Us humble writers had a group article (which is just as dirty as it sounds) a couple of months ago asking each of us to pick the television show whose universe we’d want to live in. The thing that bugged me that I didn’t quite recognize for a while even in my own contribution, was that we all more or less assumed implicitly that we’d get to be one of the heroes. But what about all the other people? What world would I really want to live in if I didn’t get to choose to be the storied protagonist?
A lot of geeks like to think that they were born in the wrong time, that they live in an age of ennui and would have been gods in another time. Much of this derives from the simple misconception that the things that seem simple today learned from textbooks would have been just as easy to come up with in the first place. They see themselves as Newtons and Galileos born too late to contribute their genius. Others have the simpler dream that to live in more complicated times would be an adventure. For the most part, they’re all wrong. In actuality, most of us would just die of something before the age of five anyway if born again in interesting times. And even those who lived until adulthood would likely find themselves buried in a fate without their choosing: born in mud and chains, and destined to die there.
History was not kind to most of its citizens. But neither are the stories we tell ourselves. It’s a particularly pronounced pattern in fantasy and science fiction, in these vast and celebrated worlds of the mind, created wholesale from dream stuff, the average citizen would be better off transported to Scranton than staying in place. Oh the heroes might have it more or less nice, but the average person’s life in most of these worlds is prototypically nasty, brutish, and short. One could argue that such an observation is misleading, that such stories are inevitably told in interesting times, times of violence and war. But one could also question what pathology must grip us that those are the interesting times.
This article started out as a list of sorts, of the fictional universes that would be wonderful to live in, with the catch being that you’re going in as normal average person. Not a lord, not the earth-shaking hero, but one of the endless faces stuck in the fat part of the population distribution. It became rapidly apparent that the list was exceedingly short. In fact it was three items, and I think that to be a proper list you need at least four items. I scanned my shelves. And I have a few of those. I scanned my DVDs. That took a lot less time.
So you want to live in the world of Dune because being the rebel Duke seems exciting? Yes, but for every rebel Duke there were a thousand children raped to death by the Baron, so how good do you really feel about your odds transported to that universe to begin a new life at birth? Even if you win the lottery and get to be born among the Fremen, even if you are strong and successful, growing up right and avoiding getting eaten by a worm the size of a skyscraper, let’s face it. You live in the universe’s harshest desert drinking your own piss. Fantastic.
Or how about The Lord of the Rings? Your odds are better than most worlds so long as you’re born to the right race, but one could argue the same truth maps to our world. But Middle Earth runs into the exact same problem as almost every other fantasy series in this exercise: statistically you’re going to end up being an illiterate peasant. Sure Middle Earth is a bit more idyllic (at least when Orcs aren’t sweeping through on genocide patrol) than Westeros’ grim assessment of lower born life, but it still doesn’t have anything on big screens, pizza, thousands of years of books, and basic human rights and dignity.
Star Wars? Guess how exciting life would be if you weren’t allowed to fly a spaceship or be a Jedi? That’s right, you’re going to end up as a moisture farmer, murdered by Space Hitler’s troops.
In all those piles of fiction, there are exactly three that I thought would be worth actually living in as a normal person. Star Trek. Riverworld. Discworld.
I feel strangely contented at my lot in life given a review of how the average person gets to live in the average alternate universe. And I feel a bit puzzled that it’s so hard to imagine interesting worlds in which the allure of the world is not dependent on the crushing of most of its inhabitants.