Cliché Crackdown: Medieval Space Colonies

Space colonies that look medieval. They didn’t get to Sirius 9 on a pony and trap. Forgot to take batteries?

Penman: I really like this trope, it reflects how technological “progress” isn’t a straight line. No good reason for ponies on Mars though.

Walker: Yes, but that doesn’t explain the olde worlde outfits, superstitions and Salem Witch Trial dialogue, does it?

Penman: Fashion cycles and brings along a lot of its old trappings. Not forgetting people trying to hearken back to “traditional values.”

Walker: But even die hard conservatives are modern with it. I don’t see Donald Trump sanctioning witch trials… oh… okay. Fair point. But once, in the jungles of Borneo, I stayed with a very traditional tribe of Iban hunters. They had shell suits.

Penman: Once you get out on the frontier away from external pressures you can wear whatever you want. As long as the community approves. It might be a manufacturing process problem. Lycra ain’t easy to knit without the right equipment. Wool dresses only need stone age tech.

Walker: Surely they’d still keep the silver lycra and velcro… but okay, even if they went medieval (and make clothes out of animal skins and woven reeds) why not make them look like the clothes from their previous contemporary culture? Why go back to looking like the Dark Ages Catwalk Collection from 14th Century Salem fashion week?
And what about the devolved language and rituals? Bit of a coincidence, isn’t it?

Penman: Once again, language does strange things once it gets isolated from mainstream culture. Especially if you all have similar views. As far as the rituals go, they may be drawing on history for answers the same way Europe kept trying to recreate Rome for centuries.

Walker: Sure, but here’s the issue I have: Advanced society reaches distant world. Colonises. Things go wrong etc. That backstory works… but then, when we read the tale, they appear to have randomly recreated 15th century Stoke on Trent…

Penman: That is what I am saying, they may have looked at history. Saw what people went through. They saw the parallels to their own lives and tried to recreate the historical solutions to their problems.

Walker: But when you add space age sensibilities to medieval lifestyles, you get Glastonbury. They’d be colonies like rock festivals… unplugged, obviously.

Penman: There are people in our world right now that want to take things back to the stone age. All it takes is one of them to get sway. Survivalist assholes would be incredibly valuable during your initial crisis. Saving lives and being thanked for taking charge.

Walker: The premise of most Zombie / Post-apocalypse movies. Kevin Costner would love life in space…

Penman: That is the trouble with all of these post-apocalyptic stories. To a certain mindset they sound like utopia. If you are able bodied and a sociopath having the social contract disappear overnight would be quite freeing. Anarchist paradise.

Walker: Maybe, or perhaps it would cause a curious loss of identity. Like when everyone else gets into something you were into first.

Penman: Oh no, it would be total validation for them. “I have been training for this my whole life.” Like if dragons suddenly became real… my knowledge/ skill-set would suddenly be valuable.

Walker: Yeah, but when everyone’s a dragon rider, you’ll be saying, “But I was into it before it was cool…”

Penman: I think you are grossly overestimating how much I am going to care about humans after dragons exist. My only interaction with humans will be to say, “Excuse me, could you move, you are slightly blocking my view of that dragon.” I will be the dragon equivalent of the crazy cat lady. Instead of scratch scars I will have some nasty burns.

Walker: And a somewhat questionable hygiene situation in your house.

Penman: Dragon poop is an excellent fertiliser. Actually no, if they have a purely cooked meat diet it will probably be terrible fertiliser.

Walker: Good building material for the Iron Age apartment complex on Sirius 9, though. But hang on a second, let’s say the whole dragon think works out. That’s even worse for the whole ‘I was into it before it was cool’ thing. You’ll meet some young dragon… 
“Alright grandad, you ridden a dragon before have ya?”

Penman: Ok that is worse.

Walker: But anyway, let’s run with it. Dragons are real, what do you wear? Lycra Jumpsuit or doublet and hose?

Penman: I will probably either be joyously naked or wearing the skin of my enemies depending on how easy dragons are to train.

Walker: And how svelte your enemies are. Tough times ahead for size 0 dragon warriors, everything will look too baggy on them. Mine would, sadly. Although perhaps not. My skin would come with a handy front luggage pouch where my beer gut used to be. But clothes aside, on the medieval note, do you also worship them as gods?

Penman: I think that my worship will be lessened if I have to clean out the dragon litter tray. A few generations down the line with me in charge though, I can see a dragon cult happening in a big way.

Walker: I get it. You like the idea of a return to medieval times on Sirius 9 because you have ambitions for high dragon office. I guess instead of Austerity, it would be Roasterity… get it? Roast-erity? Dragons, fire breathing? Eh? (I also do weddings, Bat Mitzvahs etc.)

Penman: I quit.

Walker: You see, the medieval life isn’t for you.

Penman: That is probably true. Back then, puns used to be the highest form of humour…

Walker: If they make a comeback, does that prove the devolution of future society to medieval standards? Damn. You win again!

Penman: I don’t just like this cliché, I love this cliché. It gives a realistic understanding of how technology and societies develop, not in one smooth flowing direction but in sudden jumps, jerks and dips.

My absolute favourite use however is when you come into a book with no foreknowledge of what it is about and it uses the low technology perspective to show events unfolding. Things that would be explained away in a normal scifi story with a flourish of techno-babble become mythic events. An entire story can revolve around a box that somehow makes the things within it burn without a lick of flame. Warring kingdoms may clash over so powerful a weapon as the mysterious My-Crow-Wave. It can serve as the key plot-twist in a story, switching from one genre to another or telling a scifi story through a different lens.

It can show how order has always broken down on the frontiers, away from the pressures that make people adhere to their society’s laws. What is more, there have only been a few stories that really exploit this cliché to its full value, most use it as an aside, a brief stopover before getting back to the main events. Shifting perspectives, studying the workings of a society on the edge and quasi-magical technology have always been big winners for me. Besides, it opens up the possibilities of space dragons.

Verdict: Keep it.

Walker: For once I must disagree with the sage like wisdom of my esteemed colleague. But I totally accept the argument that technology doesn’t create progress or drive society endlessly forwards in terms of progress. Just look at how critical advances in technology, like gunpowder and air power, created conflicts that left prosperous societies in ruins for decades. Or how industrialisation has damaged the ecosystem and the climate. However, time and time again, the human response to technology’s disruptive influence is fundamental social change.

Even when we try to reconstitute the past, we do it with modern sensibilities that changes the outcome into something unmistakably modern. We don’t reduce carbon emissions by going back to horses and carts, bicycles might be a low carbon solution but they’re modern bikes, not penny farthings. We want to be greener, but we don’t farm like we used to back in the 1600s. Marriage and family can rise and fall as units of social organisation… but gene pools and cultural norms diversify and evolve at the same time. And so the colony, cut off from home and bereft of technology might resemble an older way of life in some respects, I can’t accept it would become superstitious, ignorant and archaic at the same time.

History narrates a story of progress, like evolution, we impose a linear progression on past, present and future.
The space dragons will usher in a new (and clearly disturbing) era, but it will be an era of future culture. Multicultural. Diverse. Possibly with experimental acoustic dub step and craft beers…

Verdict: Kill it. Old is not the new New.