I prefer science fiction that isn’t so clean and sterile, gleaming with chrome; science fiction that is closer to the grit and dirt of the real world, dealing with miners or mech drivers on a frontier planet. For all our imagined worlds, it’s important not to forget that our roots began with pioneers, miners, sailors, farmers, and other working men, even when we’re looking down from space.
However, you’re not as likely to find such these days from modern writers. Most science fiction writers have never needed to do their own plumbing or put up drywall. They are literary people with cushy desk jobs which don’t get their hands dirty. When they create their fiction, they project their world of relative ease and comfort onto the future, where technology bordering on the magical does all the heavy work.
For those writers, the world of the blue collar man just doesn’t enter their minds. They don’t conceptualize that a starship would need plumbers to make sure the sewage runs correctly (or that the Enterprise’s drains would need backflow control valves just in case the gravity goes out). There doesn’t need to be a point in every story detailing the plight of the ship’s janitor, but simply being aware of their existence helps develop a story’s depth.
Heinlein, for example, had a breadth of experiences that he integrated into his writing. In Have Space Suit, Will Travel, the main character is a kid in high school who wins a space suit from a soap company’s tagline contest. The first part of the book entails just fixing the half-working suit with tools lying around his family’s barn. Starman Jones begins with a young man fleeing his mother’s farm and even running with a homeless man for a while. He gains passage on a starship with the job of picking up animal manure (the ship not only transports people, but livestock). The main character in The Moon is A Harsh Mistress is an engineer tasked with maintaining the colony’s super computer. His job off the clock? Lunar farmer. Granted, Heinlein also incorporated ubermenchen who never picked up a tool in their lives, but he also held onto his roots in other stories.
Whereas today, blue collar work has been pushed out of the common consciousness because the status symbol of our age is the university degree. Children with stars in their eyes are shuffled off the college while civilization’s critical maintenance is left to the dregs of our society. That mindset, carried over into our fiction, explains why we don’t see the USS Enterprise’s maintenance chief, and it’s why we don’t see any construction workers in the act of building the second Death Star. However there are some exceptions to the rule, and not only exceptions but examples of “blue-collar” science fiction (subjectively) surpassing the noble and idealistic sci-fi.
To this day, Firefly is still considered a cult classic. It didn’t have a glorious ship or a noble crew like the Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. They were a ragtag group of adventurers on a spaceship equivalent to a 1995 Honda Civic. So what made it charming? We could identify with the crew just trying to get by on their own. They weren’t an aspirational image, but a reflection of (relatively) normal people, thus the gap between us and them was narrow.
And take Alien, another cult classic about an undignified yet charming mining crew who finds themselves in way over their heads. Why do we still like it? Because the story consists of relatively ordinary people placed in an extraordinary circumstances. Compare that to its spiritual sequel/prequel, Prometheus, a film in which a group of scientists are sent on a mission to find the origin of life. The former is still a top ten in any sci-fi nerd’s movie shelf while the latter is utterly forgotten, despite being part of the Alien franchise with an expansive budget.
The latest example is Interstellar. The film is an odyssey of an engineer turned farmer, turned astronaut. He isn’t a noble scientist, but a tanned-skin good ole boy with a noble purpose rather than noble image. Contrast that to other films with similar themes, like Sunshine, which contain a gallant rainbow coalition of science geeks that are ultimately forgettable. The reason: the characters in Sunshine are the scientific aristocracy, thus it’s harder for us to identify with them on a personal level. Instead of possessing the human element, they are characterized with quirky traits or stereotypes that we don’t care about. The situations they’re put through aren’t engaging because we never feel the weight of their plight, for what are the stakes when the people dying are perceived as unreal?
And that’s the benefit to incorporating blue-collar into sci-fi: characters that are easier to identify with because they’re closer to our level, and thus their troubles are something we readily become invested in. The arch of a common man being placed in extraordinary circumstances creates a sense of scale, of escalation, and of juxtaposition when you compare the first chapters with the last. This is the essence of the Hero’s Journey – to start off as ordinary, reaching your pinnacle through great crisis and trial. What would Star Was be if Luke Skywalker, or *cough* some kind of Luke equivalent, had begun his quest already established as a Jedi? Oh, wait…