Psychological Science Fiction and Our Fascination with Inner Space

There’s no denying that the world of today resembles the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past. From smartphones to driverless cars, social media to online shopping, holographic recreations of dead musicians to robotic concierges, retinal scanners and facial-recognition systems to talking computers and drones, advanced technology is inextricably intertwined with our lives. In fact, so ubiquitous has it become, that it has left hitherto unseen mental disorders and psychological problems in its wake.

This leaves contemporary science fiction in a strange place. Why bother imagining new kinds of advanced technologies, and examining their potential repercussions? After all, it’s more likely than not that technology’s next step in its seemingly endless progression might make these imaginings seem passé. A problem like this, while provoking debate amongst the science fiction community, has also given birth to brand-new subgenres that attempt to reconcile these problems, as well as reinvigorating moribund subgenres of the past.

Old-fashioned science fiction of the space opera kind has experienced a revival, its escapist nature acting as a means of temporarily forgetting about these contemporary issues. Climate change fiction has returned to examine one of today’s most vexing problems, one that technology still seems a long time away from solving. Steampunk is growing in popularity and reaching wider audiences, transporting the reader to a bygone time where our relationship can be re-examined. And post-apocalyptic fiction is likewise growing in popularity, as well as becoming increasingly brutal and nihilistic, arguably as a reaction to the pessimistic atmosphere permeating the modern world.

One particular subgenre, however, seems perfectly positioned to address the questions posed by our technologically-driven world: psychological science fiction. An adaptable and fluid subgenre that can easily nestle within others—post-apocalyptic, climate change, cyberpunk and literary science fiction, for example—it typically deviates from the standard science fiction concern of examining the ways in which advanced technology impacts the world around us, and examining the follow-on effects of these impacts on our day-to-day lives. Instead, it is more concerned with the way that said technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up—our ‘inner space.’

A term apocryphally attributed to J G Ballard, psychological science fiction is nonetheless most closely associated with his work, which occupied two very different conceptual positions and yet shared a focus on the ways that technology-defined spaces can influence characters’ psyches, personalities and emotional states. On one hand, works such as The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), The Crystal World (1966), The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) and Hello America (1981) take place in undeniably science fictional settings, made possible by circumstances such as climate change, apocalyptic warfare or through a ‘leaking’ of time. On the other hand, works such as Concrete Island (1974), High Rise (1975), Crash (1973), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000) and Kingdom Come (2006) are nominally realist, taking place in worlds resembling the way ours was at each book’s time of writing—their science fiction elements emerge from Ballard’s focus on the ways that the increasingly-built spaces his characters inhabit owe their existence to the technologically-driven nature of twentieth and twenty-first century life.

These narrative and structural devices didn’t just occur because Ballard had a particular penchant for this kind of storytelling. Indeed, Ballard actually saw science fiction as more a philosophy for twentieth and twenty-first century life. His writings and quotes on this subject are legion, but for the purposes of this work just two will suffice. From an essay written in 1971, entitled Fictions Of Every Kind, he claims that ‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.’ And from the introduction to the French edition of Crash (1974), he claims that ‘No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.’

To put it more simply, Ballard saw science fiction as a way of describing our present and our position within it. As well, he saw it as a guide to help navigate and understand a world of exponential technological development and advancement, which changed not only the fabric of our environments and communities, but also the ways we conceive of our place within them, and the ways that we connect and communicate with each other and the wider world. However, while the term psychological science fiction undoubtedly applies to Ballard’s work and the philosophical framework behind it, Ballard himself was without question a singular writer. Steeped in psychological, psychoanalytic and psychiatric terminology, his writing style was instantly identifiable as being his alone, so much so that the term ‘Ballardian’ emerged in certain literary circles, and other writers who mimicked his style, focus and thrust were often justifiably called out for doing so. This doesn’t mean, though, that psychological science fiction begins and ends with his oeuvre. Instead, until the twenty-first century, the few other writers operating in this field used different stylistic techniques and chose different focuses for examining the ways that technology and its attendant impacts effect our psychological make-up.

But, with the world now resembling the science fiction futures imagined by writers of the past, more and more writers have begun to embrace these kinds of examinations, in new and interesting ways. As well, many of them have shied away from technologically-based scenarios as the starting points for their examinations, and instead turned to what might best be described as ‘impossible’ science fiction scenarios, such as the appearance of aliens, the almost-total disappearance of humankind and the multiverse/parallel worlds theory, perhaps as ways of accommodating the aforementioned belief that technology is advancing and evolving faster than we had ever thought possible, and so now more ‘impossible’ scenarios might not quite seem so ridiculous or unbelievable.

Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) is an extreme example of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’ In Vandermeer’s case, however, the advanced technology within is really a moot point—his focus is on what might happen to someone’s psyche in the face of a thoroughly inexplicable and unknowable force, rather on the technology behind this force.

For over thirty years, an uninhabited and abandoned section of the United States coastline has been sealed off by an intangible border, and is referred to as Area X. No one knows what’s really inside the border, or how it came to be—physics and biology seem strangely askew, but not in a quantifiable way. The Southern Reach is a secretive government agency charged with investigating Area X, but after innumerable expeditions, which all ended in madness, murder, terminal illness or suicide, they are no closer to understanding it.

While this scenario might seem like a hoary science fiction chestnut, Vandermeer’s focus isn’t on Area X’s detail, logic and reason for being, allowing him instead to use what could be considered a cliché as a framework for a deep dive into the ways that Area X makes his characters think and feel. Chiefly structured around two points of view—Ghost Bird, a biologist sent on the Southern Reach’s latest expedition; and Control, who has just replaced the head of the Southern Reach—Vandermeer shows us the psychological effect of Area X from both an outsider’s perspective, and an insider’s. The biologist, at first trapped within Area X, struggles to make sense of something so concretely real and yet impossible; when freed, she remains forever marked by it. Control, sifting through the previous director’s increasingly-bizarre notes while hunkered in the Southern Reach’s headquarters, struggles from a distance with the very concept of Area X, and the futility of even trying to comprehend it.

We follow them on the inner journey that Area X maps for them, and feel the emotions that they feel. In the end, as they realise that perhaps the best way to understand Area X is to stop trying and simply accept it, we realise a trick that Vandermeer has pulled—Area X can be read as a metaphor for the great technologically-driven changes happening around us, which seem both prosaic and extraordinary, visible and opaque, influential and unknowable, real and unreal.

Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club (2011) is another extreme example. In the far future, travel between the multiverse has become a reality, overseen by an agency based on our version of Earth. Within this agency is situated a department tasked with rescuing and rehabilitating survivors of post-apocalyptic calamities on ‘other’ Earths, calamities that have rendered them the sole survivors of their respective Earths.

While such a concept allows Hardy to gleefully play with all manner of Last Man on Earth and post-apocalyptic tropes—worlds overrun by zombies, devastated by plague or nuclear weapons, rendered uninhabitable by wars between humans and cyborgs, pillaged by aliens and left in ruins —his glee is only skin deep. While not bereft of action, his real focus is on the psychological make-up and ‘inner space’ of these survivors. Hesitant to accept their newfound reality, and deeply scarred by the events they have lived through, the bulk of the book concerns the characters’ interactions with their fellow survivors and their shared lives in a rehabilitation centre. Scenes focus on group therapy sessions, conflicts with fellow survivors, their frequent inability to connect with others or move on from their trauma, and their difficulties adjusting to their changed circumstances.

Upon reflection, we soon see that The Last Man on Earth Club is really an examination of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially as it pertains to those unable or unwilling to adjust to the radical changes happening to their worlds and lives. None of us can relate to surviving an attack by aliens or hordes of zombies, but we can all relate to the difficulties involved in moving on from a traumatic event that seems to shift our world’s axis, and from which there can often seem no return.

Vandermeer and Hardy aren’t the only contemporary writers of psychological science fiction—the concerns addressed by this subgenre are so thought-provoking and relevant to the world of today that many other writers have also engaged with them, often nesting their examinations within other subgenres. Thomas Glavinic infuses Night Work (2008) with a Ballardian chill, charting the slow but inevitable disintegration of a man’s psychology and personality after an inexplicable event has left him alone on Earth—a more accomplished tale of the perils of disconnection and isolation is yet to be found. In Machine Man (2009), Max Barry uses the trope of cyborgs to look at the technology-fostered internal dislocation experienced by some people, and offers us an engineer so disconnected from ‘reality’ and so blasé about technology and his relationship with it, that he effectively upgrades his entire body. Matt Haig’s The Humans (2013) reverses the perspective of a typical first-contact story, so that we see people through the eyes of an alien rather than the other way around, allowing a thoroughly moving look at our common humanity that also raises the prospect of hope in the face of the impossible. In Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), Steven Amsterdam presents a world wracked by environmental disasters caused by climate change, and yet rather than focus on the doom and gloom typical of post-apocalyptic fiction of this kind, he uses the scenario to look at how such a future might inspire our psyches rather than warp them, allowing us to pull together rather than tear apart. And in the world of visual science fiction, films such as Moon (2009), 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) and Anon (2018), and television shows such as Black Mirror (2011-2017) and Humans (2015-2018), use science fiction tropes as varied as clones, alien invasion and personal robots as springboards for their own examinations of the ways that advanced technology and its attendant impacts might affect our psychological make-up and our ‘inner space.’

No matter which medium you prefer, you can bet that someone is using it to create new types of psychological science fiction. After all, it is perhaps the most fitting subgenre of science fiction when it comes to understanding our modern world, allowing us to see anew the rapid rate of technological change surrounding us, as well as our own place within it and our relationship to it.

(Originally published in Aurealis #114, September 2018)

Metafictional Science Fiction: A Short History

Metafiction is a narrative technique that has been part of Western storytelling for hundreds of years: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615), Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1776), Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-1853), Herman Hess’ Steppenwolf (1927), Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park (2005), and the oeuvres of Kurt Vonnegut, Woody Allen, Phillip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs. In essence, works like these involve the author explicitly drawing our attention to the fact that what we’re reading or watching is fictional, or has been informed by the fictions that have come before it, be it by breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader, mise en abyme (the appearance of a book within the book we’re reading), or the insertion of the author into their text, among many others. Because it is a technique that relies on our understanding of the mechanics of literature, our appreciation of metafictional works is deepened by our knowledge of the art of storytelling and any specific characters, stories and/or genres employed to underpin an author’s metafictional elements.

Metafictional devices roughly fall into one of two categories: they exist at either a narrative-level (within the text) or at an audience-level (outside the text), although some writers combine the two. As an example, take the difference between the comic series Fables and Planetary. Fables concerns the citizens of Fabletown, a secret neighbourhood in New York City—refugees from different worlds who escaped conquest by a villainous army and made a home on our world, and upon arrival discovered that they are also characters in our own fairy tales. The Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Little Boy Blue, the Three Little Pigs and their ilk are both ‘real’ within Fables narrative and characters in fictional stories, an example of metafiction working at the narrative-level. Planetary, however, is very different. Concerning a group of ‘Archaeologists of the Impossible,’ it follows their attempts at uncovering the secret history of the world, which consists of a multitude of pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction staples. Godzilla-style monsters, mad scientists, enormous insects created by radiation, anime-style digital ghosts, superheroes and their literary predecessors, and parallel dimensions are ‘real’ in Planetary’s narrative. But at the audience-level, they are a metafictional device commenting on pop-culture, science fiction and genre fiction’s influence on our own culture and society.

Metafiction has been used in genres as disparate as romance, crime, literary fiction, horror, westerns and comedy. But when it comes to science fiction, metafictional devices have been adopted wholeheartedly by some authors. This hasn’t always been the case, though. Prior to the so-called New Wave/Second Generation of science fiction, almost no works of metafictional science fiction existed. While the reasons for this are many and varied, until the late 1950s/early 1960s, science fiction was still ‘finding its feet.’ Let’s not forget that it wasn’t really codified as a genre until the early 1920s, its ‘pioneers’ creating a brand-new method of storytelling derived from a set of liminal devices shared by writers of what we now call classics—Franz Kafka, James Joyce, T S Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allen Poe. But these pioneers didn’t just create the genre, they also expanded it over time, slowly pushing its boundaries and widening its range of themes, styles and concerns. As more and more writers began dabbling in the genre and using it in their own ways, and as the genre grew in popularity, a dynamic process took effect in which science fiction began a constant evolution. However, while these pioneers were dazzling and groundbreaking, it took the generation of writers who came after them to break the genre wide-open. Many of these writers grew up reading the pioneers, and were inspired by them, but they took what the pioneers had created and dragged it into the positive maelstrom of cultural change that defined this point in history. They moved science fiction away from its pulp roots and suffused it with a hitherto unseen degree of literariness, experimenting with form, style, perspective, chronology, structure and grammar.

These were the so-called New Wave/Second Generation writers, emerging in the late 1950s/early 1960s before dominating the field in the late 1960s/early 1970s. One of the consequences of their emergence was the birth of metafictional science fiction, which can be dated as far back as the release of Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle in 1962, but didn’t really achieve momentum until the late 1960s. In the space of a decade, dozens of works of metafictional science fiction were released, many of which are now considered modern classics: Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection (1967), Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), Stanislaw Lem’s A Perfect Vacuum (1971), Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy (1975) and Kingsley Amis’ The Alteration (1977). This flood of work slowed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the subgenres of cyberpunk and hard science fiction began to dominate the field, but it didn’t stop: Philip K. Dick’s Valis and Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation were both released in 1981, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake in 1997, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen in 2001, and Nina Allan’s The Race in 2016.

What these works have in common is that they all work at a narrative-level—that is, the metafictional devices used exist within the text. For example, Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history story in which the allies lost World War II and the United States are now ruled by the Germans and the Japanese, with these rulers hunting down an author who has written a book entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which details how the allies actually won the war. This manhunt is instigated as the German and Japanese rulers believe that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy will eventually lead to their downfall, due to its power as a piece of propaganda. In the end, it turns out that the author of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy used the I Ching to direct his writing, leaving us with the inference that a kind-of ‘universal power’ guided his hand in order to reveal the real truth: that Japan and Germany actually lost World War II, and that the characters of The Man in the High Castle actually exist inside a fiction.

Shea and Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy works in a similar way. A sprawling epic that is simultaneously satirical and postmodern, it is a kind-of science fiction-influenced adventure story revolving around a number of different pop-culture conspiracy theories. Deliberately over-the-top, especially in its final act, it contains many metafictional devices: moments in which the narrative stops dead and Shea and Wilson review and deconstruct the work itself; the inclusion of a wide variety of staples and characters from works of science fiction and genre-fiction that preceded it; and numerous instances in which different characters, baffled by the outrageous nature of their adventures, question whether they are actually characters in a book. Most of the other works listed above work in similar ways. In Priest’s The Affirmation, a writer creates a complex work of fantasy fiction that eventually blends his identity with that of his main character; Delany’s The Einstein Intersection combines an original work of fiction with excerpts from Delany’s own travel diary, with the line between the two slowly becoming indistinguishable; and Spinrad’s The Iron Dream, another alternate history, concerns a post-apocalypse novel entitled Lord of the Swastika, which was written by an alternate version of Adolf Hitler who emigrated to the United States after the Great War and became a successful science fiction writer, with the entire book followed by a fictional critique that explains its framework and metafictional trappings.

However, in the late 1990s, the direction of metafictional science fiction began to change. Rather than existing solely at a narrative-level, writers began to branch out and incorporate metafictional devices that worked at an audience-level (that is, said devices exist outside the text). In works like The Man in the High Castle and The Iron Dream, the reader doesn’t need to be a war historian in order to understand what is going on. The same concept applies to works like The Illuminatus Trilogy and The Einstein Intersection—our enjoyment and understanding of these works isn’t predicated on our knowledge of conspiracy theories or Delany’s life. The same can’t be said for much of the metafictional science fiction that emerged in the late 1990s, as the success of these works is dependant on the reader’s knowledge of science fiction’s history and tropes. Without this knowledge these works can leave the reader confused or exasperated.

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is an extreme example of this change of direction. Set aboard the spaceship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, it begins with a prologue that, to those in the know, lays the book’s metafictional cards on the table: a group of senior officers bemoan the strangely high casualty rate of low-ranking crew members who accompany senior officers on away missions. A newly-recruited ensign soon realises that something is amiss aboard the Intrepid: ensigns suffer the aforementioned high casualty rates, otherwise competent officers occasionally act incompetently, the basic laws of physics sometimes go awry, and the Intrepid boasts technology that sometimes produces last-minute inventions and medicines which are impossible to produce on demand. It soon transpires that the Intrepid’s reality and timeline are actually being periodically controlled and influenced by a trash science fiction television show from the past that has somehow been beamed into the future, and the show’s writers create thrills and hackneyed plot devices as a way of increasing its dramatic tension. All of this is, as any science fiction fan can see, a criticism of the original Star Trek series, which is notorious for featuring such cliched situations. However, this set-up, and the wild metafictional ride that follows, only really makes sense to those who know the ‘rules’ and modus operandi of Star Trek. Without such knowledge, Redshirts is a somewhat confusing book that follows unexplained rules, rather than a satirical critique of the type of lazy writing that abounds in science fiction.

Other works also revel in this type of audience-level metafictional science fiction. The film Galaxy Quest (1999) details a group of has-been actors that once starred in a Star Trek-esque show, who are abducted by aliens who believe they are actually real crew members of an intergalactic spaceship; in Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (2010), a time machine mechanic encounters numerous famous characters from the annals of science fiction as he tries to extract himself from a typical science fiction time loop; the stories in Julia Elliott’s collection The Wilds (2014) splice together science fiction, fantasy, and horror tropes to create works that baffles those with little or no knowledge of the rules underpinning these genres; while Gene Doucette’s Unfiction (2017) concerns a budding writer whose genre characters and scenarios enter his real life, with amusing and sometimes disastrous consequences.

So, why has metafictional science fiction changed so much? In essence, the science fiction community has moved from the fringe to the centre—‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ are no longer insults, but badges of honour; science fiction dominates our screens and bookshelves; and our postmodern age means that audiences raised on New Wave/Second Generation science fiction are no longer only seeking something as simple as a straightforward story, but also craving works that speak to their knowledge and love of the genre. And science fiction is all the better for it. In general, metafictional works tend to either be a riotous romp or an indulgent mess, but most creators of metafictional science fiction achieve the former rather than the latter, opening our eyes to the ways that science fiction has influenced the world around us.

(Originally published in Aurealis #108, March 2018)

Surrealism and Science Fiction

At face value, surrealism and science fiction seem to occupy vastly different positions on an artistic spectrum, and to share little in common. Surrealism typically resists rational interpretations, its works inspired more by dreamscapes and the irrational than by the cold light of real life. Science fiction, on the other hand, has always been rooted in logical extrapolations of the here-and-now, its futuristic worlds undeniably informed by the present-day world. However, if we look beyond these surface impressions and beyond each art form’s immediate associations—if we look beyond the spaceships and aliens of science fiction, and the apple-headed men and melting clocks of surrealism—we begin to see something extraordinary: a similar philosophy of intent and purpose.

André Breton, one of the founders of surrealism, stated in his Manifestoes of Surrealism: ‘I believe in the future resolution of dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.’ While Breton’s hyperbolic phrasing somewhat obscures his meaning, it is still a relatively easy thing to parse. In effect, he is stating that surrealist artists, no matter whether they’re working in visual art, literature or film, produce incongruous and fantastical imagery by way of irrational or unnatural combinations and juxtapositions, in an attempt to show us a different kind of ‘reality’ than that which we are accustomed to. This is his ‘surreality,’ a place where the logical and illogical exist simultaneously.

This gives context to comments by noted science-fiction critic Frederick Jameson: ‘Science fiction is a genre that restructures and defamiliarises our experience of the present.’ Effectively, Jameson is saying that one of science fiction’s chief concerns is using our present-day world as the basis for logical prognostications and extrapolations typically rooted in scientific and societal developments. This is the ‘restructuring’ part, where our world is shown to us anew by being structured in a different way. The ‘defamiliarisation’ aspect works in other ways: despite their roots in logic, science fiction’s prognostications and extrapolations also often contain any number of illogical elements. The absurd, the nightmarish, the horrifying and the unbelievable have all taken centre stage as chief components in the annals of science fiction, sharing it with the genre’s more realistic components and conceits. These illogical elements serve to take what we know and render it anew, by stripping it of its ordinariness or everydayness and inserting it into a new context. They operate in many different ways: as stand-ins for aspects of our present world (aliens are often stand-ins for ‘the other,’ intergalactic colonists are often stand-ins for imperial colonists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and so on), or as a commentary on aspects of our real world (science fiction’s grotesque mega-corporations, invasive portable technology, etc.), or as a warning of our collective folly in resisting changes to our ways (grotesque depictions of societal collapse, overpopulation and climate change, to name but a few).

We begin to see similarities and connections between the two ‘states’ that Breton believes surrealism is attempting to resolve (dream and reality), and the two states that Jameson believes science fiction is attempting to resolve (the familiar and the unfamiliar/actual reality and restructured reality). In both cases, because these sets of states exist in contrast to each other, any attempt to artistically resolve them will ipso facto result in the creation of works that usually both intellectually challenge their intended audience, and alter the audience’s standard way of thinking about and interpreting such works. To put it simply: by attempting to artistically resolve contrasting states such as dreams and reality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and actual reality and restructured reality, science fiction writers and surrealist artists create brand new worlds that challenge our expectations and established critical approaches. Even in the most dumbed-down work of science fiction, this way of thinking applies. Take the Transformers movies as an example (which, to be frank, aren’t the most intelligent works of science fiction out there). If we cast our blinkers aside and ignore the films’ predilection for cheap thrills and style over substance, we have to admit that the juxtaposition of our ordinary, present-day reality with talking humanoid robots from outer space that can transform into all manner of vehicles, is undeniably an attempt at resolving the familiar and the unfamiliar and actual reality and restructured reality. Likewise, even the most amateurish work of surrealism is dependant on similar juxtaposition, no matter its quality.

However, at a deeper level, the similarities and connections between the juxtaposed states underlining surrealism and science fiction are much stronger and meaningful. To see this, we must stretch out imagination far enough that we can consider Breton’s juxtaposed states of dreams and reality, and Jameson’s juxtaposed states of the familiar and the unfamiliar and actual reality and restructured reality, as being nigh on interchangeable. And is this such a stretch? After all, in this context both dreams and the concepts of the unfamiliar and restructured reality share common ground: they are concepts and ideas that don’t really exist. Born of the imagination and utterly removed from the nuts-and-bolts of real life, their meanings and interpretations spring from the psychological, the emotional and the unconscious, rather than any form of cause-and-effect or logic. But, when juxtaposed with their contrasting concepts and ideas—reality (as opposed to dream), the familiar and actual reality—a whole new work eventuates, one that asks us to balance these varying contrasts in order to determine its deeper meaning.

While the similarities and connections between the juxtaposed states underlining surrealism and science fiction seem straightforward enough, a vast gulf between both forms arises because of the way that their creators express them. Surrealism, being primarily a visual art form, resists most attempts at narrative interpretation. As they are normally composed of single images, surrealist works have no need for narrative, and even forms that tend to be associated with narratives (literature, film, theatre) typically resist this association, the underlying logic defining narratives becoming dreamlike and cause-and-effect progressions giving way to the unpredictable, the nonsensical and the random. They become anti-narrative if you will.

And herein lies the problem: science fiction is a narrative form, no matter whether its medium is literature, film, television, cartoon or comic. Science fiction writers and creators tell stories, rather than present images. Even in film or any other visual medium, the narrative is the glue that holds their ideas together and gives them their ultimate meaning. This isn’t to say that, despite the similarities and connections between the philosophies underling both surrealism and science fiction, science fiction can’t achieve expressions of surrealism. Far from it—the genre can be as surreal as any of Dali or Jodorowsky’s work. The real difference is that science fiction’s surreal aspects are expressed in a different way, whereby they form part of a whole rather than being a whole unto itself, with the smartest and most ingenious writers actually integrating them into their narratives rather than have them act as mere set pieces or flourishes.

Take 1968’s Planet of the Apes as an example. Its science fiction scenario is both straightforward and wickedly clever: a crew of astronauts crash-land on an alien planet populated by talking primates and oppressed and enslaved humans. Such a scenario allows all manner of science fiction tropes to play out, from a reversal of the typical ‘first contact’ theme to explorations of how evolution might play out on planets other than Earth. However, it also allows its writers and director to successfully combine and balance a standard narrative with surrealist imagery. The talking primates, the mute humans kept caged in a zoo, the primates’ society and culture, all make sense on a contextual narrative level, while also allowing the surrealist imagery and philosophy to shine through. This is a perfect example of Breton’s definition of ‘surreality.’ Talking primates and zoo-exhibited humans are expressions of this juxtaposition between dream and reality—primates, zoos and humans are ordinary aspects of our reality, but the subversive inversion of their statuses and functions perfectly encapsulate the illogical nature of dreams.

However, it is in the film’s climax that this fusion of narrative and surrealism is best exemplified (spoiler warning, for those who haven’t seen it yet). Taylor, leader of the crash-landed astronauts, having finally escaped from the primates, sets off for the ‘Forbidden Zone’—an area taboo to the primates, for fear that it might disprove their historical and cultural narrative. On arrival, Taylor discovers on an isolated shoreline the ruins of the Statue Liberty. While this revelation turns Planet of the Apes’ scenario on its head—the planet isn’t an alien world, but instead a future Earth decimated by nuclear war—it also provides perhaps its most surreal image: Lady Liberty’s upper body protruding from the sand, her torch held aloft as if in futile defiance of the damage wrought upon the world. It is an incredible piece of surrealist imagery that blends reality and dream almost perfectly, while also serving a narrative purpose that elevates the film from standard science fiction fare to something approaching the sublime.

While visual science fiction is the medium that most successfully integrates surrealist imagery and philosophy into its narratives—think of the monolith at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a jet-black and obviously constructed object juxtaposed with the wild nature of pre-human Earth; or the ‘Oxygen Room’ introduced in the Doctor Who episode The Time of Angels (2010), a vast forest housed within the technological confines of a spaceship; or the ‘recharge mode’ featured in the television series Humans (2015), in which lifelike humanoid robots recharge themselves via a white lead which bears a presumably deliberate resemblance to the ubiquitous white-design of Apple products—written science fiction also employs this same technique, albeit in a way that relies on our imagination rather than the flights of fancy of set designers and directors. In fact, writers such as J. G. Ballard, Jeff Noon and Philip K. Dick employ it as one of the primary techniques in their writing arsenal, with the end results featuring combinations of dream and reality and the familiar and the unfamiliar/actual reality and restructured reality which are frequently beyond comparison.

In Ballard’s The Crystal World, an unexplained evolutionary event is crystallising all manner of African flora and fauna, keeping them in a suspended state of existence that makes them resemble bizarre pieces of alien art; Noon’s Vurt features dreadlocked robots, sentient bipedal dogs, and brightly-coloured, chemically saturated feathers that act as portals to an altered state of consciousness and also transform dreams, mythology and the imaginings of humanity into objective reality, with the end result being a work that is both surreal and psychedelic; while Dick’s oeuvre is crammed with surrealist imagery and often dependant on surrealist philosophy, to such a degree that many of his works have a dream-like logic that often resists logical or rational interpretation. Even a writer like Robert Charles Wilson, who is best known for exploring the emotional, psychological and societal/cultural ramifications of ‘hard’ science fiction concepts, isn’t averse to integrating surrealist imagery and philosophy into his narratives (and his isn’t the only ‘regular’ science fiction to do so). In Spin, perhaps his most acclaimed work, aliens encase Earth in a ‘membrane’ that slows time and protects humanity from the heat-death of the universe, and as a consequence the night-time sky is a black void devoid of stars and the moon which, when seen from space, resemble a jet-black disc surrounded by the myriad lights of the cosmos—a surreal image if ever there was one.

And so, while surrealism and science fiction might seem to occupy vastly different positions on an artistic spectrum and to share little in common, this isn’t actually the case. By integrating surrealist imagery and philosophy into their narratives, science fiction writers and creators can actually elevate their work above the everyday, resulting in books and films that become extraordinary works of art.

(Originally published in Aurealis #110, May 2018)

The Best Speculative Ozploitation Gems

Until the 1970s, Australian film was a moribund art form (bar the odd exception). However, with the election of the Whitlam-led Labor government in 1972 came all manner of beneficial social changes, not the least of which was the establishment of the Australian Film and Television School, the Australia Council for the Arts, and the Australian Film Commission. Coincidentally, these initiatives coincided with a publicly-accepted relaxation of prudish censorship laws and the introduction of the new R rating, resulting in a reinvigorated film industry that enjoyed both public and governmental support, which was the beginning of what many now call the Australian New Wave movement. Alongside this movement, whose practitioners embraced both a social-realist and art-film ethos, was another movement emerging from the margins: Ozploitation.

A slang portmanteau of the words “Australia” and “exploitation,” Ozploitation is essentially a catch-all term for Australian exploitation films that emerged in this period, which were greatly influenced by American B-films of the 1950s, the “New Hollywood” films of the 1960s ushered in by young filmmakers keen to challenge the status quo, and the emerging punk/DIY ethic that was slowly becoming a dominant mode of cultural expression throughout the 1970s. Typically categorised by low budgets and a “raw” aesthetic, Ozploitation covered everything from science fiction to horror, action to “ocker” comedies and frisky sex romps to creature features, and focused on Australian issues of the time rather than recreations or examinations of our past. As renowned film academic Sam Rodhie stated: “Ozploitation films set about projecting not a nostalgic rural Australian beauty, but the vulgarity, philistinism and energy of contemporary Australia. These were not the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume.”

With that in mind, let’s turn to what I consider the best speculative Ozploitation gems.

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

The first feature from acclaimed Australian director Peter Weir – Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Gallipoli (1981), Witness (1985), Dead Poets Society (1989), The Truman Show (1998) and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the Sea (2003) – The Cars That Ate Paris has been called many things: Blackly comic, disturbing, satirical, macabre, slow and deliberate, bizarre, surreal, and bleak. Considered a low-budget oddity on its release, in the years since it has achieved cult status and is now considered a herald of the changing nature of Australian film, from the “distanced and distancing vignettes of the past, or a parade of Australians buttoned up in costume” to a dark reflection of contemporary Australian attitudes, values and prejudices.

Set in the fictional town of Paris (an isolated outback community only accessible by way of winding mountain roads and narrow tracks), it concerns the key economic driver perpetuated by the townsfolk: Forcing tourists and lost travelers to crash their cars on the winding roads and passes, salvaging valuables from the wrecks, and using them as currency or barter. It’s a town where the normal rules of Western society don’t apply, facilitated by its remoteness and isolated nature.

So far so typically Australian, you might say – the trope of remote towns operating by their own rules is fairly standard in both our stories and history. However, what sets The Cars That Ate Paris apart is that Paris’ citizens, from ordinary working folk right up to the mayor, aren’t written as monsters or villains, but instead as ordinary people just trying to keep their town alive. Almost to a one, they are framed as friendly, nonthreatening and decent, despite the fact that they are basically psychopaths whose existence depends on death and destruction. And this is the film’s beauty. Despite Weir’s grotesque imagery, stately composition and off-the-wall conceit, at its core the film is really a social parable about the divide between rural and urban communities, the economic stagnation of the former and the dissociative effects of consumerism on them, and the repressive and outwardly bizarre nature of close-knit societies.

The Last Wave (1977)

The second film from Peter Weir on this list, The Last Wave examines the cultural divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the face of an impending apocalypse, and the consequences of a non-Indigenous Australian denial of an Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of people, animals, spirits and the land being intertwined.

It is, in many ways, a lurid and hallucinatory fever dream, a morally complex police procedural, and a clear-eyed look at race politics in modern Australian society, filled with incredible compositions, surreal imagery and a dark and murky “look.” Telling the story of David Burton, a non-Indigenous Australian lawyer defending five Indigenous Australians against charges of ritualised murder, it focuses on just how out of his depth he is when confronted with an Indigenous Australian belief system that prophecises a coming apocalypse, challenges his worldview and sense of cultural identity, and is both steeped in the supernatural and undeniably real (within the context of the film).

A startling and criminally underrated film that is unsettling and ambiguous, it is ripe for rediscovery by a new generation and paved the way for other films that sympathetically attempted to bridge the divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of perceiving and understanding the world.

Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985)

Unarguably the most well known and influential example of Ozploitation, George Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy is a classic of post-apocalyptic cinema, and remains one of the most financially and critically successful Australian film franchises in history. A true master of visual storytelling, Miller combined kinetic camerawork, a “raw” mise-en-scene and rhythmic editing with eye-popping stunts, car crashes and car chases, to create a post-apocalyptic world that is vivid, brutal and undeniably “Australian.” Each film is its own kind of masterpiece, as the combination of Miller’s cinematic techniques, narrative economy and simple (but never simplistic) through-lines allow the world of Mad Max to open up around us, rather than simply get served up to us.

The original Mad Max showed us a world teetering on the edge of collapse, in which the roads are ruled by roving gangs and the few police still remaining are almost as crazy as the criminals they chase. The Road Warrior explored this world after the collapse, with society reduced to a kind-of punk savagery in which crazies and survivors are left to scavenge in the wasteland left behind. Beyond Thunderdome opened this wasteland world up even further, delivering a new kind of community built from the ruins of the old, a lawless and wild place without even a veneer of civilisation.

The world of Mad Max is one in which the car is king, gasoline the most valuable commodity and civilisation a forgotten dream. It is as punk as Johnny Rotten sniffing glue with Johnny Ramone; as brash and inventive as that of a suburban backyard full of DIY geniuses; and as tongue-in-cheek “Australian” as Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin wrestling over a crocodile. In its own words, it is a world “where the gangs took over the highways, ready to wage war for a tank of juice, and in this maelstrom of decay ordinary men were battered and smashed.”

Road Games (1981)

Eschewing the frantic visual style common to so many exploitation and Ozploitation films, director Richard Franklin combined moody compositions that emphasised scale and vastness, stately and slow camerawork, remote and unpopulated settings, and tension and suspense to infuse Road Games with an almost Hitchcockian vibe. As well, he employed a narrative device that was common to what might be called realist Ozploitation, but had yet to be used in the more speculative variety: Centering the story on a foreigner in the Australian outback, and thereby allowing the peculiarities, idiosyncrasies and Australian-isms of the characters within to be seen with fresh eyes. First used in Ozploitation in Wake in Fright (1971) and Walkabout (1971), this device allows us to enter the story right alongside the main character, and is a version of the “stranger in a strange land” trope, a storytelling device as old as history itself.

Centered on American expatriate truck driver Pat Quid, it begins in a realistic way: Hauling refrigerated meat across the emptiness of the outback, Pat entertains himself with thought-games concerning the lives and activities of other drivers sharing the road. One day, a suspicious green van catches his eye, which he later comes to believe is involved in a series of unsolved murders up and down the highways and byways. Soon after picking up hitchhiking American tourist Pam, the local police begin to suspect Pat of the murders; with Pam’s encouragement, he becomes embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game with the driver of the green van in an effort to clear his name. What follows is buttock-clenching tension juxtaposed with the foreboding and desolate expanse of the Australian outback, as the conflict between Pat and Pam and the driver of the green van escalates in a land where help is nowhere nearby and thus Pat and Pam have no choice but to rely solely on their wits.

A masterclass of understated film-making, Road Games is the perfect example of how space can define subject, and how the Australian landscape can be a character all of its own.

Razorback (1984)

Razorback is a perfect blend of dark “Ocker” humour, hyper-stylised visuals and small town creature-feature – think Wake in Fright (1971) meets Jaws (1975) via Alvin Purple (19726) and The Evil Dead (1981), and you’re on the right track.

The first feature from music video director Russell Mulcahy, it features an aesthetic philosophy common to exploitation films throughout history and borne of their typically low budgets: Go for broke. Underpinned by a tongue-in-cheek screenplay that played up its exploitation influences and ambitions, and full of kinetic camerawork, POV shots, frantic editing, bustling backgrounds, a “lived in” atmosphere, colour saturation, extreme close-ups and a cacophonous sound design, it is a truly jarring and unique movie.

Just like Walkabout (1971), Wake in Fright (1971) and Road Games (1981), Razorback is centered on a foreigner in the Australian outback. This time, it’s Carl Winters, a grief-stricken American who has traveled to the unnamed town in which Razorback is set, seeking answers to the death of his wife, a TV journalist who was investigating the town’s pet-food cannery. Upon arrival, he hears stories about an enormous razorback boar that preys on the townsfolk and was responsible for his wife’s death, setting in motion of chain of events that pits him against both the enormous razorback and the town’s set of Australian caricatures. And what caricatures they are! Broad and bordering on camp, they’re nonetheless invested with backslapping malice, a love of violence and beer and fear, and a dark sense of humour that carries an underlying threat, illuminating what nowadays is called toxic masculinity but back then was merely the dark underbelly of the stereotypical Aussie bloke. In combination with Mulcahy’s bravura visual style, they transform Razorback from what might have been just another b-grade Ozploitation film into something truly special: A film that both entertains us and asks big questions regarding identity, morality and parochialism.

The Quiet Earth (1985)

A cheeky addition from across the ditch, The Quiet Earth not only shares many of the qualities of Ozploitation cinema – a low budget, location shooting, a high-concept brought down to earth by relatable characters and visceral camerawork – but also helped reinvigorate the New Zealand film industry in the same way, moving it away from “the distanced and distancing vignettes of the past” towards something more urban and contemporary. And besides, it’s worthy of inclusion here because we Australians have never hesitated to claim a Kiwi property as our own – think Pavlova, Russell Crowe, Split Enz, Crowded House, Anzac Biscuits and Phar Lap.

A variant on the classic “Last Man on Earth” story, The Quiet Earth concerns a depressed scientist by the name of Zac, who awakens one day to find that the research project he works on has malfunctioned and seemingly left him alone in the world. At first, Zac tries to figure out what has happened; soon realising the futility of this quest, he instead proclaims himself a kind of god-king of his depopulated world, treating the empty city of Auckland as his own personal playground while simultaneously experiencing a type of psychological breakdown. He wanders the streets in the rain, playing saxophone rather badly. He moves into the most palatial mansion he can find, erects cardboard cut-outs of famous historical figures (including Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Mahatma Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Queen Elizabeth II, and Pope John Paul II), and preaches to them at length. He plays pool with himself, assuming two different personas in an acting masterclass that lasts bare minutes. And then, overcome with loneliness and becoming aware of the psychological damage this is inflicting, he becomes suicidal.

This is where things get weird. He meets another survivor, a woman by the name of Joanne, and they soon develop a friendship that quickly becomes something more romantic. Another survivor appears, a pragmatic and practical Maori by the name of Api. Now, this kind of love triangle is a staple of “Last Man on Earth” stories, typically employed to initiate conflict. And at first, The Quiet Earth is no different. However, as the causes behind humanity’s disappearance begin to be understood, and as Zac slowly realises that Joanne and Api are a much better match than he and Joanne, the film thematically changes in a radical way, focusing on self-realization, hope, sacrifice, ambiguity, and the metaphysical. And then there’s that ending! To say more would spoil what is a film full of surprises – it is simply a “must watch” piece of Antipodean science fiction.

Howling III: The Marsupials (1987)

The Howling (1981) was a masterpiece of 1980’s horror, featuring a blackly-comic script, confident performances, standout special effects and slick direction from horror maestro Joe Dante. But like many of its kin – Friday the 13th (1980), Poltergeist (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Child’s Play (1988), and so on – its numerous sequels strongly adhered to the rule of diminishing returns. But there was an exception: Philippe Mora’s Howling III: The Marsupials. A stand-alone sequel (if you’ll pardon the contradiction), it abandoned any direct connections to the original and instead served up an original story that can really only be described as “bat-shit crazy.”

A brief summary barely does justice to its madness, but is worth a shot anyway. Anthropology professor Harry Beckmeyer stumbles upon archival footage showing Indigenous Australians ceremonially sacrificing a humanoid wolf-like creature, and shortly after he encounters Jerboa, an Indigenous Australian marsupial werewolf evolved from the extinct marsupial wolf (the Tasmanian Tiger). Shortly after this encounter, Jerboa is cast as the lead in a horror film shooting in Sydney and then falls pregnant to her human boyfriend, Donny. And that’s just the first fifteen or twenty minutes – what follows is a riotous hot-mess involving Russian ballerina-werewolves, werewolf nuns, werewolf hunters employed by the Australian Army, a visit to Hollywood, a time-lapse set in the Australian outback, spirits and living skeletons, and heavy-handed social commentary.

Featuring a who’s-who of Australian acting royalty of the time – Barry Otto, Frank Thring, Max Fairchild, Imogen Annesley and Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage) – Howling III: The Marsupials is often considered “so bad it’s good,” a critique applied to many Ozploitation films. However, it is more than just a trash-tastic piece of cinema best enjoyed when under the influence, because Philippe Mora’s all-or-nothing approach results in a film so tongue-in-cheek and gleefully self-aware that too take it seriously is to miss the point – it’s deliberately schlocky, sending up the pomposity and pretensions of so many of the werewolf films that preceded it.

***

Following the success of Crocodile Dundee (1986), the Ozploitation wave slowly receded. No longer seen as outliers or curios, Australian films began to achieve international mainstream acceptance, with the far-out themes and styles of Ozploitation making way for more standard fare such as action, dramas and comedies, which are historically the most common and popular film genres. But this didn’t remain the case, as in the early 2000s a new wave of Australian film emerged, sharing the limelight with the aforementioned action, dramas and comedies. Directors who had grown up loving Ozploitation films – the Spierig brothers, Greg McLean, David Michod and Zak Hilditch, to name but a few – showed that we can still produce quality genre and speculative films that are distinctly Australian, as seen in works such as Undead (2003), Wolf Creek (2005), Rogue (2007), These Final Hours (2013) and The Rover (2014). In fact, so popular was this resurgence, and so well received was it by both Australian and international audiences, that George Miller of Mad Max fame returned to the world he had created way back in 1979, and in 2015 gave us Mad Max: Fury Road, a sequel that is arguably the best film in the series.

(Originally published on Speculative Fiction Australia, 18/11/2018)

Near-Future Satire and Our Contemporary Relationship with Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Originally published in Aurealis #104, September 2017)

Interview with On Writing

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

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

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

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

OW: Do you model characters after real people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OW: What would be your advice for aspiring authors?

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

Find these things, and you’ll get there.

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

Interview with Alanah Andrews: Speculative Fiction Writer

AASFW: What do you write?

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

AASFW: Why do you love speculative fiction?

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

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

AASFW: Tell us about your latest release.

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

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

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

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

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

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

AASFW: What inspired the latest book you are writing?

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

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

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

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

AASFW: What book are you reading at the moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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