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December, 2008 : Feature:

What Science Fiction Leaves Out of the Future, #1

No News is Good News?

For critics and commentators, it is generally easy to notice and discuss whatever there is to be found in a science fiction story or film. It can be harder, however, to notice and discuss what is not there in science fiction—those features one might ordinarily expect to find in a story or film that are, for some reason, being left out.

I discovered one of these strange omissions purely by accident while editing The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: because the assigned contributor never completed the entry, I was forced on short notice to write the entry on "Journalism." And hurried research brought to light a curious situation: while journalists were reasonably common in science fiction stories set in the present—ranging from the novels of Clifford D. Simak to the adventures of Superman—they were extraordinarily rare in science fiction stories set in the future.

Consider the most obvious examples, the Star Trek and Star Wars universes: one never observes a reporter visiting the Enterprise to interview Captain Picard about his latest exploits, or the crew of the Millennium Falcon killing time by reading a hard copy of the latest news or watching a propagandistic news bulletin from the Empire News Network. In print, no journalists that I can recall ever appear in Isaac Asimov's far-future Foundation saga or Frank Herbert's Dune novels. To be sure, reporters are not entirely excluded from futuristic science fiction stories; for example, outré news bulletins permeate the chaotic prose of John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (1968), reporters were regular visitors to the Babylon 5 space station, and television news reports can be seen in films like Total Recall (1990) and Johnny Mnemonic (1995). Still, even when they appear, these journalists of the future are always invariably minor characters or voices in the background. There have been many stories about heroic reporters in mainstream fiction—consider Gaston Leroux's novel The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907) and its sequels, the comic strip Brenda Starr, the play and film The Front Page (1931), and television series like The Name of the Game or Lou Grant. Why has there never been a novel or film about a star-spanning investigative reporter for the Galactic News Agency?

At this time, I can come up with three possible explanations for the strange absence of reporters in the future worlds created by science fiction.

The first explanation would be: perhaps journalists will no longer be needed in the future. After all, the profession of journalism came into being because people were unable to travel to faraway places or sit in government chambers to observe newsworthy events, so that trained reporters had to be there to write down what they saw in a clear, concise fashion for curious outsiders to read. Today, however, due to various advanced forms of communication, people are gaining direct access to sources of information, and this trend is sure to continue in the future. Thus, future citizens of New York City who want reports about the latest crimes may be able to directly examine police reports, and future inhabitants of Earth interested in the doings of the starship Enterprise may be able to direct examine the ship's logs. Just as new ways to directly make plane and hotel reservations are making the profession of travel agent obsolete, new ways to directly obtain desired information may make the profession of journalist obsolete.

Still, I don't find this argument particularly convincing. For one thing, I can't think of a single science fiction novel or film which explicitly presented this explanation to account for its omission of reporters. There is also the real problem of information overload: if you look at New York City police reports, the vast majority will always consist of dull descriptions of boring crimes, just as the vast majority of entries in the Enterprise logs will be routine status updates. To avoid having to search through all of this verbiage to find the worthwhile story of an interesting crime or an historic alien encounter, people will always require the services of someone whose job is to sort through all the forgettable stuff and select only the data that others will want to have. Finally, those who produce police reports and starship logs are rarely talented writers, so that even their descriptions of exciting events may make for dull reading; trained journalists would be valuable because of their ability to tell such stories in lively, involving prose.

A second explanation is the one I floated in the conclusion of my encyclopedia entry on "Journalism": after noting that the few references to futuristic journalism one finds were generally negative—such as satirical exaggerations of dire trends in contemporary broadcast journalism like Edward Bryant's "The 10:00 Report Is Brought to You by..." (1972) and Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron (1968)—I suggested that the absence of reporters in science fiction might represent another strategy for criticizing the profession. In effect, writers and filmmakers may dislike reporters so much that they consistently resolve to banish them from their imagined future worlds.

On further reflection, I'm not much fond of this idea either. I can think of another profession that is almost universally despised—bureaucrats—yet obtuse, troublesome bureaucrats are as endemic as villains in written and filmed science fiction. If writers and filmmakers indeed feel a deep hostility toward certain figures, one has to believe that they would always choose to express those feelings instead of suppressing them. Certainly, when I encounter an argument about science fiction that I disagree with, it has never occurred to me that the very best way to show my contempt for the argument would be to ignore it; instead, I take aim and fire away. The problem is that silence on a given subject is too ambiguous to be a satisfying method of criticizing it, for there are many reasons other than enmity that might lead one to be silent about something. So, if writers have some strong opinions about journalists, we can assume that they will always prefer to express them.

We arrive at a third possible explanation, one which I find both persuasive and rather disturbing.

I begin by noting, as others have noted, that science fiction frequently seems obsessed with the idea of empire. As the preferred form of governments for thousands of worlds across the Galaxy, writers have regularly envisioned a Galactic Empire, seeing no problems in having a single man exercise direct and complete control over the affairs of trillions and trillions of people living on innumerable distant planets, and stories set on single worlds routinely involve petty monarchs and scheming prime ministers exactly like those featured in Ruritanian romances. Even when more democratic forms of government are vaguely projected, such as the Star Trek universe's Federation of Planets, the spaceships that function as their errand boys and ambassadors invariably have military structures, with captains who maintain absolute authority over their crews. Think about the last time you have read about or watched citizens of the future participating in a democratic election, or a group of future citizens pausing to take a vote before proceeding upon a course of action. Yes, I can think of examples of works that show or refer to such activities (Robert A. Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers [1959], Douglas Adams's farcical novel and film The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy [1979, 2005]), but they seem uncomfortably rare to me.

To illustrate science fiction's attachment to totalitarianism in all its manifestations, I have a personal story which I had hoped never to tell, but its relevance to this point is undeniable. Many years ago, through a series of odd circumstances, I found myself as the credited co-author of a script that was submitted to, and properly rejected by, the series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The idea behind the episode, which I had come up with, involved precisely the issue I am discussing: why should the starships of the future, which are much more like traveling communities in space than battleships, be governed precisely like ships of the British Navy during the Napoleonic Era? It had never made any sense to me. So in the episode, prodded by an iconoclastic crew member, Captain Picard agrees to experimentally implement a democratic government on board the Enterprise, with himself as elected President and various crew divisions under their own elected leaders, and things seem to be working out in their own bumpy way until a contrived crisis involving the Romulan Neutral Zone (I said the script was properly rejected) convinces everyone to return to the military chain of command as at least an occasional necessity. I was given the rare opportunity to read (but not to keep) the show's written comments on the script, which began promisingly (quoting from memory): "Abuse of authority is a worthwhile theme to explore. However—" (now identifying the crucial flaw in the script) "Captain Picard never abuses his authority." Thus, we observe how the program's creators are indeed attached to militaristic structures, and what sort of stirring defense they would offer for their authoritarianism: hey, dictatorships are just fine and dandy, as long as the dictator is a really good guy.

Further, we now begin to discern why there are never any reporters interviewing Captain Picard. Journalists are trained to be gadflies. Their natural inclination is to ask pointed questions about government affairs, to look for signs of incompetence or corruption in everything that political leaders and bureaucrats are doing. The ultimate victory they seek, as celebrated in fictional stories like The Front Page and the real-life adventure All the President's Men (1976), is to uncover evidence of official malfeasance so outrageous as to lead directly to the downfall of the once-powerful perpetrators. So, that reporter would not be welcome on board the Enterprise because he would raise awkward questions: Captain Picard, was your decision really the best course of action? Weren't there other ways you might have better dealt with this crisis? In making your decision, did you perhaps have any ulterior motives? Do you mind if I take a long look at all of your official records to confirm the accuracy of everything you're saying? In other words, doing what reporters always want to do, that reporter would be fiercely probing for evidence to show that Captain Picard—gasp!—had actually abused his authority.

In sum, I regretfully conclude, science fiction excludes journalists from its futures for the same reason that dictators always seek to suppress the freedom of the press: journalists ask too many discomfiting questions; they want to find and publish information about matters that dictators would prefer to keep secret; their goal is always to challenge and undermine authoritarian governments. Journalists in the future worlds of science fiction would be challenging and undermining the very assumptions that lay at the heart of those future worlds—and for that reason, their presence cannot be tolerated.

In the past, when commentators have noticed how frequently science fiction envisions a dictatorial future, even implying that certain authors are closet fascists, there have been defenses of the practice ranging from the claim that such governments represent a logical prediction of future developments to the fallback position of efficiency in storytelling (that is, because crew members do not have to stop and take a vote before landing on an alien world, the writer can more quickly get to the interesting stuff). Here, however, I wish neither to characterize the political beliefs of these writers nor to ponder rationalizations of their proclivities.

Instead, I would offer science fiction writers and filmmakers this simple challenge: the next time you are creating or revisiting one of your future worlds, make an effort to include a journalist or two. In the process of coming up with things for this journalist to do, or questions for him or her to ask, you may hit upon provocative issues in the structure of your future world which you never considered before, inspiring worthwhile revisions to your story. Forced to play the roles of both master and critic of your invented world, you are likely to end up making that world a better world, and making your story about that world a more interesting story.

A free press is indeed a wonderful thing: it keeps government officials on their toes, impels them to do their work honestly and efficiently, and helps to keep them focused on the important business of improving the lives of their citizens. And, like the governments of the United States, science fiction would greatly benefit from the presence of a free press. It is, at the very least, an idea worth exploring.

Copyright © 2008, Gary Westfahl. All Rights Reserved.

About Gary Westfahl

Gary Westfahl is the author, editor, or co-editor of twenty-four books about science fiction and fantasy, including the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005),The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the co-edited critical anthology Science Fiction and the Two Cultures (2009), and the recently published Second Edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature (2009) and its companion volume, The Other Side of the Sky: An Annotated Bibliography of Space Stations in Science Fiction, 1869-1993 (2009).


Dec 3, 03:49 by IROSF
Comment on the article here.

Article is here.
Dec 3, 06:25 by Denny Nelson
A thought on journalism in a Science Fiction setting.

Unless it directly pertains to a linear plot, it is at best a distraction. I have no problem with the concept, and it could improve a novel, or a mini-series with the time to deal with such a concept. A series, (A Star Trek series, Battlestar Galactica, any of the Stargate spin-offs) or a two hour theatrical production with a stand alone format, can not afford the time for a deviation from storyline unless it is incorporated into the plot as part of the story being told. They are extremely limited with actual plot time.

The journalism vs politics card would have to be worked up very carefully into a single episode plot. With the time constraints, I doubt a meaningful plot could be planned. Also along the same lines it would be tough to weave into the overall plot line with out a considerable explanation buildup.

As it stands, this is only my opinion, but I would think that almost any producer or director of the type of show I'm talking about would back me up on this. Along with this, most people watch a series, or go to a Movie for entertainment, not to watch the very thing we watch on the news every night.

Entertainment (particularly Science Fiction) is escapism plain and simple, and I, for one, am very glad of it.
Dec 3, 12:55 by Walt Gottesman
Maybe one reason there are few reporter characters in science fiction is because many authors in the genre live and write in relatively free countries where they take the role of the press for granted.

It may also be that, what with editorial guidelines, in-house stylebooks, financial constraints, publishers interests, targetted demographic categories, the rising cost of newsprint, the crucial importance of advertisers, the iron blue-pencil wielded by some editors, space limitations in print, and on-air sound bites, among other factors, the curiosity of journalists gets channeled into doing what is expected of them. The idea of a free press is noble and necessary but the press we have is not as free as it could or should be so it may not be inspiring for writers to dramatize it. Just some thoughts.

Also, though the empire metaphor may apply to much of SF, what about the discussion that characterizes SF as libertarian lit? Just another passing thought.
Dec 3, 15:17 by Amy Sisson
Interesting article!

I offer a few more examples, not as counter or support to your theories, but merely in case you want to pursue the question further.

The new Battlestar Galactica incorporates journalists regularly, and in a significant way. In one pivotal episode, a journalist goes aboard the Galactica, much to the annoyance of Adama, to offer the civilians in the fleet a look at what it's like "on the front lines." There are also journalists regularly questioning the President's and the Quorom's decisions. They do fill precisely the function that you describe: "Their natural inclination is to ask pointed questions about government affairs, to look for signs of incompetence or corruption in everything that political leaders and bureaucrats are doing."

(Incidentally, in the book version of the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica, Serena (the Jane Seymour character) was a journalist.)

It has been several years since I read it, but I believe the main character of Wil McCarthy's Bloom is a journalist, or at least an amateur journalist, who serves as a mission correspondent on an important journey.

Also, there's a journalist main character in Peter F. Hamilton's duology that includes Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained. Alas, she sleeps with anyone to get information and is extremely off-putting -- her variety of "journalist" is really more like Entertainment Tonight pseudo-celebrity.

Again, thanks for the interesting article.
Dec 3, 15:20 by Eric Gregory
Thoughtful and thought-provoking article, but I don't quite buy the premise that SF (in any general sense) has a journalism problem. I thought immediately of China Miéville's Bas-Lag novels, Le Guin's "The Dispossessed," and perhaps most importantly, Battlestar Galactica.

Miéville and Le Guin are very politically conscious writers, of course, but I suspect that's the rub. Herbert and Lucas are more mystic-philosophically inclined; politics figure large in their work, but often as almost mythical, archetypal wouldn't want to call Lucas a political thinker. ST:TNG, like you said, is fundamentally utopian. This suggests to me that journalism is less likely to figure into certain kinds of SF.

I think BSG looms large over this discussion, though; it's one of our major contemporary SF touchstones, and among its most distinguishing features is its strong political awareness. BSG explicitly addresses the issues you wanted to raise in ST:TNG -- the tension between unilateral military command and democratic government, political disenfranchisement, the role of the fourth estate. And this is SF that a range of people are currently participating in, both as creators and viewers. (Serenity's Mr. Universe probably qualifies as a sort of New New Media journalist, as well.) If SF was once dominated by a sort of totalitarian disposition (and I'm not at all persuaded of that), it's tough to argue the same thing today.
Dec 3, 15:24 by Amy Sisson
(Note to IROSF: the "reply" function in this forum does not seem to work properly.)

Reply to "bililoquy": I hadn't thought of Serenity's Mr. Universe, but that's an interesting example!
Dec 3, 16:48 by Peter Smith
Another SF journalist is the central character in Greg Egan's Distress.
Dec 3, 17:24 by Bluejack
Thanks, Amy! It sure doesn't!!! I'll fix that asap!
Dec 3, 20:05 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
Don't forget Gregory MacAllister et al in McDevitt's Academy Series and even the Alex Benedict novels. There are often chapter epigrams, direct "quotations" and quite frequently characters who either appear, report, or produce journalistic programs. MacAllister himself is a prominent and important character in almost all of the Academy novels. And from reading the other examples of "journalists" in science fiction, I am not convinced that S/F somehow ignores them.

Additionally, I would disagree with the author's second point about journalists being rare because S/F is concerned with Galactic Empires. Specifically where the author argues that there is a derth of democratic functions in future societies. While this may be somewhat true (since there is always good drama to be had with Empires and despots), I would point to the works of authors such as Ken McLeod (in particular his Fall Revolution Series and Learning the World, Alastair Reynolds (in particular his Revelation Space, specifically The Prefect) and Ian Banks'Culture novels. Not only are these works concerned with the future of democracy, in many cases (like MacLeod and Reynolds) special attention is paid to democatic institutions, personal liberty vs. collective government and what it means to be enfranchised. I will admit, though, not one of them has specific mention of journalists in their worlds. (I never resist the opportunity to plug these guys, forgive me!)

In the end, I would advance that it is not so much that journalists are 'missing' from S/F worlds, but rather that A: journalists might not be as exciting as starship captains, and B: without specific mention (or world creation) that there are no journalists we must presume that they are a profession assumed to be there and unless the author has a specific reason to mention one, why would one be mentioned?

Mr. Westfahl does raise some interesting material, and it would be interesting to see some S/F works with journalist protagonists ("From the End of Eternity, this is Mildred Pierce reporting!"). Thanks, Gary, for a thought (and discussion) provoking article!
Dec 4, 21:44 by Nader Elhefnawy
I think errant371 has it pretty much right, but I do have a few points to add.

One is that we generally see little of media in these fictional worlds, and I think that's only partly because we're so often looking at space-based versions of feudalism, despotism and other such kinds of tyranny. We're also following these stories because the characters in them are people who have other things to do besides watch TV (or its futuristic equivalent) all day, who are in the middle of the action themselves rather than treating the current events of their day as a spectator sport, so that less thought is given to that sort of thing.

And of course, there is the whole problem of the physics of media in an interstellar empire. It's pretty easy to picture a world in which news isn't instant (the problem is actually explicitly discussed by the characters in Babylon 5, while the heroes are in the process of setting up their own, alternative news service), and so much of its interest lost.

It may also be that in other kinds of fiction, we do not see too little of journalists, but perhaps too much-and indeed, of writers in general. How many atrocious independent films and awful TV shows are there about writers who can't write, for instance? I've also heard it said that while critics (writers themselves) often love shows about journalists, more general audiences don't find the subject as appealing.

Incidentally, I would also point out that where the Star Trek universe is concerned, we not only have the existence of such media confirmed, but actually see a main character become a journalist in Deep Space Nine. (Jake Sisko-yet another aspiring writer-becomes a correspondent for the news service during the Dominion War.)
Dec 5, 16:48 by Michael Andre-Driussi
I don't know if the following novel was covered in the Greenwood Encyc. entry, but FWIW, H. Beam Piper's FOUR-DAY PLANET (1961) has a journalistic family: the hero is a cub reporter checking out some unsavory politico-economic activity, and his father is newspaper editor (publisher?).
Dec 9, 03:39 by Adrian Simmons
I'm pretty sure that Captain Kirk had to deal with a gaggle of reporters in Star Trek IV.

I tend to agree with Denahue-- really, unless you want to make the story about a reporter or the role of the press, I think that giving the press too much attention in the story would cause the focus to wander a bit.

Dec 9, 15:57 by Bluejack
I think in general the everyday life of the future is overlooked in science fiction. Who builds all these spaceships? What's their life like? Who works the restaurants? Where are the musicians doing part time work at the call center to get by? Every now and then someone will dive into some of the slightly more gritty professions for some color (I've seen a bike courier story or two), but for the most part "common man" stories hit the stock material like grunt soldiers, bar tenders, petty thieves, and so forth. The full panoply of society is a barely discernible backdrop, shadowy, poorly conceived, rarely seen. An endless supply of red shirts and innocent bystanders, people to run from heavy cannon fire. It's all a sloppy handwave on the part of authors who just aren't that interested in day-to-day life to suggest that maybe there are people in this interstellar empire, maybe there's an economy. But if there are plumbers, electricians, computer repair men, kids working their way up through the crime beat in the local paper (will there really be a local paper? will there be journalism at all? I guarantee you there will be plumbers), we don't see much of it.
Dec 10, 18:10 by Nader Elhefnawy
In that SF isn't much different from most other fiction, at any given moment in history. Media in general avoids "common man" stories, the vast majority of people always invisible. (We may not like to think about class, but that's how it has always been, something we have only fairly recently even begun to grow our way out of.)

Think about TV's one-hour dramas: everyone's a lawyer or a doctor, or in law enforcement (the only blue-collar types represented), and even then doing only the rarest, most unusual, most exciting type of work seen in those fields. Doctors are always surgeons, the only exception I can think of being FOX's House, which has its own implausibilities; lawyers are usually dealing with murder cases and other similarly sensationalist stuff, and yelling "Objection!" every other minute, an image that two minutes of Court TV should be enough to cure. Cops use their guns much more on TV than in real life. And so on and so forth.

SF of course has its romantic dimension, and like romantic fiction in general, it focuses on the most extreme and colorful, and tends to emphasize the experiences of certain groups of people. Think of the tales of medieval chivalry: was everyone in Western Europe a knight? Of course not-far from it; the serfs and peasants just weren't a significant part of the fictional world, just as they were economically, politically and culturally at the bottom of the social ladder. Likewise in SF, there are few people who aren't either adventurers or scientists/engineers. (I often think of SF as a sort of "science chivalry," especially given that its depiction of how science and engineering are done in the real world is ninety-nine percent nonsense, to use a politer term than the one I actually have in mind. I feel sorry for the kid who decides on a career in science based on what they see in a show like the Sci-Fi Channel's Eureka.)

Still, sometimes we do get a reminder that there is a regular, boring, workaday world in these future and other universes, and frankly, I think that's all that can fairly be expected, since the draw here and elsewhere is the exciting stuff that regular people don't get to do. (Even though its focus is on the highest levels of feudal/imperial politics, I think the original Dune novels did a pretty good job of this, and on television Babylon 5 did quite well at this too, to give only two examples. Both were particularly impressive examples of world-building, and I think that's part of the reason for their attention to such details.) And since if we're just telling stories that could easily take place in our own world, why bother with the speculative trappings at all?
Dec 29, 21:22 by Sue Lange
For the record, Newscasting plays a pivotal role in Timmi Duchamp's Mara'ssan Cycle.

But in general, I'd say that Bluejack is absolutely right and because science fiction and the fans of science fiction are mostly concerned with the fantastical elements, the genre will remain out of the mainstream. A lot of people complain that science fiction is not given respect by mainstream audiences, but right there is the reason. Unless genre stories concern common people and common circumstances, i.e. encompass universal themes, the genre will continue to viewed as valuable for escapism only. Sad, it can be so much more.

Dec 29, 23:07 by D. Nicklin-Dunbar
The argument about S/F breaking into the mainstream aside (I for one, don't want it to, most mainstream novels are exciting as dirt, well written dirt, but dirt nonetheless), I would disagree that S/F does not encompass universal themes. In particular, S/F since the New Wave has been fairly good about addressing politics, society and religion. Genre fiction in general, and S/F in particular can make the sorts of comments on our world issues that mainstream literature cannot, precisely because it is genre. Genre fiction has been getting more critical attention in the last 10-15 years than it ever has, and alot of that criticism is positive. While the greatest amount of S/F novels on the bookshelves (at least in the big chain stores) remains little more than Lowest Common Denominator entertainment, the good stuff, as always, gets the accolades.

I don't think that writing about common people is a pre-requisite for universality. Herbert's Paul Atreides was anything but common and his story encompassed so many significant themes that it can (and sometimes should) be considered mythological. Your stay at home, Oprah watching house wife may not put Life of Pi down in favour of Dune, but that reader is not looking to be challenged in their views of politics, religion or society. Those kinds of readers want something that re-enforces their world view. Mainstream literature helps to do just that.

In my opinion, too much is made of "literature" and it's supposedly inherent superiority to genre fiction. Hell, some of the most influential novels of the past few centuries can be read as genre (granted many of the examples I would cite were written before such literary theories as genre were invented).

I truly believe that S/F is much more than most people, fans and non-fans alike, perceive it to be.
Dec 30, 17:49 by Nader Elhefnawy
Surprisingly, I was just talking about this in a radio appearance the other day. (I'd been invited to discuss the subject of "space in literature.")

My two cents here: good science fiction has been written about anything and everything, and with as much skill as any other genre. We are far, far, far past the point where whether it can be or will be or should be was an issue. (I'd say that by the time Dune came along, the issue had been clearly settled in SF's favor.) In fact, I would say that genre fiction has done a better job as "literature" in recent decades than the stuff ordinarily carrying the label.

As I've said before, we've got a mainstream (and for that matter, a critical elite) still bogged down in nineteenth century realism, when it isn't getting starry-eyed over flaky postmodernism, as is certainly the case with the Oprah-watchers. (And yes, I agree the stuff that's selling in quantity is rarely the good stuff.)

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