To me, the most interesting aspect of fiction (Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Historical Fiction, or just regular old Fiction), is always the balance between familiarity and invention.
Familiarity, or relatability, is when aspects of the story- place, time, social structures, physiological/biological creatures, things, and the motives of characters- which conform to the worldview and expectations of the audience the author is writing to. For example, the most common familiar aspect is the protagonist or central character being human, heteronormative relationships, and the stereotypical desires and wants which push the character through the conflict.
Now, when authors are crafting imaginative worlds or times or places different from our own, they need to ground something about their crafted universe into that which the reader already knows. The biggest reason is that the author can create characters you can immediately empathize with and feel “invested” in, to believe their actions, and to believe the environment the character is in. Every fictional story must have something for the reader to accept, or they may reject whole portions of it. This is a purposeful decision on their part, because they want to focus on very particular aspects of the narrative, and taking time to write specifics of how their universe doesn’t conform to ours, when it has no meaningful impact on the narrative, can seem wasteful.
Invention, or inventiveness, is when the author imagines something alien to our universe. Faster than light travel/communication, alien races, alternate historical events, societies and governments organized dramatically different, or even “uncommon” relationship types. This invention requires the author to explain the differences, how they relate to what you already know, and to somehow fit that into the narrative in a way that doesn’t feel like exposition, but rather just a normal part of their universe. And this makes sense, because if its “normal” in their universe, it shouldn’t require “extra” explanation or introduction. Its difficult to do, and when pulled off well its really obvious in ways that are sometimes easy to miss.
Invention is the foundation of Fiction. And we can see “extremes” along the line of “Hyper Relatable”, to the “Hyper Invention”. Some stories, such as The Forever War, create an incredibly relatable character. He is “just like you” (you, here, meaning a heterosexual, white, American male in the 1980s). The story (spoilers) is the character getting through the central conflict, which is the author inventing a universe that changes over the centuries, in ways that the “you” couldn’t imagine, and can’t understand. The character feels lost and unable to relate himself to his new world. From this perspective, its a kind of meta-relatability. We are meant to feel the unease of understanding the invention and change of the “alien” future our character travels through. Flatland, a story from the late 1800s about a Square living in a 2D world, is rather the opposite. Its an “inventive” creature exploring a totally relatable world (3D space) wholly unknown to him, yet totally understandable to us. Both neatly blend the balance and struggles of invention against relatability in a way that is just fascinating to experience.
There are countless other stories that explore this nuanced balance, but what this post is about is when stories choose to be relatable in ways that conform to our social standards, but not always clear on why. For example, in Star Trek, overwhelmingly the relationships characters form are heterosexual. This choice is deliberate, and most strikingly telling when we examine characters who are exploring the Human Condition (Data, Seven of Nine, The Doctor, Odo). All these characters readily admit they don’t know much about being a human, and yet the things they learn are specifically the things that 1980s-90s “you” would relate to. But, why would a society hundreds of years in the future still have the same standards of love, of what it means to “be human”, morals, and other such relatable things?
In most cases, its because the author wants to tell a particular narrative, and so purposefully restricts their invention to only what is relatable, because otherwise the author can’t make social commentary on the “you”. The author can’t engage in a kind of pseudo-dialog with “you”. Its not possible to know if that was Gene Roddenbery’s decision, but it most likely was. He wanted to tell stories set in a futuristic society, but only with inventions of the physical/technological/alien aspect, not the social constructs themselves changing much from what “you” already know.
However, its much more difficult to tell when the author is unknowningly restricting their invention, because they are unable to escape the bounds of their own relatability. By this, for example, I mean the author can’t invent stories with government styles which aren’t Democratic (or some evolved form of it), perhaps because they unconsciously believe that Democracies are the end of government types, or that all other government types are too “flat”, or would be “obviously” unchosen by certain societies. Yet, it was obvious to those hundreds of years ago that a King must rule men, for its a god-given right. Or maybe the author is unable to imagine narratives with non-heteronormative inventions, and so can only ever create “relatable” relationships.
This is where I really hope more Fiction authors are more aware when inventing their worlds. To be aware of the biases to relatability, to how the invention is restricted and how the narrative conforms to “the same old story, but with blasters”. Forcing yourself to question your basic tools of relation that you can use with the reader can create new inventions, and new narratives. Its these kinds of stories that break from your “relatability” that make Fiction such a powerful medium for story telling. Without it, it succumbs to being little more than arbitrarily “inventive” for the sole purpose of masking the conflict behind an unrelatable solution, so the character can “surprisingly” resolve the conflict in a way we can’t predict, but has little meaningful impact for the reader outside of the thrill of the climax. Several Star Trek episodes do this (though I also have to say, many Star Trek episodes are also amazing creations of invention and story telling, just not all of them).
Maybe this is obvious, but to me it really helped me to better appreciate some of the Fiction I have read.