Mass Effect 3 is coming out soon! I was going to cover this in fangirl squeeing, but then my brain kicked in, and I started to think about why I like it so much. Given that train of thought, I'd really like to talk about what makes for an excellent and well-developed universe, because sci fi game series exemplify it really well--and better, I think, than fantasy universes can. I realise that's a thorny topic, that people will disagree, and etcetera, but let me share my perspective.
I've enjoyed science fiction since I was a kid, and the reason for that has a lot more complexity than just the appeal of a certain kind of badass character and his shiny ship. I like aliens as much as the next person, of course. The ability to mix science and magic--something that is less common in a lot of fantasy writing, though that's changed around the fringes of the genre--is closer to the heart of why I love sci fi. Above all else though, it's the human conflicts and personal issues that get a chance to be more richly developed in this genre than any other.
I would argue that unlike fantasy--again, this is a generalization, and not true of some especially excellent authors, such as Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman--sci fi is less bound by conventional moral rules and human historical trends. It's harder than I'd like to find mainstream fantasy that isn't either a flavour variation of traditional D&D sword and sorcery, or some sort of awkwardly construed urban fantasy oriented around creatures like vampires, werewolves, angels, and fae. Things in the cross-genre area tend to be different, so for the sake of comparison, we'll stick to the settings and story types that the vast majority of the section is constructed from. Sometimes this stuff can be great. Who doesn't love a well-done fairy tale? Holly Black comes to mind. An epic yarn about heroic tales and castles and dragons is always a pleasure, but generally, with fantasy, you're a bit more rooted in old human prejudices and perspectives. And, I hate to say it, but the quality of writing, from a literary perspective, tends to be higher in sci fi than in fantasy. (That's a debatable point, though, and I'll be saving my infamous literary style analyses for another post.) Still, I find that sci fi tends to be about challenging preconceived notions and ideas about humanity and 'where we're at' more often than fantasy. Fantasy often focuses on the human story--not necessarily offering new morals or insights, and more often confirming what we already know.
Now, I've made my argument for sci fi as having a more open mind about than fantasy. Alternate life forms, societal forms, robots and other synthetic or semisynthetic creatures are fair play in sci fi; sometimes, human beings aren't even included as a species. The organic-based life forms tend to be more varied in shape; insects, mammals, amphibians, plants, reptiles, and semi-humanoids are all fair game for starring roles, whereas fantasy tends to stick to dragons, humanoids, and the odd monster or shapeshifter. Although quite a few universes--Star Trek is infamous for this--often fall through on delivering a diversified culture or well-rounded villains for protagonists to explore, there are lots of exceptions to this. Even when there is only one race working against/with humanity, they often get a good exploration, complete with ethical dilemmas--Larry Niven's Kzin series is a fine example of this. Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein is also an excellent example, with its careful and rich exploration of Martian culture, physiology, and thoughts. However, even when sci fi is set on Earth, and confined there, instead of allowing for 'kicks on a space ship', there is plenty of variation. Even within the dystopian subgenre, everything from the satirical world of the Fallout series to the bizarre techno-nightmares of Phillip Dick and William Gibson is fair play. Sometimes, as in short stories in Asimov magazine, the world settings are well-developed enough that dystopia/utopia/realism/post-modern societal construction patterns don't even apply. Oh, sure, there is a certain human perspective that is hard to escape, but the world is bigger, and there are things you can do with aliens--especially in terms of environmental and physiological differences--that make for more different mind states than an all-humanoid cast can develop. The single-culture and interspecies racism thing is an issue in both genres, and can sometimes crop up as poorly done or artificial in both; it's not a sin of fantasy alone. Still, again, sci fi tends to explore more than just ancestral grudges leading to present-day conflict, something that even the finest fantasy series often fall prey to.
Hopefully that will give some grounds for my argument that sci fi settings are just better than fantasy settings. More flexibility leads to more creative possibilities and fewer limits. Changing up moral standards and settings, and greater variety in the same general flavours (i.e., long journeys, hostile and friendly races with lots of quirks, challenges that involve a greater scope than the hero's usual world, etcetera) means that you can do more because there are fewer things you aren't allowed to do. And that allows writers to be more relevant and challenging. The best universes and stories leave you with questions about your own to take home with you once you shut off your TV or close your book.
The finest work, of course, involves both genres blending, but exploring the ways that can be implemented would need a blog of its own. (You can count on some posts on that soon, though!) However, because this posting could go on almost infintely, I'll leave you with a teaser about subjects to be explored in future. Magic vs. science, what it takes to make a universe believable, and some unabashed fangirl squeeing as a do a post-release review of both ME 1 and ME 2 in anticipation of ME 3's release. Excited yet?
Reading List: Here is a handy summary of the authors and series referenced in this post. Most of these authors have multiple titles published, and the series have multiple installments and episodes.
Holly Black: Tithe
Phillip Dick: Through a Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Neil Gaiman: American Gods, Neverwhere
William Gibson: Neuromancer
Robert Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land
Larry Niven: Kzin
Terry Pratchett: Discworld
Star Trek: 'Voyager' (a personal favorite)
Star Wars: 4, 5, 6 and extended universe
Fallout: 1, 2, 3, Tactics, New Vegas
Mass Effect 1, 2, & 3