10 Works of Science Fiction That Will Bring You to Tears or Heal Your Heart

Science fiction has been called many things, but I doubt that “highly emotional” is a label regularly applied. Even now – surrounded as we are by gadgets and gizmos so high-tech as to be almost unfathomable, living with and dependent on technology unarguably resembles a not-so-bygone vision of the far future, in which what was scientifically unthinkable yesterday need not necessarily be that way today, whereby science fiction’s terminology and motifs have become a kind-of shorthand for explaining and understanding the world we live in – the genre still too-often falls prey to accusations of shallowness, style-over-substance and spectacle-over-intimacy. It might often get a big tick for the inventiveness of its ideas, and another for its literariness and another for its socio-cultural influence, but it is sometimes still too easy to describe it as “emotionally dishonest.”

However, what’s true for some isn’t necessarily true for all. As an inquisitive and thoughtful reader, who doesn’t mind occasionally having a cry or having my sense of wonder reignited, I’ve been fascinated by science fiction’s potential to genuinely engage our emotions and move us deeply. After all, it just makes sense – one of the genre’s concerns is reframing the world we live in by asking a “what if?” question, opening our eyes to what is by showing us what it might be. And “what if?” is an emotional human question as old as time, followed closely by “what might have been?” If the big ideas and fantastical situations integral to science fiction are guided towards their emotional impact rather than their technological or physical, the results can sometimes bring us to tears or heal our hearts. They can show us our feelings anew by scrubbing away their regular contexts and then holding them up to the light; they can makes us remember that love persists, no matter what; they can remind us that simple human charity and kindness can exist even in the darkest times.

What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam

 What the Family Needed isn’t exactly science fiction per se (and so we’ll get it out of the way first), but it is undeniably based on ideas and concepts born of science fiction: superheroes. But it isn’t any old superhero story – Amsterdam makes a counterintuitive move and does away with the concepts of both a super-villain and the capital-H hero, concepts central to the sub-genre. Instead, the characters in What the Family Needed are simply normal people that just happen to possess superpowers. This conceit is almost unique and absolutely incredible, and will have you crying like the proverbial babe.

A family drama and story-cycle at heart, it follows, over the course of thirty-odd years, the lives of sisters Ruth and Natalie, their parents and their own children. Each chapter focuses on a different family member at a different point in time, detailing their struggles to cope with the stresses of their life and the interwoven nature of the extended family. During these struggles, each member inexplicably develops a typical superhero-style superpower – invisibility, flight, super-strength, psychic powers, time travel, etc. But unlike typical superheroes, no one in the family uses their powers to fight crime or protect the innocent. Instead, their powers act as metaphors for their internal and external lives. For example: Giordana, a typically awkward teenager torn between her warring parents, often wishes that she could disappear, and subsequently develops the power of invisibility; beleaguered mother Natalie, exhausted from the stresses of her life, develops super-strength; Ben, feeling trapped by domestic life and fatherhood, develops the power of flight; and so on.

While these power might seem to help each member better deal with their struggles – invisibility lets Giordana disappear, super-strength allows Natalie to carry her burden, flight gives Ben the ability to fly away – they ultimately prove inconsequential to the resolution of the family members’ struggles. The result of this is astounding, because it is so easily relatable – our own “powers,” be they intelligence or athleticism or practicality or beauty – matter not one whit when it comes to dealing with our own similar struggles. They can us at the most inopportune moments or prove more a hindrance than a help. Love is what really matters when it comes to families, alongside kindness, compassion, patience, affection, perseverance, understanding and acceptance. These are the things that all families need, the real superpowers that can help us on our own way. Who can’t relate to that?

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

If you were to draw from a line from Nietzsche’s philosophy of “eternal return” to Rust Cohle’s utterance in True Detective that “time is a flat circle – everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again,” you would find Slaughterhouse-Five smack-bang in the middle. Vonnegut’s most influential and acclaimed work, it sets out the themes and concerns that would dominate the entirety of his oeuvre: the futility of war, the relationship between love and hate, the uncaring unfairness of life, free will versus fate, that old maxim “no regrets,” and apathy/passivity in the face of events beyond our control.

Billy Pilgrim has become “unstuck in time.” A veteran of World War 2, rescued prisoner-of-war and survivor of the firebombing of Dresden, who will go on to be adducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and put on display in their zoo, he periodically and involuntarily becomes detached from the present and drifts through the chronology of his life. He witnesses his past, present and future – from the horror of interment in Dresden shortly before the bombing (events that Vonnegut also experienced), to the banality and absurdity of his post-war life, to his eventual abduction – and comes to understand that instead of existing as multiple points on a line, these events, along with every other event that has been or will be, are actually points on a circle spinning endlessly. They are occurring simultaneously, their sense of historicity existing purely because of perspective. For Billy, with understanding comes acceptance, of his inability to change his past, of the fact that all he can really do is the best he can, of the cruelty of an uncaring universe, in the insignificance of his place in the universal machine.

To go on would do it injustice. It is a beautiful work – virtuosic, unique, inventive, heart wrenching, and equal parts frightening and funny – and it exists beyond comparison. Vonnegut was a singular writer, and Slaughterhouse-Five is a singular work.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A work of grim horror and dazzling beauty, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic father-and-son story was both a commercial and critical success. An unashamed genre work embraced by a broad general audience to a degree almost unheard of in recent memory, it is quite possibly the one piece of science fiction that people who hate science fiction have read. Referred to simply as “the man” and “the boy,” the father and son of The Road traverse a dead America rendered as such by an unidentified apocalypse. Theirs is a desperate and violent world, their lives solely consisting of searching for food, water and shelter, and evading other survivors who have banded together and reverted to cannibalism. Dark indeed…

And yet within this darkness, McCarthy creates a light so bright as to blind us. This is no surprise – from the beginning, McCarthy makes plain that The Road is really about nothing more than the bond between father and son, and the lengths a father will go to in order to ensure his son’s safety. It is this bond and these lengths that gives it emotional heft, and that ultimately brings us to tears. The unthinkable things that the man does in order to protect the boy; his unswerving dedication to the boy’s wellbeing, even at the expense of his own; the burning love that he feels and the way that this love keeps them from descending into savagery; they will break even the hardest heart. And this is where the post-apocalyptic nature of The Road becomes so successful – thanks to this setting, the aforementioned concerns and dedication of a parent towards a child, which are simple and everyday emotions, are elevated to an extreme seldom seen in literature.

Happiness TM by Will Ferguson

Satirical, philosophical and wickedly funny in equal measure, Happiness TM employs the science fiction trope of a dystopia disguised as a utopia. This trope usually works in one of two ways: people only believe their utopia to be so because they don’t know any better; or their utopia depends on the subjugation of a minority. However, Ferguson subverts these methods in a delightfully unexpected way – in his utopia, people know how and why it works, and there is no subjugation of a minority. And herein lies its problem.

To explain: Edwin, a frustrated book editor looking to plug a hole in his publishing schedule, finds in his slush pile a self-help book entitled What I Learned on the Mountain. Left with no choice but to release it, he does so, expecting it to sink without trace. But this isn’t the case, as it becomes a raging success and, furthermore, it actually works – 99% of its readers find themselves utterly transformed by it, and find that their lives have suddenly become completely fulfilled. As a consequences, society as we know it crumbles: with true happiness attained, those affected by What I Learned on the Mountain become akin to zombies and have nothing left to strive for, their “happiness” resembling a kind-of Zen emptiness. Guilty pleasures that help get us through the night end up, or help ease the pain of life, end up falling by the wayside – the tobacco and alcohol industries become bankrupted, fast food empires follow suit, and before too long the market for every other consumerist pleasure collapses. Edwin, however, is one of the few unaffected, and so sets about righting the wrongs that he has unleashed.

If this theme sounds more than a little familiar, that’s because it is effectively an explication of the concept of yin and yang. Without balance, without an opposite state to define our current state, we are left with nothing but a meaningless concept made so because it exists in isolation. In other words, without sadness to act as a comparison, happiness is just a word rather a state of being. Heavy stuff, yes, but Ferguson’s sharp wit and eye for the absurd mean that Happiness TM becomes truly moving and easily digestible, and will make us look at our lives and belief systems anew.

The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

While sneered at by many fans of science fiction because of its emphasis on love and romantic relationships, The Time Traveller’s Wife is a profoundly moving work with an ingenious science fiction conceit: Henry DeTamble randomly and involuntarily travels back and forth in time, as he suffers from a (fictional) genetic disorder known as Chrono-Impairment. However, rather than focussing on the search for a cure for this disorder, or the historical/cultural/social implications of his travels through time, or any number of other typical science fiction plot devices driven by the theme of time travel, Niffenegger instead focuses on the implications Henry’s disorder has on his relationship with his wife, Clare Anne Abshire.

A plot device that is perhaps unique in the annals of science fiction, it allows Niffenegger to examine a well-worn theme typically found in romantic fiction, without referring to cliché or sentimentality: how love can persevere and even flourish in the face of challenges, adversity and calamity. And she does so beautifully and intelligently, even when Henry’s travels through time take him and Clare to some exceedingly dark places. In the end, if you’ll forgive me for quoting Huey Lewis and the News, it’s all about the power of love, something that we should all believe in.

The Humans by Matt Haig

The Humans, my favourite book of all time, reverses the typical alien encounter trope common to science fiction: despite being set right here on Earth, we are the “aliens” thanks to Haig’s plot contrivances.

To summarise: Andrew Martin, a maths professor, has devised an equation that will advance humanity’s technological progress dramatically, and the Vonnadorians, alien beings that act as intergalactic observers, decide that humanity isn’t ready for this acceleration. And so they send one of their own to remove this new knowledge by killing Martin, destroying the physical and digital evidence of his breakthrough, assuming his physical identity through the use of alien technology and thus assuming his role as a husband, father and teacher, and then determining who Martin shared this knowledge with it so they can also be killed.

This set up allows Haig to craft a narrative that begins with cynical humour before moving into something approaching wonder and awe. Initially, the Vonnadorian impostor is bewildered and disgusted by humanity: he cannot understand why we do some of the ridiculous and contradictory things we do, why our lives sometimes seem devoted to trivia, why we seem so obsessed with the negative sides of our being, and why we seem so devoted to such unlikely-seeming things as dogs, sport and junk food. However, as he slowly grows into his role as a human, he learns to love and to loathe, to feel joy and sorrow, to experience pleasure and pain, excitement and boredom. In other words, he learns what it is to be human.

To the reader, the effect of this is incredible – the things that he learns remind us how incredible and how dull being alive really is. We come to see that life is both good and bad, rational and irrational, serious and nonsensical – that it just is what it is. And in the end, we come to see that The Humans is a panacea for our own troubled times, reminding us that even at a point in history in which there often seems to be nothing but darkness and crisis all around, our very nature will always allow us to carry on with a smile.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars tells the story of Hig and Bangley, survivors of a global pandemic that has wiped out almost everyone else on Earth. As people, they couldn’t be any more different – Hig still mourns the loss of humanity, and is frequently plagued by survivor’s guilt; Bangley is a misanthropic “hard case” relishing his role as a survivor, who often taunts Hig for his soft-heartedness. However, despite these differences they form a relationship that evolves from necessity born of their ability to help each other, to something much deeper: best friends who deeply care for one another, and rely on each other for emotional support rather than just survival. They become metaphorical brothers, whose differences in attitude and outlook have little bearing on the bond they share.

In other words, The Dog Stars is a book that both encapsulates the cliché of “a burden shared is a burden halved” and explores the notion of friendship found in the unlikeliest of places. It denies the common science fiction theme that in a post-apocalyptic world all that will remain is savagery and brutality – the post-apocalyptic world that Heller creates still contains hope, and those who dwell in it come to realise that there is more to their lives than an unfeeling heart made so by the constant fight to stay alive. There is no better example of this than in Bangley’s growing awareness that he needs Hig more for emotional support than physical, especially after Hig reciprocates these feelings – the end result it beautifully optimistic and absolutely staggering.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

A tender and kind work, Flowers for Algernon tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a simple-minded man with a dramatically low IQ who works as a cleaner/sweeper at his local bakery. Invited to take part in an experimental surgical procedure that will dramatically increase his intelligence, he duly accepts and finds himself slowly elevated to the level of “genius,” experiencing a hitherto unknown intellectual ability.

Structured as a series of diary entries in his own hand detailing his life before and after the experiment, Charlie comes to understand, thanks to his expanded awareness, that intelligence doesn’t necessarily equal happiness. Given a new home after the experiment, he adopts Algernon, an extraordinarily smart mouse who was the experiment’s first subject. A bond forms between them, Charlie’s rapidly growing intelligence and understanding meaning that he views Algernon as both a friend and a precedent. Charlie learns a new life – very much emotionally a child, he learns that not all is what it seems, that the jokes and nicknames that he once thought of as affectionate are in fact meant in mockery, that people lie and cheat and can be ridiculously contradictory, that what he once thought of as patient kindness was actually patronising cruelty. But he also finds hope, and love, and art, and friendship, and humanity at its best. He learns that life is both good and bad, and that neither can exist without the other. And then he learns that Algernon has started ailing and is beginning to revert to his natural, ordinary-mouse state…

Here are just a few of the emotions felt while accompanying Charlie on his journey: happiness, shame, perseverance, acceptance, hope, anger, heartbreak, regret, perseverance, sadness, joy, love, frustration, guilt and pride. Once read, it will never be forgotten, and you will be changed for the better.

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

 The second Kurt Vonnegut book on this list (Vonnegut being an author who specialised in using science fiction to explore highly emotional and humanist territory), Timequake was his last book, and a return to a genre that he mostly abandoned for many years in favour of realist, meta and speculative fiction. Centred on the kind-of genius science fiction concept that evokes jealousy in other writers working in the genre, it uses this concept as a springboard to explore the age-old maxims “seize the day” and “no regrets.”

In the depths of space, a mysterious cosmic event occurs that sends shockwaves across the universe, and here on Earth these shockwaves cause every single person to travel 10 years into the past. So far, so science fiction. However, this particular science fiction set-up doesn’t allow for anyone to change the future-to-come or change their own lives based on what they know will happen. Instead, they experience this repeated decade exactly as it unfolded the first time, forced to carry out every decision and action in the same way they did before they time travelled, fully aware of the consequences of these decisions and actions and yet unable to affect any change whatsoever. And then the repeated decade comes to an end and “real” life resumes, and all hell breaks loose – suddenly imbued with free will after years of paralysis, most people just don’t know what to do with themselves and succumb to depression and ennui. One of the few people unaffected is Kilgore Trout – the book’s central character, a recurring character in Vonnegut’s work, and a satirical stand-in for the author himself – who upon regaining free will tries to help those affected by stating, “you were sick, but now you’re well, and there’s work to do.”

As is probably obvious by now, Timequake is all about free will versus determinism, acceptance of the things we got right and the things we got wrong, seizing the day, not being defined by our history or our mistakes, and helping others when we can. While reading it, we just know that it was written by someone accepting their mortality, who knows that their end is drawing closer, who knows that sometimes what really matters isn’t what we did but what we do with the time we have left. It will make you laugh, make you cry, and make you rethink what you do with your own remaining days.

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

The second Steven Amsterdam book on this list – much like Kurt Vonnegut, Amsterdam is an author who specialises in using science fiction and speculative fiction to explore highly emotional and humanist territory – Things We Didn’t See Coming will return hope to your heart, and acts as an antidote to the bleak darkness that pervades so much post-apocalyptic fiction. A small-scale story-cycle covering almost the entirety of its unnamed narrator’s life, it gives us a glimpse of a world wracked by cascading natural disasters caused by climate change. I use the word “glimpse” because said narrator is usually too busy surviving this world to bother detailing it, and herein lies the book’s genius – while surviving this world, he also devotes his time and energy to helping others less fortunate than himself. However, unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction in which the protagonist helps others because he is more an archetypal hero than a grounded character, or because doing so is a means to an end, the narrator of Things We Didn’t See Coming helps others simply because he finds himself in positions to do so and offering help is just what must be done. He refuses to give up hope, refuses to let a wracked and ravaged world drag him down to the level of a beast, and refuses to let it strip him of his humanity.

Amsterdam’s moving debut reassures us that a spark of light can still exist even after all else is dark, echoing numerous instances throughout history in which ordinary people have held their heads high and lent a hand when their world seems base, cruel and savage. It is a testament to human endurance and human kindness, and is absolutely devastating.

(Originally published on duffythewriterblog, 3/2/2018)

Advertisements

Intimacy at the End of the World

When we think of post-apocalyptic fiction, it’s fair to say that the first things that spring to mind aren’t sunshine and rainbows and lollipops, or smiling people sitting around a campfire singing Kumbaya, or peace and contentment and understanding. By their very definition, stories about the end of the world tend to explore very dark themes and very heavy emotional spaces. Their interest lies in (fictionally) mapping out what happens to people after the end, and in examining how they react to their newfound situation.

Think of the grim survivalism of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s The Walking Dead graphic-novel series, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass and the recent film The Divide (2011); or the savage ‘us versus them’ mentality that informs George Miller’s Mad Max film series (1979-2015), David Brin’s The Postman, the original version of The Crazies (1973) and J.G. Ballard’s Hello America; or the fear, loneliness, pessimism and insanity that pervade Thomas Glavinic’s Nightwork, The Quiet Earth (1985), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. None of these stories are designed to take us to our happy place.

However, this is a stereotype and not a truth—post-apocalyptic fiction holds the potential for so much more than just horrific thrills and exploitative chills and a muckraking journey through a shell-shocked character’s mind, and some authors use an end of the world setting to explore themes and ideas that we wouldn’t necessarily expect.

If we look hard enough, we can sometimes find love.

Now, I’m not just talking about love of the sexual or romantic variety. In fact, different types of ‘physical’ love (sex) are reasonably common in post-apocalyptic worlds, as are relationships that encompass this love. However, because the genre unfortunately often tends to be masculine in focus, both these relationships and the expressions of ‘physical’ love that they encompass tend to echo this focus. Variations of the stay-at-home wife or the bimbo girlfriend or the damsel in distress frequently crop up in post-apocalyptic fiction, belittling modern gender politics and undermining female-male equality and tarring the genre with an ugly brush. And this is before even mentioning the place of physical love in the genre, which can veer from the sexist (the swooning and helpless woman who ‘gives’ herself to the heroic man) to the horrific (women who are effectively ‘breeding machines’ controlled by men in their efforts to repopulate the world).

What I’m talking about when I talk about love is companionship, intimacy, affection, honesty, care, solidarity and thoughtfulness. These are the emotional aspects of love that exist alongside its physical aspects, and are all too often missing from most post-apocalyptic narratives. In the often-brutal worlds that make up the vast majority of the genre’s settings, there seems to be little room for such ‘soft’ emotions. It’s almost as if the creators and authors of post-apocalyptic fiction are trying to convince us that only by becoming ‘hard’ can the characters that populate end of the world narratives hope to survive.

Sue Isle’s Nightsiders is one of the best examples of how these emotional aspects of love can both exist in post-apocalyptic fiction and serve as a foundation for looking at the genre’s themes and attitudes in a different way.

This contemporary piece of Australian post-apocalyptic fiction is structured as a story-cycle, and is set in the abandoned city of Perth, in which a small number of people have resisted being evacuated to the eastern coast of the country and have instead built a community amongst the city’s ruined buildings and crumbling streets. What exactly caused the evacuation of the city (as well as the whole of Western Australia) is never specified. Allusions to climate-change and a prolonged drought pepper the text, as do vague references to the city long ago being bombed by a foreign army, but a definitive answer never comes. The focus instead is on the community that has sprung up in this post-apocalyptic land, and on the ‘day to day’ activities and lives of the citizens therein, which include (but aren’t limited to) finding food, caring for the young, going to school, getting married, making a home, putting on a piece of theatre, and scavenging for supplies.

While Nightsiders’ Perth may bear some similarities to the ‘outpost’ cities that feature in much post-apocalyptic fiction, there is a crucial difference: there is no ‘other’ in Nightsiders, and there are no bandits or savages or barbarians who would lay waste to the city that the novel’s characters call home. Because of this, the heroic action in Nightsiders isn’t centred around confrontations and violence or brutality and savagery—all of which are typically born from an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which is almost entirely missing in Isle’s work—but on the acts of community and positive activity that define the lives of its characters. These acts of community and positive activity can be read as expressions of the emotional aspects of love—its characters work together for the good of everyone, secure in the knowledge that what they are working towards is both hopeful and positive; help is offered when it is needed, with no strings attached; everyone knows everyone else on a first-name basis, and there are no antagonistic relationships or friendships; and people look out for each other, rather than just for themselves. These are unarguably expressions of companionship, affection, honesty, care, solidarity and thoughtfulness.

The end result of Isle’s embedding of these aspects of emotional love in her narrative is fascinating, for we find that she has changed our expectations of what post-apocalyptic fiction has to offer: life after the end of the world might just be a hopeful place, if the horrors of the Western genre that are always shadowing it (violent action, masculine quest-adventures, savagery and brutality born of isolation, the conceptualisation of the wasteland as threatening and menacing) are relatively non-existent, either made safe through familiarity or relegated to the status of cautionary myths with their roots in the past. By dispensing with a masculine focus and ‘boys’-own-adventure’ themes and instead widening the genre’s scope to accommodate much more subtle and optimistic themes, the world that Isle has created seems a much better place than the grim and violent worlds that make up the vast majority of post-apocalyptic fiction. If we had to choose between being citizens of Nightsiders’ Perth or citizens of The Road’s America (another expectation-expanding work of the genre), which would we choose? While such a question grossly oversimplifies the difference between the two texts, there is still some truth to it. We choose to be civilised or we choose to be savage; these are behaviours that we take on, our environments don’t necessarily thrust them upon us.

Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars is another excellent example, especially when we consider that its narrative is framed around a more traditional post-apocalyptic theme: an ‘us versus them’ mentality. It tells the story of Hig and Bangley, two survivors of a global flu pandemic that has wiped out almost the entire human population. These two men couldn’t really be any more different from each other—Hig is an ex-pilot who can’t stop mourning the loss of humanity and is frequently plagued by survivor’s guilt, while Bangley is a misanthropic ‘hard case’ who seems to relish his role as a survivor and taunts Hig for his soft-heartedness, and comes across as a much more traditional post-apocalyptic character. But despite their differences, Hig and Bangley have formed a bond that moves, over the course of the novel, from a wary almost-friendship based on their ability to help each other to something much deeper: they become best friends who deeply care for one another and rely on each other for emotional support. This friendship is expressed as an almost fraternal attachment. At the novel’s end, when Hig returns from exploring the world beyond the air-strip/compound that he and Bangley call home, he finds that Bangley has stayed at this home and was badly wounded while defending it from raiders and scavengers. The scenes that follow—in which Hig realises that one of the reasons Bangley stayed to defend their home is so that Hig would have somewhere safe to return to—are truly heartbreaking, as Bangley’s hard exterior softens and he admits that he needs the company and companionship that Hig offers, rather than just Hig’s abilities as a look-out and dogsbody. They have become metaphorical brothers, whose differences in attitude and outlook have little bearing on their relationship.

In a manner very similar to Nightsiders, The Dog Stars leaves us with a sense of hope, and Heller’s portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world that contains more than just savagery and brutality is beautifully optimistic. This optimism is perhaps more emotionally truthful than that of Nightsiders, because Hig and Bangley’s world is one where brutality and savagery are an unavoidable and almost necessary part of their lives; so commonplace is this brutality and savagery that Bangley almost seems to revel in it, at least until the novel’s end. His realisation that there is more to life than just grim survival and an unfeeling heart seems honest and deserved, rather than a facile and out-of-the-blue change of heart, especially when we consider that Hig reciprocates these fraternal feelings and admits to himself that he (emotionally) needs Bangley as much as Bangley needs him.

Unlike much post-apocalyptic fiction, the new television series The Last Man on Earth is a comedy-drama (with the emphasis on the comedy), that tells the story of Phil, the last male survivor of yet another global pandemic, meeting Carol, the last female survivor. As happens in such stories, other characters inevitably show up. However, the emphasis is on exploring the developing relationship between Phil and Carol and the consequences of the fact that, at first, neither really likes the other. Before these two characters met, Phil had descended into slobbish hedonism driven by loneliness, while Carol had held onto various societal rules pertinent to the ‘old world’ in an attempt to keep her sanity. The inevitable clashes between Phil’s newfound ‘let it all hang out’ attitude and Carol’s somewhat uptight lifestyle provide plenty of comic potential, but behind the laughs is a heartfelt story of acceptance and understanding, of embracing difference and adjusting worldviews, of putting aside one’s own selfish interests and desires for the sake of companionship and common humanity. As should be obvious, the potential for an exploration of the different facets of love (both emotional and physical) seems self-evident.

At face value, The Last Man on Earth may sound like The Odd Couple at the End of the World, but in looking at how two people can find friendship and love in the face of adversity and desperation and personality clashes, it holds the promise of exploring themes that apply to everyone. After all, just about each and every one of us has had to deal and interact with people we don’t necessarily get along with or agree with—the crux is, we have to try, and when we try, sometimes we find that these people can become good friends and can open our eyes to a way of life and way of living that we might never have seen before.

(Originally published in Aurealis #85, October 2015)

Humanist Science Fiction and the Rehabilitation of Book Snobs

We probably all know a book snob. Some of us might even be one, although if you’re reading this blog that’s reasonably unlikely. In my experience, there’s nothing that a book snob loves to hate more than genre fiction. Horror? Exploitative trash of the crudest kind. Thrillers? Airport rubbish that deserves to be remaindered. Romance? Pure drivel; good for nothing but the recycling bin. Westerns? Anachronistic macho bullshit. Fantasy? Nonsensical entertainment for the childish. Chick-lit? Mindless nonsense that should have stayed in the slush pile. Science fiction? Mechanical boys-own-adventure pap.

These are all criticisms that I’ve overheard at my local library, at my favourite bookshop, or that I remember from back in my uni days (although they have been made a little less crude). Statements like this are sad, really, and a little bit pathetic. They both symbolise a kind-of “literary bigotry” and deny those who hold such viewpoints the undeniable and unique pleasures that can be found in genre fiction. So, the question is, how do we convince these people to change their intolerant and blinkered attitudes? Especially in regard to both science fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction – my preferred genres, as well as the ones I’m most familiar with, and the reason why we’re all here.

I believe we need to expose these book snobs to good works of genre fiction, works that both expand their understanding of each genre’s potential and make full use of the particular themes, tropes, devices and peculiarities inherent to each. But what a genre fan might consider good isn’t necessarily good for a reluctant reader with a nigh-intractable bias. I’ll use science fiction as my example. Classic works such as Philip K. Dick’s Valis, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, and more contemporary works such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, might all be considered great works of science fiction by both fans and critics, but it’s unlikely that any of them would convert a book snob. They are too dependent on the reader’s knowledge of science fiction’s “rules” and too-often rely on said reader’s established appreciation of the genre and subsequent willingness to engage with works that are arguably “outside” the norm.

This brings us, in a rather roundabout way, to humanist science fiction.

Now, humanist is a somewhat elastic term, especially when we try and apply it to both fiction and science fiction. After all, it is technically “the non-religious philosophy based on liberal human values” (according to my trusty dictionary). Such a prosaic description doesn’t do justice to the beauty that can be found in what I consider to be humanist science fiction, never mind the fact that it sums up a non-religious philosophy rather than a narrative framework or guide. To me, works of humanist science fiction are those that focus on both the inner emotional lives of their characters and on the impact of “the big idea” on these inner emotional lives, rather than on “the big idea” itself. This isn’t to say that “the big idea” – the crux of the genre, the event/invention/technological breakthrough/environmental cataclysm that shapes and propels a science fiction plot – isn’t important to humanist science fiction. However, while it may be necessary to the plot, more often than not it is somewhat pushed to the background, chiefly existing to drive the examination and explication of the characters and their inner and emotional lives, and allowing these themes to occupy the foreground.

Does this all sound a bit complicated? Basically, I consider humanist science fiction to be that which shines a lot on both the beauty and the horror of being human, on the joys and sorrows and the triumphs and tragedies and the excitement and mundanity of being alive.

Take Matt Haig’s The Humans as an example. In this unbelievably moving work, “the big idea” is that Andrew Martin, a professor at Cambridge University, has solved a mathematical equation that will dramatically accelerate humanity’s technological progress. The Vonnadorians – alien beings with an almost hive-mind mentality, who operate according to cold logic and act as intergalactic observers – decide that humanity isn’t ready for this acceleration. Consequently, they send one of their own to “erase” this new knowledge by killing Martin, destroying the physical and digital evidence of his breakthrough, taking his place both literally and figuratively (assuming his physical identity through the use of alien technology and assuming his role as a husband, father and teacher), determining who Martin shared this knowledge with, and killing them as well.

So far, so science fiction.

This is merely the set-up, however, for Haig’s exploration of the “new” Martin’s assumption, acceptance and embrace of humanity. His journey begins with confusion and amusement in the face of such everyday things as our relationships with dogs and the human-centric nature of the news, all beautifully phrased and infused with a good dose of humour. But, as the plot progresses and the “new” Martin learns to love and to loathe and to feel joy and sorrow and to experience pleasure and pain and excitement and boredom, the tone becomes both more serious and more touching, while still maintaining its beautiful phrasing and sense of humour. The effect is startling: in the lessons that the “new” Martin learns, we ourselves are reminded of just how incredible and just how dull being alive really is. We realise that The Humans is a work that celebrates just that: being human, being alive.

Humanist science fiction like The Humans will move anyone, even a book snob. I ask you to try it, to go out and spread the word, to do your best to convert those people whose blinkered view stops them from seeing beauty in certain things.

Or just read some. If nothing else, it’ll make you feel better about yourself, and that’s no small thing.

NB: For furthering reading, I would recommend starting with Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Kurt Vonnegut’s Timequake, Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape and Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed; while some good works of humanist post-apocalyptic fiction to begin with would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work, Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth, Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 9/9/2014)