Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sci-Fi and Satire

Satire and Science Fiction go hand in hand. So much of sci-fi is speculating what society would be like in the future or on other planets. Since humans write all these stories, we can’t help but compare these fictional societies to our own. Most of the time, the author intends to draw parallels. When the writes draws these parallels in a humorous tone, we are blessed with sci-fi satire.

Let’s take a look at what might be the most famous satirical sci-fi noel, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglass Adams. The novel simultaneously parodies the sci-fi genre as well as modern society. The story is about an ordinary Earthling who is able to escape Earth when it is destroyed. He proceeds to be taken on adventures throughout space until he discovers that Earth was just a computer designed to figure out the meaning of life. Then he grabs a bite to eat.

The underlying message of the story is just that humans tend to make a huge deal out of every little thing that happens to them, when nothing actually matters. That might be somewhat of a nihilistic viewpoint, but the text backs it up. The entire planet Earth is destroyed just to make room for an intergalactic highway. The entire existence of Earth was just a computer that belonged to some mice. The characters search for the meaning of all life in the Universe to find the answer is 42. The novel is hilarious, but the humor is actually pretty dark. The main character discovers his whole life and everything he thought he knew is a lie, but the novel puts this theme in a humorous light. I think the author is trying to convey the point that there is probably no meaning to life, nothing matters, and if we can’t step back and laugh about it then our lives would be miserable.

Aquatic Uncle

I’ve written before about subgenres that make science fiction fun and unique, but now I want to take a look from a larger scale. “Speculative fiction” is a term that describes stories that are based in imaginary worlds rather than grounded in reality. Science fiction is special in that it is one of the few genres, along with fantasy and horror, which can fit comfortably.  Speculative fiction is a genre where anything is possible if the author can imagine it, which makes it fascinating to analyze. However, to casual readers, it might not be as accessible as literary writing.

The question is how do we do we differentiate between speculative genres and literary writing? There is so much blending of the two that it is hard to draw a line, but I sure can try! Let’s look at “The Aquatic Uncle” by Italo Calvino. The concept of the short story is definitely speculative. It takes place 300 million years ago and is about the lives of creatures as they experience evolution first hand. These partially land based and aquatic creatures are intelligent enough to talk, have relationships, and form a society even at this primitive stage in the Earth’s history. So far, speculative.

The story’s plot and underlying themes, however, are relevant in today’s society. The older group of creatures that live in the sea and the younger group that is evolving on land have come to a social divide. This is similar in many ways to the age gap in modern society. Many older people today romanticize the past, are stubborn to change their views on life, and blame young people for everything. Young people pride themselves on being more progressive than the past generation. Social commentary is more of a theme in literary writing, while speculative fiction is based in imagination.

Altogether, it probably is not necessary to be able to define a genre for every story out there. Many stories blend multiple genres, and many genres themselves are just made up of other genres. It’s an interesting subject to research and analyze, but in the end whether or not the story fits into one genre or another does not make a story less enjoyable or impactful.

Johnny Mnemonic

One of the main reasons science fiction is such a unique genre is its many sub-genres. Of these, one of my personal favorites is cyber punk. Cyber punk stories are generally about high tech societies in which our protagonist rebels against a government or large corporation. This subgenre lends itself to visual aesthetics very well, and gives us classic films like Terminator and Blade Runner. The fusion of humans and technology inspires many great cyber punk stories, and allows the development of fascinating characters.

One classic cyber punk character is Johnny Mnemonic. Johnny is a human that received a cybernetic enhancement that allows him to store data inside his brain; basically he’s a walking flash drive. Johnny uses this feature to transport secret data that cannot be risked being hacked out of a computer. In the story, the audience is exposed to the gritty underground world of a high tech future. Organized crime still exists and they take advantage of the new technology.  This makes the story more accessible to the audience. A high tech, Utopian future is not a concept that most are familiar with, but a poor person struggling to survive in a harsh society is. It is easier to connect with Johnny, who is using this technology to make money for himself, than it is to connect with most sci-fi heroes who are brave space captains fighting aliens and whatnot. This could be why Johnny Mnemonic, and the whole cyber punk subgenre, is as successful as it is. It may take place in a high tech future, but it’s not too different than the world of today.

Aye and Gomorrah

Science Fiction is often called the “Fiction of Ideas”. The premise for many sci-fi stories begins with “What if there was a world where…” and the author develops a story from the question. “What if there was a world where aliens invaded and built a new society” is a popular one, as is “What if there was a world overrun by technology?” Plenty of mainstream scif-fi stories follow this concept.

In the short story “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel R. Delaney, the question asked is “What if there was a world where all astronauts were neutered?” An interesting question indeed, but it serves as a solid foundation for a story. We are given backstory as to why they are neutered, which is to avoid the effects of gamma radiation in space. With that backstory, the author can now develop the effects it has on these people. Never experiencing puberty causes these people to grow up to be androgynous, non-sexual adults. The final and most important piece of this story is how does it affect the rest of society? That’s where we get the subculture of frelks and how the interact with the astronauts, who are dubbed Spacers. From this simple question, the author has developed a society with subcultures. In a longer form novel, this idea could be expanded upon even further, with notions of how this government operates, how the subcultures go to war with each other, how the Spacers begin rebelling against being forced to be neutered: the possibilities are endless. It just goes to show how a little spark of imagination can be expanded upon to develop an entire world of ideas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Witches have been present in stories from many different cultures since the first stories were told. The archetypal witch character is an old, ugly woman who magic powers for evil. In recent media we’ve seen a shift from this archetype, but this has been the standard for ages, and is still present. As children we were all scared of a wicked witch with a large pointed nose finding us in the woods and casting spells on us, and rightfully so as many classic stories about witches see them being cruel towards children.

The deviation from this archetype comes around with the idea of there being good witches and bad witches. This idea was first popularized I The Wizard of Oz, when the world is introduced to Glinda the Good Witch. She is very pretty and dresses in a bright pink gown, and the Wicked Witch is deformed and dresses in all black. It’s interesting to note that for an archetype based purely on women, the perception of whether they are evil or not directly relates to how attractive they are.

The classic archetype is very much alive in Black Maria by Diana Wynne Jones. The character Aunt Maria is nasty to her niece and nephew. She has no sympathy to the fact that they are family members, and she even turns her nephew into a wolf. Aunt Maria is old and ugly, like the classic witches all are, making her easily identifiable as a witch and the antagonist of the story. It seems like literature never has a place for unattractive elderly women to be a kind protagonist in a story, but that’s just archetypes at work.