Science Fiction Films and the Disappearance of Satire  

Science fiction films were there at the beginning, and they have been a constant throughout the history of film. However, while examples such as A Trip to the Moon (1902), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) and Metropolis (1927) were integral to cinema’s infancy, the production of science fiction films declined throughout the 1930s and 1940s, largely due to the effects of the Great Depression and the advent of the Second World War. They didn’t disappear completely, though, as during this time feature films gave way to serials based on comic strips such as Flash Gordon (1936) and Buck Rogers (1939).

It wasn’t until a sense of ‘normalcy’ returned to the Western world in the late 1940s/early 1950s that the production of science fiction films resumed in earnest. This occurred chiefly because of two factors: the Western world’s cultural concerns of the post-war period, and the emergence of teenagers as a unique subset of the population. Broadly speaking, two distinct ‘types’ of cinematic science fiction emerged to engage with these factors: sober Cold War parables such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and On the Beach (1959) addressed said cultural concerns, while low-budget Creature Features such as Them! (1955) and The Blob (1958) entertained the teenage masses.

Everything changed in the 1960s and 1970s thanks to the dawn of the counterculture movement, with many science fiction filmmakers rejecting both standardised subgenres and the typical modes of expression expected by society at large. The auteur movement reshaping European film resulted in art-house gems such as Alphaville (1965) and Fahrenheit 451 (1966); psychedelic and ‘Head Trip’ culture inspired optimistic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Barbarella (1968); the growing pessimism of the 1970s following the folly of the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal and the OAPEC oil crisis spawned grim visions such as THX 1138 (1971) and Mad Max (1979); and certain filmmakers combined science fiction tropes with those from other genres to deliver ‘hybrid’ films such as Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), which combined the tropes of science fiction, fantasy and westerns, and Alien (1979) which combined the tropes of science fiction and horror .

When the 1980s arrived, one aspect of science fiction films that had been largely abandoned during the 1960s and 1970s quickly returned: standardised subgenres. However, the subgenres of this era were no throwback to those of the 1950s and 1960s; instead, brand new subgenres emerged that are still in place today. The Thing (1982) and The Fly (1986) cemented the concept of science fiction/horror, consolidating what had begun with Alien; while E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Flight of the Navigator (1986) introduced serious family-friendly science fiction. Likewise, Outland (1980) and Predator (1987) fused science fiction with action; and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) and Spaceballs (1987) introduced ‘adult’ science fiction/comedies, which had previously mostly exhibited a distinctively juvenile edge.

These new subgenres weren’t the only dramatic change of this era, for it also saw the emergence of the serious franchise, some of which were expansions of cinematic worlds created in the 1970s. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) expanded the world of 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, as did Aliens (1986) to that of 1979’s Alien, and The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) to that of 1979’s Mad Max. So ground-breaking were these developments that they continue to this day; in the last decade alone, sequels have been released that expand the worlds of Blade Runner (1982), Tron (1982), The Terminator (1984) and Predator (1987), as well as those of the Star Wars, Alien and Mad Max series.

Effectively all of these subgenres still exist, as seen in films such as the science fiction/horror of 28 Days Later (2002) and  Life (2017), the science fiction/comedy of Nothing (2003) and Paul (2011), the science fiction/action of The Island (2005) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and the family-friendly science fiction of WALL-E (2008) and 2015’s Tomorrowland (2015

Another subgenre that came into its own in the 1980s was the dark science fiction satire.

This may seem a contradiction in light of the aforementioned continued production of science fiction/comedies, but there is in fact a crucial difference: the word comedy really functions as an umbrella term that contains many easily identifiable subgenres, while the word satire denotes one of its specific subgenres. In effect, most science fiction/comedies can be identified as a specific subgenre of comedy and placed into a pigeonhole crammed with others founded upon similar traits. There are thrill rides with an irreverent tone, such as Ghostbusters (1984); lovingly-crafted spoofs, such as Spaceballs (1987); comedy-action-dramas with a big heart, such as Back to the Future (1985); bawdy slices of juvenilia aimed directly at the teenage market, such as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989); or wacky/zany/absurd laugh-fests that directly engage with science fiction’s tropes and cliches, such as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984).

Satire is just another of these subgenres. However, while most of these other comedy subgenres are still in existence—Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) is an irreverent thrill ride, Eight Legged Freaks (2002) is a lovingly-crafted spoof, Paul (2011) is a bawdy slice of juvenilia, Thor: Ragnarok (2017) is as wacky/zany/absurd as they come—science fiction satires are nowadays quite rare.

So, what is satire? And why has it almost completely disappeared from the big screen in science fiction form?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines satire as ‘a humorous way of criticising people or ideas to show that they have faults or are wrong, or to prove a political point.’ In light of this, it is easy to see what differentiates satire from other types of comedy: while most comedies simply aim to entertain and provide a laugh, satire is intended to make us think about the cultural/societal/political problems we face. In many ways, this is a similar modus operandi to science fiction—the best works of science fiction re-frame the world we live in through the genre’s tropes, allowing us to see it in a new light. Substitute the word ‘tropes’ for the word ‘humour’ and the similarities between the two become obvious.

It is therefore fitting that certain filmmakers combined the two types in their efforts to make specific points about the societies that they either observed or were a part of, and it shouldn’t be surprising that science fiction satires really came into being during the 1970s. This was, after all, a decade of social pessimism and upheaval—as mentioned, its major and minor upheavals spawned grim visions such as THX 1138 (1971) and Mad Max (1979).

However, they also spawned science fiction satires that combined dark humour and the genre’s tropes to highlight and critique the problems coursing through Western society.  A Clockwork Orange (1971) exaggerated the divide between progressives and conservatives, and the battles between gangs/tribes of youths. Dark Star (1974) satirised NASA’s slump following the successful moon landing of 1969, and the sense that space exploration had now become a mundane phenomenon. Rollerball (1975) exaggerated the commercialisation of sport, and the commensurate emphasis on violent conflict at the expense of healthy competition. The Stepford Wives (1975) satirised conservative reactions to feminism, delivering a ludicrous world in which patriarchal power systems once again reigned supreme.

In the second half of the decade, following the resignation of Richard Nixon and America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, the appearance of stability returned to the Western world and science fiction satires became few and far between. Everything changed in the 1980s, though, with the election of Ronald Reagan stripping away this appearance of stability to expose the turmoil and conflict that had been bubbling away beneath the surface, and thus certain science fiction filmmakers chose to highlight this turmoil and conflict through the lens of satire. This conflict and turmoil, and the subsequent societal pressures and problems, grew worse as the decade progressed, giving said filmmakers more grist for the mill than ever before. In combination with advances in film-making techniques and a willingness on the part of major studios to support filmmakers in their satirical critiques of them, this allowed satires to rise to a place of prominence and excellence.

Escape From New York (1981), in which Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison run by the inmates themselves, satirises ‘white flight’ and the subsequent urban decay of urban centres. Gremlins (1984), in which mischievous pint-sized monsters run riot through a picture-perfect American suburb, satirises Reagan’s evocation of an idyllic America that never really existed. Robocop (1987), in which a struggling police force turns to robots and cyborgs to combat urban gangs and violent crime, satirises hard-line law enforcement and urban decay. They Live (1988), in which a blue-collar worker uncovers an alien conspiracy intent on brainwashing the population, satirises government control, wealth inequality and consumerism as a way of life. These examples—alongside others such as Repo Man (1984), Brazil (1985), The Stuff (1985) and The Running Man (1987)—combined po-faced seriousness with exaggeration, camp aesthetics and ridiculousness to hammer home their satirical points, with most frequently appearing on lists of the best science fiction films of all time.

Science fiction satires continued into the 1990s, despite many of the societal pressures and problems of the 1980s easing thanks to the end of the Cold War and the end of the Reagan/Bush presidencies. Thus, instead of satires on ‘white flight,’ urban decay, fevered conservatism or rampant consumerism, filmmakers turned to satirising America’s cultural ascendancy and military might, as seen in films such as Demolition Man (1993), Mars Attacks (1996) and Starship Troopers (1997). However, these were really satire’s last hurrah—by the early 21st century it had mostly become moribund on the big screen, thanks to a combination of factors including reactionary Western patriotism in the wake of 9/11, the rise of television as a high-quality art-form, the ‘dumbing down’ of mass culture, and most mainstream entertainment’s subsequent slow-but-inexorable abandonment of subtlety and subtext in favour of spectacle and bombast.

In fact, one of the last great science fiction satires tackled these factors to such a successful degree that the genre has struggled to regain traction ever since. This was Idiocracy (2006), a time-travel tale in which an average American soldier volunteers for an experimental cryogenic procedure. As is the way with such stories, things go awry and he is revived after 500 years rather than 1, to find himself literally the smartest person on the planet. What follows is an absurd and satirical romp in which a combination of extreme patriotism, ‘dumbed down’ culture and bombastic entertainment has rendered its future world a terrifying fun-house reflection of contemporary society.

There isn’t much subtlety or subtext to its approach or its depiction of this future world, and that is clearly the point that its creators are trying to make. In a world where such devices are considered by large swathes of the population to be not only outdated but anathema, satirising them can only be achieved by amping them up and throwing them back in an audience’s face. And so, in the age of Trumpism, rising authoritarianism and a rejection of science and expertise by both left-wing and right-wing segments of the population, Idiocracy (2006) seems less like an absurd warning and more like a cautionary tale that is coming to pass.

Perhaps that is why science fiction satires have waned and declined in popularity. After all, how do you satirise something that already seems to be satirising itself?

(Originally published in Aurealis #140, May 2021)

Rehabilitating Problems of the Past and Separating the Art from the Artist

Science fiction has always been a progressive genre abounding with enlightened themes: racial, sexual and gender equality; tolerance and acceptance of diversity; the end of exploitation, classism and discrimination; the need for humankind to come together rather than split apart; the ability of technology to advance our societies. As well, science fiction has always served up both subtle and not-so-subtle critiques of racism, sexism, militarism, imperialism, colonialism and exploitation. Therefore, it should be somewhat surprising that science fiction also has a dark underbelly, both at the individual and systemic levels. But it does.

Some of the worst examples of this insensitivity or lack of tolerance are from a time when social attitudes generally were less than what we might hope now, but some are more recent.

H P Lovecraft (1890–1937), whose blend of cosmic horror and science fiction gave us the still-influential Cthulhu mythos and pioneered the Weird Fiction subgenre, was an out-and-out racist whose views bled into his work, with just one example being his 1912 poem ‘On the Creation of N*****s,’ in which black Americans are described as ‘beasts wrought in semi-human figure, filled with vice.’

There exists an underground network of ‘white supremacist science fiction,’ which is primarily distributed by far-right activist imprints and white nationalist organisations. Their most high-profile fan is undoubtedly Steve Bannon, former aide to US President Donald Trump, who frequently refers to it in ways that betray his familiarity with it.

The ubiquity of sexist books covers, both historically and contemporaneously: half-naked women being abducted by aliens, stereotypical damsels in distress in suggestive poses, scantily-clad warrior women, and chainmail bikinis. Recently, issue #200 of the bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFFWA) featured just such an image. In that very same issue of the SFFWA bulletin, a column by authors Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg discussed female editors in science fiction, which morphed into a commentary on the appearances/attractiveness of the named editors, including a reference to one in her bathing suit. In the next issue, Resnick and Malzberg took umbrage at criticisms of their column, portraying themselves as victims of censorship and bemoaning ‘liberal fascists.’

John W Campbell (1910–1971), a founding figure of modern science fiction who as editor of Astounding Science Fiction launched the careers of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke and Robert A Heinlein (amongst others), was a white supremacist who wrote and published essays supporting slavery and segregation.

A tendency amongst some writers to portray capitalistic alien and otherworldly races as racist Jewish stereotypes with shrill voices, hook-noses, and ‘arcane’ customs. Perhaps the worst example is the Ferengi from Star Trek. Short humanoids with prominent ears and noses, Ferengi men wear distinctive head coverings, their women are rarely seen, and they’re depicted as being extremely greedy and legalistic.

The rabid-right Sad Puppy movement, which tried to ‘game’ the Hugo Awards from 2013-2016 in order to advance its racist and misogynistic belief that science fiction was pandering to writers-of-colour and women-writers, in which its supporters joined the World Science Fiction Society voting body en masse in order to block the nomination of liberal works of science fiction in favour of those that shared their agenda.

Then there are those ‘unclassifiable’ figures whose views and opinions either changed over time or contradicted each other. For example, Robert Heinlein has been read as a supporter of fascism, libertarianism and progressivism. And while he believed in racial equality, he also supported and worked for Barry Goldwater, the hard-right Republican candidate who voted against the Civil Rights Act, during his 1964 election campaign.

Another example lies in Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950). The conventional view is that Burroughs was a racist and imperialist, with certain examples from his works supporting this. However, he was full of contradictions: he wrote ‘The Black Man’s Burden,’ a parody of Kipling’s divisive poem that showed a contrarian view of imperialism; in his Mars series, which featured a Civil War veteran as its protagonist, he had said protagonist fall in love with and marry a ‘red’ Martian woman; on Barsoom itself, the setting for his Mars series, the ‘blacks’ were considered the purist race.

These examples of science fiction’s negative side are depressing indeed. The question then is: what do we about them? There are no easy answers to this question, as the past cannot be rewritten, and a fragment of society will unfortunately always show prejudice. However, the past doesn’t necessarily dictate the future and prejudice should never go unchallenged.

One solution is to acknowledge the work of problematic past figures and draw a line between it and their prejudiced views. This process takes many forms, with one of the most visible being the renaming of awards: when an award is named after someone inextricably linked to prejudiced views, offence can understandably be taken by both the intended targets of such views and anyone with a functioning sense of empathy. As Somalian-American author Sofia Samatar said in her acceptance speech for the 2014 World Fantasy Award, whose trophy was modelled on avowed racist H P Lovecraft:

It is awkward to accept the award as a woman of colour. I am unable to be 100 percent thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and many other people would feel the same way. I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. This is not about reading an author but about using that person’s image to represent an international award.

Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor summed up this awkwardness, and the insensitivity of the World Fantasy Award’s trophy, much more succinctly when she won it in 2011:

A statuette of this racist man’s head is in my home. A statuette of this racist man’s head is one of my greatest honours as a writer.

That a recipient of hate shouldn’t have to accept an award bearing the likeness or name of someone who wholeheartedly supported this hate is so self-evident as to go without saying, and the science fiction community should be attuned to the hurt, conflict and awkwardness that such awards inflict. Sadly, a segment of said community disagrees, arguing in the service of their agenda that the call to rename such awards isn’t a recognition of the sensitivities of those who have experienced hatred because of their race, sexual preference or gender, but is instead an attempt to expunge from history the work of those writers that such awards are named after. In other words, rather than acknowledge the prejudice that such writers espoused, they twist the argument regarding the renaming of awards so that it instead resembles a form of censorship.

The second part of Sofia Samatar’s acceptance speech—I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. This is not about reading an author but about using that person’s image to represent an international award—makes plain that censorship isn’t the intention behind renaming awards. Instead, it is an acknowledgement that we can separate the art from the artist, and that we can admire the former while criticising the latter. Luckily, the segment of the science fiction community that conflates separation with censorship is in the minority: the vast majority understands the difference and supports the push to acknowledge and rectify the hurt that such awards have caused. We see this in the fact that the points made by Samatar and Okorafor, and those of other women-writers and writers-of-colour, were taken seriously enough to result in a change to the World Fantasy Award’s trophy so that it no longer bears Lovecraft’s likeness. More importantly, this call for change has spread to other awards, with a concerted push to rename the John W Campbell award in recompense of his stridently racist views.

Another solution to science fiction’s negative side is to challenge the views of prejudiced authors through the reappropriation of their work. Although various writers and directors have applied this technique to a number of different authors—with the most well known perhaps being Paul Verhoeven’s 1997 film adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), in which the pro-fascist source material is turned into an anti-fascist satire—nowhere has it proved more successful than when applied to H P Lovecraft’s work. There are numerous reasons for this—chief amongst them his legacy and the fact that his racism was central to much of his work—and there are literally hundreds of novels and short stories that reappropriate his mythos to challenge his racism. Amongst them, two stand out in particular: Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (2016).

The Ballad of Black Tom is a reworking of Lovecraft’s story ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ (1927), which was one of his most blatantly racist works. Although the villain of the story is ostensibly Robert Sudyam, an elderly occult magician, Lovecraft spends more time vilifying Brooklyn’s immigrant inhabitants than criticising Sudyam’s villainy, describing how ‘Asian dregs,’ the ‘last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers’ and ‘negro elements’ have turned Brooklyn into a slum-like ‘maze of hybrid squalor’ and a ‘tangle of material and spiritual putrescence.’ In The Ballad of Black Tom, though, LaValle challenges this racism by retelling the story via Charles Thomas Tester, a young black musician from Brooklyn. Over the course of the book, we see through Tester’s eyes just how hard life must have been for a person-of-colour in early-twentieth-century America, experiencing racism, police brutality, discrimination, poverty and a lack of opportunity on an almost daily basis and thus delivering unto them a tenuous and fearful existence. And herein lies the power of LaValle’s book, because rather than what Lovecraft called ‘dregs’ and ‘devil-worshippers,’ we see them for what they really are: victims of a system designed to subjugate them.

Lovecraft Country is very different: rather than a reworking of an existing Lovecraft story, it is instead a wholly original story that transplants Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos into 1950s Jim Crow-era America. Centred on Attics Turner—a black veteran of the Korean War—and his extended family, it tells of how they are drawn into a decades-long plot by occult magicians to harness the power of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods. As the magicians’ machinations deepen, Atticus and his family are forced to travel around America, encountering a variety of racist behaviours directed their way while simultaneously coming to terms with the cosmic horrors unfolding around them. This juxtaposition is the main point of Lovecraft Country, as through it Ruff is asking an important question: which is more terrifying, the fictional horrors created by someone like Lovecraft, or the real horror of institutionalised racism? For most people-of-colour in that era, and sadly for many of them today, the real evil isn’t some supernatural force but rather the racist living next door and the system that keeps you down. In fact, it could be said that the reason why Atticus and his family ultimately emerge triumphant over the supernatural horrors of Lovecraft Country, is because the horrific racism of their everyday lives has fostered in them a strength of will that helps inure them to it.

These two movements within the science fiction community are ultimately part of a broader trend that challenges the genre’s negative side: raising awareness of the discrimination and prejudice faced by women-writers, writers-of-colour and minority-writers. While the fight continues, this trend is making the community a much more accepting and tolerant place, with the aforementioned writers being given long-overdue recognition that they are as integral a part of it as anyone. There is more to this trend than just recognition of their place, however, for it also allows a commensurate recognition of their works and their voices, broadening science fiction’s horizons, appeal and artistic and intellectual complexity.

This can only be a good thing, because the vast majority of science fiction has always belonged to the positive side. In fact, it is fair to say that science fiction has actually made the world a better place: it has inspired technological and scientific advances that have improved the lives of people worldwide; it has highlighted, and provided some solutions to, societal, cultural and environmental problems that might have otherwise simmered away until they reached boiling point; it has inspired wonder and awe, and shown us ways to be our best selves; and it has often provided a safe space for those who either don’t exactly fit into or feel somewhat ostracised from regular society.

Indeed, in a Star Trek episode from 1968, science fiction even delivered the first onscreen interracial kiss, which might not seem like such a big deal nowadays but was ground breaking back then.

(Originally published in Aurealis #137, February 2021)

Clone Narratives and the Question of Human Nature

One of science fiction’s big questions is, at its core, a question that we have asked ourselves for millennia: What makes us human? Is it our biology? Our ability to think rationally? Our ability to perceive ourselves as individuals? Our sense of self? Or a combination of these? Of course, there is no ‘right’ answer to these questions, and so science fiction instead investigates it and its myriad angles and tangents through an exploration of the relationship between the technological, the psychological and the social. In other words, it looks at how scientific advancements might influence the way people think, behave and interact—and vice versa. To paraphrase J G Ballard, it is designed to help us navigate ‘inner space’ rather than ‘outer space.’

Science fiction has given us a wide variety of different tropes and genre-specific elements. And despite their surface appearances, in this context these tropes and elements basically fulfil the same function: they project what we would consider ‘humanity’ onto something other than a biological human (and in certain cases, onto something more than a biological human).

Robots, androids, cyborgs, artificial intelligences, aliens, uplifted animals, figures both ahead of us and behind us on the evolutionary continuum—in the annals of science fiction, all of these tropes and elements have, at some point, had humanity bestowed upon them. In doing so, one of the assumed ‘core’ attributes of a human—our biology—is cast by the wayside, forcing us to consider the question of ‘what makes us human’ at a distance and challenging many of our other assumptions about what it actually is that defines us. If a machine, human/machine hybrid, alien, animal, proto-human or future-human can think rationally, perceive itself as an individual and/or possess a sense of self, does that then make it human? If so, what does that then make us?

However, this distancing technique can have some unintended consequences—when confronted with something that presents as both human and unhuman, one typical response is to recoil from it and dismiss it out of hand. This is, effectively, a variation on the concept of the uncanny valley. First coined in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori (a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology), uncanny valley describes the theory that humanlike robots can only be appealing up to a certain point—our affinity for them only stretches so far, ultimately descending into negative reactions based on a feeling of strangeness, a sense of unease and a tendency to be afraid of them.

This occurs because such robots straddle a disturbing in-between world: as we have yet to master the art of creating a robot/android that is virtually indistinguishable from a human—a la the replicants from Bladerunner (1982)—humanlike robots of the present day are both incredibly lifelike and yet not quite ‘right.’ Faced with this conflict—this valley, if you will—our empathy and affinity diminishes. When applied to science fiction’s tropes and elements that have had humanity bestowed upon them, the effect is that we can all too easily ignore any actual ‘human’ potential that they may have.

Luckily, another science fiction trope/element exists that can negate the effect of this uncanny valley: clones.

The identical genetic reproduction of a pre-existing biological organism, the concept of clones has had a strange history, with fact influencing fiction and vice versa in a kind-of ‘feedback’ system that continues to this day.  Coined by plant physiologist Herbert John Webber in 1903, it first described the process whereby a new and genetically identical plant can be created from a cutting of the old. Thirty years later, and then throughout the Golden Age of Science Fiction, writers as diverse as William F Temple, Robert A Heinlein, A E van Vogt and Aldous Huxley latched onto the concept and applied it to humans in a variety of ways. In the 1950s, spurred on by these writers’ application of the concept to animals rather than plants, scientists around the world began ever-more successful attempts at cloning everything from amphibians to fish to reptiles, culminating in the first successful clones of mammals in the 1980s. This success led writers of the time to craft ever more intricate and complex clone stories based on real-world science, which further spurred on actual scientists in their quest.

Despite the fact that a human clone is potentially within the grasp of contemporary science and technology, and will more than likely occur sooner rather than later, their metaphorical potential is still with us, as is their ability to provoke questions about both what it means to be human, and what defines a human. Broadly speaking, most clone narratives explore this potential and these questions within one of three thematic story types: Nature versus Nurture, Resurrection/Playing God, and Exploitation.

Firstly, Nature Versus Nurture, as seen in works such as Caryl Churchill’s play A Number (2002), the television series Orphan Black (2013-2017), The Double by José Saramago (2004) and The Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin (1976), explores the influence of their environment and their upbringing on a clone’s development and personality. Would they all grow up to be exactly the same? Or would they, despite their identical genetics, grow up to be different types of people? Secondly, Resurrection/Playing God, as seen in works such as Alien Resurrection (1997), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and The Boys from Brazil (once again), explores the ethical dimensions of recreating long dead figures. Should we bring Hitler back from the dead just because we can? Or the consummate alien killer, or an insane galactic dictator? Or, even though it doesn’t involve human clones, dinosaurs a la Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990)? Thirdly, Exploitation, as seen in works such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), Michael Marshall Smith’s Spares (1998) and Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009), explores the moral, ethical and societal implications of creating clones purely to be exploited, be it for manual labour, spare parts or warfare.

What these works do is use these thematic story types to raise questions which allow us to explore what it means to be human and what defines a human, as well as notions of the nature of individuality and the narcissistic aspects of our personalities. Should clones be treated like ‘normal’ people? How should they be raised? How does society deal with an illegal clone? Can they even be illegal? Are they oppressed people simply fighting to be understood? Or are they seeking to replace a ‘normal’ human? Are they a form of salvation, or a folly that warns us not to tamper with nature’s plan?

No matter which way clones are used, their metaphorical and philosophical potential is both strong and undeniable. But in all of these cases a problem remains—clones typically exist separately from other characters, in either ‘secret’ locations or faraway places that are chiefly populated by other clones, or by no one else. Through existing in this way, they then function as a type of ‘other’ onto which other characters—and ourselves as readers—can project our questions and explorations from a safe distance. However, the recent Netflix miniseries Living With Yourself (2019) does away with this distancing technique, delivering a unique clone narrative that, thanks to its central conceit and the originality of its concept, makes sure that these questions are thrust right in our faces.

Living With Yourself revolves around Miles, a forty-something nebbish suffering from the four big Ds of a typical midlife crisis: depression, dissatisfaction, despair and disappointment. Trapped in a boring job that he hates, with the joie de vivre of his youth long gone and his marriage now a stale affair of routine and monotony, he and his wife, Kate, casually take each for granted and spend more of their time glued to their smartphones than actually conversing. Miles yearns for change and a fresh shot at happiness.

After a particularly frosty morning at home and a particularly frustrating day at the office, he acts on the advise of a co-worker and visits the Top Happy Spa for a treatment that his co-worker guarantees will change his life. Rendered unconscious during the treatment, when Miles wakes up he finds himself, to his surprise, buried in a shallow grave in a forest outside town, rather than in the Top Happy Spa. Arriving home in the dead of night, he is shocked by what he finds: another Miles, who seems to view him as the intruder and is wearing the same clothes that he was when he first went to the Top Happy Spa. Miles and ‘other’ Miles—who we’ll refer to from hereon as Miles 2.0—tussle briefly before stumbling upon the realisation that they possess the exact same memories up until they fell asleep during the treatment.

Armed with this knowledge, the next morning they drive back to the Top Happy Spa in search of answers, and quickly discover that Miles 2.0 is a clone of the original. But he is no ordinary clone; his biology and DNA have been both replicated and improved—he doesn’t need to wear his glasses anymore, and feels rejuvenated, invigorated and more energetic—while the original Miles’ memories and mind have been mapped and overlaid on his own. He is, in effect, absolutely identical to Miles, except that the cloning and mind-mapping process has removed Miles’ insecurities, doubts, uncertainties and disappointments, rendering him a shiny, better and ‘brand new’ version of the original.

To say more in terms of Living With Yourself ‘s plot and narrative beats would be to spoil it—part of its charm and originality lies in the surprising directions that it takes. But what can be said is that this set up and concept allow for a deep and at times thoroughly moving exploration of what it means to be human and what it means to be alive, while also allowing it to reveal essential truths about human nature.

This reveal of essential truths primarily occurs in two ways. Firstly, the conflict between Miles and Miles 2.0—both between them and that provoked within Miles by the existence of Miles 2.0—allows the narrative to explore questions of contentment, happiness and love. Upon first returning home after his experience at the Top Happy Spa, the newfound enthusiasm and excitement that Miles 2.0 shows towards Kate, which is a direct result of the rejuvenation process, allows Miles to see anew and properly appreciate all the things that he taken for granted: a loving wife that is comfortable around him and that he can thus be comfortable around, a nice house that is more a home, a job that might not be the most exciting occupation in the world but is nonetheless secure and populated by people he has come to see as friends. In other words, the existence of Miles 2.0 shows Miles that familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt, but can instead foster a deeper sense of love, contentment and security.

Secondly, through the conversations shared between Miles and Miles 2.0, Miles comes to realise that the fantasies that he has been entertaining—freedom from work and domestic drudgery, the ability to just pick up and go on a trip around the world—are merely just an expression of middle-aged ennui, rather than an indicator that there is something wrong with his wife. After all, Miles 2.0 can do all these things but chooses not to, instead embracing Miles’ life with gusto and a renewed sense of purpose. This allows Miles to see that his problems are really just a matter of perspective, with Miles 2.0 forcing him to realise that he has to step up his game in order to be happy, rather than abandon his old life and seek out something new.

And then are the explorations of what it means to be human, of which there are too many to be properly raised here. But to illuminate just one: Miles 2.0 clone was created in science fiction spa in a strip-mall, and it can be reasonably argued that he doesn’t really have a claim on Miles’ life. But on the other hand, it is his life—Miles 2.0 is wholly composed of Miles’ experiences and memories, and what are we but a repository of experience and memory? And yet he doesn’t really have Miles’ experience, as he hasn’t lived through them and instead merely remembers them. Does this difference matter? Does it make Miles 2.0 less human than Miles, even though they’re essentially the same person?

There are no right or wrong answers to both these questions and the many others that Miles’ predicament illuminates, and that’s exactly how it should be—such weighty philosophical conundrums can only be solved at the individual level. Instead, it is enough that Living With Yourself delivers an emotionally charged narrative filled with humour, sadness and enough room for such conundrums to breathe.

(Originally published in Aurealis #134, September 2020)

Science Fiction, Politics and the Evolving Nature of Remakes

Though it might seem an ungracious thing to say, there’s a problem with being a science fiction fan nowadays: there are too many new books to read, and too many new shows and films to watch. Thank something, then, for summer holidays. When it’s too hot to be outside during the day, spending your time on a couch in an air conditioned room chipping away at your TBR and TBW piles seems less like a luxury, and more like a good use of your time.

One of the things I caught up on during my own summer holiday was the recent remake of that old Gen-Y favourite, Roswell (1999-2002). For those unfamiliar with it, Roswell is a high school-set science fiction drama concerning teenagers Max, Isabel and Michael, human-seeming aliens and the sole survivors of the apocryphal Roswell UFO crash of 1947. Rescued from the crash by adult aliens who later perished, they grew to maturity in archetypal stasis pods before breaking free as ‘children’ in the early-to-mid 1980s and subsequently being adopted into two different families. Aware of their alien heritage and burdened by the knowledge that they can only share their secret with each other, Max, Isabel and Michael are forced to both fit in as best they can and hide their real identities from the rest of the world. A larger narrative overlays their story—conspiracies, cover ups, shady government agencies, the typical tropes of ‘aliens amongst us’ narratives—but Roswell is really a fairly standard Bildungsroman, focusing on how they navigate teenage life and the road to adulthood.

While following many of the same beats as the original, the remake—Roswell, New Mexico (2019-2020)—makes changes both superficial and integral. Its narrative is action-driven rather than character oriented; Max, Isabel and Michael are now in their twenties; the tropes of ‘aliens amongst us’ narratives are the focus, with the lead trio’s struggle to fit in pushed to the background; some secondary characters are now either queer or missing entirely. The most interesting change, though, is that of Max’s human girlfriend/love interest, Liz. In Roswell, Liz is Liz Parker—a typical white American teenager of the time. In Roswell, New Mexico, though, Liz is Liz Ortecho—a Hispanic with US citizenship, whose father is an undocumented immigrant living and working in Roswell illegally. With the real Roswell only being a couple of hours from the Mexican border as the crow flies, this change not only makes a certain kind of logical sense—the omission of any Hispanic characters in Roswell is faintly ridiculous, after all —but also creates space in Roswell, New Mexico for themes and metaphors missing from the original, particularly of the political variety.

This emphasis on politics shouldn’t be surprising—after all, science fiction has always incorporated political elements. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every single work, as for every 1984 there’s a Max Rage: Intergalactic Badass! and for every District 9 there’s an Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. However, because one of science fiction’s main aims is to reframe the world we live in so that we can see it anew, the incorporation of political elements is barely surprising. Just look at the ‘classics,’ both old and new: H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1974), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) and Clare Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus (2015). These works are praised in large part precisely because their creators melded science fiction and politics to unflinchingly examine the world at that point in time, and the same principle applies to the creators of films and shows such as Metropolis (1927), the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the original Godzilla (1954), the first Star Trek series (1966-1969), the original Robocop (1987), Alien Nation (1988), Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Idiocracy (2006), District 9 (2009) and The 100 (2014-). Most interestingly, many of these works emerged at a time when politics was dramatically reshaping the world and therefore occupied a prominent place in the public’s consciousness. To name but a few: The War of the Worlds was a response to the colonialist expansion of the British Empire, its aliens with their advanced weaponry and take-no-prisoners approach a stand-in for the British forces, and its release was a push-back against the generally unquestioned nature of this expansion; Fahrenheit 451 was a response to the USA of the 1950s, in which the infamous Joseph McCarthy lead a crusade to censor art, literature and even individual opinions and beliefs, and it unflinchingly examined just where such crusades might lead.

In light of the above, the emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico on political elements once again shouldn’t be surprising. After all, we are currently living in a period of almost unprecedented upheaval, unlike the era in which the original series was produced and released.

Roswell came out at a strange point in modern history—with the end of the Cold War occurring in the late 1980s and the ‘War on Terror’ beginning in 2001/2002, the 1990s were a period of relative peace and political, social and cultural stability in the Western world in general, and in America in particular, the likes of which hadn’t been experienced since the 1950s. This era had its problems, of course, but not in a way that compares to these two ‘wars’ or previous world-changing events like the Vietnam War, Watergate and the Oil Crisis of the 1970s, or the rise of the counterculture and the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Therefore, the politics of Roswell—whose final season began airing not long after the 9/11 attacks that precipitated the ‘War on Terror’—are of the personal variety. It is a show about being a teenager, and focuses on the doubts, insecurities, contradictions and explorations typical of this phase of life. In other words, it is a show about working out who you are, your place in society and how you relate to the wider world. Identity and belonging are its preoccupations; in its case, ‘alien’ is a metaphor for the individual that doesn’t fit in (i.e. a typical teenager).

In stark contrast, the world today is experiencing a massive amount of political, social and cultural change—rising authoritarianism, the dominance of social media, rapidly growing inequality, climate change, illiberal democracies, these are part-and-parcel of contemporary life and foster a great sense of uncertainty at every level of society. Therefore, the emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico on political elements just seems right. As well, the change from Liz Parker to Liz Ortecho not only corrects a glaring omission of the original—48% of New Mexico’s population is now Hispanic, after all, up from 40% in the 1990s—but also confirms an unavoidable fact of life in Donald Trump’s America: the politics of undocumented Hispanic immigration. As much as certain rabid fans may decry the inclusion of this particular political element, if its creators had approached its narrative in any other way it would have been a blatant denial of reality for Hispanic people in America’s South-West.

This change of emphasis in Roswell, New Mexico isn’t unique. In fact, the creators of many science fiction remakes take a similar approach. While doing so is just one way of distinguishing their creation from the original, there is also a stronger factor at play—no political systems remain static, and the factors that shape the world in one era often bear no resemblance to those of the next. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that when I use the word politics, I don’t specifically mean its dictionary definition. Instead, politics encompasses the systems of power, privilege, law, legitimacy and morality that form and shape societies, which are established by governments and law-makers. Politics affects every aspect of our lives and is at least partly responsible for our position in society. It is cause of both the good and bad: racism, sexism, intolerance, inequality and injustice; as well as peace, prosperity, safety, security and welfare.

The Godzilla films are a fantastic example of the fluid nature of politics. Ever since its inception in the mid-1950s, the character has been remade so many times that it isn’t funny. In the 1954 original, Godzilla himself is a deliberate metaphor for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki less than a decade earlier. He is an inexplicable and devastating force from which there is no escape, and the film itself, filled as it is with scenes of urban ruin, radiation-burned victims and panicked crowds seeking shelter wherever they can, was a sombre attempt by its creators to come to terms with what had happened to their country.

Thirty years later, the political, social and cultural aftershocks of the bombs had become part of history, and yet had a new resonance thanks to renewed Cold War tensions initiated by Ronald Reagan in the US and Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR. In the middle of this febrile atmosphere and volatile environment arrived Godzilla 1985 (1985), a remake intended to reset the franchise, with a political emphasis focussed on these aforementioned tensions, the escalating arms race and the insanity of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Godzilla himself was no longer a metaphor for atomic weapons, but instead one representing the end-point of this doctrine and the ultimate consequences of an inability to work together for the greater good.

And then there is the more recent remake, released in 2014. Just like in 1985, times had changed in the thirty years that had passed since its last incarnation—the Cold War had ended, the arms race had slowed to a crawl and Mutually Assured Destruction was all but forgotten. Instead, a new political, social and cultural problem was shaping the world: climate change. Accordingly, the Godzilla of 2014 was a metaphor for the power and fury of the natural world, and the destructive potential we might unleash and bring down upon ourselves in our unceasing exploitation of it.

In effect, what these examples show are three different versions of the same story, from three different eras, with each steeped in the particular political, social and cultural factors that shaped the world at the time. However, they aren’t the only ‘set’ of remakes that do this.

Both the 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds and the 2004-2009 remake of Battlestar Galactica are responses to 9/11—the former is an examination of a world whose peace and prosperity is suddenly upended in devastating fashion, while the latter is predicated on the fear of the ‘fanatic amongst us’—whereas the originals were mostly viewed as mere entertainment with little depth or subtext. 1951’s The Thing from Another World was viewed in a similar way, but the 1982 remake, simply entitled The Thing, is a reflection on the creeping paranoia of the renewed Cold War tensions of the 1980s. And the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers refocussed the terror of both the ‘other’ and mindless conformity inherent to the original and directed it at societal institutions of the time as a reflection of the growing suspicion and distrust of these institutions during the Watergate era.

What unites these examples is not just their status as remakes, but also their status as either ‘classics’ or quality works of science fiction. Some are even heralded as being better than the originals, and this affirmation has arguably helped pave the way for the strength of the form—remakes are nowadays a mainstay of science fiction film and television. However, a remake doesn’t live or die on its remade status alone, and films such as the 1998 remake of Godzilla, the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives and the 2014 remake of Robocop are just a few of the many that were both critical and commercial failures. And while paling in comparison to The War of the Worlds and Battlestar Galactica et al., these unsuccessful examples are also united by more than just their status as remakes. In their case, though, what unites them is an almost complete abandonment of the originals’ status as political science fiction, in favour of simple action and spectacle alone.

And therein lies the lesson: Don’t ‘dumb down’ a piece of science fiction that once possessed depth thanks to its political elements, because these elements are often precisely what ensured its worth in the first place.

(Originally published in Aurealis #130, May 2020)

Interview with Andromeda Spaceways

AS: Can you tell us a little about your writing style and favoured themes?

LW: I’m a bit of a hodgepodge writer in terms of my style, in that I try not to restrict myself to one particular style/voice (of course, my “voice” still comes through as somewhat recognisable across all my work, but not in the way of someone like JG Ballard or Kurt Vonnegut etc.). When it comes to the technical stuff, I once again try to mix it up rather than restrict myself to a particular set of types. And then there are the sorts of things I like to write about…

When it comes to my style, I’m sometimes wordy, sometimes short and to the point, sometimes formal, sometimes informal, often a mix of all four – it all depends on the mood I’m in and the dictates of whatever I’m working on at the time. The only constant that I guess I do have is a deliberate Australian-ness: speech, colloquialisms, settings and so on.

I also like to mix up the techniques I use, depending on the mood I’m in and the dictates of whatever I’m working on at the time. First person perspective, third person and sometimes even second person (though that’s pretty hard); present tense, past tense and sometimes even future tense (though that’s also pretty hard); long chapters and short chapters, long paragraphs and short paragraphs, concrete language and metaphorical language, and sometimes a blend of all of them.

I like to try my hand at many different forms: Novels, story-cycles, short stories, flash fiction, easy-to-understand science fiction criticism. But I do have a number of consistent themes that I like to focus on: Hope, community, human nature, climate change and human adaptability, human behaviour in the face of adversity and/or rapid change, ordinary people in extraordinary situations, the end of the world as a positive (i.e. as the beginning of a new one), kindness in dark times.

AS: Where is your writing space?

LW: I like to spend as much time outdoors as I can, so whenever that’s possible I’m hunched over a weather-beaten table in my backyard – and sometimes even under a tree at my local park – tapping away at my laptop or jotting things down in a notebook. But if it’s raining or crazy-hot or blowing a gale, then I usually relocate to my kitchen table. That way, I can at least see the outside world and all its beauty.

AS: Who is your writerly crush?

LW: Hmm, it’s tricky to choose just one. But seeing as though you’ve asked me to, I’d have to say Kurt Vonnegut. Not once has his writing failed to move me deeply – indeed, it’s often left me in tears – because it’s so incredibly hopeful and so incredibly human.

In fact, I believe that many of his lines and aphorisms are really lessons we can live by, and can help us to be better people. There are far too many to list, but perhaps just one will do: I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’

AS: Do you have a writing ritual?

LW: To answer this question properly, I’ve got to go all the way back to when I’d just finished high school and moved out of the family home. Back then, aside from living my life as a young man to the fullest and trying to get through university, I had two main concerns: trying to make it as a musician, and trying to make it as a writer. Being a bit of a hippie kid who believed in free time over an income large enough to enable gratuitous materialism, I made an oath to myself: to only work part-time, so that I could have the freedom to focus on the things that I loved.

Twenty-something years later I still subscribe to that oath, and so nowadays I find myself alone at home at least one or two every days every week, with all the freedom I need to focus on my writing – I still dabble in music, but as I said earlier I gave up on the idea of trying to make it as a musician almost a decade ago.

And so a definite ritual has arisen: I get up with my significant other, help her get ready for work, see her off, and then plough through that day’s domestic duties and figuratively clear the decks for the writing day to ahead. And then I get stuck into it, with a cup of coffee and some music my constant companions. It doesn’t matter if my coffee goes cold, because I’ll just reheat it or pour it out and make a fresh cup; it just has to be there, like some kind of black and bitter talisman. And as for the music, it doesn’t really matter what I’m listening to as long as it’s to my tastes – it could be the radio, it could be whatever artist or album or genre I’m into that week, or it could be a specific playlist assembled to create an atmosphere for a specific story. No matter what it is, it’s exactly like my ever-present cup of coffee: it just has to be there.

AS: Are you a pantser, a plotter, or somewhere in between?

LW: I guess I exist somewhere in between, and that always depends on where I’m at in whatever I’m working on – I typically know how my story will start, how it’ll end and some of the scenes/events that happen in between. But for me, part of the fun is stringing these scenes and events together, because sometimes just pantsing the journey from A-B reveals unexpected situations or takes the story in unexpected directions.

To use an example from We Call It Monster: because it’s a story-cycle, I could get away with writing it out of order. However, this meant a fair bit of plotting beforehand, to make sure that each story would be consistent with the ones both before and after it. But once that was done, I could just pants the hell out of it. Another example comes from one of the books I’m working on right now – a metafictional science fiction story about science fiction characters, settings and technology coming into existence in the real world. I plotted out probably the first quarter before I even started writing it, but once I was eight or nine chapters in the issue of copyright occurred to me. I then had to rethink the whole concept, and so just pantsed over the top of what I’d already written in order to make it work with this new concept.

The only other thing I’d like to say, going by discussions and conversations with other authors, is that it’s really-really-really hard to just pants a novel. They’re long, time consuming and need to be consistent from beginning to end, and so trying to just pants it means lots of re-editing and re-reading and graph-charting and so on and so on and so on, rather than actual writing. 

AS: What draws you to writing speculative fiction?

LW: I’m on the cusp of Gen-X and Gen-Y, and so like many folk of my age I grew up in 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, inexplicable phenomena and Doctor Who – science fiction seemed like the logical way to express and understand this changing world. And so when I “decided” to become a writer, science fiction simply seemed like the right genre to work in.

Aside from growing up steeped in it, I’m also drawn to writing science fiction because of its ability to make us question what we know by reframing it as a ‘what if?’ and then digging deep. The ability of science fiction to open our eyes to what is by showing us what it might become – or by disguising what is in metaphor and symbolism in order to increase its immediacy – is nothing short of genius.

I’ll use my most recent work as an example of this “increase of immediacy.” We Call It Monster is the story of the sudden worldwide appearance of giant monsters of the Godzilla/King Kong kind, and how humanity reacts to them and their immediate destructive potential. Now, if you substitute “giant monsters” for “climate change” and “sudden appearance/immediate destructive potential” for “slow and inexorable destruction that will change the world irrevocably,” the realisation that we need to do something about climate change right now quickly becomes apparent.    

AS: What do you do when you’re not writing?

LW: Aside from reading, which is to be expected, I spend my time listening to music and playing music, walking around my neighbourhood and parks and bushland just for the hell of it, playing in the garden, cooking food for the Zen-like joy of it, enjoying time with just my thoughts for company, soaking up political news like the political junkie I am, talking books and genre and story and literary theory with my significant other, and restraining myself from watching too many weird/cult/classic movies and TV shows.

And like most writers, I have a day job – it’s obviously a necessity for the vast majority of us. However, while many writers tend to gravitate towards something similar to writing in order to pay the bills and rent or mortgage – academia, copywriting, teaching and the like – I decided that I wanted to work in an occupation at the other end of the spectrum. And so I became a nursery-hand, which allowed me to be outside all day, play with plants, get my hands dirty, exercise my body, and soak up the sun and get drenched in the rain.

AS: What would you like to improve about your writing? (This can be anything. It can be something to do with writing itself, or something more along the lines of finding more time to set aside for it, or feeling more confident about it, etc.)

LW: I can’t honestly think of much that I’d like to improve, besides those generalities that every writer craves: learn to write more skilfully, more quickly and more confidently. However, there is one specific thing that I’d like to improve: my tendency to get easily distracted and to quickly get bored.

Often I’ll get a bit bored with whatever I’m working on at the time and so start something new to reboot my interest, or get distracted by a new idea that seems promising fuel for a new story, with the consequence that I then have a number of different projects on the go, and when they’re done I suddenly have a number of different stories or books to shop around simultaneously while also working out which project to tackle next.

AS: What is your favourite film?

LW: Wow, that’s a tough one – I am and always have been a film lover, with quite eclectic tastes, and to choose a favourite would depend on what type of film we’re talking about. As this is a science fiction magazine and I’m answering these questions from the perspective of a science fiction writer, I would have to break it down into my absolute favourites from a number of different science fiction subgenres.

When it comes to slow/thoughtful examples, nothing beats Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker from 1979 – its glacial pace, eerie mise-en-scene, incredible scenery and cinematography, and thought provoking nature are all truly unique.

When it comes to tension, suspense and atmosphere, I can’t go past John Carpenter’s The Thing from 1982 – it’s the very definition of “white knuckle,” and even though I’ve watched it literally dozens of times it literally has me on the edge of my seat every time.

And when it comes to bombast and spectacle, nothing beats Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers from 1997 – it’s filled with incredible action sequences that blend practical effects and CGI in a seamless way that feels unmatched to this day, and is also the most tongue-in-cheek of tongue-in-cheek satires.

However, if I had to choose an absolute favourite, it would be a tie between Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim from 2013 and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road from 2015. To me, they’re supreme examples of their types: gleeful, kinetic, beautifully shot and edited, obviously made by fans in love with the genres they’re working with, and the perfect blend of cinematic brains and brawn. 

AS: What are you reading right now?

LW: I tend to have a couple of books on the go at the same time – like I said earlier, I tend to get bored easily, and so find that that helps – so right now I’m working through Emma Newman’s Planetfall (in which she does an incredible job of simplifying insanely complex future-tech and integrating it into an all-too-human story of secrets and anxiety), as well as Chen Qiufan’s Waste Tide (a work of Chinese climate fiction, which blends science fiction and traditional Chinese belief systems in surprising and mind blowing ways) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (a story of American Jim Crow-era racism fused with Lovecraftian horror, which acts as a kind-of critique of Lovecraft himself).  

AS: Do you have any writing advice for new (or old) writers?

LW: In reality, there is as much advice for aspiring authors out there as there are aspiring authors, but I’ll share two pieces of advice that work for me.

Firstly, if you want to be a writer, all you need to do is write and write and write – like every other creative art, no-one is born with talent bar the odd savant, so you need to practise and practise and practise. And always keep in mind that there are no real “rules” when it comes to writing; what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, and so finding your own systems and rituals is incredibly important.

Secondly, you’ll need to develop discipline and routines. Writing anything – especially a book – takes a lot of time, which means making some kind of sacrifice. Maybe you’ll need to get up an hour earlier than usual to squeeze in a session before going to work, or stay up an hour later than usual after you get home in order to do the same. Maybe you’ll need to work part-time, and trade income for time in order to gain a dedicated writing day. Maybe you’ll need to write all through your lunch break. Maybe you’ll need to give up a Saturday or Sunday, no matter how much that might hurt.

If you want to take your writing seriously and hone your craft, you can’t be half-arsed about it.

(Originally published in Andromeda Spaceways #80, October 2020)

Why Retrofuturism Never Goes Out of Style

Retrofuturism is a term that tends to get bandied about willy-nilly, and has been used to describe everything from Betamax and VHS technology to the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983) and Brazil (1985), from landline telephones and early desktop computers to Metropolis (1927) and Men in Black (1997), from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Walkman’s, and from Deloreans and jumpsuits to Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and The Incredibles (2004).

It is also, unfortunately, too-often used incorrectly.

So what does retrofuturism really mean? Why is it used incorrectly? And why does it never seem to go out of fashion?

Answering this first question is tricky, as retrofuturism is a somewhat nebulous term that can be open to interpretation. On one hand, the most simplistic definition, which you’ll find worded similarly in just about any dictionary anywhere, is that it’s a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era. On the other hand, according to retrofuturist artist Bruce McCall, whose recent TED talk on the subject helped reintroduce it to contemporary audiences, it is an artistic method that involves “looking back to see how yesterday viewed tomorrow.” And then there’s the Urban Dictionary, which defines it as “the future as it was envisioned by people from past eras.”

Self-evidently, many different people lay claim to it and apply their own definitions to suit their own purposes. However, by doing so, a multitude of problems are thrown up. If retrofuturism simply means “a style or aesthetic considered futuristic in an earlier era” or “the future as it was envisioned by people from past eras,” then ipso-facto every piece of past science fiction can be considered retrofuturistic, as can any past technology that was considered futuristic. This is an absurd proposition, no doubt, but one that fits these definitions and leads to things like Barbarella (1968), pocket calculators, the Mad Max series (1979-1985, 2015), boom boxes, Logan’s Run (1976) fax machines and Escape From New York (1981) being considered retrofuturistic.     

In light of this, it’s perhaps best to define retrofuturism both differently and more specifically. Accordingly, to parse the definitions used by science fiction scholars and futurists, we might best call it a fascination for a future that never was combined with an ironic or unique twist on past views of the future. In this way, it is as much about the creators’ intent as it is about the aesthetic they employ – retrofuturistic works don’t happen by accident, but are instead borne of deliberate decisions on the part of their creators to appropriate and employ visions of the future that have long since passed.

In other words, retrofuturism is the revival of historical conceptions of the future. Or, to put it more plainly, retrofuturism refers to artistic works that are both steeped in nostalgia and directly inspired by the imagined futures of writers, artists and filmmakers of the past. 

But what does this mean in practise? Perhaps the best way to answer this question is by breaking down an example of a piece of science fiction that is unarguably retrofuturistic, and comparing it with one that definitely isn’t. So: Mars Attacks (1996) and The X-Files (1993-2002, 2016-2018).

Regarding Mars Attacks, director Tim Burton has never denied his retrofuturistic intentions. After all, its screenplay is based on a series of cult trading cards from 1962 – created by artists Wally Wood and Norman Saunders, writer Len Brown and art director Woody Gelman – and Burton has time-and-again acknowledged the direct influences of the cards’ visual style on his film. But even an audience with no awareness of these roots can’t help but see its retrofuturistic intentions, as Mars Attacks is crammed full of shiny-chrome, aerodynamically-ridiculous flying saucers; tubular ray-guns that shoot primary-coloured laser blasts; bright green, bobble-headed aliens with bulbous heads and enormous eyes; spherical space helmets and chunky spacesuits; towering analogue computers adorned with knobs, buttons, dials and levers; dim-witted soldiers and hawkish military commanders; and white-coated, pipe-smoking scientists who pontificate ad nauseam.

It barely needs saying, but all of these elements are hallmarks of Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction, which occupied a historical period when space travel and a deep understanding of the universe was in its infancy (and are perhaps the most popular referents when it comes to retrofuturism). In fact, these elements wouldn’t be out of place in one of Hugo Gernsback or John W. Campbell’s books, and featured heavily in the exploitative alien invasion films of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, Mars Attacks is so firmly steeped in this Pulp science fiction aesthetic that it quite easily could have been a product of that era, if we look past its blackly comic tone, tongue-in-cheek outrageousness and absurdity, and high-quality special effects. But it wasn’t, and these qualities that we would need to look past are precisely what make it a product of the 1990s – such traits can also be seen in Men in Black, Spaced Invaders (1990), Demolition Man (1993), Starship Troopers (1997) and Galaxy Quest (1999). And its retrofuturistic credentials are burnished even further when we look at some of the defining themes of science fiction from the 1990s. The emergence of the internet, clone technology, virtual reality, shock-and-awe warfare – these are all hallmarks of this period, reflecting their place in the real world, and Mars Attacks bucks against them all, existing instead as an over-the-top alien invasion work that wears its nostalgia on its sleeve. Thus, we can unarguably define it as a piece of retrofuturism, for it is undeniably steeped in nostalgia and directly inspired by the imagined futures of the past, while simultaneously exhibiting an ironic and unique twist on said imagined futures.

And so to The X-Files, which none other than The New Yorker has claimed as a piece of retrofuturism. With its millennial angst, brick-like mobile phones and heavy emphasis on government cover-ups and alien abductions, it undoubtedly feels quaint and retro from our 21st-century perspective. But hindsight doesn’t equal retrofuturism, and the presence of these elements is precisely what disqualifies The X-Files from being defined as such. It is, above-and-beyond anything else, a definitive product of its time – the 1990s was the era of Y2K panic, conspiracy theories, crop circles and distrust of the government, and in which trash talk shows hosted by the likes of Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael and Geraldo Rivera regularly featured ordinary Americans who claimed to have been abducted by aliens. The X-Files rode this cultural wave, with the word “zeitgeist” being regularly applied to it, and its tagline of “The Truth is Out There” entering pop-culture parlance. Make no mistake, while it may nowadays seem retro and undeniably has some resonances with science fiction of the past – shadowy government agencies and vast conspiracies with Earth-shaking ramifications have been a staple of the genre almost since its inception – it was nonetheless never backward-looking, and its success and raison d’être never depended on the science fiction of the past.

In summary, it is this conflation of “retro” and “retrofuturistic” that leads many people to wrongly define the latter and apply it works of science fiction that are solely the domain of the former. If you look back to the some of the examples provided in the opening of this piece, this becomes blindingly apparent. The influence of German Expressionism on Metropolis might seem dated today, but it was cutting edge at the time; the original Star Wars trilogy was a remarkable work of escapism, but the chunky/ugly aesthetic of its technology was far removed from the gleaming chrome and organic design of Pulp science fiction; the “mod” style of the future portrayed in 2001: A Space Odyssey is perfectly in synch with the mod style of the late 1960s. And this becomes even more apparent when contrasted with examples such as Men in Black, which heavily relied on the gleaming chrome of Pulp science fiction and the black-suited government agents of detective fiction, or the clunky analogue technology underpinning the futuristic sweeping surveillance systems seen in Brazil, or the James Bond-esque vibe and colour scheme of The Incredibles.

In light of this, we then need to ask why retrofuturism never seems to go out of fashion. As is always the case when it comes to art, culture and the intersection thereof, we can’t definitively answer questions like these. But what we can do is make educated guesses, and when it comes to the continuing popularity of retrofuturism a strong case can be made that one of the main reasons for its continuing popularity is because it involves an exploration of the tension between past, present and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology.

In effect, retrofuturism can provide a comforting and nostalgic contrast to a vision of the future that creates in us a sense of dissatisfaction or discomfort. Here we need to keep in mind that much Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction – which are, as previously mentioned, perhaps the most popular referents when it comes to retrofuturism – was optimistic about both the future and the advances in technology that might lie ahead. Clean-energy jetpacks and flying cars, robots that allowed us more time for leisure and philosophical thought, colonies on the moon or on other planets, humanity united by technology, new building materials and styles that made the world safer and cleaner, advances in technology that benefit and improve the environment – these are positive and hopeful touchstones of Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction, which existed side-by-side and in contrast to its more grim portraits of futures full of invading alien hordes and post-apocalyptic landscapes. In other words, Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction gave us fantastic and buoyant versions of the future, ones in which life and the world around would get better and better.

But what do we have today? What does the future look like from our 21st-century present?

To many of us, it looks dark indeed. After all, we live in a world of climate change, global terrorism, massive inequality and rising authoritarianism. A world of overpopulation and societal decay, in which corporations and governments have never had more power over we, the people. A world in which technology has divided us as much as it has united us; in which new building materials and styles have, for the most part, made the world more dangerous and dirtier, rather than safer and cleaner; and in which advances in technology have tended to disadvantage and despoil the environment, rather than benefit and improve it. And we live in a world in which technology has given us fake news, social media addiction and drone strikes, rather than jetpacks, flying cars and robot servants.

The kinds of futures promised by Pulp, Golden and Silver Age science fiction has failed to materialise, and instead we’re left with all of the above and more. In light of this, it’s barely surprising that people have, in the words of noted science fiction scholar Robert Latham, “nostalgia for a time of forward-looking hope and romance.” And this is precisely what retrofuturism offers – its creators give us worlds that are better than the one we live in today, and better than the one we’ll be living in tomorrow. They give us the chance to re-evaluate technology and our relationship with it, creating spaces where it exists to benefit our lives and the world around us. They remind us that the future can be brighter than the present, and that it can be something we look forward to rather than dread and regard with pessimistic apprehension.

In short, they give us hope. They give us optimism. And they bring back positive ideals and aspirations for the future that have are too-often left behind and forgotten.

(Originally published in Aurealis #126, November 2019)

The (Not So Sudden) Rise of World Science Fiction

Both mainstream audiences and casual fans have traditionally perceived science fiction as a predominately white, Western genre. Just take a look at any of the “best of” lists out there – no matter their origin, they’re sure to be dominated by works created by white Americans and white Britons. Typically representing the visual side of science fiction are films and shows such as Doctor Who (1963-Present), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the original Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Bladerunner (1982), The X-Files (1993-Present), The Matrix (1999), Inception (2010) and Stranger Things (2016-2019); typically representing the written side are authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Philip K. Dick, Michael Moorcock, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi. These are fantastic authors and works one-and-all; can you guess what they have in common?

In fact, science fiction began as a white, Western genre – it evolved from the “science romances” of the nineteenth century, written by white Britons and Europeans such as Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells; while the term itself was coined and popularised by the white American author Hugo Gernsback, when he founded Amazing Stories magazine in 1926. In the “Golden Age” that followed, a series of prolific white American authors dramatically expanded science fiction’s reach and potential, with those such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl and A. E. van Vogt establishing significant reputations and strengthening the perception of the genre as one predominately white and Western.

However, although science fiction was created and codified by white Western writers, people from the wider world have been working in the genre since its inception. Czech playwright Karel Čapek gave us the term and concept robot in R.U.R. from 1920; Polish author Stanisław Lem is widely regarded as a giant of science fiction, as are the Russian Strugatsky brothers (Arkady and Boris); the films Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979) by the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, based on seminal works by Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, are considered masterpieces of science fiction cinema; while black American and black Canadian authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler and Nalo Hopkinson have achieved critical and public acclaim, with their work often directly addressing the lack of diversity in the genre. And then there’s Japan, which gave us a brand new subgenre of science fiction with the release of the original Godzilla in 1954, and the art forms manga and anime.

If science fiction has actually always been a genre of the world, then why has it traditionally been perceived as a predominately white, Western one? This question is impossible to address briefly, but there are two distinct yet interrelated factors that unarguably play a part: The global domination of American culture in the wake of the Second World War; and America’s twentieth century racial politics. The first is self explanatory – American culture has and continues to shape the world, from entertainment to technology to fashion to language et al. It’s everywhere we look. It’s a fact of life (even though things are slowly changing). This brings us to the second factor.

If we take 1926 – the publication of the first issue of Amazing Stories – as the “birth” of science fiction, and America as its birthplace, then we must recognise that this birth took place a long time before the civil rights movements of the 1960s transformed American and the world. History has overwhelmingly shown that this was an incredibly dangerous and arduous era for black Americans, with the discrimination they faced applying to almost every facet of their lives, including writing and publishing. Therefore, at the same time as science fiction was emerging as an art form, in the country that was effectively setting out its terms and meanings, an entire community was almost exclusively excluded from participating in it as writers because of the “system.” In light of this, it’s perhaps unsurprising that science fiction was for a long time perceived as a predominately white, Western genre. It had existed as such for more than thirty years before anyone other than a white Westerner was allowed any real prominence; the whole time it had gained increased global popularity thanks to humanity’s inherent fascination with technology and the cultural effects of America’s incredible technological advancements (atomic power and weaponry, microchips, satellites, etc.).

The first real challenges to this perception only came during the “New Wave” movement, which began in the early 1960s and saw many of the established norms of the genre being overthrown. This was science fiction’s own version of one of the cultural revolutions sweeping the globe at that time – all around the world but particularly in the West, discriminatory barriers were coming down in many facets of life, and youth culture was driving a change to reassess the system and give a voice to the historically “voiceless.” In the case of the New Wave, part of its revolutionary agenda was to question who had claim to science fiction, and open its borders to previously marginalised and/or oppressed segments of its community. One consequence of this was that – America being America, the leader of the pack – black American voices finally achieved a place and recognition in the genre (rocky though this road still is), and kicked off a struggle in science fiction for equal rights in inclusion and representation.

But as we know, progress is slow. Not much illustrates this more than the fact that it was a big thing when Captain Kirk and Uhura kissed on Star Trek in 1968 (the first interracial kiss on television). It was a big thing, indeed – in the history of television, science fiction and the American civil rights movement. However, it can still be said that it didn’t change people’s perception of science fiction’s parameters and inclusivity, but instead merely allowed the genre representational space for more than just white Westerners, a space initially small and too-often tokenistic.

Effecting this change in the public’s perception of science fiction is something that continues to this day. But while progress is slow, it is nonetheless inexorable and ever expanding, and has recently become one of the defining issues of modern science fiction. From initially often-tokenistic space alongside the leading white Western characters to the rise of Afrofuturism and its reframing of the question of “what is science fiction?” to specific subgenres such as postcolonial science fiction that tackle these issues of underrepresented voices head-on, the undercurrents and ripple effects of previously marginalised and oppressed segments of the community finding an ever-growing place in science fiction are now so strong, that it only seems logical to redefine the genre as one that represents and includes everyone.

In effect, science fiction is slowly-but-surely being recognised as what it always has been, to a certain degree: a world genre, rather than a white, Western genre. And while this recognition initially began within the science fiction community, the wider public has increasingly been exhibiting it, something that has gained particular momentum in the last half-dozen years.

An example of this change in recognition exists in this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Awards. Firstly, the winner: Tade Thompson, a British-Yoruba author who grew up in Nigeria, with his novel Rosewater. Described by fellow author Adam Roberts as a work “at the cutting edge of the contemporary genre” in which Thompson combines “alien encounter, cyberpunk-biopunk-Afropunk thriller, zombie-shocker, an off-kilter love story and an atmospheric portrait of a futuristic Nigeria,” Rosewater is a deliberately African piece of science fiction and an alien invasion story par excellence that expertly reinterprets this tired old trope and its white, Western roots.

Rosewater winning this award is a sign of great progress in changing the public’s perception of science fiction. When we look at some of the other shortlisted works, we see that even more progress is being made – Iraqi author Ahmed Saadaw was included for his novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, as was Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee for her novel Revenant Gun.

From the past of effectively no one but white Western characters written by white Western writers, to a present in which of six books shortlisted for one of science fiction’s most prestigious awards, three were by writers of colour including the winner – that’s a real change in what science fiction can be, and a positive step in showing that the genre does indeed represent and include everyone.

This change isn’t restricted to the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Far from it.

Chinese-American author Ted Chiang has garnered critical and commercial acclaim with his moving humanist works – his 1998 novella The Story of Your Life, adapted for the screen in 2016 as Arrival, is a supreme expression of the global nature of science fiction, and its ability to unite, represent and include all of us. With four Nebula awards to his name, as well as four Hugo and four Locus awards and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, he has acquired a reputation as one of science fiction’s most unique contemporary voices.

An ongoing debate and dialogue regarding issues of cultural appropriation and white-washing in the genre has recently been thrust into the public domain, spurred on by the casting of Western actors in roles traditionally associated with non-Western cultures – Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange (2016), Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017), Finn Jones in Iron Fist (2017-2018).

Earlier this year, the director of the Arthur C Clarke Award released an impassioned public statement imploring all sections of both the science fiction community and the wider publishing community, to recognise that they consist of (and exist for) a wide variety of diverse voices. He then went on to declare that the under-representation of these voices desperately needs to be addressed by everyone within science fiction’s awards community – selectors, voters, supporters and judges alike.

Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafo won Best Novella in the 2016 Hugo Awards, and the 2015 Nebula Award, with Binti; her first adult novel, Who Fears Death, won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award; her 2014 novel Lagoon was a finalist for a British Science Fiction Association Award; and she announced in 2017 via Twitter that Who Fears Death was being picked up for development by HBO.

The runaway success of Marvel’s Black Panther (2018), a lavishly big-budget and highly-entertaining slice of Afrofuturism that attracted enviably high audience numbers around the world, has ignited new interest in Afrofuturism and expanded the public’s awareness of what science fiction can be, and is being hailed by some as the vanguard of Afrofuturism 2.0.

The literary and political/cultural rigour of what might be called New Lovecraftian Fiction has seen the rise of a perception-smashing subgenre, one that contains space for those whose voices in the wider Lovecraftian community would have historically often been marginalised. Authors such as Victor LaValle, a black American, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a Mexican-Canadian, and Maurice Broaddus, a Jamaican-American, have all used this space to combine reinterpretations and examinations of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos with a criticism of Lovecraft’s own racism and that of his era, often with an emphasis on the marginalised people of the times. More and more of contemporary science fiction’s exciting emerging voices, and many of its uniquely-innovative established voices, are hailing from traditionally non-Western backgrounds, including Ken Liu, a Chinese-American, Charles Yu, a Taiwanese-American, and N.K. Jemisin, a black American; as well as Karen Lord from Barbados, Vandana Singh from India, Deji Bryce Olukotun from Nigeria, Malinda Lo from China and Rebecca Roanhorse from Mexico. Meanwhile, a noticeable rise in science fiction produced in places as far-flung as Asia, the Pacific Islands, Latin America, the Indian Subcontinent and the Middle East, alongside a similar rise in science fiction produced by the Indigenous Peoples of the Commonwealth, has garnered the attention of the wider science fiction community.

Examples such as these cannot be dismissed as outliers indicating nothing, but instead must be accepted for what they are: evidence that science fiction is undergoing a seismic change. This change is permeating all aspects of the genre, from its meanings to its expressions, and from its breadth of representation to the reaches of its inclusivity. It is broadening the public’s perception of what and whom the genre represents and includes, and given a space to many previously marginalised and oppressed segments of the community. It is happening whether we like it or not, and is inextricably linked to a much larger broadening of perception in the wider community regarding issues of cultural appropriation and recognition, and the importance of returning a voice and place to those who have historically been rendered “voiceless” and denied a place.

Science fiction is all the better for it.

Vive la difference, as the French say.

(Originally published in Aurealis #125, October 2019)

Springs Eternal

It’s hot and stuffy inside the cramped, camel-dragged wagon, but Starling doesn’t really mind. She looks through a crack in the wall, at the dust kicked up by the rest of the townsfolk as they trek down the broken highway.

At least I’m resting my feet, she says to herself, even if I do have to look after mum.

She slumps back in her chair, eyeballing the other elders crammed in with them. The wind is

blowing hard, carrying the faint smell of the sea.

She sighs deeply.

“I’m bored,” she tells her mum.

“We’ll be there soon.”

Starling crosses her arms over her chest.

“I’m still bored. Tell me a story to kill some time. Tell me how you and dad met.”

“Okay.”

Home was a half-horse town at the foot of an extinct volcano in the middle of the drought plains. I was born there. I won’t get to die there. None of us will, now that the spring’s dried up.

But thanks to your dad, I got to grow old there.

***

He wasn’t your dad back then. He was just a stranger who showed up late one afternoon at the tail end of summer.

He was bloody, bruised, battered.

One of the guards manning the gates didn’t want to let him in. Another guard pointed out that he was alone, hurt and young. A third guard noted that he obviously didn’t pose a threat.

So they let him in. You know the law: Help when you can.

Hands raised, he entered. Then he took two or three steps before collapsing onto the cracked road that led into town.

Before he passed out, he said one word:

“Raiders.”

***

I was there when he fell. I was there when he spoke.

Back then, I used to love hanging around the gate. Every day, after rushing through my lessons and chores, I’d head straight there rather than spend time with the other youngsters. They bored me. The boys just talked about girls, or fighting, or how they couldn’t wait to be old enough to start hunting. The girls just talked about boys, or what they’d learned that day, or how they couldn’t wait to have kids of their own.

So instead of listening to them rabbit on – or even worse, joining in – I used to badger the guards, asking questions about the old days. Sometimes they indulged me, sometimes they didn’t.

Whenever they didn’t, I’d just look over the sun-scorched plains, trying to imagine what they used to be like, imagining them full of people and houses and machines.

***

When your dad arrived, I was about the same age as you are now – no longer a girl, but not yet a woman.

The guards had brushed me off that day. I guess I’d worn them out, asked too many questions. I couldn’t help it. A fire burned in my belly, giving me too much energy. Apart from exhausting myself physically, the only way to douse it was by satisfying my curiosity.

I was given a name when I was born, but no one ever used it. The nicknames piled up instead, describing what I was rather than who I was.

Fidget.

Whirling dervish.

Roadrunner.

***

I was the first one to help your dad after he fell. I cradled his head, and wiped some blood off his face.

One of the guards took over. Your dad came to, blinking fast. The guard held a wet rag to his mouth. He sucked at it greedily, and then suddenly smiled.

He had a nice smile, if you looked past his cracked lips and bad teeth. I tried not to stare.

“Go get Aunty,” the guard told me.

And so off I ran.

***

Aunty wasn’t in her caravan, or the village green, or the communal kitchen, or the fields where we grew our food.

That left only one other place to look.

I headed up the side of the volcano overlooking the town, my legs pumping. I stopped at the volcano’s rim, catching my breath and resting in the shade of the rickety tower that served as a lookout.

“Oi, Fidget, you alright down there?” someone yelled.

I looked up. My big brother – your uncle – was perched in the crow’s nest atop the tower.

“All good, bro,” I replied. “I’m just looking for Aunty.”

“She’s down below.”

“That’s what I figured. Thanks.”

“No worries.”

“Hey, you got any water? I left mine in town.”

“You bet, heads up.”

He held out a full canteen, and then dropped it. Squinting in the sun, I let it fall rather than try and catch it. It hit the ground with a thunk but didn’t split open.

I took a long drink and then headed over the rim.

***

It was cooler inside the crater. I slowed down a little, trying to keep my feet, not wanting to tumble arse-over-tit. I found Aunty in one of the caves that disappeared into the earth.

It was her favourite cave, the one that let us live our lives.

She was sitting cross-legged next to the spring that burbled up from underground. Her eyes were closed. One hand rested in the water, feeling it flow through her fingers and into the system of channels that fed our fields.

“Hello, Rabbit,” she said, eyes still closed.

Somehow she seemed to know when someone was near, as if she could sense them. It always freaked me out a little.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

I got straight to the point, knowing how she hated it when people ummed and aahed.

“There’s a stranger here. He said something about raiders.”

Aunty’s eyes flicked open, and seemed to bore into me. I tried not to flinch.

“Very well.”

She was suddenly on her feet, a smooth and effortless motion. She strode past me. I did my best to keep up.

***

Back in town, Aunty checked on your dad and had someone tend to his wounds. He spoke in fits and starts, forcing the words out, obviously in pain. Aunty listened carefully and didn’t interrupt him.

This is what I learned:

A mob of raiders were heading our way, fifty or sixty of them.

They were a three-day hike to the north.

They meant business.

They were armed and had some kind of war machine.

Your dad had been their slave, but had somehow escaped.

***

There were more details to his story, but they didn’t really matter. The bones of it were frightening enough.

***

When your dad had finished talking, Aunty let him be and gathered the rest of the elders, leading them to what we laughingly called the town hall. She let me stay. She knew I’d kick up a fuss if they tried to get rid of me.

I hung back, keeping my eyes and ears open.

They talked about fighting and fleeing. As young as I was, and as much as I loved home, I

knew we couldn’t defend ourselves. There were barely thirty of us left, and that included the kids and youngsters – everyone else had fled when the rain stopped falling.

But we couldn’t run either. Where would we go?

***

Eventually, Aunty and the elders settled on a plan – they would send out runners to ask for help fighting off the raiders. We weren’t alone back then. There we people we traded with if we could, or just gave water to if they needed it.

I scoffed at the idea of help. I objected, loudly. I told them they were stupid for relying on the hope that others would help.

Why would they?

Life was hard enough as it was.

***

But to the elders I was just a kid, and they completely ignored me.

***

The rest of that day was a buzz of activity that went through the night. First off, Aunty chose the fittest half-dozen of us to get the word out. She told them where to go and what to do, and then passed each of them a rough haversack crammed with a few days worth of water and food.

Lastly, she gave each of them a relic of the old world that she called a ‘flare gun.’

“Their elders will know what to do,” she told the runners.

None of them spoke, the importance of their task sitting heavily on their shoulders.

I watched silently as they took off into the night. Each one headed in a different direction, some to the mud-folk from the swamps engulfing the drowned city down south, some to the nomadic tinkers who gleaned scraps from the ruins, some to those hold-outs and die-hards who refused to leave their towns, some to the First Country caravans winding their way through the desolation, and some to those recluses and loners hunkered down in the hills.

***

As soon as they had gone, the other elders called us together and set us to work. Half of us turned our minds to defending ourselves if we had to. The rest started preparing to evacuate.

We fortified the gate.

We built barricades out of car carcasses and wrecked furniture.

We set traps and snares.

We emptied out meager armoury and practised-practised-practised.

The best of us with a bow and arrow set up sniper nests in the trees ringing the town.

***

I didn’t sleep at all that night. Neither did your dad. He pitched in, pushing himself as hard as anyone else, doing whatever was asked of him. That surprised me, considering his injuries and the fact that he was a stranger.

At one point we found ourselves working side-by-side. I’m glad for that, and always will be, because otherwise you wouldn’t be here.

***

I collapsed in the middle of the next day, absolutely exhausted. By the time I awoke, the sun was setting and we were as ready as we could be.

***

I decided to join my big brother while we waited. I asked your dad if he wanted to tag along, but he declined – he always hated heights.

And so I was all alone as I carefully climbed the tower clinging to the rim of the volcano.

Once at the top, I dropped my supply of fresh water, hugged my brother tight and did my best not to look down. You’ve been there. You know how high it is.

He was pleased to see me, but as soon as we’d broken apart he scooped up the town’s sole set of binoculars and resumed his vigil.

We took turns scanning the dark horizon, looking to the north.

All we saw were shadows and gloom.

***

We saw the first sign of the raiders just after dawn – a thick plume of dust to the north, thrown up by their march.

“How long do you reckon it’ll take them to get here?” I asked my brother.

“They’ll probably be here by dark. You’d better tell Aunty.”

“Got it.”

I descended the tower, hurried into town and told Aunty what was what. She gathered us together and filled us in.

After that, all we could do was wait.

That was the worst part.

***

Night fell, after an anxious day. We took our positions. We readied our weapons. And then the brilliant blossom of a flare filled the sky to the south.

Help was on its way, our friends and neighbours were coming, all we had to do was hold off the raiders until they arrived.

I smiled so wide that my cheeks hurt.

Moments later, another flare went off, this time to the west. And then another and another and another, more and more of them, including one from the north, behind the raiders.

And then one of our runners approached the gates.

Before he fell to the ground in exhaustion, he gave Aunty a thumbs-up.

***

Our law doesn’t just apply to us, but to everyone else out there in the wasteland. Well, everyone else that’s still good.

Help when you can.

(Originally published in Stories of Hope, February 2020)

Interview with Australian 2020 SF Snapshot Project

Australian 2020 SF Snapshot Project: Tell us about your recent publications/projects?

Lachlan Walter: My most recent book, which I’m incredibly proud of, is We Call It Monster. It’s a bit of a weird one, so bear with me…

We Call It Monster isn’t really a novel, but it isn’t really a short story collection either – it’s what the critics call a story-cycle/novel-in-stories, i.e. a set of interlinking short stories that form an overarching narrative. In its case, the narrative is about giant monsters of the Godzilla/King Kong kind, covering their initial appearance through humanity’s attempts to defeat them and onto our eventual acceptance that we no longer rule the world. However, there’s no need to run in horror at the prospect of a blood-and-guts story steeped in juvenilia, because We Call It Monster is quite different – it’s my attempt to treat such monsters in a serious, grounded and realistic way (something that often happens in film, but rarely in literature). It’s more concerned with people than the monsters; they really exist as a device to examine how we might react to world-changing forces beyond our control, and to illuminate the precariousness of our position as world-conquerors sitting atop the food chain. Ultimately, it’s a story of what really matters in life: community and compassion, love and family and friendship, hope and faith.

With that done and out in the world, I’m now working on my next two books – the first, a “zany” metafictional SF story, is sitting in the drawer composting, to be looked at anew once I finish the second, which is a grounded work of climate-fiction set in the near future. I like to challenge myself by attempting to write vastly different books, rather than simply writing the same kind of book over and over again – We Call It Monster is incredibly different from my first book, The Rain Never Came, which is a fast-paced post-apocalyptic story with an undeniably Australian voice and atmosphere, and I hope to continue this process of renewal and uniqueness into the future.

A2020SFSP: What has been the best publishing or SF community experience of your career so far?

LW: No argument – having We Call It Monster, which is my second book, accepted for publication.

While the moment when you receive the acceptance letter for your first book is simply incredible, once that’s done you realise that if you actually want to be a “real” writer, you have to write another one, and then another after that and another after that and so on and so on. This can be a struggle, because you might not feel like you have it in you – for most writers, myself included, our first books ares our babies, nurtured and cherished and slaved over, and the ideas behind them seem to come from nowhere, and the writing of them can take years to evolve. With a second book, you have to metaphorically fish around for the idea behind it, and consequently second-guess yourself to an excruciating degree. Should it be a sequel? Should it be something completely different? Is this idea good enough? Or how about this one? Will it keep me interested for the next 2-3 years, so that I can keep at it and actually finish it?

However, once an idea has hooked you deeply enough to see it through to the (sometimes) bitter end, and once it has been completed to your satisfaction, having it accepted for publication somehow proves that you’ve got what it takes to keep on writing – you’ve now done it twice, and that gives you the confidence to try and do it again, and that’s incredibly rewarding.

A2020SFSP: Which recent Australian/NZ work would you recommend to international fans interested in expanding their Antipodean spec fic knowledge?

LW: Rather than a single work, I would recommend that international fans instead turn their attention to Antipodean speculative fiction as whole. After all, we have an incredible diversity of voices and thematic interests in our writing community, all of which are worthy of an international fan’s time – from First Nations writers using their work to challenge the foundations of our societies, such as Alexis Wright and Claire Coleman, to humanists such as Steven Amsterdam and Rohan Wilson, to satirists such as Max Barry and Andrew McGahan, to post-apocalyptic specialists such as Peter Docker and Andrew Macrae, to everyone in between, including Meg Mundell, Vincent Silk, Deborah Biancotti, Sam Watson and Cat Sparks (to name but a few).

I could go on and on. But in the end, I’d just recommend that they do a little digging, because they never know what they’ll find.

(Originally published on Australian SF Snapshot Project, 29/6/2020)

 

We May Have Reached Series Overload: A Trawl Through Small-Press and Self-Published Science Fiction

The world of small-press and self-publishing isn’t perfect, but it is democratic.

In terms of self-publishing, nowadays literally anyone who has written a book and has access to the internet and some spare cash, can now deliver their work unto the world. Gone are the days when a self-published book looked like nothing more than a fancy zine; print-on-demand technology ensures that the finished product looks and feels as good as any ‘properly’ published book. Gone, too, are the days when a minimum order numbered in the hundreds, if not the thousands – most print-on-demand companies happily produce as many or as few copies as an author likes.

The small-press world is structured differently, as an author must still undergo the processes of traditional publishing: Submitting a manuscript and collaborating with others on the book’s editing, format and design. But it contains a vast landscape of publishers; no matter how obscure the genre an author works in, or how ‘out there’ their writing, a small-press publisher specialises in it. As well, the small-press author often finds a supportive and encouraging community of fellow authors writing for the same publisher, and pre-existing networks that they can use to help promote their work.

Which brings us to, well, us. In our world, all we have to do is gorge on the bounty provided by small-press/self-published authors. Without having facts or figures at hand, I’d wager that at no other point in history has so much new science fiction been available. And without investing much time at all, we can find innumerable marketplaces and promotional sites featuring fiction of every kind. In fact, we’re spoiled for choice, so much so that there even exist promotional sites which give away free books every day, or email a daily list of new books under $1.

To catalogue this deluge of new books would be an enormous undertaking. To get through a To-Be-Read pile made mammoth by the ease of click-and-collect digital purchasing, often seems a pretty-much impossible task. But to complain about the availability, accessibility and diversity of contemporary science fiction seems churlish.

However, there is an actual downside. Whether we like it or not, books are commercial products. Of course, they are also much more than that: magic doorways that transport us to different worlds, repositories of wisdom, voices of past and present generations, histories of our collective imagination, and so on. But they are still something that we can download, or walk into a shop and buy. They are an act of creativity that simultaneously exists as a commercial product, much like clothes, CDs/digital music, and DVDs/digital media. And just like these other creative-commercial products, books are subject to the vagaries of society and the marketplace—which we more commonly label as fads, phases and movements.

This has been happening to science fiction since the early twentieth century. Some of these labels were applied retrospectively, to delineate both generational change within the genre and the genre’s early evolution, as is the case with Silver Age and Golden Age science fiction. Some emerged during massive shifts in the genre’s focus, such as New Wave and Atomic Fiction. Some were initially used snootily by the old guard to describe younger writers refashioning the genre—Cyberpunk, Eco Punk. Which labels apply to which books doesn’t really matter; what’s important is that these genre aren’t static, but are instead constantly evolving and renewing.

This process still occurs. However, the phases and movements that occur today are often much more niche. As well, ‘fads’ are now a cultural factor coursing through science fiction. In the past, what might have been called a fad at the time—Atomic Fiction in the 1950s, Cyberpunk in the 1980—actually proved, in hindsight, to be a thriving subgenre that enjoyed continued popularity. Will people one day say the same thing about Paranormal Romances or High School-set Fantasy? Or will they be viewed as historically-specific artistic phenomenon that were over almost before they began?

As an example, take the gulf between a movement such as New Wave science fiction and a contemporary fad such as Zombie/Undead fiction. The former swept through the genre in the mid-to-late 1960s, reshaping its parameters. The latter is an offshoot of science fiction and horror, and has been contemporaneously popular in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. The real difference, though, is that New Wave was a philosophy, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a specific genre with specific rules. New Wave science fiction can be as fantastical, space-oriented and out-there as the work of Michael Moorcock; or as cold, psychological and Earth-bound as that of J G Ballard; or as deranged, chaotic and inspired as that of Philip K Dick. But Zombie/Undead fiction has to be about the dead returning to life, no matter whether it’s tricked up in a literary fashion a la Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or meticulously journalistic a la Max Brooks’ World War Z. In short, New Wave was a label applied to mid-century authors who were breaking science fiction from its past, while Zombie/Undead fiction is a singular genre that just happens to be flavour of the month.

The same contrast applies to many modern subgenres—they are mistaken for movements or phases, when in reality most are simply fads that have had their time. Even a cursory search of small-press/self-publishing marketplaces shows the slow decline of Zombie/Undead fiction and other fads popular over the last decade—Paranormal Romance, Historical-Horror Mashups, High School-set Fantasy. In contrast, movements devoid of an actual genre—Eco Punk, Postcolonial Science Fiction—are proving surprisingly resilient.

One fad that we’re still feeling the effects of is the predilection of many modern authors to create series consisting of 4 or 5 (or more) enormous door-stoppers containing hundreds of thousands of words and entire forests of pages. More-than-likely a continuing aftershock of the post-9/11 boom in Big Fat Fantasy, and no doubt heavily influenced by the runaway success of authors such as J K Rowling, James Dashner and Rick Riordian (et. al.), the series has moved away from the world of Young Adult fiction and now reigns supreme in the worlds of traditional and small-press/self-publishing. As any subscriber to one of the innumerable small-press/self-publishing promotional sites out there would know, in your regular newsletter will be a plethora of new works of science fiction. Amongst them will be the latest book in Mystery Author X’s self-described ‘epic’ space opera series, or the 10th instalment in Unknown Writer Y’s self-described ‘sprawling’ cyberpunk series. There will 2 or 3 of them or even more, in every newsletter you receive—series you’ve never heard of, by authors that you’ve never heard of. This same dictate applies when visiting small-press/self-publishing markets. Amongst the showcases of niche genre-works and jobbing writers building a name for themselves, you’ll find authors whose sole dedication and focus is the series they’ve created, their stands crowded with copies of the latest instalment, be it book 5 or 9 or 11.

The current popularity of the series raises some interesting questions, the least of which is: Why? Most science fiction authors have, historically, avoided writing series. In fact, the few historical science fiction series that are still remembered are either so monumentally intricate and expansive that the form is the only way to do them justice—the works of Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock—or are inextricably linked to the genre’s roots in serialised pulp fiction, such as the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. And to name a few science fiction titans who rarely ever wrote sequels to their works, and never wrote entire series: Margaret Atwood, J G Ballard, Philip K Dick, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut and H G Wells. All of these writers—and many others who only wrote standalone books and the occasional sequel—produced substantial bodies of work, and each book within was different, featuring a brand new science-fictional world and brand new science-fictional concerns. Doing this allowed them to further the development and exploration of the themes that interested them, by focusing them through a wide variety of perspectives, locations and situations. In contrast, the length and sprawl of a series generally allows, and indeed often encourages, a drawn-out exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation.

Case in point: J G Ballard. Chief amongst Ballard’s varied interests and themes were the dehumanising potential of artificial and highly-technological environments; the psychological implications of what might be called ‘typical’ science fiction scenarios (drowned worlds, desert worlds, dystopian worlds); and the resemblance between our ‘present’ and a science fiction ‘future’. By writing standalone books rather than entire series, Ballard was able to thoroughly explore these themes and interests in a number of different ways. Hello, America, taking place in a devastated world in which a charismatic madman rules over the partially-rebuilt ruins of Las Vegas, allowed Ballard to position the technological and commercial totems that we take for granted as quasi-religious relics, and to examine the ‘psychological hangover’ that these relics might cast over the generations to come; The Drowned World, taking place in a future in which global warming has melted the poles and flooded the planet and turned the drowned cities into tropical throwbacks resembling the primeval past, facilitates Ballard’s exploration of the differences and conflicts between natural and artificial environments, not just materially and historically but also psychologically and philosophically. Even from these oh-so-brief descriptions, we can see the thematic and symbolic connections between the two books—the juxtaposition of decaying artificial environments and flourishing newly-wild ones, the individual as both history’s witness and history’s victim, the undeniable influence our surroundings have over our psyches, technology’s severing of the ties between us and the natural world. However, the shared concerns are examined in vastly different ways, precisely because they are lensed through vastly different perspectives.

For an author, confining each perspective, location and situation to a single book can be seen to act as a helpful constraint—its length and nature forces an author to both build their world quickly and economically and to establish themes early and intelligently. This is exactly what Ballard—and other authors who only wrote standalone books with the occasional sequel thrown in for good measure—does in his work. Rather than drag out an exploration of a theme from only one particular perspective, location and situation (which the nature of a series demands), they do the reverse: They examine themes from as many different perspectives as possible. And this has historically been the norm. But not today, where the series rules over all. Which brings us back to the question of ‘why’?

This is, of course, a question without an actual answer. We can speculate and interrogate, but in the end it’s for nought. All we can really do is state the obvious: there is a real joy in well-written standalone books. The pleasure and immersion they deliver is different to that of a series, and self-contained stories have for the most part been the ‘staple’ form throughout history. Think of the classics—almost all exist as works unto themselves, devoid of the need for a single sequel, let alone a number of them. The same rule-of-thumb applies to science fiction. Would The War of the Worlds have been a better book if the story had kept going? How about Slaughterhouse Five? Or The Handmaid’s Tale? And yet nowadays it’s often more difficult to find a good standalone work of science fiction than it is the continuation of an existing series or the birth of a new one. In fact, many contemporary authors are setting out to write part 1 of a series as their debut, rather than ‘cutting their teeth’ on standalone fiction and seeing if they’ve metaphorically got what it takes to justify a series. Are their themes deep enough to withstand numerous book-length interrogations? Or are they merely drawing things out because, for a writer, staying immersed in the one world can often be easier than going out and creating more? These questions are the ones an author needs to consider, because a great book is always better than a good series.

(Originally published in Aurealis #121, June 2019)