Near-Future Satire and Our Contemporary Relationship with Technology

Science Fiction has always been concerned with humanity’s relationship with technology, positing futures extrapolated from this relationship and the culture surrounding it. From experiments with electricity to hot air balloons and rockets (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon); all the way through to the dominance of the internet and mobile communication systems (David Brin’s Earth and M.T. Anderson’s Feed); science fiction has always tried to imagine how contemporary technologies might evolve, and the impact they might have. While many of these imagined worlds are situated in far-off futures distantly removed from our present, some actually take place sooner rather than later, and some are even set in a ‘version’ of our present.

However, our early 21st Century present is a strange place, and our relationship with technology is complicated and intertwined. Gone are the days when technology was something that helped us live our lives without actually being ‘part’ of them, unlike such essentials as water, food, shelter and clothing. Nowadays, technology is so integrated with our lives that many can’t imagine how the world would function without it, or how they themselves might live, as if contemporary technology has become an extension of and conduit for their ‘real’ selves. We live in a world where ‘smartphone zombie’ is a common term; where the leaders of powerful nations conduct diplomacy via tweet; where mental illnesses such as internet addiction and social media withdrawal exist; and where a phone isn’t just a phone but instead an interface with the world.

These dramatic changes to our relationship with technology, and contemporary technology’s attendant impact on our society, pose interesting questions for science fiction. If these changes are so vast and diffuse, and the technology underlying them is evolving so rapidly, how can a convincing extrapolation be made? What kind of world can be imagined when the real world changes as soon it is defined, thanks to the accelerated pace of life? What kind of future can we imagine when our present seems to already be futuristic? After all, we carry devices which are almost unbelievably more sophisticated than those which put a man on the moon; and we share our world with driverless cars, computer created pop-stars, a planned Mars mission made feasible thanks to reality TV, and skyscrapers that are almost cities unto themselves, rising to heights undreamt of only a few decades ago.

Some writers have tackled these questions in rather interesting ways, enough to group them together in a sub-genre: Near-Future Satire. Instead of imagining a far-off future, these writers envision futures recognisable as close extensions of our own present, or in ‘versions’ of our present. Consequently, the technology of their futures tends to resemble the technology of our times—more extensive and pervasive social media; advanced wearable technology; improvements in cybernetics, bionics and robotics. What really distinguishes these writers and justifies a sub-genre of their own is that they also create extrapolations from our contemporary technology’s attendant impacts on our own society—online anonymity and trolling, a certain blasé attitude to our high-tech world, social isolation and withdrawal, the dumbing-down of society and the rise of discourtesy—and do so in ways that veer towards the satirical and comic, a technique that allows us to see these cultural impacts in brand new ways.

Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last is a fantastic example: not only does she make a prima-facie unbelievable conceit both moving and convincing, but she also positions this conceit as a part of her extrapolations, and manages to pull it off. Set in an alternate post-GFC America, it concerns disgruntled couple Stan and Charmaine, made homeless by the country’s subprime mortgage crisis and are now living in their car. By chance, they stumble upon the Positron Project—a brand new community situated in the town of Consilience, which promises every resident a clean home and a job. The only catch is that on alternating months, these residents must leave their homes and function as inmates in the Positron prison system, while those who were imprisoned (their ‘alternates’) occupy their homes and take on their jobs. What follows is an outrageous tale of double lives and anonymity, surveillance systems and celebrity, sex robots and behavioural modification.

While Atwood’s extrapolations from the technology of our times are self-evident—increased surveillance systems, sex robots, retinal and fingerprint scans, voice analysers—we need look beyond them to their attendant impact on the society she has created. As an example, take the Positron Project itself. At face value, spending a month in prison in order to enjoy a month of shelter and occupation might seem like a ludicrous proposition, but is it really any different from those underpinning the wretched genre of reality TV? A genre seeped in technology, reality TV has dramatically raised the bar in terms of what is private and public, and when such private aspects of our lives as love and marriage become broadcast to the world and ‘sold out’ to attain celebrity and money, then surely selling out such a personal aspect as freedom isn’t so ridiculous? In fact, it seems to make more sense—Stan and Charmaine don’t sign up to the Positron Project for the fame or the cash, but for security and shelter. It is undoubtedly a grotesque choice, and Atwood makes hay with the absurdity of such a set-up, but it is made convincing because right now, all over the world, people have chosen to take part in equally absurd situations, for far less sound reasons. This dichotomy between the Positron Project’s ridiculousness and convincingness allows us to see reality TV’s raison d’etre for what it really is: the market-driven exploitation of those desperate enough to sacrifice private aspects of their lives for celebrity and money.

However, the Positron Project isn’t Atwood’s only extrapolation from the technology of our times and its attendant social impacts: Possibilbots, customised sex robots built by the residents of Consilience. The Possibilbots are an obvious extension of current advances in robotics, and in-and-of-themselves would merely be a typical science fiction device. However, to better show Atwood’s funhouse mirror reflection of our own world, the Possibilbots’ appearances are symbols embodying certain contemporary social impacts engendered by technology—the most popular models for men are exact duplicates of Marilyn Monroe, while for women they are duplicates of Elvis Presley. Many interpretations can be read because of these likenesses, despite their grotesque ridiculousness: a commentary on our celebrity-obsessed culture, or on the artificiality of affluent Western consumerism, or on the nostalgic longing borne of a constantly changing and uncertain present, and so on. But no matter which interpretation you settle upon, there is no doubting that each of these problems is exacerbated by modern technology—social media and the internet are perhaps the chief facilitator of celebrity culture, while affluent Western consumerism and a constantly changing and uncertain present are perhaps best symbolised by high-tech gadgetry that has been superseded before it’s on the shelves, a reading seemingly encouraged by Atwood due to the way she has given these massed cultural problems figurative high-tech embodiments.

In Haterz, James Goss’ satirical and subversive extrapolations from contemporary technology’s impact on our society are quite different—gone is Atwood’s grotesquery and bald-faced ridiculousness; instead, the humour that Goss employs might best be described as ‘dark’ and ‘morally ambiguous.’ Haterz tells the story of Dave, a ‘charity mugger’ and digital native. As the book opens, Dave accidentally kills his best friend’s Facebook-addicted girlfriend and is covertly witnessed doing so, and is consequently encouraged to go further and furnished with an ‘operating budget’ by said witness. From there, Dave takes it upon himself to ‘make the internet a better place’ by killing off all manner of Instagram stars, comment trolls, Twitter lurkers, keyboard warriors and Facebook stalkers.

Haterz is an obvious wish-fulfilment fantasy for anyone with good manners who has ever spent time on the internet. We’ve all seen it: the venom, the threats, the vitriol, the hate, all hidden by a veil of anonymity. But there is so much more to Haterz than just darkly comic and morally ambiguous wish fulfilment and schadenfreude. This is because Dave himself comes to resemble an uber-form of those people whose dark sides are given license by the anonymity of the internet, despite the fact that they’re the kind of people he originally set out to kill or discredit. And while his reasons for wanting to ‘make the internet a better place’ are initially altruistic—his first victims include cyber-bullies who have hounded people to suicide, narcissistic pop-stars who have casually ruined the lives of young teens, and corrupt business-people who have driven ordinary folk to the wall—the further Dave progresses along his darkly-humorous path, the more he seems to be just another troll desperate to crush anyone whose opinion or lifestyle deviates from his own.

In the end, ensconced behind a computer and distanced by a screen, Dave is merely another anonymous figure letting their schemes play out at a remove, a typical keyboard warrior blasé to the consequences of their actions. While he initially gets his hands dirty, so to speak, the further along his path he treads, the more automated his schemes become and the more remote he grows from them, until they typically occur without his direct involvement. Likewise, over the course of the book, the schadenfreude that he feels as he takes down his targets moves from an after-effect of his schemes to his primary motivation, whereby he begins to choose his targets purely to see them suffer, rather than to increase the degree of civility existing on the internet. This is the supreme comic irony of Haterz, and Goss’ finest achievement—what begins as a darkly comic and morally ambiguous tale of wish fulfilment turns out, in the end, to be a warning about the internet’s seductive charms, and how even those with the best intentions can fall prey to it and barely notice.

However, Atwood and Goss aren’t the only writers of Near-Future Satire—the concerns addressed by this sub-genre are so contemporary and thought provoking that many other writers have also addressed them. Eric Garcia’s The Repossession Mambo imagines a future in which the artificial-organ market rather than real estate is targeted for sub-prime lending, with devastating results for those who default on their payments; Alena Greadon’s The Word Exchange posits a future where the contemporary dumbing-down of our society has evolved to such a degree that words themselves are now marketable commodities, while a ‘word flu’ spread by an evolved version of a smartphone is rendering its users unable to speak coherently; MT Anderson’s Feed speculates on what would happen if content-on-demand and social media were fed into our brains rather than accessed via a smartphone, and how this could reinforce the life-in-a-bubble tendencies of the modern world; Max Barry’s Machine Man offers us an engineer so blasé about technology and his relationship with it that he effectively upgrades his entire body; and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story exaggerates the image-is-everything, everything-is-rated, ‘internetisation’ of contemporary life to make a case for old-fashioned humanistic values in the face of economic collapse and climate change.

In much the same way as The Heart Goes Last and Haterz, the works of Garcia, Greadon and others envision futures recognisable as close extensions of our own present, featuring technology that resembles the technology of our times. This allows them to create satirical and comically over-the-top scenarios based on contemporary technology’s impacts on our society—online anonymity and trolling, a certain blasé attitude to our high-tech world, social isolation and withdrawal, the dumbing-down of society and the rise of discourtesy—thereby allowing us to see these impacts in brand new ways, and to envisage new alternatives and responses.

(Originally published in Aurealis #104, September 2017)

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Interview with On Writing

OW: What is your favourite genre to write? Why?

LW: I’ve always written within speculative fiction: typically science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, with the odd detour.

Like many science fiction writers who grew up during the 1980s, I was a nerdy kid surrounded by a media landscape saturated with science fiction, and living through a point in time in which the genre’s terminology and motifs were being absorbed into our cultural language. To an enquiring mind that soaked up external stimuli like a sponge – especially one obsessed with books, giant monsters, Ghostbusters and Star Wars – science fiction seemed like the logical way to express and understand the influence of this changing world.

And then there’s science fiction’s ability to make us question what we know, by reframing it as a ‘what if?’ and then digging deep. To this particular fan, the ability of science fiction to open our eyes to what is by showing us what it might become, is nothing short of genius.

OW: Do you model characters after real people?

LW: I think I speak for many writers in saying that I don’t so much model my characters after real people, but rather appropriate aspects of real people and attribute them to my characters. This is certainly the case with The Rain Never Came – no single character is based on a real person, but the same can’t be said for some of their behaviours, mannerisms, figures-of-speech and peculiarities, not to mention some of the character interactions.

We’re fascinating creatures with individual habits and quirks that would seem odd, if not bizarre, to anyone but ourselves. And so, to make a character more human and alive, these habits and quirks need to shine through, even if only subtly. The trouble here is that making up a quirk or habit can seem ridiculous, even if only to ourselves – which can then have a knock-on effect on our confidence and flow.

This is why it’s okay to occasionally steal things from real life and give them to your characters – sometimes the truth really is stranger, more interesting and more convincing than fiction.

OW: Have you ever written something you didn’t like, but felt necessary for the overall story?

LW: Absolutely, as I think every writer has – there were many instances of this in The Rain Never Came, some of which anyone who has read it will recognise straightaway. But as unlikeable as these instances may be, they’re there for a reason: realism.

All writers should strive to make their stories as believable as possible, even if the events and locations therein are purely fictional or speculative. We should do our best to make them ‘real,’ especially their characters and their characters’ lives. And a large part of what makes our own lives ‘real’ are ups and downs – no life is perfectly balanced and as smooth as the proverbial, no matter the surface impression. Happiness and sadness, joy and depression, excitement and boredom, engagement and disenchantment; they are complimentary emotions that can only exist in contrast to each other.

Our stories should reflect this: good things should happen, and so should bad things. It goes without saying that we often tend to prefer writing the ‘good’ to the ‘bad’ – show me a serious writer who doesn’t invest a fair bit of emotion in their work, and I’ll show you a liar. And so it is with The Rain Never Came. Bad things happen in it, things that I didn’t particularly like writing, but they were necessary for both the story as a whole and as realistic balances to the good.

OW: Do you take criticism hard or do you have a thick skin? Have you ever received criticisms that you felt were unjustified or too harsh? Are you your worst critic?

LW: So far, most of the feedback I’ve received on The Rain Never Came has been positive, or at least encouraging. I’m ready for anything negative, though – quality is in the eye of the beholder, as some people say, and no piece of art, be it a book or a song or a movie or an actual piece of art art, is ever perfect. And nor should it be.

Luckily, I’ve got pretty thick skin. And it helps that I’m hard on myself, and push through a lot of redrafting and rewriting before showing my work around for an initial round of feedback – I don’t want someone to judge my work if it’s full of logical flaws, continuity problems, grammatical mistakes, plot holes and so on. That way, each piece is as polished as that point in time dictates, and so the feedback received is on the major elements instead of the minor.

OW: How do you keep motivated to finish a writing project?

LW: For me, the simple answer is to have another project to look forward to when I’m done. I believe that most writers have more ideas than they know what to do with – if we can harness that, and stay sharp enough to use these ideas as blueprints for future projects while still dedicating our passion to the project in front of us, then there’s always something to look forward to. Anticipation and delayed gratification: there’s sometimes no better motivator.

OW: What would be your advice for aspiring authors?

LW: There’s as much advice for aspiring authors out there as there are aspiring authors, but I’ll share a way of thinking that works for me. Writing a good book only takes a few things: a spark of talent that can be nurtured, an idea that can become a story, and discipline and routine, as well as a lot of time and a job that allows you that.

Find these things, and you’ll get there.

(Originally published on On Writing, 3/8/2018)

Interview with Alanah Andrews: Speculative Fiction Writer

AASFW: What do you write?

LW: I’ve always written within speculative fiction: typically science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, with the odd detour into weird fiction and near-fiction future.

AASFW: Why do you love speculative fiction?

LW: Like many science fiction/speculative fiction writers who grew up in the 1980s, I was a nerdy kid surrounded by a media landscape saturated with science fiction and speculative fiction, at a point in time in which science fiction’s terminology and motifs were being absorbed into our cultural dialect and acquiring real-world symbolism. To an enquiring mind that soaked up external stimuli like a sponge – especially a mind obsessed with books, giant monsters, Ghostbusters and Doctor Who – the language of science fiction and speculative fiction seemed like the logical way to understand the world, its rapid rate of change and our increasingly intertwined relationship with technology.

And then there’s science fiction and speculative fiction’s ability to make us question what we know, by reframing it as a ‘what if?’ and then digging deep. To this particular fan, their ability to open our eyes to what is by showing us what it might become, is nothing short of genius.

AASFW: Tell us about your latest release.

LW: My debut novel The Rain Never Came has recently been released, and is available from all the usual places.

A hybrid of dystopian, post-apocalyptic and climate fiction, The Rain Never Came blends these genre elements with an unmistakably Australian voice, to create a distinctive work that touches on Australian issues old and new: mateship, egalitarianism, attitudes to authority, community, climate change and refugees.

To sum it up: When sunburnt Australia becomes well and truly scorched, a forced evacuation of the East Coast is the only answer. Those who resist, like Bill Cook and Tobe Cousins, hide out in small country towns, eking out an existence. But some embittered by the drought are seeking revenge, and Bill and Tobe are in their way.

Set in the vast expanse of the dry Australian bush, there is no more perfect place to situate the end of the world.

AASFW: What would you do if an alien spaceship landed in your back yard?

LW: Probably ask the crew it if they would come in for a cuppa.

AASFW: What inspired the latest book you are writing?

LW: My love of science fiction, and my tendency to get lost in it. To say any more would be to spoil it – it’s still cooking, so to speak.

AASFW: In 100 years, what will the world will look like?

LW: The optimist in me wants to say that it’ll be a shiny, happy place in which most of today’s problems have been solved or at least lessened. After all, we already have in our grasp the solutions to many of these problems – climate change, hunger, poverty, war, intolerance and its related phobias – but vested interests and humanity’s insatiable need for power are standing in the way of implementing them. I would hope that in 100 years, humanity will be have become a little more enlightened and come to the conclusion that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (to appropriate a Star Trek-ism).

But the pessimist in me believes that things will be pretty-much as they are today, only more extreme.

AASFW: What book are you reading at the moment?

LW: I have what you would probably call a magpie-mind when it comes to my reading. Although I primarily write speculative fiction, science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction, I’ll read anything that has the promise of literary potential: realist fiction, westerns, YA fiction, horror, literary fiction, thrillers, non-fiction and, obviously, speculative fiction in its all myriad forms. I’ve even been known to read the odd romance.

I also tend to usually have three or four books on the go at the same time. And so to finally answer your question, right now I’m reading Company by Max Barry (a devastatingly funny corporate satire that straddles the border between realist fiction and speculative fiction), The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made by David Hughes (which is eye-opening in the extreme – how obscenely frustrating the film industry must be), and The Complete Short Stories by JG Ballard (an epic two-volume collection, which is a slow read due to its length but an absolute must for those love who their science fiction cold, clinical and psychologically-oriented).

AASFW: If we want to stay up to date with your writing or buy your books, where can we find you?

LW: I’m not much of a blogger, but I do have a website that’s chock-a-block with information on The Rain Never Came (including purchase links), and also features my published short fiction, science fiction criticism, previous interviews and music reviews. You can find that right here: www.lachlanwalter.com

For all the latest news on upcoming publications and events, as well as literature/language-based humour, genre-inspired trivia and memes, and assorted and infrequent musings, you can find me on Facebook and Twitter:

www.facebook.com/LachWalter79/ and www.twitter.com/LachWalter79

(Originally published on Alanah Andrews: Speculative Fiction Writer, 25/7/2018)

Kyle Carey – The Art of Forgetting

Refreshing in its simplicity, straightforwardness and sense of unhurried calm, Kyle Carey’s The Art of Forgetting acts like a balm for our 24/7, shortened attention span times. Devoid of folktronica frills and 21st-century studio frippery, it’s like something from a bygone time, when singers could just sing and instruments could just be themselves and bands knew the difference between playing too much and just enough. Carey’s voice is front and centre throughout, a voice that is pure and clean, tremulous when it needs to be but never weak, strong and from the gut when called for, playful and plaintive, joyous and sorrowful, always emotional and a thing of beauty.

While nominally ‘folk’ music, Carey and her band keep complacency at bay throughout The Art of Forgetting by delivering a synthesis of Celtic, Americana and Appalachian musical forms, which makes for what she describes as unique ‘Gaelic Americana.’ And although this sometimes results in a bit of genre hopping – opening track ‘The Art or Forgetting’ conjures a sea-shanty vibe, ‘Siubhail a Ruin’ has an almost-cabaret/jazz feel, ‘Tell Me Love’ is like a heartbreaking piece of mountain music, ‘Sios Dhan an Abhainn’ is a Gaelic-language cover of the Americana traditional ‘As I Went Down to the River to Pray’ that combines Americana and Celtic influences with the kind-of mournful horns befitting a New Orleans funeral procession – Carey’s dedication to acoustic instrumentation and the band’s relaxed, unhurried playing create a though-line and sense of wholeness that is truly mesmerising.

If you’re like me and your idea of folk music has been tainted by the monotonous mumblings of bearded and bespectacled folkies, or by the droning ramblings of earnest singer-songwriters, or the cry-into-your-beer despondency delivered by lovers of murder ballads and protest songs, then you need to open your heart and embrace Kyle Carey’s The Art of Forgetting. I did, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 11/4/2018)

Fossil Aerosol Mining Project – The Unlistening Place

Like an itch you can’t scratch or that word on the tip of your tongue or those builders renovating the house next door, Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s ‘The Unlistening Place’ just won’t let you be.

A self-described “cryptic ensemble from the American Midwest,” Fossil Aerosol Mining Project have been active since the 1980s, releasing unsettling works that combine eclectic found sounds, obscure tape loops, tortuously-manipulated samples, murky electronics, treated snippets from film and television, abrasive synthetic squalls and decaying audio frequencies.

The end result? Collage-style soundscapes that, at first, seem like little more than random aural juxtapositions and experimental noise-works. However, a closer and deeper listen reveals patterns, orbits and spirals within each record’s assumed arbitrary nature, with each piece/track referencing those that came before it, so that by the time each record has reached its conclusion it has revealed itself to be a kind-of holistic whole.

And so it is with ‘The Unlistening Place’: to view or approach each piece/track in isolation is to do a disservice to the album in its entirety. A fitting analogy here is to image ‘The Unlistening Place’ as a building – you wouldn’t look at a brick or sheet of plaster or floorboard as an encapsulation of a whole house, and nor should the individual pieces/tracks of ‘The Unlistening Place’ be heard as a representation of the album as a whole. Instead, you need to simply sit and absorb it from beginning to end, letting it flow through you and wash over you. Only then does its brilliance become apparent.

The music within ‘The Unlistening Place’ definitely isn’t for everyone, even those with a bent for the unusual, experimental or flat-out bizarre (if you can even call Fossil Aerosol Mining Project’s work music – sound art is a much more appropriate descriptor). However, if you’re after something that will take you on a strange and unnerving journey, then look no further.

(Originally published on Cyclic Defrost, 17/5/2018)

The Ten Best Works Of Australian Apocalyptic Fiction

Ancient and remote, Australia and its indigenous people remained isolated from the rest of the world for more than sixty thousand years, until the country was settled by white Europeans in the eighteenth century. All tragedies aside, from this rich blend of circumstances – a hostile and unique natural environment, an ancient culture that had existed in isolation long enough to evolve customs and concepts that seemed utterly alien to others, and European forms of storytelling, expression and perception – a sub-genre of science fiction eventually arose: Australian apocalyptic fiction.

Perhaps this sub-genre is so interesting because Australia already seems a fitting place for the end of the world – it’s the hottest and driest continent on Earth, is mostly empty of people, hosts an incredible range of dangerous animals, and frequently falls victim to a variety of natural disasters. Or perhaps it’s because of that particular ‘no worries’ attitude so common to Australians. In the end, it matters little why it’s such an individual niche – what really matters are the stories themselves.

And so here’s what I believe are the ten best works of Australian apocalyptic fiction.

The Mad Max Series (1979-1985; 2015)

The pinnacle of Australian apocalyptic fiction, each one its own kind of masterpiece thanks to director George Miller’s gleeful eye and kinetic style, the Mad Max series has influenced countless other apocalyptic fictions both at home and aboard. And yet it has rarely been bettered, and remains one of the most financially and critically successful Australian film franchises in history, if not the most successful.

Mad Max (1979) showed us the end of days, with the world teetering on the edge of collapse; The Road Warrior (1981), Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Fury Road (2015) showed us the world after this collapse, with society reduced to a kind-of punk savagery in which “the gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice, and in this maelstrom of decay ordinary men were battered and smashed.”

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

A book that will return hope to your heart and make you cry, Things We Didn’t See Coming is an antidote to the bleak darkness that pervades so much apocalyptic fiction. But even so, Amsterdam still treats his apocalyptic environments and scenarios with great seriousness, infusing them with a sense of inevitability that is truly terrifying.

A small-scale post-apocalyptic story-cycle focussed on its unnamed narrator’s life, Things We Didn’t See Coming gives us a glimpse of a world wracked by cascading natural disasters presumably caused by climate change. I say ‘glimpse’ because said narrator is usually too busy surviving this world to bother detailing it. The story of someone who refuses to give up hope – who will always stop to help others if they can – Amsterdam’s incredible debut makes us think that a spark of light might still exist after all else is dark.

Underground by Andrew McGahan

Part alternate history, part political thriller and part dystopian/apocalyptic nightmare, Underground is darkly humorous, politically astute and “Australian” in a way that international audiences might best associate with Crocodile Dundee (1986). A first person narrative, told in a no-bullshit and undeniably Australian voice by a stereotypical ‘Okker,’ it engages with all manner of Australian clichés, from outback deserts to a love of drinking to dangerous animals to a laid-back attitude.

But Underground is no joke: it’s a deadly satire on the War on Terror and our post 9/11 world, in which Australia’s capital has been destroyed by Al-Qaeda, plunging the country into a dictatorship. As funny as it is frightening, it’s as relevant today as it was upon publication, serving as a warning about the dangers of authoritarianism, propaganda, xenophobia and intolerance.

On the Beach by Nevil Shute, and On the Beach (1959)

Both Shute’s novel and director Stanley Kramer’s film adaptation are perfect pacifistic works of the 1950s: sombre and serious and devoid of any Cold War hysteria, they take a realistic look at the folly of nuclear war between superpowers and the subsequent consequences for the rest of the world. Although there are some differences between versions – Shute’s detail on the day-to-day lives of his characters is more exacting; Kramer’s masterful black-and-white cinematography lends the film the timeless quality of a morality play – this is one of those rare occurrences in which the book and the film are as good as each other.

Set in Melbourne (one of Australia’s most southerly cities), both versions take their time in examining the emotional, personal and societal effects of waiting for certain death – the aforementioned global nuclear war has created a continent-spanning cloud of radioactive smoke, which is slowly drifting south and killing everything it touches. And yet despite this grim scenario, both Shute and Kramer somehow manage to find moments of hope in the human heart.

The Waterboys by Peter Docker

A hybrid of post-apocalyptic fiction, magic realism, historical fiction and indigenous peoples literature, The Waterboys is one of the few works of postcolonial post-apocalyptic fiction in existence. Set in a drought-stricken future Australia controlled in part by a racist, corrupt and dictatorial mega-corporation, it weaves together Indigenous Australian and non-Indigenous Australian conceptualisations of time, history and our connection to the environment, and offers up fresh solutions to the damage we’ve wrought on the natural world.

But don’t be fooled if all this makes it sound a bit heavy – despite these heavy and serious themes, The Waterboys is fast-paced and extremely engaging, with true-to-life characters that live in shades of grey, inhabiting a world that is all too real, and is told in a unique and undeniably Australian voice.

The Last Wave (1977)

Examining the cultural divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and the apocalyptic consequences of a non-Indigenous Australian denial of an Indigenous Australian concept of people, spirit and land being intertwined, The Last Wave is a hallucinatory fever dream, a lurid police procedural and a clear-eyed look at race politics in modern Australian society. Telling the story of a non-Indigenous Australian lawyer defending five Indigenous Australians against charges of ritualized murder, and the connections between his apocalyptic premonitions and said murder, director Peter Weir’s startling and criminally underrated film is unsettling and ambiguous, and ripe for rediscovery.

Land of the Golden Clouds by Archie Weller

A grandly epic post-apocalyptic road novel a la Stephen King’s The Stand, Land of the Golden Clouds is a strange book (and face value aside, nothing like King’s tome). Dreamy, fantastical and often playful, it is set thousands of years in the future, after our world has fallen to myriad disasters and a new one has risen and replaced it.

In this new world, Australia has returned to its wild roots. Nomadic tribes of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds roam the country’s dry interior, fecund jungles, thick bush and rough coasts, all trying to survive on a land that seems to intentionally resemble its pre-settlement self. Through chance, a wide variety of people from different tribes band together and are thrust into adventure. Somewhat old fashioned in its structure, it’s nonetheless a true oddity that is always intriguing and frequently entertaining.

 Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em (1988)

A VHS curio, director Ray Boseley’s surreal and edgy comedy concerns a group of over-the-top, 1980s-style misfits, drop-outs and punks who throw the party to end all parties after the fallout from a global nuclear war begins to slowly but surely kill everyone in the world. It’s an exemplary product of its time: a punk-styled, low budget, DIY trash-masterpiece that brings a frequently absurd Antipodean perspective to the kind of ‘no-future’ pessimism permeating the youth culture of Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America. Sometimes sublime and sometimes ridiculous, it’s a glorious mess that’s as fascinating as it is funny.

Nightsiders by Sue Isle

A small-scale post-apocalyptic story-cycle in the vein of Things We Didn’t See Coming, Nightsiders contains the same emphasis on the importance of hope and is even more optimistic that Amsterdam’s work, telling the story of a new community that has risen in the ruins of a city on Australia’s isolated West Coast, which has been mostly abandoned after being devastated by climate change and war.

However, rather than focussing on the horror that eventuated in this ruin and destruction, or on a sense of communal grief caused by the loss of the old world, Isle instead depicts a people who have adjusted to their situation, and even begun to thrive. An all-too-infrequent gambit amongst writers of apocalyptic fiction, this results in a story that will soften all but the most hardened hearts.

The Rover (2014)

A grim film, beautifully shot and deliberately paced, David Michod’s second feature tells a small story, eschewing the hysteria of spectacle to focus instead on the lives of ordinary people in a world that’s falling down around them. To sum it up: a drifter, living in his car and incessantly moving from place to place, has his car stolen; capturing one of the thieves, he sets off in pursuit. And that’s pretty much it.

In many ways, The Rover can arguably be seen as a companion piece to the first entry in the Mad Max series, or even as existing within the same universe. In both, the world hasn’t ended yet, but the end is in sight – society is fraying, madness is in the air and survival is becoming increasingly uncertain. But unlike Mad Max, The Rover makes the scale even smaller: Guy Pearce’s Eric is no Max Rockatansky; he’s not a cop driven mad by vengeance and primed for the wasteland, but an ordinary man trying to stay alive in an unforgiving world and hold onto his few remaining possessions.

(Originally published on Speculative Fiction Australia, 24/6/2018)

 Too Much Gun

From the heat rays of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to the phasers of Star Trek; from the blasters of Star Wars to the Lawgiver of the Judge Dredd comics; from the smart guns and pulse rifles of Aliens (1986) to the Needler of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Rat; the gun in one of its many forms has always been a part of science fiction. It can act as the initiator of conflict (after all, conflict is at the heart of every story) or as a means of resolving conflict. It can possess symbolic value, for example: a character’s casual proficiency in its use can symbolise the depths to which this character will stoop or the brute nature underlying their personality, while a character’s lack of proficiency in its use can symbolise this character’s innocence or the peaceful undercurrents permeating their personality. It can help establish a story’s sense of futurism, by featuring technological advances or improvements beyond those currently possible. And it can simply be a part of a story’s milieu—guns are a part of the world we live in, whether we like it or not, just like bananas and oil rigs and pelicans and the many other things that make up the tapestry that we call life. Any writer must at least consider this fact, especially if they want the world they are creating to be as realistic as possible—the absence of the gun in a story can be almost as telling as an over-reliance upon it.

But wouldn’t it be nice if we encountered this absence a little more often? Aside from the odd examples—Moon, the television show Humans, Interstellar, Arrival—nowadays the gun too-often becomes the only way of initiating and resolving conflict and so possesses few if any other narrative qualities, at least in terms of science fiction films and television. Rather than acting as a small part of a writer’s fictional world, possessing symbolic or futuristic value, or being merely one possibility among many in the search for a way to initiate and resolve conflict, the gun seems to be an end unto itself.

However, science fiction through the ages is replete with stories in which the gun isn’t the primary focus, and is instead merely an aspect of each story’s narrative mise-en-scene, if you will; and stories in which the gun chiefly exists for its symbolic value, both good and bad; and stories in which its sole purpose is to help bed-down the story’s futuristic setting; and stories in which it is entirely absent. Think of Doctor Who (2005-2017) and 2001: A Space Opera (1968), Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), Dark Star (1974) and The Quiet Earth (1985). The focus of each, however convoluted or murky, is an exploration of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications that are an integral part of science fiction’s framework. If the presence of the gun makes sense in terms of these explorations, then it is included; the gun is not, however, the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. A consequence of this is that other avenues must be found to both initiate and resolve conflict, opening up a plethora of alternative character-based actions, choices and decisions.

These alternatives then lead us to that which is at least partly responsible for science fiction’s contemporary reliance on the gun: Drama. After all, if a story’s chief concern is an exploration of science fiction’s philosophical, ethical and humanist implications, more than likely these explorations will be focused through well-rounded, contextually realistic characters, and suddenly we find ourselves with a piece of science fiction that has more in common with a genre that many would consider its antithesis. Drama has always been seen as underpinning good literature, while action has to varying degrees been seen as more heavily influencing those genres that might be considered ‘lightweight’ or ‘disposal.’

Do we see science fiction as more closely related to action than drama because that’s what we’ve come to expect? Is it because it’s easier to sell science fiction that way? Or is it that the squeaky wheel that is the blockbuster garners so much attention, marketed as it is to as wide an audience as possible and thus catering to the lowest common denominator? To adapt the old show-business saying: Action is easy, drama is hard. While such an adaptation may seem facile there is some truth to it, especially in the over-saturated media marketplaces of today. It simply takes most writers longer to craft dramatic sequences that it does to craft those based on action, as dramatic sequences tend to require more attention to detail and a finer touch. In contrast, an action sequence can paper over any flaws in its detail orientation and adherence to logic simply through the ‘wow factor’ of gunfights and gunfire, or explosions and flames, or fist fights and car chases, and so on.

The downside of this is that the good ideas in science fiction oriented around the gun often tend to be overshadowed by this over reliance. When the gun is the focus, what tends to fall by the wayside are deep explorations of the philosophical, ethical and humanist implications brought to life by the science fiction idea at the story’s core, and so the piece of science fiction in question tends to become just another example of gun-based action that fails to realise its potential. And this is a terrible shame, especially when compared to the emotional heights and depth of feeling that tend to infuse those few pieces of contemporary science fiction film and television that eschew a focus on the gun and instead concentrate on the drama.

Take the BBC television series Humans (2015-2016) as an example. To briefly summarise its science fiction idea: in the not-too-distant future, androids have become as ubiquitous as mobile phones, fulfilling myriad functions and occupations once undertaken by people; introduced into this set-up are a small group of androids who have gained consciousness and are to all intents and purposes psychologically and emotionally human.

It’s the kind of idea that has powered untold thousands of stories. What differentiates Humans is the particular direction in which it focuses this idea. There isn’t a violent confrontation between the ‘bad’ sentient androids and the ‘good’ and their human allies, or a war between the two factions, or an enslavement and extermination of the humans by the androids or vice versa, or a police-led assassination of the androids, or any of the hundred other sentient robot clichés that can be found in the annals of science fiction. It should go without saying that these directions are all action-based, in which the set-up is merely a platform for the gun—in directions like these, the gun can easily become the focus of the story rather than merely a part of it. But instead, Humans takes the dramatic approach, giving us lengthy explorations of an incredible array of philosophical, ethical and humanist implications borne of its central idea, all filtered through well-rounded and contextually realistic characters. The fine line between owning a machine and having a slave, thanks to said machine’s near-human appearance; what it is that actually makes us conscious and human, if it can be explained at all; the existence of ‘sex-bots,’ in relation to both humans and the robots themselves; the socioeconomic impact of using androids rather than humans in a wide variety of jobs and occupations; the divide between genuine (human) companionship and artificial (android) companionship; the age-old argument over nature vs. nurture; the temptation offered to unscrupulous individuals inherent in high-tech and interconnected devices present in the vast majority of homes and workplaces—Humans explores all of these conundrums and more, in great and explicit depth.

To offset the heaviness of this drama, Humans’ creators deftly integrate into their explorations and examinations, a strong sense of action and tension. While this is unarguably a narrative necessity, what makes Humans stand out is the fine balance between inquiry and action that its creators achieve, and the role served by the latter. Instead of merely being action for the sake of action, its creators’ integration of these disparate aspects gives a greater impact to the action that does occur, helping to diminish the sense of desensitisation inherent in so much other science fiction. When enough time is given to establish well-rounded characters, who become the lenses through which their creators focus their philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations, actions that directly affect these characters affect us as well. We care about what happens to them, even though we know that it is only a fiction, and thus these actions have consequences. In a nutshell, this is the difference between characters dying and killing. In science fiction focused on the gun, the emphasis is too often on the killing, which is typically gratuitous, meaningless and devoid of consequence. In a show like Humans, however, the emphasis changes to the dying, forcing us to both confront this eternal fact of life and examine any violent actions behind it. This is no more apparent than in the single appearance of a gun in Humans’ second season, whereby a newly-awakened synthetic who has been rescued by a band of sympathisers is shot dead by a tracker. This death has great meaning to both the characters affected and to us, the viewer—it isn’t glossed over or taken in stride, but a tragedy inflicted upon an innocent; while the gun itself isn’t portrayed as something whizz-bang exciting, but rather a deadly tool that can changes lives forever.

While it presumably would have been easy for the writers of Humans to have taken the road of the gun, we should be relieved that they didn’t. Its presence in the series makes narrative sense, but it is far from the ‘driver’ of the story, and nor is it the beginning and end of conflict. Instead, it is just one part of its world and treated with all the seriousness it deserves, and for it to be any other way would have resulted in a very different story. And by successfully integrating dramatic and action-based storytelling styles, Humans is a perfect demonstration of how creators of science fiction film and television can figuratively have their cake and eat it too. Dramatic space, for want of a better world, gives us the time and space to thoroughly invest in, speculate on and mull over the questions a story asks; action-based space moves the story forward and stops it from merely being a polemic; and when balanced delicately this combination can be truly enlightening. In other words, philosophical, ethical and humanist explorations and the gun can simultaneously exist in a story without one overshadowing the other, provided that these two elements relate to each other and inform each other.

(Originally published in Aurealis #101, June 2017)