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)


Don’t Believe the Hype

When it comes to long-delayed sequels, we sometimes have to be careful what we wish for. And we have to be especially careful when what is being reintroduced (book, film, TV show, comic, video game—let’s just call it the ‘product’) has moved from the realm of fiction into the world of mass culture, or has a specific social/cultural/generational appeal, or one that transcends boundaries. The deeper the original product’s claws dig into us—as either individuals, members of a particular social/cultural/generational group, or as people in general—the more fraught its reintroduction.

This is because deeply embedded products resonate with us for reasons beyond just the strength of their stories. Instead, these reasons may be personal (you encountered the product at a time in your life when it seemed to ‘speak’ to you); historical (the product may have pioneered a new narrative format or new technologies, or established a brand new business model); societal (the terminology, themes, situations or conundrums originally belonging to the product now have real- world applications); or cultural (the product connects to the wider world in general and to certain cultural types in particular, through things like catchphrases, identification, external references, and obsessive fan worship).

Personal examples are a good way to illustrate this. I grew up watching Doctor Who (1963–2016); my mum parked me in front of it so that she could get the dinner on, and consequently its reintroduction in 2005 was to me both highly exciting and potentially disastrous. As a genre-fan who likes to peek behind the curtain, I’m always somewhat aware when watching a contemporary genre film of the business models pioneered by classic genre films like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) and the future-defining technologies pioneered by those like The Thing (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993), and can’t help but see their still-continuing ripples. As someone who grew up with these classic genre films, I live in a world where the suffix ‘zilla’ is used to label anything monstrous or destructive; where the term ‘Star Wars’ is used for actual space-based weaponry, and where the word ‘TARDIS’ is used to describe anything overly full, from the bottom drawer in the kitchen to the stereotypical handbag. And lastly, as someone who walks the line between Generations X and Y, I live in a world that is also absolutely and unarguably intertextual, intertwined and post-modern, where words and metaphors like those shown above are a part of some people’s everyday conversation, where it seems like everything references everything else and genre classics are just part of the mix.

However, despite the different reasons underlining a particular product’s resonance, the dangers involved in its reintroduction are almost always the same: an expectation builds, fed by the hype that is an inevitable part of the mass-media machine and by our own individual viewpoints, connections and anticipatory excitement regarding the product in question. This is why we have to make sure that we don’t believe the hype, and this is why we have to be careful what we wish for: do we want something that is new or old? Do we want something that is unashamedly contemporary or something that embraces nostalgia? Do we want something that looks backwards and is chained by the original? Or do we want something that looks forward, and is inspired by the original?

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).

Both the original Star Wars series (1977–1983) and the original Mad Max series (1979–1985) have become deeply embedded in our cultural consciousness—they both

perfectly exemplify the times in which they were made and incorporate the aesthetics, costuming, story-types, filmmaking styles and thematic undercurrents that were fashionable back then. Even a brief example shows this: the Star Wars series’ ‘lived in’ universe is the perfect summation of the ‘grungy’ science fiction look of the 1970s, and Star Wars’ success at pushing it to the fore meant that it became de rigueur for much of the next decade. Likewise, the look and feel of the original Mad Max series is unarguably and trash-tastically ‘80s: the films are filled with punk attitudes, punk costume designs, DIY filmmaking techniques, gleeful destruction, lots of explosions, epic rock songs, singers-turned-actors and moral ambiguities.

Their overall aesthetic was copied by thousands of B-grade directors in their shameless attempts at cashing in on its success: a punk-inspired post-apocalyptic world where everything but black leather is in short supply. And so, even though Star Wars is much more deeply embedded, Mad Max still exists in our cultural consciousness and still resonates with us.

Because of these resonances, and because Fury Road and The Force Awakens were set to be released within roughly six-months of each other, the aforementioned mass-media hype machine began to overload shortly after production commenced on both, flooding the market with images, teasers, trailers, spoilers, casting announcements and concept art, all vague enough to hint at the potential for both greatness and disaster. And so the hype began to overtake us: it was exciting that these films were coming, and easy to get lost speculating on what the final products might be like and so forget to ask what we really wanted from them. This excitement for something new, modified by our own individual preferences and predilections, meant that our shared expectations were both great in size and amorphous and vague, with everyone wanting something different from the final products. Both films rose to these challenges, but they did so in very different ways.

With Fury Road, director George Miller chose to dramatically expand the boundaries of the post-apocalyptic world that he created with the original trilogy. This seems like a counterintuitive move, as the original settings were isolated and small-scale, befitting the series’ post-apocalyptic trappings. But it worked: the world of Fury Road is one where mini-cities trade with other mini-cities, where a type of religion has arisen, where the settlements are so established that class structures and social hierarchies have emerged. Gone are the isolated outposts of yore; Fury Road is rich with life and people, crazed and desperate though they may be. This wasn’t Miller’s first counterintuitive move, though—he also chose not to feature any actors from the original trilogy, apart from actor Hugh Keays-Byrne (who played Toecutter in Mad Max and Immortan Joe in Fury Road, two completely different characters). By doing away with any cameos, Miller effectively severed one of the links between old and new, a risky proposition in an age when surprising and not-so-surprising cameos are the norm, and obvious shout-outs and blatant references are the new black.

Instead, by casting a completely different actor as the eponymous Max and creating brand new antagonists and supporting characters, Miller leaves it up to us to accept the film on its standalone terms. As well, we’re forced to situate it in the timeline established by the original trilogy ourselves: enough visual information is given to argue that it takes place sometime between The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985), but it’s exact placement is vague. The delivery of this information, and the delivery of other visual information throughout the film that pays tribute to the original trilogy, is Miller’s third counterintuitive move: he handles most references with great care. He does this either by constructing scenes that subtly echo similar scenes from the original trilogy, or by delivering the information in a manner- of-fact way, weaving it into the narrative rather than drawing attention to it.

Miller also dramatically changed what a Mad Max story could be about. Rather than following a pseudo-Western storyline, Fury Road is a hopeful story with a female- centric focus. Max is once again entangled in someone else’s schemes rather than acting as the driver of his own, but this entanglement is refreshing and contemporary. It is an acknowledgement of our times, and how much our world has changed in the interim between old and new. And this wasn’t the only change. Miller also took advantage of the untold number of technological and filmmaking changes that occurred in this interim, and so the look of Fury Road is that of the original series turned up to 11. The cinematography, the editing, the stunt-work, the car chases, the ‘mutant’ vehicles, the punk sensibilities and costuming; these factors are all bigger- bigger-bigger than they were in the original series, and yet they still feel as raw as they did back then.

In combination, these factors mean that Fury Road is a film that defied our expectations—no amount of hype could have prepared us for its scope, even if it did prepare us for its size. It shows us why long-delayed sequels can be successful: it is both completely new and yet unarguably informed by the original, and manages to pull this balancing act off effortlessly without wallowing in nostalgia. If we had bought it into the hype and decided against seeing it because it looked like just another Mad Max film, like just another shameless cash-in, we would have missed seeing something unique.

The Force Awakens is very different. Being the newest cinematic reintroduction of the Star Wars series, expectations were high from the very beginning, especially when it was announced that J J Abrams—a competent director with a proven record of successfully reintroducing a classic series—was at the helm. These expectations were only heightened as the hype built and images, teasers, trailers, spoilers, casting announcements and concept art slowly dribbled out, all promising something unarguably Star Wars-ian. And this is where Abrams seemed to run into trouble: the expectation of something as vague as a ‘good’ new Star Wars film seemed to bring him unstuck. Does ‘good’ in this context mean forward looking and only tangentially connected to the original a la Fury Road? Or does it mean something nostalgic, something that deeply embraces the original? The decisions must have been hard, as the original Star Wars trilogy is perhaps the most widely loved and influential science fiction series in the history of film. Ultimately, Abrams seemed to want to have it both ways—to look forward and backward at the same time—and was unfortunately more successful at the latter than the former.

And so, while beginning well with an undeniable sense of newness, The Force Awakens becomes steadily more nostalgic as the narrative unfolds and characters from the original trilogy enter the story. While this undeniably excites and satisfies us —everyone wants to know what happened to these characters in the interim between films—it also becomes the dominant trend of the film: direct references and obvious shout-outs become commonplace.

These range from the use of settings and characters based directly on those from the original trilogy—a multi-xenomorphic bar, a planet-sized WMD, a cute robot that

speaks in whistles and bleeps and carries secret information, a desert planet where life is hard and cheap—to yet more cameos to shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from the original trilogy to the wholesale adoption of the narrative beats of the first film in the series. In the face of this onslaught of nostalgia and self-referential back patting, Abrams’ forward-looking elements tend to lose their impact; they have the potential to change the definition of a Star Wars story and to make the series’ already sizable scope even larger, but this potential remains unfulfilled (at least until the next film, hopefully).

These elements mostly remain unexplored, cursorily drawn, hastily fleshed out—it’s as if Abrams is setting up a story that will be allowed fruition in the sequels, but right now he has to get people in the door, and there’s no better way to do that than by playing on their feelings for the original trilogy and pandering to their misguided desire for something that isn’t really new but instead just looks that way. This isn’t to say that The Force Awakens is a bad film—it’s fun, fast paced, well-made and thoroughly Star Wars-ian, and the nostalgia is a great trip. But it doesn’t challenge our expectations, doesn’t make us reassess the series as a whole, not in the way that Fury Road does. Instead, it affirms our memories of the original trilogy. The hype surrounding its release helped make us want it to do this, and once again showed that we shouldn’t ever really believe it—having seen both Fury Road and The Force Awakens on the big screen, I now know that I’d rather be happily surprised than merely affirmed.

(Originally published in Aurealis #92, July 2016)

Postcolonial Science Fiction and Peter Docker’s The Waterboys

Equality in science fiction is red hot right now. We can see it all around us: in the failed attempts by the Sad Puppy movement to hijack the Hugo Awards; in the backlash against the numerous decisions by toy companies to only release figurines of male characters from the various science fiction franchises that fill cinema screens; in the fact that The Force Awakens’ two leads are a woman and a black man; in the increasing popularity and reach of science fiction from non-Western countries. However, while there is a substantial body of critical work arguing that science fiction has always been weighted in favour of the Western norm while simultaneously professing to be a “colour-blind” genre, many people believe that science fiction has always had an undercurrent of equality, an affinity for the marginalised, and sympathy for those who exist outside of this norm. While this second school of thought is becoming more pervasive in contemporary science fiction, the genre’s early period was often dominated by works that embraced the notion of Western imperialism. It is worth briefly noting that it is predominantly writers of the second school – such as HG Wells and Ray Bradbury – who are revered as giants of the field: They knew the cultural impact that Western colonisation had had upon the rest of the world, and they used this knowledge to craft different versions of their societies, featuring the same (or similar) cultural anxieties and problems as those experienced by their own. In other words, they blazed a trail for postcolonial science fiction.

First, a brief primer: postcolonialism is a method of intellectual thought that analyses, explains and responds to the cultural legacies of colonialism and imperialism, specifically in relation to the consequences of nations colonising foreign countries and exploiting their native people and land; while postcolonial science fiction uses the trappings and tropes of the genre as a framework for this analysis, explanation and response, albeit in a fictionalised setting. In many ways, science fiction and postcolonial thought are quite a fitting match – science fiction is a genre that is often concerned with ideas of expansion and colonisation and with the idea of “otherness” and different ways of being.

However, it isn’t only in tales of interplanetary colonisation and the clash between us (humans) and them (aliens) that this kind of postcolonial exploration can be found, as Peter Docker’s remarkable The Waterboys shows – its themes and concerns, its shuffling of chronological and linear time, its examination of the gulf between traditional Indigenous Australian and Western conceptualisations of reality, and its incorporation of the former’s particular conceptualisation of reality into both its structure and the “operating logic” of its narrative (the natural laws which underpin the world its characters inhabit), all mark it as an explicit work of postcolonial science fiction. It does what writer and academic Nalo Hopkinson claims all postcolonial science-fiction should, which is to “take the meme of colonising the natives and, from the experience of the colonizee, critique it, pervert it, fuck with it, with irony, with anger, with humour, and also, with love and respect for the genre of science-fiction that makes it possible to think about new ways of doing things.”

The Waterboys is set in an apocalyptic drought-stricken future Australia in which a paramilitary corporation controls the dwindling water supply. Conway, our narrator, is a “whitefulla” who lives a nomadic existence with his Indigenous Australian mate Mularabone; they carry out a guerrilla campaign against said corporation in the hope of restoring the guarded and dammed water to the country, working hand-in-hand with Mularabone’s tribe. This forms what I term story A; it occurs in both present time and in flashback. Story B centres on Conway’s role as a “dreamer and water diviner.” Embraced by Mularabone’s tribe for his spiritual connections to the land, Conway uses his dreams to help guide them to water. But his dreams also throw him backwards in time, forcing him to inhabit the bodies of a number of different “whitefullas” at the exact moments that they are committing various historical atrocities inflicted upon Indigenous Australians. These dreams eventually settle into a linear narrative, as Conway repeatedly inhabits the body of Mister Conway, an aide to Captain Charles Fremantle (a historical figure who led the first British settlement of Western Australia). As he “inhabits” Mister Conway, he carries both his own memories and those of the real Mister Conway, whose “spirit” was presumably displaced by his dream-travels. Taking advantage of this situation, Conway tries to persuade Fremantle to rebel against the British Empire and embrace traditional Indigenous Australian ways of being in the world, and hence potentially change the tragic outcome of first contact and settlement. Stories A and B are told in alternating chapters, with Conway’s manipulation of the past in Story B having an ever-increasing effect upon the events of Story A. Eventually, both stories A and B end up commentating on each other, and in many ways the interplay between them allegorises a psychic collision in Conway, who is both a representative of the violent settlers and an honorary “countryman.”

The Waterboys’ structure is itself an attempt to address an underlying conflict between Western and indigenous representations of the past: Aspects of The Dreaming that are within the grasp of non-Indigenous Australians can help to illuminate this aspect. From my limited understanding, The Dreaming is both the spiritual belief system underpinning traditional Indigenous Australian culture and “a kind of narrative of things that once happened; a kind of charter of things that still happen; and a kind of logos or principle of order transcending everything significant for Aboriginal man,” according to the Australian anthropologist William Stanner. In essence, The Dreaming structured traditional Indigenous Australian culture, laid down its laws and customs and traditions, and shaped its people’s conceptualisation of the world and time/history. This occurred because of the creation story at the heart of The Dreaming: There was nothing, and then the world suddenly came into being, populated with all manner of creator ancestors. They shaped the world before coming to rest as features of the natural environment, at which point all of creation now existed. The word “all” is significant: When looked at from a Western perspective of time/history, the creator ancestors of The Dreaming shaped the world as it was, is, and will be. This suggests a concept of time that is cyclical rather than linear: The “spirits” that inhabit all people and every aspect of the natural world travel along great cycles that encompass eternity; individual people, flora and fauna are merely “chariots” for these spirits, chariots which live out their lives as smaller cycles within larger ones.

Here, we can see that by having stories A and B unfold in alternating chapters that are nonetheless linked and influential upon each other, and in which equal importance and weight is given to both the “real” and the “dream,” Docker is embracing the traditional Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of the world and time/history that underpins The Dreaming. However, by emphasising that this conflation of past, present and future is not a perceptual act but a literal fact (within the bounds of both the narrative’s reality and that of traditional Indigenous Australians), Docker is also allowing an alternative to the Western conceptualisation of the world and time/history to play out on a narrative level as well as a structural. The characters in The Waterboys are divided between those that understand this alternative conceptualisation and/or simply choose to accept it, and those that either don’t see it or choose not to. This divide roughly falls along racial lines, with the “countrymen” (Indigenous Australians) belonging to the former category and most of the “whitefullas” (self-explanatory) to the latter. By the end of the text, those characters who see the world and time/history as being different from that of the West have had their views vindicated: Conway exists as both Mister Conway and as Conway; his actions in one time and/or plane of being are as significant and as influential as any other, and all are equally real, exactly in accordance with The Dreaming. Mularabone and the members of his tribe and the few other “whitefullas” they have embraced all accept and understand this as well, and through their acceptance and understanding are rewarded by the temporary peace of mind – necessarily temporary within the narrative’s overall setting, as is the case in much science-fiction that focuses on a small part of a large whole – that comes with having vanquished foes, overcome obstacles, and achieved resolution.

Docker’s use of the “operating logic” of the Dreaming (the conceptualisation of the world and time/history it laid down) as the structural framework for The Waterboys also allows him to offer up a genre-blending text with an important message that is ultimately uplifting. Firstly, by blending genres and structuring the result around a traditional Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of the world and time/history, Docker is emphasising a theme central to The Waterboys’ narrative and integral to its message: co-operation and an acceptance of difference. Here, we must acknowledge that the world of The Waterboys cannot exist without reference to our (presumably Western, 21st-century Australian) world and its attendant problems and anxieties. This is where the function of Docker’s blending of genres comes into play; the successful blending of such disparate genres is a reflection of our modern world, a world in which multiculturalism, mass media, globalisation, the internet and social media are a part of everyday life, as are the psychic and cultural after-effects of our society’s path to this point. This point is crucial, because while The Waterboys is alternately set in a version of the real past and a (necessarily) fictional post-apocalyptic future, its themes and its message are intended to apply to our contemporary (present-day) world.

This happens because of our (assumed) status as citizens of a country shaped by the Imperial West, with all the attendant Western ways of perceiving the passage of time, our connection to the environment, and the structure of reality itself. Having these fundamental aspects of Western society challenged is but one step; when the narrative voice is focussed through Conway, our initial assumptions on how to read the book are also challenged. Because Conway is a white Australian who has nonetheless melded his conceptualisation of the world and time/history with that of traditional Indigenous Australian culture, we are unable to distance ourselves from the text by noting any differences (racial, social and/or cultural) between our position and his. Instead, because the integration of a traditional Indigenous Australian conceptualisation of the world and time/history with that of the Imperial West happens gradually at first, our ability to identify with Conway is made easier. The result is that, at the point in the text when the integration of conceptualisations is complete, we have had enough time to play a metaphorical game of “catch up” and hence have started to see the world of The Waterboys as Conway sees it. As he simply accepts the (Western-lensed) strangeness of his world, so we do too. And while the further through The Waterboys we read the more different its world becomes, our initial adoption of the traditional Indigenous Australian “live and let live” attitude towards these differences only gets stronger. We can see here how echoes of the meeting and clashing of cultures contained in The Waterboys’ narrative are starting to emerge between the (presumably non-Indigenous Australian) reader and the text itself. But this clash is productive: The differences between a traditional Indigenous Australian and a Western conceptualisation of the world and time/history are accepted and embraced by the narrative’s protagonist(s), rather than used as a source of conflict or a justification for exploitation. This then allows us to make room alongside our conceptualisation of the world and time/history for a conceptualisation more in line with that of traditional Indigenous Australians, in the hope that by existing together new ways to overcome the societal problems and cultural anxieties of our world can more easily be imagined. This is co-operation, in essence; and this is the The Waterboys’ ultimate message.

(Originally published in Aurealis #89, April 2016)

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)

How Mad Max: Fury Road has set a New Benchmark for Genre Films

Like presumably most diehard fans of Australian genre-fiction, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The hype had been built long before it hit the screens: George Miller had dropped tantalising titbits of information during its production, and the multiple trailers held out hope of something that was not only fast and rugged and thoroughly ‘Mad Max’, but also somehow more real than other contemporary blockbusters. Expectations were high, and no-one wanted another pale imitation of a cinema classic masquerading as a remake/reboot/pseudo-sequel a la Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Conan the Barbarian (2011), Predators (2010), Prometheus (2012) or Matthijs van Heijningen’s version of The Thing (2011).

To cause us further worry, fans of Australian genre-fiction cherish Miller’s original Mad Max series. Its lived-in world, deeply-set sense of place, larrikin sense of humour and almost-punkish DIY ethos are ‘Australian-isms’ that we were all proud to see enshrined on screen in such fresh and original ways, and none of us wanted to see Miller tarnish this legacy.

I’m happy to say that, in what might just be a first, my expectations were exceeded. In fact, I believe that Fury Road might just be the best genre film in a long, long time.

But not entirely in ways that I had foreseen.

The first thing that differentiates Fury Road from most other contemporary genre films is the way in which it weaves its ‘action’ into the narrative (and vice-versa). Too often, action scenes seem to exist solely for their own sake: we seldom see character revealed or story told through action, and the big set-pieces that pad out so many genre films usually serve little narrative purpose. Think of the ‘Metropolis Battle’ in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), the ‘Sieges of Zion’ in the sequels to The Matrix (2003), any of the action scenes from Michael Bay’s Transformers series (2007-20014) or any of the space battles in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005). These types of scenes and set-pieces present themselves as little more than spectacle; the narrative usually stops dead along with any sense of momentum, and we the viewer are suddenly disengaged from the film – we might look upon the images with something approximating awe, impressed by the CGI magic unfolding before us, but this awe comes at the expense of our connection to the characters and the story. Thus disengaged, we become far more aware of everything that exists outside of the film, and it consequently becomes far less immersive.

Fury Road avoids almost all of these pitfalls: most of its action exists either as part of the story or to push the story forward. Its narrative never grinds to a halt to let a pointless visual suddenly dominate and shout: ‘I am spectacle, behold!’ Instead, Fury Road is pure spectacle from beginning to end, spectacle that drives and frames the story. This is mostly because of Miller’s genius at fusing narrative and action. By structuring Fury Road around a chase without end, he ensures that there is always a sense of forward momentum (the chase itself) as well as a confined location (the War Rig), which is almost constantly under attack and home to a number of different characters. The chase begins in the first scene, and Miller initially withholds the reasons as to why it is happening. Instead, we are forced to share Max’s perspective and position, and are bundled up and swept along by the momentum of the chase. This engages us straightway as it provokes questions in us: What’s happening? Why are those particular characters chasing those particular characters? What exactly has been stolen, and how does it impact on the established world? Over the next half-hour, answers are slowly revealed, until Max arrives at the War Rig and certain things fall into place and the next phase of the story and the chase begins.

Here, the War Rig ‘concentrates’ the characters’ interactions within it; with nowhere else to go, their conversations and interactions feel natural, and reveal narrative detail and backstory and so on. Exposition like this tends not to feel forced, as we can all relate to similar situations that provoke unexpected and character revealing conversations (road trips, family holidays, long distance house-moves). However, the fact that the characters confined in the War Rig are always either under attack or under impending attack means that some of these conversations and interactions necessarily occur during the attacks. And so the two become one as the rest of the film plays out, action and story occurring simultaneously, often with each informing the other (for example: a freshly talked-about memory triggering an unexpected behaviour, or the need to shoot straight revealing a newly learned understanding).

The second thing that really makes Fury Road stand out from the crowd is the depth of its world-building, which is manifested in the sense of a wider Mad Max universe that exists beyond what we see in the film.

This is something that is all too often neglected in genre fiction, as much of it instead concentrates only on the world inhabited by the protagonists and antagonists, with the story’s wider universe only shown if it directly affects the characters and their arcs. This is to the stories’ detriment, as it can ‘remove’ us from the story because we begin to wonder how the world we’re shown fits into its wider universe. In the absence of any evidence of a wider universe, we then find ourselves less immersed in the story because its existence as a ‘limited’ piece of fiction becomes apparent. This is doubly true of post-apocalyptic fiction, as the universes therein pose very specific problems: Where do food and water come from? How are these neo-societies structured?

Once again, Fury Road avoids most of these pitfalls, and it does so in the best possible way. Rather than making Fury Road’s wider universe obvious and obtrusive, Miller subtly hints at its existence, providing just evidence to keep us within the story. Just a few examples include the existence of The Bullet Farm and Gasoline Town, which are mentioned but never shown, and hint at an established trade network with The Citadel; and the eerie ‘Crane People’ that inhabit the swamplands, which provide a glimpse of a society seemingly completely disconnected from the previous settlements.

However, Miller also ensures that these hints of a wider universe are complimented by a thorough approach to building the world that we do see. This ensures that the ‘logic’ of Fury Road’s narrative is almost watertight, which once again keeps us ‘within’ its world. And even when world-building story features aren’t properly explained or are only alluded to, their sheer existence allows us to more fully suspend our sense of disbelief. We see this time and time again: the ritualistic behaviour and appearance of the War Boys; Immortan Joe’s status as a pseudo-emperor; the brief glimpses of hydroponic and outdoor gardens in and around The Citadel; the offhand remarks regarding the aquifer beneath it; the classist structure of its society; the existence of Gasoline Town explaining where their fuel comes from. These things tell us that the world of Fury Road and the societies within it have structures and hierarchies; they have ways of feeding themselves and access to water; they have ways of travelling and a trade system. In other words, they are societies that are a warped reflection of our own, and because we understand the logic by which they operate, we can once again embrace the story rather than question it.

The third thing that really makes Fury Road stand out lies in the fact that women drive its narrative and are, along with Max, central characters that possess their own agency. Some people have also made this a controversial aspect, with certain hairy-knuckled critics decrying the fact that ‘Max gets ordered around by a woman’ and that he functions more as a co-main character than an out-and-out hero. These criticisms occur despite the fact that in both The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Max was hardly the one who drove the narrative forward. Instead, to prolong his own survival, he allowed himself to be ensnared in the schemes of others, just like in Fury Road. However, Miller takes this process further by ensuring that in Fury Road, the schemes that Max is ensnared in are thought-up and carried out by women and for women.

But this doesn’t make the film a feminist critique or mean that men’s enjoyment of the film is somehow diminished. Firstly, Miller’s weaving of feminist thought-lines into the narrative is subtle and never allowed to overshadow the central story or the thrill and momentum of the chase. Secondly, because the film is so defiant in its own approach, and because its world has been so thoroughly built and its story and action are so well intertwined, the story of these women feels like a completely ‘accurate’ story within the confines of the film’s universe, and it occurs with enough momentum and rawness to make it seem authentic. It doesn’t feel forced or faked, but ‘right.’ And this is something that not enough genre films do. Too often, men’s stories seem to dominate the narratives of genre fiction, and it seems that this is sometimes because many writers and creators aren’t prepared to think far enough outside the box to posit women-centric stories being the focus of their imagined future worlds. As Miller shows, a good story told well is something magnificent, no matter whether it’s a story about men or one about women.

These aren’t the only reasons why I think that Fury Road might just be the best genre film in a long, long time (a lack of space prevents me from continuing, and such is my excitement that I could just go on and on). But if your appetite needs further whetting, I’ll just quickly say that you should also look to the maniacal glee that Miller pours into the film (yes, that really is a truck carrying drummers and a guitarist and a wall full of amps, whose job is to whip the War Boys into a frenzy); and the sheer rawness that comes from what’s happening on screen being almost completely real (the little CGI that was used was mostly reserved for backgrounds and scenery); and the deft homages to the original trilogy (The music box! The hidden weapons! The fizzing shotgun! The handcuffs and the saw!).

Or just go and see it. You won’t regret it.

(Originally published on Aurealis Blog, 3/7/2015)

The Loneliness of the Last One Left

I want to ask what may be a stupid question: Why does post-apocalyptic fiction have such a strong appeal? For some people, this might be because the genre is explicitly concerned with the destruction of the “old world” and the birth of a “new world” that is usually less regulated, urbanised and interdependent, something that science-fiction writer and critic Gary K. Wolfe calls “the fantasy of civilisation reduced to a simpler level, with room left for heroic quests and individual action”. For other people, post-apocalyptic fiction’s appeal may lie in its similarities to the western, as the themes of individualism, survivalism and life on the frontier that are integral to both genres also played a strong part in shaping our post-colonial world. For still others, its appeal may lie in its themes of man versus wild, or in its often-gleeful descriptions of the inventive ways that the world might be destroyed, or in its ability to act as a framework to critically, subversively and/or satirically examine the world around us. For me, part of the genre’s appeal is found in the almost misanthropic frisson that comes from reading about a humbled humanity.

Nowhere is this better seen than in what I call Empty World fiction, a sub-genre that (in less politically correct terms) is better known as ‘Last Man on Earth fiction’.

This is because the apocalypse at the heart of Empty World fiction is often biological and/or viral in origin, rather than environmental and/or militaristic – in most cases, the cities and towns of Empty World fiction are recognisably the same as their real-life counterparts, the only difference being the absence of people.

In contrast, most post-apocalyptic fiction shows us the destruction of both civilisation and its markers: cities are flattened, humanity’s monuments and marvels are toppled and razed, untold numbers of people are killed, and the survivors are left to scuttle in the ruins. In most post-apocalyptic fiction, we are shown civilisation’s grave; in Empty World fiction, we are shown civilisation frozen in time and put on display as if it were in a museum.

The difference might seem small, but it has enormous implications. Instead of having to adapt to a radically altered environment (be it a returned wilderness or a ruined city), the typical protagonist of Empty World fiction finds him/herself in a familiar world of office buildings and skyscrapers and sprawling suburbs and white-picket fences. Instead of having to hunt for food or fight for survival, said protagonist is faced with an abundance of canned and packaged food courtesy of our 21st-century way of life, and the only things he/she has to fight are monotony, boredom and loneliness.

Instead of having to make-do with whatever worn or ravaged or weathered or ruined materials are at hand, he/she finds that they are suddenly in a position to acquire whatever they desire, the empty cities acting as smorgasbords of material possessions.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that most Empty World fiction is psychologically-oriented rather than action-oriented.

For those with a pre-existing interest in the genre, the sight of actor Bruno Lawrence slowly losing his mind thanks to loneliness is one that you will probably never forget (as seen in the 1985 film The Quiet Earth), and is one of the best cinematic portrayals of the types of fertile psychological landscapes that Empty World fiction explores. He staggers through an empty city, playing saxophone badly, oblivious to his surroundings; he shoots pool with himself, acting out two competing personalities; he assembles a crowd of cardboard cut-outs (each a notable 20th-century figure) and proceeds to lecture them hysterically, to the accompaniment of tape-recorded applause and cheering. In short, we see a man, with all the material things in life he could desire, lose his humanity because immaterial aspects of life such as company, companionship, society and routine have suddenly vanished.

Depictions like this are what fuel the frisson of misanthropy that we feel, for what we are seeing is an engagement with the positioning of the material and immaterial aspects of life as binary oppositions, a positioning that is a fundamental part of Western society.

In this way, by emphasising our need for the immaterial over the material, Empty World fiction is criticising both the consumerist nature of our modern world and a line of Western thought that demands adherence to the strictly rational and material: By stranding their protagonists in just such a rational and material world and charting their subsequent psychological disintegration, writers of Empty World fiction are able to show us how lonely and purposeless people can be when they have everything they want except someone to share it with. Again, we see this in the protagonist of The Quiet Earth, who is humbled and broken because he has too much of one aspect (the material) and none of the other (the immaterial).

There are a few problems inherent in basing a narrative around such a figure, however – a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration is presumably difficult for an author to sustain, is definitely somewhat grueling to read, and is necessarily devoid of character-based interaction and conflict.

This last problem is probably the most important, for character-based interaction and conflict are cornerstones of Western literature. So important are they to Western literature that most writers of Empty World fiction eventually fall prey to their pernicious influence: For the most part, the third acts of Empty World narratives inevitably herald the arrival of new characters. More often than not, two new characters will be introduced – a man and a woman – and the establishment of a love-triangle and an exploration of its consequences come to dominate the narrative. What was once introspective, humbling, thoughtful and psychologically “heavy” all too often becomes something trite and predictable, an unfortunate occurrence that I believe shows just how much an author can underestimate a reader’s ability to continually engage with such weighty themes. However, the opposite can also be true – for some authors, a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration seems to give them license to abandon almost every kind of action within the narrative. Texts likes this read more like free-flowing philosophical treatise, their protagonists existing in louche and dissolute worlds where existence seems to consist solely of sitting by a pool or by the ocean, staring into space and lost in thought. Most works of Empty World fiction fall into one of these two categories. This isn’t to say that they aren’t worth reading or watching, only that they are burdened by their very nature as works that “go against the grain”.

However, certain works of Empty World fiction manage to balance a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration with enough action to allow some kind of narrative and character development, all the while avoiding the introduction of other characters. An odd example of this (although it deviates from the rules a little) is Paul Hardy’s Last Man on Earth Club, which tells the story of a “multiverse” in which one particular “version” of Earth monitors all the other “versions”, stepping in and evacuating citizens whenever any one of these “Earths” succumbs to the apocalypse. These multi-versal search-and-rescue missions aren’t always entirely successful, and The Last Man on Earth Club’s narrative is centered on a support group created to help rehabilitate a number of different “Last Man/Woman on Earth” (the only survivors of the destruction of their respective worlds), and is told in both real-time and flashback, the former consisting of the story of the support group and the latter consisting of each survivors story of being the last man/woman on Earth. Hardy manages to have his cake and eat it too, and not only in his successful combination of sole-character action and multi-character action, for his novel is deeply thought-provoking and heavily invested in promoting the importance of the immaterial aspects of life, while the interaction and conflict between characters underlines how integral these themes are, rather than acting as the catalyst for yet another clichéd love triangle.

More “pure” examples of works of Empty World fiction that manage to balance a detailed depiction of a lone character’s psychological disintegration with enough action to allow some kind of narrative and character development can be found in Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work and the film The Noah (1975). The former concerns a man who awakens one day to find that the city he lives in is suddenly devoid of people, an event that has left no bodies behind or physical evidence of its occurrence; the latter concerns a soldier who washes up on a deserted island after World War III has destroyed the rest of civilisation.

Both works are surprisingly action-oriented, not only in the details of how their protagonists “exist” in the real world (finding food, making shelter, keeping themselves entertained, etc.), but also in how their psychological states impinge upon their physical states (whereby both protagonists sometimes literally embody what they are feeling).

As well, both works explore the connections between the protagonists’ actions and emotions, especially in regard to actions that are only really a part of “the world that was” (marching in a military manner, facing forwards in an elevator, locking doors, hiding objects, insisting on privacy, the list is endless). Both works are also incredibly moving, and are even sometimes quite harrowing in the depiction of the disconnect, mental breakdowns, and psychological disintegrations their protagonists experience.

And, while both works may at times be grueling, they never get lost under the weight of their own ideas or take off on digressive flights of fancy. Instead, while not exactly being “page turners”, they nonetheless hold our interest both narratively and thematically, and successfully and intelligently show us a different way of looking at the world, one that humbles us by highlighting the importance of community, social activity, connectivity, love and companionship.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 6/5/2014)

The Australian Renaissance

When it comes to popular Australian apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, two titanic works stand above the rest: On The Beach and Mad Max. Add to that list Victor Kelleher’s Taronga and John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began series – works that were central to many an Australian teenager’s reading life – and you still have a pretty short list. The SF-inclined reader whose interest lies in our own national fictions might recognise names such as George Turner, Terry Dowling, Lee Harding and Steve Amsterdam (authors who have all delved into the end of the world), but their collective body of work has barely dented the public consciousness. Why is this?

Like the rest of the world, our own culture has been somewhat dominated by that of both the UnitedStates and Great Britain. Historically, these two countries were integral to the birth and solidification of SF as a whole and complete genre; while written SF has slowly become a global phenomenon, throwing up inspiring and visionary authors from the four corners and the seven seas, in the oh-so-popular mediums of television and film, Hollywood and London still reign supreme. Barely a month seems to go by without another cinematic symphony of destruction, war, and the end of the world. Is it any wonder, then, that our visions of the apocalypse have been shaped so thoroughly by those who live on distant shores?d

This is a terrible shame, and not just because most end of the world movies nowadays seem more crash-bang action flicks than cerebral or philosophical think pieces. It’s a shame because there has been a rich body of SF work produced right here in Australia, with a rich vein of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic work running through it. While the aforementioned SF-inclined reader with an interest in our national tomorrow-when-the-war-beganfictions will no doubt be aware of this (the numerous studies of Australian SF that began emerging in the late-1970s helped give our own particular approach to the genre a kind of ‘critical’ legitimacy), what has seemed to fly well under the radar is the recent surge of new Australian apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction.

This surge isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. The end of the world is back in fashion, the apocalypse is cool again, and its signs and signifiers have become indelible parts of the global consciousness. There are as many reasons for this as there are mosquitoes in summer: global warming, the GFC, the millions of displaced people living as refugees, climate change, 9/11, increasingly repressive governments in both democracies and dictatorships, food shortages and food riots, international terrorism, and so on and so on. This depressing list of recent history that carries an end-of-days vibe could continue ad nauseam.

Fiction has always been used to help us understand and cope with the horrors and wonders that are an inevitable part of life. Now, more than ever, it has become an increasingly important tool in making sense of our frenetic and seemingly calamitous 21st-century world. Here in Australia, our authors are doing just that – confronting the unique challenges that face us in our island-continent. And they’re doing it with both style and increasing frequency.

In the last twenty-odd years, we’ve seen end of the world novels depicting a future Australia dramatically altered by climate change (Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Andrew Sullivan’s A Sunburnt Country, Andrez Bergen’s Tobacco Stained Mountain Goat), or focussed around the troubled relationship between Indigenous Australians and white Australians (Archie Weller’s Land of the Golden Clouds, Sam Watson’s The Kadaitcha Sung, Peter Docker’s The Waterboys), or centred around gender and sexuality (Sue Isle’s Nightsiders, Kim Westwood’s The Courier’s New Bicycle), or inspired by the particular Australian obsessions with ‘the refugee problem’ and the economy (Andrew McGahan’s Underground, Guy Salvidge’s Yellowcake Springs). In the world of short fiction, small-press publishers such as Twelfth Planet Press and Fablecroft Publishing have blazed a trail, with anthologies such as 2012, Sprawl, After the Rain and Epilogue providing plenty of room for more condensed apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic visions. Hell, we’ve even seen the world get stomped flat by a parade of monsters in Agog!Press’ Daikaiju series.

While not every work mentioned above is great (as such), they are all, nonetheless, interesting. What’s more important is that they are all out there, filled with fascinating perspectives on this great southern land, just waiting to be read. While some have had enough of an impact to garner reviews in the mainstream media, many have remained relatively obscure. This is the biggest shame of all. The more perspectives we have on the potential end of the world, the better we can understand and cope with our fears of it actually happening. What kind of character would we rather see guide us through these scenarios? Another bland American soldier? Another bland English every-man? Or an Australian, whose background we might more easily relate to? And which world would we rather see end? The urban jungle that is New York? The sprawling metropolis of London? Or a city like Melbourne or Sydney, Brisbane or Perth, Adelaide or Darwin – cities that we might call home?

(Originally published on AurealisXpress, 6/5/2014)