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Believable Politics / Defending "Elysium" (2013)

Something I wrangle with all the time when I'm writing a spec-fiction story is the believability of the universe.  I don't mean the science or the plausibility or the physics or stuff like that - I just mean the overall culture of the people.

If you're creating a world where you're introducing something nearly magical (like robots or soul injections or faster than light space travel), people will buy into it without argument because it's the premise of your story.  Where they'll fight you is the day-to-day reality, because that's the stuff they can speak to.  If you watch a movie about an alien abduction, you're (probably) not going to say, "I've met those aliens and they're not as bad as you're making them out," but you probably will say, "If I was abducted by aliens, the first thing I would do is...."

I accept that and I try to take it into account.  Usually the best defense against that kind of nit-picking is either to make your characters as smart as possible (so they can think of the little nit-picky things that audiences insist they would totally do if they were trapped in a burning building instead of, you know, dying) or to make your characters as stupid as possible, in which case you have a pretty good out.

But here's where it gets really hard.  What if the outlandish premise you came up with is meant to be a springboard for a moral / political / philosophical discussion?

That's where people can start to be really difficult.  Sometimes the message you want to get across is too abhorrent or too unpopular that people will start looking for any little reason to reject the story as a whole.

Consider Elysium.

It's Neil Blomkamp's less-than-beloved follow-up to District 9. If you haven't seen it, it tells the story of a blue collar grunt (Matt Damon) who gets hit with a blast of deadly radiation and tries to break into a wealthy space colony where everybody has access to super-fancy medical beds that can cure all your ailments instantly.  Needless to say, it's got a bit of a message about class inequality.

IMDb shows a generally positive reception, but that wasn't really the case at the time - and maybe still not if you're talking about critical circles.  The biggest complaint was the believability of the world.  I remember that every single movie podcast I listened to at the time (I used to have like ten in rotation, now I only have the time and energy to follow two) had at least one guy who was worked up into a full-on nerd rage about the mechanics of the universe.

Some of it was just kind of silly technical stuff, like how there's a computer prompt that determines whether or not somebody is allowed to use Elysium technology (it either says "yes" or "no").  Most of it was a backlash against the movie's politics.  "Nobody would ever build a space colony and waste all that money to keep the technology off of Earth."  It wasn't that a space colony existed or that there were magical beds that could cure cancer - it was that Elysium presented such a lopsided social structure.

I never understood that backlash.  Elysium is exactly our world.  Have you ever been poor and sick in America?  Hell, have you ever been middle class and sick in America?  The class divide is absolutely real. Exaggerating it with some technology is meant to emphasize just how arbitrary and stupid that divide is.  If anything, our world is almost worse; at least the poor people in Elysium recognize that they're getting screwed.

But I digress... the point is, why is it that those politics were so hard to swallow?  I keep thinking of ways Blomkamp could have scaled back on his story to see if it would have made all the difference.  What if Elysium was a gated community instead of a space colony?  What if the magic beds were on Earth the whole time, but there weren't many of them and they were all located in wealthy neighborhoods where the cops don't like brown people?

What if they weren't magic beds at all - what if they were MRI machines, and Matt Damon was a patient in some half-assed cancer ward in the slums, and he was trying to drive a bus full of other cancer patients and a volunteer doctor into the nice part of town so they could force their way into a lab, use the machines for a day, get the information they needed, and then go back to the slums to figure out their next steps?

Would you buy into a different premise if the politics were the same?

I don't have an answer.  And that's what makes it so hard to write a story with a message.  You make the message clear, people accuse you of being too obvious.  You make it too subtle, people don't get you.  And the entire time, there's people out there who just plain disagree with you.  You can write a story about a guy who farts bagels and the world's your oyster, but the minute you try to work in something about ending world hunger, people are all over your ass.  Sometimes you just can't win.