you’re outside the Matrix and then go into it,
you can pretty much kill anyone you want without feeling guilty about
it, which is perfect if you’re antisocial and/or psychotic and/or just
having a really bad day; really husky raves down there in Zion.

Agents will kill you; in the real world you wear rags and eat goop
will likely eventually be skewered to death by a flying squid machine;
the fate of your entire world depends on the dumber half of “Bill &
Ted”; the fact that your life was in fact a machine-generated illusion
means that all those years of P.E. class really were a complete
waste of

Overall grade: D. Inside the Matrix, you’re a
outside the Matrix, you dress like a homeless person.

Everyone speaks in really clever dialogue, so you’ll never have a
boring conversation; combination American/Chinese hegemony means finally
you’ll pick up that second language; you can enjoy garb like chaps and
leather dusters without people thinking you’ve got some sort of weird
kink going on; lots of smuggling, which is the closest thing the future
has to being a pirate, yarrr.

Cons: Central government is a

thinly-veiled despotic bureaucracy with delusions of social engineering,
perfectly happy to kill people it finds annoying (including you); when
you least expect it, you are likely to be killed and eaten by berzerker
zombies from space; after a while you’ll realize all that clever
conversation just makes you want to strangle someone; the nagging
feeling that your universe isn’t as popular as you think it should be.


grade: C. Really only suitable for a select few.

So for the moment I think I’ll just keep living in this world. Sure, that means no light sabers or Vulcan wingmen or learning Kung Fu in fifteen seconds. But it also means no crushed windpipes, despotic emperors or computer overlords using me as a flashlight. It’s a fair trade. 

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