The Enduring Influence of Kafka on Speculative Fiction

It is a rare feat for a fiction writer to so heavily influence both literature and culture that their name becomes an adjective used to describe not only the works that they wrote, but also the worldview and perspective that they possessed and shared us with us. In fact, so rare is this feat that we can count on one hand those writers whose names have become common parlance: Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Dickens, Kafka and Orwell. Say the words Machiavellian, Dickensian or Kafkaesque and you’ll probably see a flicker of recognition, even if a person has never read The Prince, Great Expectations or The Trial. Through a combination of authorial ability, individualistic writing styles and historical circumstance, their fictional versions of reality provided brand new ways of seeing and understanding the world, life and existence itself.

What is truly remarkable is that everyone on this list apart from Kafka achieved great success in their own lifetimes, and saw their works vindicated and celebrated – Kafka was a man whose work received scant critical or commercial attention, whose fiction was too all often consigned to obscure journals, who struggled to finish his fictions and never finished some of his novels, who instructed the executors of his estate to burn the entirety of his unpublished works after his death. In the face of such setbacks and confidence blows, it’s a wonder that he managed to produce the works that he did; the fact that his name has become a kind-of shorthand for an entire way of seeing and interpreting the world is nothing short of miraculous.

If Kafka was writing today, he would more than likely be known as a writer of speculative fiction, magic realism, slipstream fiction or trans-realism. Nevertheless, his influence on science fiction is undeniable and enduring. However, it’s the varied devices that Kafka employed in his fiction that are the most influential, rather than his overall style. While quite a few writers have used his style as the basis for their own fiction, Kafka’s worldview and perspective are so incredibly individualistic that these writers cannot help but be compared to him. Novels like Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub and Helen Phillips’ The Beautiful Bureaucrat, and short story collections like George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Manuel Gonzales’ The Miniature Wife and the appropriately titled anthology Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, tend to read as either homages, tributes or satires of Kafka’s style. On the other hand, the adoption by so many science fiction writers of the varied stylistic devices that Kafka employed and combined in his fiction have become so commonplace throughout the genre that they have almost become cliches, and so their connections to Kafka have tended to disappear from view.

Take the kinds of names that Kafka used, especially in his two most widely known novels: The Trial and The Castle. Their respective protagonists are Joseph K and K; in both a narrative and technical sense, names like these are almost completely devoid of personality and individuality, functioning more as identifying ‘tags’ or ‘markers.’ But on a thematic level, these kinds of names function in a very different way: they emphasise the theme of dehumanisation that featured so heavily in Kafka’s work, stripping the protagonists of a sense of identity. Joseph K and K are known this way because their actual names don’t really matter, just as they as people don’t matter. All that does matter are the roles that they fill and perform as part of the almost bureaucratic web that binds together their worlds. They exist, to put it more bluntly, as cogs in the machine rather than as the controllers of their own lives, with their ‘designations’ designed to deny their identities. If all of this is starting to sound a little familiar, that’s because names like these, and the reasoning behind them, underpin myriad dystopian science-fiction stories—it’s no great stretch of the imagination to conceive of THX-1138 as a futuristic version of K. As well, often when we encounter an oppressed or subservient class in science fiction, its denizens are referred to by these kind of technical signifiers rather than by actual names, and when the inevitable rebellion occurs one of the rebels’ first acts is often to reclaim their identities by renaming themselves.

Take Michael Bay’s The Island (2005) as a mainstream example. While the film’s initial promise is quickly smothered by Bay’s shock-and-awe approach to movie-making, its central premise is thorough and sturdy science fiction: people have themselves cloned so that ‘spare parts’ are on hand in case of accident; these clones grow up and live in a self-contained environment, believing that they are the last survivors of a terrible war; when the time comes, the clones are told that they are being sent to the last patch of inhabitable land on Earth, but are instead drugged and harvested for their organs, limbs, blood and so on. It should come as no surprise that the clones bear names like Lincoln Six Echo, Jordan Two Delta and Lima One Alpha—although they don’t know it, these characters exist only for their body parts, and to those who have power over them, they are little more than living machines fulfilling a function within a greater machine, exactly K.

However, it isn’t just names that are regularly missing in Kafka’s work. Quite often, his stories are also devoid of a concrete sense of time, place and historicity. Withholding this kind of information was simply narrative necessity—these things did nothing to advance the themes of his stories, and so didn’t need to be included. In fact, their absence often strengthened his stories, adding another facet to Kafka’s obsession with the threatening and impersonal nature of modern society and the unconscious fears of an individual living in an anonymous landscape. A consequence of this is that Kafka’s ‘voice’ often became cold and detached, as if his protagonists were spectators in their own stories rather than active participants. It is this combination of withheld information and detached narrative voices that has proven influential on a certain style of science fiction, though rarely is the withholding so extreme as that employed by Kafka, and can most prominently be seen in what some have dubbed ‘psy-fi’ (psychological science fiction), best exemplified by the work of J G Ballard. Psy-fi is typically more interested in examining the emotional and psychological ramifications of whichever science fiction idea lies at the core of each story, in contrast to science fiction’s usual focus on exploring the ‘ripple effects’ of the idea itself. Because this examination involves emotional and psychological spaces, once the science fiction device at a story’s core has been established, a concrete sense of time, place and historicity become somewhat insignificant. After all, emotions and psychological states are universal to a large degree, and often tend not to rely on specific geographies and times. In fact, if these kinds of stories are too reliant on these factors, their universality is reduced: These kinds of factors often do nothing to advance the stories and so their relative absence is a narrative necessity, and consequently the narrative ‘voice’ can be read as detached. Supporting this sense of detachment is the fact that authors of psy-fi also often further the exploration of their interests by drawing upon the vocabulary and concepts of psychology, which are necessarily technical and scientific, and thus somewhat dry and detached.

The third device of Kafka’s that has heavily influenced science fiction is his way of structuring the plot of his stories. Rather than using a typical Aristotelian plot—protagonist, antagonist, rising action, climax, denouement—Kafka tended to structure his plots around the elaboration, qualification and evolution of a new and fantastical fact that contradicts the ‘reality’ of his stories. The result is an almost obsessive focus on and examination of one single fantastical idea, rather than a broad observation of the ripple effects created by this idea. Books like William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters, William Sleator’s House of Stairs, Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside, Paul Hardy’s The Last Man on Earth Club and Max Barry’s Machine Man are all, to varying degrees, more concerned with the fantastical idea at their core rather than in exploring the ramifications, consequences and ripple effects of the ideas, as are films such as Cube (1997), John Carpenter’s version of The Thing (1982), Source Code (2011), Primer (2004) and David Cronenberg’s version of The Fly (1986).

However, much like Kafka’s use of a detached voice, the influence of his abandonment of a traditionally Aristotelian plot is rarely as extreme as that which he employed in his own stories. There are some notable exceptions to this, of course, with Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work being perhaps the best example. At face value, it seems like just another ‘Last Man on Earth’ story, but within the first dozen or so pages we soon realise that Glavinic is barely interested in exploring the ‘event’ that caused everyone but the protagonist to disappear. Instead, his focus is on the emotional and psychological ramifications of the event solely as it pertains to the protagonist. There are no other characters and hence no antagonist, no traditional character growth experienced by the protagonist, no real narrative arc or conflict-driven action, and no climax, denouement or actual resolution. Another notable exception is J G Ballard, who employed an obsessive focus on and examination of one single fantastical idea time and time again throughout his career. His novel High Rise is perhaps the best example of this, detailing as it does the descent into savagery and barbarism experienced by the occupants of a futuristic high-rise apartment block. This is Ballard’s focus from the very beginning, and the remainder of the book explores the evolution of this descent in great and painful detail. And while Ballard does use a facsimile of a protagonist-antagonist relationship, this relationship ultimately has little relevance to the book as a whole and is instead presented as just another symptom of the occupants’ descent.

As we have seen, Kafka’s influence on science fiction can be found almost everywhere. From obvious homages, tributes and satires to the more subtle use of the literary devices that he employed, science fiction writers have shown this influence almost since the genre’s inception, even if they didn’t consciously know it. If only the sickly, depressed and ultimately unsuccessful Kafka could have lived to see how heavily his works have influenced those who came after him.

(Originally published in Aurealis #98, March 2017)

Ten 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)

Dressing the Part and the Clothes of the Future

Details matter, in any form of science fiction. I’ve covered similar territory in the past, but I believe that this territory needs to be elaborated on with a more specific focus.

A science fiction idea might be so original, thought-provoking or both that it actually make our hearts race, but it will ultimately be a letdown if its details aren’t internally consistent and contemporaneous with its story’s time period. These details consist of large factors such as dialogue and setting, and what might be called the ‘little things’ (despite their varying degrees of importance to each individual story): Architecture, the role and presence of nature, transportation systems, food and clothing, musical styles and other forms of entertainment, household devices, the presence or lack of cultural vices, domestic environments, the weather, and so on. These little things that exist in the background have to be as watertight as those large factors that exist in foreground, otherwise the story risks quickly becoming dated – if the characters in a story speak like private detectives from the 1940s or hippies from the 1960s, then the stories in question should feature 1940s-style private detectives or 1960s-style hippies. If not, their creator is merely betraying the influence of particular cultural and literary movements of the times in which they were writing. Likewise, if a story is set in a future more then four or five years ahead of the present, then the little things in said story must accommodate this passage of time, even if only in subtle ways – some of these little things will quite probably be the same as they are today, but some will definitely change even if they have to share the stage with their predecessors. The world of 2017 is both different and similar to the worlds of 2012 and 2007 – think the ubiquity of smartphones, the rise of nationalist populism, the dominance of the McMansion and the mainstream integration of the archetypal hipster – and likewise the slang of today will become part of everyday language in a year or two, and then retreat into the realm of daggy and old fashioned a few years after that. In crafting their science fiction worlds, creators must make decisions about which of these factors to address to ensure that these worlds are logical and convincing – nothing removes us from a story and makes us aware of our suspension of disbelief like one of these factors being illogically out of date.

This brings us to clothes and their importance in ensuring that a story is internally consistent. This importance rests upon two distinct reasons: The sense of historicity that is inherent in clothes and ingrained into our cultural psychology, and clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing an individual’s identity. A brief word of warning is necessary before unpacking these ideas, however – I have done no further research on the role of clothes in society, instead relying solely on my own observations and reflections.

In many ways, clothes are one of the chief signifiers of specific time periods, especially since the rise of post-World War 2 youth culture. Even a layperson who knows very little about a time period in question will probably be able to identify clothes belonging to that period, especially if that period is part of the twentieth or twenty-first centuries. Think of hipsters and the rise of activewear in the 2010s, rave and retro in the 2000s, grunge and homies in the 1990s, hair metal and bigger-than-big in the 1980s, disco and punk in the 1970s, hippies and mods in the 1960s, rockers and apple-pie-American in the 1950s, all the way back to the flappers and bohemians of the 1920s. Even in the far-flung past, clothes are still one of the chief signifiers of the times – think of gladiator sandals and togas, top hats and monocles, suits of armour and leather jerkins, buckle-up shoes and pantaloons. Even those will little interest in history will probably be able to identity these items as respectively belonging to the ancient Middle East and the Mediterranean, Victorian England, Medieval England and Renaissance Europe. With just a glance, these types of clothes establish a specific time period, and when used in a story they effectively ‘place’ it in time and consequently ‘bleed’ contextual associations and historical references (a point that we’ll return to). In written fiction, for example, the description of a character in a Victorian-era story as being dressed in ‘top hat and tails, sporting a cane and a monocle’ allows us to take an educated guess at the story’s time period, extend by association this manner of dress to the other characters and make inferences about the rest of its world (once again, a point that we’ll return to). In other words, with a few judicious touches in terms of describing clothes, a writer allows the reader to fill in the blanks thanks to their prior cultural knowledge of the story’s time period. Visual fiction is different, of course, as we are able to see the clothes of every character that appears on screen. What remains the same is the principle: The inherent historicity of clothes.

The upside of this historicity is that, for the same reasons as it allows a story to be ‘placed’ in time, it also allows a story to be ‘displaced’ if taken advantage of. On one hand, nothing screams futuristic like a dramatic and striking change to the clothes that people wear. On the other hand, if a creator is more interested in showing how even in the future some things might never change, then the inclusion of clothes from our present amongst the story’s futuristic mise-en-scene is a simple and effective way of doing so.

In terms of bedding-down the futuristic setting of a story, the use of clothes in A Clockwork Orange (1971) is still the example set for every other piece of visual science fiction, despite its age and the fact that much of the rest of the film has become dated. Even today, just one look at the uniforms/gang-colours worn by Alex and his droogs tells us that the film takes place in a science fiction future connected to and yet distinct from history as we know it. This can be seen in the contrast between their all-white jumpsuits and codpieces with their black bowler hats and bovver-boy boots: The jumpsuits and codpieces signify the future – all-white being one of the defining colours used to illustrate this – while the hats and boots connect the story to the real world through their inherent historicity (Victorian-era and punk). In combination, a sense of displacement is created, effectively defamiliarising the familiar and presenting it anew. And while dressing gangs and teams et al in matching uniforms/colours is an ancient part of our culture, and so could be used to argue that A Clockwork Orange takes place in some kind-of alternate past, the futurism of the droogs’ outfits also extends to the clothes worn by the secondary and background characters. Velvet, silk and polyester; lace, frills and oversized buttons; burnt primary colours; scarves, ruffles and brocade – it’s as the clothes worn by its characters are a mish-mash of fashions from the Georgian and Victorian eras and the 1970s, in a future that is taking place not long after our own present has concluded.

In terms of using clothes to show how even in the future some things might never change, Alien (1979) is probably still the example to which all other works of visual science fiction will be compared. Unlike A Clockwork Orange, its future is radically removed from our present, as it concerns a spaceship in deep space and the crew’s battle with a hostile alien that they inadvertently bring on board. However, even though this future is far removed from our present, when the crew are revealed we see that they’re wearing work shirts, coveralls, bomber jackets and sturdy boots, with each member sporting individual touches to their uniforms. If these clothes sound familiar that’s because they’re the quintessential outfit of a blue-collar worker – a factory hand, garbo, street sweeper, labourer, cleaner, gardener or mechanic et al. And that’s exactly what the crew are. They aren’t typical science fiction heroes – scientists, explorers, soldiers etc.– but people working a blue-collar job with all its pitfalls: Bad pay, lousy conditions, unsociable hours, unsafe environments. These associations and others (a sense that the characters will be practical, down-to-earth, unpretentious and maybe a little rough) immediately come to mind the first time we see the crew, thanks to the historicity attached to their uniforms. In other words, these clothes help define and emphasise the characters’ blue-collar traits, unlike in A Clockwork Orange where the primary purpose of the clothes on display is to solidify the film’s futuristic mise-en-scene.

The second reason why clothes are important in ensuring that a story is internally consistent is because of clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing our individual personalities. They might identify us as being a particular type of person – sporty and active, in the case of exercise wear and muscle tops; outdoorsy and practical, in the case of solid boots and durable fabrics; relaxed and comfortable, in the case of thongs and shorts; narcissistic and vain, in the case of revealing or obviously expensive attire. Furthermore, they can identify us belonging to a specific subculture or social group: Punk, goth, surfie, hippy, raver. Lastly, they can also identify us as belonging to a particular socio-economic segment, from the previously mentioned boilersuits all the way up to bespoke business suits. As we can see, clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing our individual identities is actually an exchange between the wearer and witness. For the wearer, their clothes are an expression, a part of their personality that they have decided to show the world. For the witness, however, they are an identifier, even if the identity thrust upon them is a stereotype or generalisation.

When harnessed by a competent creator, these two factors can be an incredible tool for establishing a well-rounded character. By relying on the audience’s cultural awareness of clothes, a creator can use them in their fictions as a kind-of shorthand, whereby the associations they conjure are used by the audience to fill in the blanks and add layers of meaning. Think of Deckard’s overcoat in Bladerunner (1982). We immediately associate such attire with hardboiled private detectives of the Phillip Marlowe-type, and so we make assumptions about his character, ascribing to him traits such as cynicism, world-weariness, possession of an individual moral code and bachelorhood (which is fitting for perhaps the greatest science-fiction noir ever created). A creator using clothes to instigate this process of association-assumption-attribution is employing one of the ultimate forms of ‘show, don’t tell’ – when supported by appropriate mise-en-scene, a massive amount of narrative information can be encoded into something as simple as a hat, a coat or a pair of shoes. For other examples, think of Max’s leathers in the Mad Max series (1979-1985, 2015), which tell us so much about his scavenger-nature, practicality and ability to handle himself in a fight; or the chrome sunglasses and shiny black coats of The Matrix (1999), which mark their wearers as fully-fledged cyberpunks; or the way different outfits are used to differentiate each incarnation of the titular Doctor Who (1963-1989, 2005-2017), from the shabby bohemian-chic of Patrick Troughton’s cosmic-hobo portrayal of the character, to the linen suits and cricket-influenced attire of Peter Davidson’s English-gentlemen portrayal, to the young-man-in-tweed-and-a-bow-tie of Matt’s Smith whimsical portrayal. In each case, what these characters wear helps us create a story for them outside of that proscribed by the creator, whilst simultaneously allowing the creator to designate the character in their own particular way.

As we’ve seen, clothes matter if a story is aiming to be internally consistent and contemporaneous with its time period, and if its creator wants their audience to remain somewhat ignorant of their suspension of disbelief. As well, the sense of historicity inherent in clothes and ingrained into our cultural psychology allows a futuristic setting to be more convincing than it would otherwise, while clothes’ contribution towards shaping and expressing an individual’s identity is a fantastic way of quickly and easily giving a character depth. But no matter which way clothes are used, a creator must show an awareness of these functions if they want to create the best story they can.

(Previously unpublished)


Is Climate Fiction the New Black?

It is unarguable that science fiction is intimately connected to the real world. Now, this may seem like a contradiction—one of the defining features of the genre is that its worlds are expressly disconnected from our own, be they via futuristic settings, uber-advanced technology, or a combination of the two – but as the renowned science-fiction critic Heather Urbanski said: ‘science fiction is the literature of the reality we live in.’ However, this ‘reality we live in’ isn’t always merely connected to the work of science fiction at hand, but can also be commented on, in a process similar to that of realist fiction (think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and colonialism; or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the Beat Generation; or Christos Tsoilkas’ The Slap and 21st-century Australian life).

Of course, not every piece of science fiction comments on the real world: sometimes a space opera is just a romp, a piece of cyberpunk is just crime-noir in fancy dress, and an alien-invasion story is just an excuse for an old-fashioned ‘shoot ‘em up.’ But almost since its inception, some science-fiction writers and creators (indeed, many of them) have drawn explicit connections and made direct commentaries on the times in which they lived and the way their world was (the ‘reality’ they lived in, if you will). These explicit connections and direct commentaries are sometimes subtle and sometimes heavy-handed, and often do more than simply act as unique structural and/or framing device, or serve as a metatextual ‘wink’ at the informed reader. Instead, they can often enrich a story by providing a sense of relevancy and emotional depth: we see our world existing within the story (even if it’s just below the surface), meet the kinds of characters/people that we might actually know and interact with, and can relate to their situations and sympathise with their plights. In the end, if these techniques are handled with skill and flair, the resulting texts often move from the realm of ‘good’ into the rarefied air of ‘classic.’ Take the following short-ish list of classics as an example:

  • The Island of Doctor Moreau—H.G. Wells
  • The War of the Worlds—H.G. Wells
  • 1984—George Orwell
  • The Martian Chronicles—Ray Bradbury
  • Fahrenheit 451—Ray Bradbury
  • The Body Snatchers—Jack Finney
  • Make Room! Make Room!—Harry Harrison
  • Stand on Zanzibar—John Brunner
  • The Forever War—Joe Haldeman
  • Neuromancer—William Gibson
  • The Postman—David Brin
  • Ender’s Game—Orson Scott Card
  • Jurassic Park—Michael Crichton
  • Snow Crash—Neal Stephenson

Now look to this list of historical real-world problems, events, controversies, political discourses, and cultural changes that each text explicitly connects to and directly comments on—once the connections and commentaries are spelled out, it becomes almost impossible to see each book outside of its real-world influences:

  • The then-emerging science and ethics of vivisection (The Island of Doctor Moreau)
  • The English class system, and English colonial expansion (The War of the Worlds)
  • Governmental intrusion into private life, totalitarianism, and social conformity (1984)
  • Race relations, and the emergence of postcolonial theories (The Martian Chronicles)
  • Governmental censorship, and social conformity (Fahrenheit 451)
  • McCarthyism, social conformity and the Cold War (The Body Snatchers)
  • Overpopulation, famine, and the corporatisation of culture (Make Room! Make Room! and Stand on Zanzibar)
  • The Vietnam War and its attendant cultural and psychological consequences (The Forever War)
  • Punk culture, the influence of computing and the incipient internet on ordinary people, and the corporatisation of culture (Neuromancer)
  • The rise of U.S. conservatism and the Cold War of the 1980s (The Postman)
  • The arms race between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. and the emergence of ever more destructive weaponry (Ender’s Game)
  • The late-century advances in genetics and cloning (Jurassic Park)
  • The globalised and ‘melting-pot’ nature of society, and the growing impact of the internet on society (Snow Crash)

All of this brings us, in a roundabout way, to climate fiction and its apparent position as the dominant science-fiction subgenre of our times.

Authors like Margaret Atwood (the MaddAddam trilogy), Kim Stanley Robinson (the Red Mars trilogy, the Science in the Capital series) and Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl, The Water Knife) have become elders of the climate fiction field, paving the way for others to follow. Their works are both warning and prophecy, asking necessary and urgent questions, positing scenarios and outcomes that many would rather avoid confronting. Some authors have even found their works shoehorned into the ‘literary fiction’ category, such is the growing crossover appeal of the subgenre—in many a reputable bookstore, you’ll find works such as Clare Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road shelved in the highfaluting literature section, rather than in the ghettoes of science fiction. Even here in Australia, some science fiction/speculative fiction writers have embraced the trappings and tropes of climate fiction—Steven Amsterdam refreshes the post-apocalyptic subgenre in Things We Didn’t See Coming by having his protagonist live through a series of climate change-induced catastrophes; in Peter Docker’s The Waterboys, climate fiction is one of the many subgenres included in its hybridised form, and the sub-genre’s specific attributes underpin both the novel’s narrative and its world. And if further evidence is needed of climate fiction’s increasing reach and influence, look no further than the fact that the winner of this year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel went to NJ Jemisin for her novel The Fifth Season, which is a richly-detailed and thoroughly terrifying story of a planet undergoing a series of cascading climate change-induced catastrophes.

Climate fiction explores the potentially drastic consequences and endpoints of climate change, in terms of its effects on the environment, society and the individual. It tends to be much more realistic in nature; instead of a focus on uber-advanced technologies or outer space, it is all about Earth and our ability to survive and adapt to the environmental devastation we’ve collectively wrought. Some works heavily rely on current scientific theories regarding the consequences of climate change, and on rigorous and realistic extrapolations of these theories; while most tend to examine the political, societal and psychological dimensions of living with a changed climate.

Is climate fiction a brand new subgenre? Or has it just become pre-eminent, befitting the fact that climate change is ‘our’ era-defining global problem (in much the same way as the Cold War during the 1950s and 1980s, as overpopulation and the rise of the counterculture during the 1960s and 1970s, and as the increasing reach of the internet and the globalisation of culture during the 1990s)? While the difference between these two questions may seem slight, what the answer says about the relationship between science fiction and society is important to both fans of the genre and the wider world.

As we all are no doubt aware, climate change isn’t exactly a ‘new’ problem—the by-products and consequences of humanity’s inevitable technological and industrial progress have been having a negative effect on the natural environment for as long as we’ve been around. However, ever since the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world and wrought massive changes to societies and to humanity’s relationship with nature, these effects have steadily become ever-more detrimental to the health of ourselves and our planet. Some far-sighted and thoughtful people saw these changes coming long before the general public did, but their protests and prognostications were mostly confined to the margins and overlooked. However, with the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s came an accompanying rise in the awareness of our collective impact on the environment. This awareness steadily grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s as the evidence of this impact started pouring in, confirming that the damage was becoming worse and that the by-products of our way of life were changing the climate itself. During this initial rise in awareness—and arguably beginning even earlier—certain science-fiction writers could read the writing on the wall (as it were), and created futuristic scenarios and settings that were an extrapolation and forward-projection of humanity’s negative impact on the environment.

And so the sub-genre of climate fiction was born.

You only need to look at books like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass/The Death of Grass, JG Ballard’s The Drought and Brian Aldiss’ Earthworks to see this. Respectively published in 1951, 1956 and 1965, each of these books makes explicit the link between the by-products of humanity’s technological and industrial progress and the despoiled environments that their characters call home. And even though some readers may only see these books as post-apocalyptic narratives with a slightly different twist, the fact that these links are emphasised so heavily is something that I believe makes them a sub-genre all of their own. Of course, this line of thinking is helped by the fact that, as time marched on and this ecological awareness steadily grew during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, more and more of these futuristic scenarios and settings began appearing. However, despite this growing awareness, climate change still remained something of a ‘fringe’ concern.

Despite the arguments of some misguided, stubborn-minded and disbelieving people, the science is settled: climate change is here, and it’s here to stay unless people as a whole get their act together quick-smart. It has become about as mainstream an issue as issues get; when you see advertisements for solar-panels during the football, infomercials about using water wisely during the cricket, community awareness campaigns for the victims of climate-change disasters broadcast during the tennis, and reports of unseasonal droughts and floods on the commercial news and in commercial newspapers, you know that awareness of climate change has moved from the fringe to the centre. And when we consider the fact that what was once considered a problem of the future has now become a problem of today—when we open our eyes and see that climate change is here, and that it heralds a bleak future—it should come as no surprise that science-fiction writers and creators have embraced this mainstream awareness and used it as a lynchpin for their stories.

This is what science fiction does: it takes the problems of today and shows them to us in a new light, sometimes as a warning and sometimes just for entertainment. And seeing as though a future in which the climate has changed (as opposed to changing) seems to be hurtling towards us at speed, the rapid rise and reach of this particular type of science fiction should come as no surprise. This why works by writers like Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi and Clare Vaye Watkins et al are so important—good science fiction, like all good writing, is watertight, logical and thoroughly convincing. The type of climate fiction practised by these and other ‘quality’ writers is one whose own internal rules and climate-induced endpoints are both consistent and plausible, two factors that make the warnings contained within all the more frightening.

It’s no wonder that climate fiction is the hottest thing since sliced bread or the invention of the wheel. And I for one wouldn’t have it any other way—we need all the warnings we can get, and anything that increases our awareness of the dangers posed by climate change and offers up potential solutions and ways of adapting to it can only help.

(Originally published in Aurealis #94, September 2016)

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)

The Rise of the New Weird

21st-century science fiction and fantasy narratives are very different from that of the 20th, both in terms of what writers and filmmakers are producing and in terms of what audiences expect and desire. Much has been written on these differences in regard to fantasy – especially on the boom in Big Fat Fantasy novels as an escapist-driven response to the events of 9/11 – but far fewer words have been written on the changes permeating science fiction. This disparity in critical and cultural attention caught my attention and piqued my interest, especially after I stumbled across an article describing one of the changes affecting contemporary science fiction: the rise of what some critics are calling “the new weird.”

From one point of view, the new weird could perhaps be described as the latest catchphrase/label adorning works of science fiction that don’t really fit into the genre’s mould. On the other hand, Sofia Samatar, one of the leading lights of the new weird field, describes it as form of fiction that has “a complicated relationship to genre. It might blend genres or overturn their conventions, while still remaining clearly anti-realist.” Another way of looking at it is as the re-emergence of a long dormant form of writing that has been around almost as long as science fiction itself, a form whose tropes, themes and forms were set and shaped by authors as diverse as H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. Yet another way of looking at it, according to JS Breukelaar, another leading light of the field, is as a form of fiction that “represents the desire for or pursuit of some hidden principle beyond the mundane.” The truth, I daresay, lies somewhere in between these different perspectives – the new weird might best be described as a kind of post-postmodern fiction that blur genres and forms, resists realism, and rests upon a foundation the blends elements of what we now call science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Take Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy as an illustrative example. The basic premise at its core is pure science fiction: a region of land in North America has been changed through unfathomable extra-terrestrial means, its physics, topography and ecology becoming suddenly unearthly, so much so that the region is quickly dubbed “Area X.” However, within this science fictional framework exist elements of a multitude of other genres, all of which work together to create something greater than the individual parts. The creatures and beings that inhabit Area X – dolphins with human eyes, shuffling monstrosities that resemble transmogrified humans – seem born of the kind of body-horror made famous by David Cronenberg; Area X’s own peculiar geographic features – mysterious tunnels and cave systems, abandoned lighthouses that seem to have once played host to massacres and murders, lonely forests and swamps – evoke traditional elements of horror; the governmental agency charged with investigating Area X seems inspired by the kind of absurdist bureaucratic nightmare narratives made famous by Kafka; and the vast psychological changes experienced by the personnel sent to explore Area X are undoubtedly influenced by the kind of psychological-fiction pioneered by JG Ballard, an author whose work could easily be called a precursor to the new weird.

But this is a digression. The important thing to keep in mind is that the manner in which you interpret the new weird in no way diminishes it or the importance of its rise. The real question to ask in terms of its rise is: Why? Why is a subgenre that has traditionally been seen as an odd diversion on the way to the main attraction now experiencing an upswing in popularity?

The correct answer is, of course: Who knows? This rise is far too current to have been studied in any real depth, and the vagaries of the publishing industry are too arcane to deliver satisfaction. But I have a hunch, a hunch borne from something as cursory as a glance at my fellow passengers on a peak-hour train.

That’s right – I see smartphones as the cause of this rise. Or, to be more specific, what smartphones represent.

To make it plain: advanced technology has become so ubiquitous in modern Western society that it no longer seems to awe us. When you carry in your pocket a device the size of a notepad that can instantly access almost the entirety of recorded knowledge and store as many photos, videos and songs as you wish, then why wouldn’t you be a little blasé about our relationship to technology? Especially the core-technology at the heart of this device is almost unbelievably more sophisticated than that which put a man on the moon, The same thinking applies to driverless cars and cars that park themselves; to realistic three-dimensional holograms fronting live bands and computer created pop-stars; to a planned Mars mission made feasible thanks to reality TV; to GPS tracking and facial recognition scanners; to the dominance of social media and the almost total penetration of the internet; and to skyscrapers and apartment buildings that are almost arcologies, and rise to heights undreamt of only a few years ago.

Even something as mundane as a peak-hour train ride makes me feel like our present resembles a science fiction future from yesteryear. To quote JG Ballard: “Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” The only real difference is that in our present, everything has become science fiction – what was once a fanciful genre has now become our reality.

In light of this, it should really come as no surprise that the new weird has become so popular. After all, even though nowadays we might not be awed by advanced technology, there is still something that fascinates and enthrals us, something that lies at the heart of the new weird: the mysteries of human nature, the bizarreness of human behaviour, and the beguiling impulses and contradictions that drive us. I see these oh-so-human characteristics and traits as underpinning the new weird: one thing that the subgenre always seems to do is to turn science fiction’s typically outward gaze inwards, examining how we as people might react to the strange events, circumstances and beings populating its narratives, rather than simply focussing on the make-up and existence of these things themselves. And yes, this kind of examination also occurs in other forms of science fiction, but in the new weird it is pushed to the foreground and becomes the root of the story rather than the branch.

To put it another way: the strange events, circumstances and beings that populate the new weird function as analogues of the impenetrable mysteries and rich and weird variety of life, and the examination of these things and of our own relationship and reaction to them, mirrors our own fascination with those aspects of the real-world that we can’t really explain. When the “outer” world no longer seems to captivate and awe us, and when so many of its mysteries have been explained and so much of its weirdness has been reconciled by science and therefore made mundane, our thoughts then turn to that which is still inexplicable and bizarre, no matter how hard science tries to rationalise and explain it: the human mind, human behaviour, and our own individual psychologies. In a world where a vast portion of the population doesn’t have access to clean water, and yet people are seemingly more interested in finding this water on other planets, the only real question to ask is: why? And it is these kinds of questions underlining the complexity and perplexing nature of human behaviour and thinking that the new weird is ultimately interested in examining.

(Previously unpublished)



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)