In Defence Of Ordinary

Nowadays, it seems that most of the fantastical places that exist within science fiction and its sub-genres (post-apocalyptic fiction, superhero narratives, teen dystopias, literary genre fiction, and so on) only serve to to let us explore The End Of The World™, to the point that it almost feels like you can’t sit down to watch a movie or television show without being confronted by yet another variation on the apocalypse or yet another depiction of humanity under threat (written fiction is a different matter, and shall be dealt with at a different time).

Even though these ‘visual fictions’ can use the fantastical places existing within them to frame an exploration of a million different themes and ideas, for many of their creators it seems that the end of the world and threats to humanity have somehow become the sole themes worth exploring. Consequently, these two themes then serve as the default endpoints for their narrative structures – it’s as if the only way to now end a science fiction story is by having the protagonists confront a fast-approaching extinction event or apocalyptic moment. These endpoints, of course, have an ‘echo’ effect regarding the narrative events preceding them, whereby the various characters’ actions, choices, attitudes and evolving psychological natures really only reach resolution in the face of the fast-approaching extinction or apocalypse. In other words, the character development and character-based confrontations that do occur usually serve only to set-up their eventual resolutions during the endpoint. When done well, combining the personal story of characters resolving their differences with the action story of the characters confronting the extinction event or apocalyptic moment can create an interesting textual fusion. Sadly, all-too-often it just adds another layer of ‘noise’ to the mess of action and spectacle, and frequently seems perfunctory and underdone.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. By conflating character development with narrative resolution, these kinds of fictions deny us the very things that allow us to lose ourselves in a story: empathy and connection. By definition, none of us have experience of an alien invasion, or a destructive AI (or any kind of AI for that matter), or a complete ecological collapse, or people who can fly or possess super strength, or a war against robots. Therefore, none of us can ‘directly’ relate to these situations. But what we can directly relate to are character traits that we all share, the things that make us all human, the things that define all of us: love, community, companionship, joy, purpose. And let’s not forget their more negative but equally important correlates: anger, hate, loneliness, unhappiness, ennui and angst.

These are the triumphs and tragedies that make us who and what we are; they represent the wonder, horror, beauty and ugliness that is life. For want of a better word, they are ‘ordinary’ things, so everyday and everywhere that we are often barely even consciously thinking of them.

And it seems like nowadays a lot of people think that ‘ordinary’ equals ‘boring’.

This kind of disdain isn’t only seen in the proliferation and popularity of narratives that revolve around yet another variation on the end of the world or yet another depiction of humanity under threat at the expense of character development or emotional exploration; we also see it in certain critical reactions to those fictions that eschew this fascination with extinction events and impending apocalypses and instead turn their focus on smaller and more ‘ordinary’ themes. Take James Mangold’s The Wolverine (2013), Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015) and Drew Goddard’s Daredevil (2015) as just examples (superhero narratives are fitting subjects for examination, as they seem to constantly be one-upping each other in terms of the dangers faced within). While none of these fictions are ‘perfect’ (if such a thing as a ‘perfect’ fiction even exists), Mangold, Reed and Goddard should be commended for restricting the scope of their narratives and focusing on character-driven and emotion-rich stories where the fate of the world isn’t at stake – they are ‘smaller’ and more intimate than their kin, dealing with themes of betrayal, loyalty, family, redemption, guilt and responsibility. Instead, a significant number of critics chided them for their more human focus and less over-the-top approach, bandying about belittling yet superficially polite terms such as ‘modest’, ‘humble’, ‘small scale’ and ‘perfectly fine’. At times, the word ‘boring’ was even used to describe the emphasis on character and development over that of spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; not because the particular scenes highlighted were actually boring but because they slowed the momentum or detracted from the action or didn’t include a fight scene every 15-minutes.

Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is another film that received this kind of dismissive critical reception, despite Edwards’ declared intention to give his version of the pop-culture icon a sense of realism (and therefore a sense of ‘ordinariness’). While the film does have its flaws – some of the dialogue is stilted and some of the acting is wooden, and Edwards’ decision to somewhat obscure Godzilla himself rather than show him outright is sometimes taken too far – the line between criticism of technique and criticism of style and thematic intent is blurred. Take the character of Brody as an example. His tendency to look a little blank-faced, to speak in a bit of monotone, to obey orders almost without a thought, and to pare his syntax back to its bare essentials, could be chiefly explained in one of two ways: bad writing and bad acting, or the realistic actions of a soldier in the field who has been trained to be proactive and to make split-second decisions. When we take this second line of thinking further, and take into account the fact that Brody has suddenly found himself not only orphaned but also unable to know whether his own wife and child are alive or dead, his slightly robotic movements, flat speech patterns and almost-automatic behaviour starts to look more like a form of auto-pilot suffered by a soldier undergoing a type of PTSD whilst simultaneously having to keep on fighting. A similar dual perspective exists when we look at the character of Dr Serizawa. His transition from action-oriented character to one that looks on with glazed eyes and a slack jaw could be attributed to overacting and bad writing, unless we consider the fact that he has suddenly had his life’s work vindicated in the most terrible of ways. If we can imagine what he would actually be feeling – if we can put ourselves in his head and imagine the churning emotions, the mixture of elation at being proved right and relief at finally finding an answer after years of searching and horror at what that answer means – then we can see that his almost-complete blankness is actually a fairly appropriate response to what is happening.

These men aren’t supposed to be supermen; they aren’t supposed to just shrug off these incredible and devastating events and creatures or make a smart-arse quip or get their flirt on. And yet it’s almost as if people have come to expect just about every science fiction character to be more than human, even in films as avowedly realist as Godzilla. It’s as if they expect these kinds of characters to be able to shoulder any burden and smile while doing so, or be able to patch-up a damaged relationship and fight off aliens at the same time. And so they’re disappointed when these characters are anything less than godlike. The end result? More and more films and TV shows that sacrifice story, substance and emotional weight for action, spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; poorer and far-less immersive narratives; and far fewer characters like those above, who behave in a realistic way in the face of something that’s almost beyond understanding, and either freeze or become automatic.

I know which themes, techniques, characters and styles I prefer. And I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that most of us would respond in the exact same as Brody or Dr Serizawa.

(Originally published on Aurealis Blog, 31/7/2015)

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)

Why it’s Important to Focus on the Small Stuff

Science Fiction is a genre that unfortunately easily becomes out-of-date. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise—it is explicitly concerned with conjuring up the future and, as history has shown, reality often pales in comparison with the boundless reach of our imaginations. As well, what someone from the past might have pictured as the future is quite possibly our present. For example, the fictional 21st centuries that existed in the collective imaginations of writers from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s (and so on) have been superseded by the passage of time—the 21st Century is now both our reality and our present, and it is more than likely that our contemporary world bears little resemblance to the fictional 21st century worlds dreamed up throughout the 20th Century.

I still remember an anthology that I once owned, entitled Astounding Tales of the Fantastic or some such sensationalistic ridiculousness (a title that is really just a product of its time—my rather derisive and somewhat unfair description a product of historical hindsight). This particular anthology was first published in the late 1940s and featured tales of the great domed cities of the early 21st Century, and the one- world government that emerged in the 1990s, and the mighty jungles that devoured the world as the 20th Century drew to a close. Not every science fiction writer can be as piercingly prescient as Arthur C Clarke, George Orwell or William Gibson (the first people to think up such everyday parts of contemporary life as satellites, mass technological surveillance and the internet), and nor should we expect them to be.

But we would hope for some consistency of vision in the way that they imagine the future.

Now, some people might dismiss focusing on this ‘consistency of vision’, considering it just another form of nit-picking or evidence that I have too much time on my hands. But this is to glance over what I consider a fundamental truth regarding science fiction: no matter how inspired any particular author’s ‘big idea’, their narratives will always be let down if the minutiae of everyday life in the world they’ve created isn’t thought-out carefully to reflect its futuristic setting. It’s all well and good to create a story in which, for example, an extra-terrestrial delegation spontaneously appears at the UN in the year 2050, or in which a rebellion occurs on a mining-station on one of Jupiter’s moons circa 2091, or in which social-media mutates into a dangerous pseudo-AI sometime in the near future. The hard part is making the world in which these events take place consistent: the above scenarios and those like them will inevitably prove unsatisfying if the language, entertainment, architecture, social customs, political systems, presence of government, ubiquity and availability of technology, modes of public and private transport, and wealth and class divides underpinning them aren’t brought up to ‘future speed’.

Likewise, if the characters in any particular story tend to speak like techno-nerds from the 1990s, or private investigators from the 1950s, or self-discovery fanatics from the 1970s, then the particular narratives that they inhabit really should feature 1990s-style techno-nerds or private investigators from the 1950s or 1970s-style self- discovery fanatics. Otherwise, the author is simply betraying the influence of some of the dominant cultural and literary voices of the particular time in which she/he is writing. Unless, of course, this is the actual purpose of his/her narrative: narratives based upon postmodern game-playing, attempts at creating hybridised genres, self- reflexive satires and send-ups.

Some examples might be in order. However, when it comes to ‘bad’ examples— whereby some science fiction authors focus on the ‘big idea’ to the detriment of the everyday—I won’t be naming and shaming. Most of us have read some bad science fiction; just about all of us have seen bad science fiction on the big screen; and this isn’t the place to jeer and sneer.

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is still the definitive example of the way that changing or reinventing the language that characters speak can dramatically increase the authenticity of a future world. Burgess’ creation of ‘Nadsat’ and his decision to have the narrative told from a first-person point-of-view means that we are almost immediately confronted by this unique slang-language, and consequently ‘thrown’ into its futuristic setting. Alex—the narrator—is so at ease with Nadsat and uses it so readily that his voice feels almost completely authentic. It evokes a particular world, in much the same way that the Millennial Generation’s use of words such as ‘totes’ and ‘like’ and ‘awesome’ evokes our contemporary world, and exclamations such as ‘radical’ and ‘excellent’ and ‘gnarly’ evoke the world of the 1990s, and so on. This sense of authenticity is only increased thanks to the amount of attention both Burgess (in the written version) and director Stanley Kubrick (in his filmic adaptation) devoted to other aspects of the world of A Clockwork Orange. The way that its political and social systems operate, the way that its characters entertain themselves, the presence of the media, the architecture of the buildings that make up its cities, the food and drink that its characters consume, the music that they listen to, the way that they live, the way that they dress—Burgess and Kubrick don’t miss a detail in keeping their respective visions of a future world consistent. This gives the text an almost concrete sense of time and place; but instead of existing as part of a historical continuum, the sense of time and place that permeates A Clockwork Orange exists in a future that we never want to see.

Two slightly more recent science fiction films will perhaps better illustrate the point, especially in regards to some of the more minor details that many authors and creators tend to overlook. Bladerunner (1982) and Back to the Future 2 (1989) might seem to have little in common: the former is sombre and serious, while the latter is shiny and ‘fun’, aside from its few dark moments. However, the attention to detail and dedication to a consistency of vision shown by directors Ridley Scott (Bladerunner) and Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future 2) is something that unites both films.


From the melting pot of languages that combine to form its street-slang to the neon pyramids that dominate its skyline, from the ‘high’ technology that permeates its characters’ lives to the design of their homes and workplaces, from the ever-present flying cars to the immense billboards held aloft by blimps, from its depiction of the class and wealth divide to its focus on life at ‘street-level’, from the postmodern and scattergun-style of the clothes that its characters wear to the hairstyles they sport and the affectations they exhibit, the future world of Bladerunner seems wholly realised and almost concrete enough to touch. It might have been created in the 1980s, but there isn’t a single ‘dude’ to be seen and there aren’t really any cultural references to date it. This makes Bladerunner somehow feel both timeless and real: it is obviously intended to be a futuristic extension of our own world, and yet it has undoubtedly moved on in terms of its visual look, social-customs, use of language and technological dependence.

Isn’t this true of our own world? Look around you—some of the things there that you can see and touch and hear might share a link to the past, and we may be able to trace these things back into history. But that history is basically static, existing outside time. It only affects the present in an abstract and tenuous way, operating as an influence rather than as an actual aspect of reality. The only concrete pieces of it that do continue on into the present are those monuments and architectural marvels big enough to withstand Mother Nature. And all the while, these links to the past also exist alongside a host of contemporary items, attitudes, customs, visual cues, and words and phrases that both threaten the past with obsolescence, and are effectively ‘brand new’ and yet to possess a history of their own. In this line of thinking, the ‘real’ present is made up of the contemporary world cramming on top of the historical world and slowly turning it into something that it isn’t.

As well, those things that share a link with the past also tend to serve as reminders of the gap that exists between them and the ‘brand new’ and begin to move into the realm of symbolism. Think of outdated clothes and objets d’art that become hip when labelled retro, or the appropriation of 1980s fashion by the Millennial Generation, or the hipster tendency to look like an old-fashioned university professor or a librarian from the 1950s. Artefacts of the past such as these seem to almost solely be viewed from the perspective of the present, rather than as objects of their time. They become a reference to a culture rather than part of that culture itself, an acknowledgment and appreciation of it that is selective and affectionate and often ironic. As I look around my own desk, I see a Rubik’s Cube-shaped pencil holder alongside a laptop, an iPod perched on top of a paperback from the 1960s, a ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster that was produced on a laser-printer, an eco-bulb in an antique lamp, a Panama hat that was made by a machine in China, a rotary telephone and a wireless modem…

Funnily enough, the fact that Bladerunner takes a subtle approach in its depiction of this postmodern-ish aspect of contemporary life is perhaps the only thing that dates it. It is a product of the early 1980s, after all, and it barely needs mentioning that the hyper-aware, technologically dependent, a-historical and culturally diverse world that we now live in began to properly evolve during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then exploded in the early 21st Century to become a defining ‘sign of the times’. In contrast to Bladerunner, Back to the Future 2 successfully integrates its imagined future world with the zeitgeist that was building up steam during its production (the late 1980s). Think of the 3D advertisement for yet another Jaws sequel, or the numerous inexplicable gadgets that clutter the McFly’s home, or the traffic jams of flying cars, or the inescapable communications technology that connects everyone, or the obviously-fake 1950s-style diner that Biff and his gang use as a meeting place, or the mish-mash of architecture in which old buildings still remain but are crowded and overshadowed by modern monstrosities. Most telling is the fact that while a lot of surface appearances have changed, what lies beneath is still identifiable with our own world. Young people still ride skateboards, only now they’re ‘hoverboards’; jeans, t- shirts, bomber jackets and sneakers are still de rigueur American casual wear, only now the sneakers lace themselves up and the jackets dry themselves and the jeans are worn inside-out; men still wear business suits to work, only now the suits are weird and a little boxy and undeniably not-of-this-time; families still bicker around the dinner table, only now they eat bizarre pre-packaged and dehydrated meals.

While in these details we see a mocking affirmation of the old adage that ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, we also can’t overlook the amount of attention paid to them in-and-of-themselves. While they undoubtedly work as both comment and satire, they also ensure Zemeckis’ consistency of vision in the presentation of his future world—there is very little that betrays the film’s status as a work of the 1980s, aside from surface appearances. In much the same way that the detailed component parts underlying the world of Bladerunner combine to give it a concrete sense of authenticity, the attention paid to the component parts of the future world of Back to the Future 2 helps make it feel like a true extension of our present. There is also something more serious contained within these details: an acknowledgment that the culture that inhabits whatever future lies ahead will almost certainly draw deeply from the past in the way that it both presents and considers itself. This helps make its world a recognisable extension of our own, in contrast to the world of Bladerunner, which seems less and less likely to come to pass.

(Originally published in Aurealis #81, June 2015)

Blue-Collar Science Fiction and the Ordinary Worker as Hero

I was in my favourite second-hand bookshop the other day, looking for something new to read, something unexpected, something that I hadn’t already contemplated too many times to count. I browsed and browsed, and found nothing. And then, half-hidden by the inevitable pile of Analog magazines, I found a copy of Menial: Skilled Labour in Science Fiction, a collection of short stories edited by Shay Darrach and Kelly Jennings.

Wow. Just wow.

Before I become too effusive, it’s probably best to mention that not every single story in Menial is great (as always, I won’t name names here). This isn’t that uncommon when it comes to short story collections, and when we talk about great collections, the dullards and the duds can often make the diamonds shine brighter.

This is how it is with Menial.

However, its real impact and its true originality live within its theme, which is probably best paraphrased as, ‘“ordinary” workers as science fiction heroes’. Now, any science fiction fan with even a passing knowledge of the genre would probably be aware of the existence of this type of hero. Various novelists and short story writers have either used them or employed the type as prominent secondary characters, including Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick and John Brunner. Acclaimed screenwriter Dan O’Bannon created two seminal science fiction films centred on blue-collar heroes in Dark Star (1974) and Alien (1979). The mise-en-scene of blue-collar homes, workplaces and lifestyles has almost become the default setting for the vast majority of contemporary science fiction that aims to be serious, realist, or dark and gritty.

But what Menial does differently is bring these types of stories together as a whole. Instead of seeing them as simply picks from the pack that exhibit a point of difference, their existence as a collection allows a certain continuity of thought to occur; ideas and themes provoked and presented by each individual story are easily allowed to grow and flourish, thanks to further complimentary ideas and themes provided by the subsequent stories. The further I read through it, the richer the food for thought provided by these types of stories.

Menial finally left me wondering just what it is that makes blue-collar science fiction so different from regular science fiction.

And what does blue-collar science fiction actually do?

The first thing that makes it different is so obvious as to be staring us in the face: it shows us the existence of the ‘ordinary’ person (and, by de-facto, an ‘ordinary’ world). The existence of something so seemingly banal as ‘the ordinary’ is an aspect of science fiction that many writers tend to normally gloss over or ignore, and so accustomed are we to seeing science fiction heroes personified as either professionals and authority figures, or as belonging to what we could call the ‘underground’, that we often don’t even question these personifications.

As an example, which one of these different character groups seems a lesser embodiment of science fiction than the others? A ‘professional’ group of scientists, inventors, programmers, doctors, astronauts, politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers and military paper-shufflers? An ‘underground’ group of criminals, private detectives, blackmarket couriers, hackers, activists, punks and cyberpunks? Or an ‘ordinary’ or blue-collar group of bricklayers, waiters, labourers, bank-tellers, shop assistants, kitchenhands, posties, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners, orderlies, street-sweepers, garbos and sandwich hands?

If the last group seems more like the cast of a Mike Leigh film than typical science fiction characters, the answer as to why there should be more blue-collar science fiction has been answered. After all, what makes the last group’s stories less important than those belonging to scientists and soldiers, or those belonging to criminals and private detectives?

By using ‘ordinary’ workers as the heroes of their stories, authors aren’t just showing us a side of the genre that is too-often absent—they are also making the genre more relatable. While some of us may actually work in jobs that would fit into the professional group, it’s probably fair to say that most, if not all of us, have worked far less glamorous jobs at some point in our lives. Waiting tables, working in a shop, washing dishes, mowing lawns, serving fast-food, cleaning houses, labouring for builders—these are the most blue-collar of blue-collar jobs, and are probably how most of us got a start in paid employment. When science fiction stories are focused around characters employed in these kinds of occupations—characters who consequently live more blue-collar lifestyles and, stereotypically, have more down-to-earth attitudes—our ability to engage with them is strengthened because we have so much more in common with them. Professional characters tend to either act as an expression of wish fulfilment for those of us still engaged in blue-collar employment, or serve as a throwback to the genre’s roots in real science and science-philosophy; underworld characters reflect the still pervasive influence of crime fiction and noir upon the genre. Blue-collar characters normally serve to ground the genre in a facsimile of reality, a facsimile in which we can see our science fiction reflection.

The crew of Alien are an excellent example of this. While they are technically astronauts—they are travelling through space, after all—theirs is a life more akin to that of a truck driver, a crane operator, a baggage handler or a labourer. They complain about their pay and the conditions they have to work in; they form cliques and circles within the larger group; a hierarchy exists, with status determined by pay grade. And to top it off, their ship is functional and utilitarian, more a factory or warehouse than a high-tech thing of beauty. We’ve probably all been where they are, aside from the science fiction trappings. This means that when the drama kicks in and the crew are faced with danger, the empathy we feel for them is deeper than it might usually be and we can better relate to the choices they make and the way they react.

An excellent example from Menial is Jasmine M Templet’s Leviathan, which tells the story of a newly employed janitor at a seedy office building in a vaguely dystopian future. This dystopian future is masterfully sketched, albeit in broad strokes. Both this dystopian future and the ‘take it as it comes’ attitude bestowed upon the janitor by Templet bring to mind the themes and setting and overall vibe of Ray Bradbury’s The Highway, a wonderful blue-collar science fiction story. The actual event that shaped the worlds lived in by the farmers of The Highway and the janitor of Leviathan doesn’t really matter to them. In the end, despite what seem like massive changes to the societies that they are a part of, their shared way of life remains the same: farm or clean, work hard for little pay. And without spoiling the ending, the unnamed janitor’s reaction to the final revelation of Leviathan, whereby he simply accepts his duties in his stride, perfectly encapsulates the ability of blue-collar science fiction to provide a more grounded perspective on fantastical worlds than that of regular science fiction.

The other important thing that blue-collar science fiction can help facilitate is world building. How many times have we read or seen science fiction that is ultimately nothing but a lofty structure supported by some flimsy two-by-fours? To best explain this, you’ll have to forgive me for indulging in a little pop-culture citation:

“A construction job of that magnitude would require a helluva lot more manpower than the Imperial army had to offer. I’ll bet there were independent contractors working on that thing: plumbers, aluminum siders, roofers… All those innocent contractors hired to do a job were killed—casualties of a war they had nothing to do with.”

-Randal Graves, from Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), talking about the second Death Star from George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi (1983)

While Lucas undoubtedly deserves praise for the sheer depth and span of his universe—think the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, or the meetings of the Galactic Senate in the prequels—I found that the above quote built Lucas’ world much more thoroughly than any ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ or any of a thousand different CGI crowds. When I mull over Smith’s words, I can imagine these ‘plumbers, aluminium siders and roofers’ who brought those magnificent spaceships to life, as well as all the other ordinary people and blue-collar workers who logically must exist within Lucas’ universe, cleaning up after all those Jedi Knights or serving food to all those Galactic Senators. Suddenly, a universe that was already pretty big is now enormous, and is also much more diverse than we first thought.

This line of thinking, however, isn’t solely confined to the Star Wars universe. Instead, we can apply it to any science fiction world. After all, someone had to build those spaceships; someone has to grease their engines. And all those shining futuristic cities? Someone had to dig the foundations; someone has to sweep the streets; someone has to collect the rubbish. I would argue that every (every!) single piece of science fiction has within its world some connection to ‘the ordinary’ and to blue-collar people, but unfortunately, they are more often than not ignored or glossed over. This is to their detriment, as instead of seeing a whole we’re just seeing a part.

Blue-collar science fiction shows us this whole. Its ordinary heroes, by their very definition, serve to flesh out the different levels that exist within society. And by telling the story of an individual whose lot in life is more like that lived by the vast majority of the population, writers of blue-collar science fiction aren’t just creating stories that are more relatable. Instead, they are also giving us access to future-worlds from the bottom up, and showing us wonders and marvels from a more grounded perspective.

Rush out and get yourself a copy of Menial. You won’t regret it.

(Originally published on Aurealis Blog, 25/5/2015)

Science-Fiction Westerns and End of the World Frontiers

Young Ones (2014)—director Jake Paltrow’s second feature—is an exceptional science-fiction western that deserves to stand alongside Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002–2003), Peter Hyams’ Outland (1981), William S Burroughs’ The Place of Dead Roads and George Miller’s Mad Max series (1979–2015) as a fascinating example of what can happen when these two genres meet.

Most science-fiction westerns have a tendency to ‘play it for it laughs’ and serve up great doses of campy-cheese; think of Wild Wild West (1999) or Cowboys and Aliens (2011), or the innumerable steampunk-science-fiction-western mash-ups that fill the shelves of secondhand book shops. Works like these tend to use the tropes and themes of both genres at a superficial level, cherry-picking the most obvious and explicit genre signposts to provide something that (while often undoubtedly entertaining) tend to lack both depth and originality. They too-often eventually prove unsatisfying as either works of science fiction or westerns, and their tongue-in-cheek tone inevitably detracts from the potential greatness that can exist when the two genres are combined. Even an acclaimed (albeit lighthearted) science-fiction western like Back to the Future III (1990) is sometimes guilty of this, its creative flair and distinctive genre-melding let down by the occasional appearance of the worst kind of science fiction and western caricatures and stereotypes.

Young Ones, though, is imbued with a serious tone and an almost absolute avoidance of kitsch. Much like the other previously mentioned examples, it both rises above the dross that tends to overshadow this particular subgenre and offers up a new world for us to explore.

At first glance, science fiction and the western seem to have about as much in common as ballerinas and baboons—the former is primarily concerned with the creation of future worlds that can logically (if not always convincingly) be connected back to our contemporary world, while westerns are typically grounded in an approximation of historical reality. Think here of the differences between intergalactic space flight, artificial intelligence, time travel and alien life, and the real-world locations of 1800’s Arizona, Montana or Wyoming and the real figures of Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday and Billy the Kid. However, when we look closer, we soon see that something fascinating lurks behind these surface appearances and obvious differences.

Often, both genres not only share certain plot devices and character types, but also emphasise themes of survival and extreme adversity, as well as exploring the use of ‘sanctioned force’ as a means of ensuring this survival. What’s a cowboy without a Colt .45, or a spaceman or alien invader without a laser gun? The main connection, though, is the metaphor of the frontier. So important is this metaphor that not only have numerous critical works been published detailing the narrative and thematic links between science fiction and the western and the importance of the frontier to them both, but one of the most recognisable ‘brands’ in the history of science fiction (Star Trek) makes explicit this importance in its tagline: ‘Space: The Final Frontier’. Gene Roddenberry himself—Star Trek’s creator—even referred to his creation as a ‘wagon train concept’.

However, the frontiers encountered in science fiction are very different from those of the western. To explain: the metaphor of the frontier in the western emerged from actual historical circumstances (the settlement of the American West), even if western narratives often used such ‘real world’ locations and frontiers in fictional settings. For example, Monument Valley is a real place and was historically important to the settlement of the American West, but the character of Ringo Kid—from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939)—was wholly fictitious, and never strode its dusty plains. In contrast, the frontiers of science fiction are both fictional through-and-through and far more abstract. First-contact stories, tales of intergalactic spaceflight and the exploration of alien worlds, the blurring of the lines between human and machine (especially in the sub-genre of cyberpunk), the innumerable time-travel narratives involving visits to the distant past or the far-flung future; all rely, to varying degrees, on the metaphor of the frontier.

Another key difference is that the protagonists of science fiction usually fall back on technology as a means of coping with and understanding the different frontiers that confront them. Think of the untamed Martian landscapes of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars), and the fantastic technological wonders that he conjured up to fictitiously terraform these wilds. Sometimes, though, this particular type of highly technological frontier serves to further reflect its western credentials. Outland is an excellent example of this: a blatant science fiction remake of the 1952 classic western High Noon, the fact that it is set in an enclosed mining city on Jupiter’s moon of Io only increases the sense of tension and imminent danger that defined High Noon. But, unlike the vast desert wilds that sometimes tempted Gary Cooper’s Marshall William Kane, on Outland’s Io there is literally nowhere to run and (almost) nowhere to hide.

As mentioned, in cases like these, the narrative emphasis is usually on integrating these frontiers with the technologically-focused society and culture that the protagonists are a part of. This contrasts strongly with the western, where the emphasis is usually on practical ways of understanding and accommodating these frontiers, in order to eventually overcome them. While a film such as Outland shows that the two types of frontiers aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, further questions do occur to the more curious reader and viewer: what if science-fiction narratives removed the framework of these technologically-focused societies and cultures, without jeopardising or abandoning their genre credentials? How would the metaphor of the frontier function if this happened? At its core, post-apocalyptic fiction strives to answer these questions.

In his essay The Remaking of Zero, science-fiction writer and critic Gary K Wolfe claims that real-world holocausts and apocalyptic events are often: “Associated with new technologies or the introduction of technologically superior weaponry… but in the fiction of the holocaust, the world is often transformed by a reversal of this historical process: available technologies are removed from the world, rather than new ones introduced. Much of the impact of such fiction arises from the speculations it offers about the effects of the loss of technology on machine- dependent populations.”

This (fictional) removal of available technologies from a technologically-focused society and culture can also allow writers of post-apocalyptic fiction to recreate the frontier of the western in a radically different setting, without necessarily modifying the specific function it holds within the western genre. In this way, the frontier(s) of the western and the frontier(s) of post-apocalyptic fiction often mirror each other, with both genres sharing specific themes and concerns. A seemingly contemporary society devoid of technology and reduced to a small-scale, agrarian level in which practical skills are valued over theoretical and intellectual skills—this could be the setting for a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction or a western.

The setting described above, as well as the attitudes and outlooks fostered by the tropes and themes associated with it, aren’t the only seemingly fixed narrative conventions shared by post-apocalyptic fiction and the western. Especially common to both genres is an emphasis on society reduced to a less ‘sophisticated’ level (an aspect that unfortunately too-often features such outdated and negative qualities as a simpler yet more brutal lifestyle, an emphasis on ‘men being men’, and less complicated and more oppressive gender, racial and societal politics), and a pessimistic representation of cities and urban centres and their associated ‘baggage’ (high population densities, a lack of open space and natural environmental features, domestic and urbanised occupations and lifestyles). In a similar way, both genres also often highlight the presence of the bandit and settler archetypes (‘black hats’ and ‘white hats’) and have a tendency to focus on the challenges brought on by either an established wilderness or a return of the wilderness (be it in the form of animals, the environment, or the aforementioned bandits). The biggest similarity, though, is the prominent narrative place of the ‘Lone Wolf’ protagonist, an independently-minded individual who operates according to his own ‘code’ and exists outside of the humdrum concerns of ‘regular’ society (think of Hig and Bangley from Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars and William Munny from Unforgiven (1992), or Eli from The Book of Eli (2010) and Bennie from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974).

In light of this, when we look back at our earlier list of science-fiction westerns, the connections between the two genres soon seem obvious. Mel Gibson’s Max Rocktansky could easily be a future-version of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name; Sean Connery’s Marshal William T O’Neil (from Hyams’ Outland) is a space-faring version of Gary Cooper’s Marshall William Kane; Lethem’s Girl in Landscape tackles revisionist westerns by relocating John Ford’s The Searchers to Mars and reinterpreting the story from the perspective of a young girl rather than that of a grizzled outsider; while Paltrow’s Young Ones shows us a crumbling and drought- stricken future America that is slowly regressing and beginning to resemble its lawless and unforgiving western past. If you haven’t read these books or seen these films, do yourself a favour and get hold of them sooner rather than later. They’re much more than just cowpokes in space or frontier towns on the moon; they’re a fascinating blend of the best of both genres, and are inspiring and entertaining in equal measure.

(Originally published in Aurealis #77, February 2015)

Humanist Science Fiction and the Rehabilitation of Book Snobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So far, so science fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Where’s the Literary Love for Our Kaiju Friends?

Today, I want to talk about monsters. Not just any old monsters – such a discussion could range from Dr. Frankenstein’s creation and its innumerable literary and filmic progeny to the three different versions of The Thing (1951’s The Thing from Another World, 1982’s The Thing and 2011’s The Thing); from the dragons and serpents of humanity’s myths to the creepie-crawlies of drive-in cinema; from the playful and comic Gremlins (1984) to the serious and sombre original Godzilla (1954); from the cheesy stop-motion beasties of Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981) to the CGI horrors of Cloverfield (2008) and Pacific Rim (2013). I want to talk about giant monsters. My question is this: where’s the literary love for this much-maligned genre? In our postmodern world – a world where high and low art are constantly mixing and interacting, and shifting boundaries cultural appropriation are parts of everyday life – revisiting much-maligned genres and lending them an air of artistic integrity has proven to be a boon for a lot of storytellers.

Now, a small caveat is necessary here: serious doesn’t need to mean ponderous, boring, dull, humourless, monotonous, or any of the hundreds of negative words that can be used to dismiss works of art that make us think. By serious, I mean serious in intent and execution; the original Godzilla may have been little more than a man in a suit, yet the film itself conjures up a palpable sense of dread that eluded most of its B-grade creature-feature contemporaries.

To provide just a few examples: Alan Moore’s Watchmen, the Batman Begins series (2005-2012), Perry Moore’s Hero, and Steven Amsterdam’s What the Family Needed all use the superhero genre as a springboard for texts that take a serious look at issues of power, masculinity, control, violence, family, relationships, and free-will. Furthermore, if we look at Jonathon Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, Outland (1981), The Proposition (2005), and William S. Burroughs The Place of Dead Roads, we might see nothing more than a disparate set of texts, yet they are all westerns at their core, and are all of a serious nature. Even post-apocalyptic fiction, which is so often criticised as containing nothing more than survivalist fantasies and uber-masculinist behaviours, can act as the bedrock for po-faced and genuinely moving works of art – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, The Noah (1975), Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, and Hugh Howey’s Wool series.

Do you notice anything missing from this list? If your answer was ‘giant monsters’ then you’ve obviously been paying attention to the point of this article.

But hang on, I can almost hear you say, wasn’t Godzilla just mentioned as an example of how giant monsters can be used seriously? Well, dear reader, you got me there – in the world of cinema, a significant number of filmmakers have approached the genre with thoughts above and beyond merely crafting vacuous exploitation pictures.

In fact, the films that helped defined the genre were themselves often serious at heart. The depth of human feeling invested in the titular King Kong (1933), the unmistakable nuclear parable that is the original Godzilla, the melancholy sense of loss that permeates Rodan (1956); these are weighty narrative attributes that both touch us emotionally and engage our intellects. And while it is true that the vast majority of texts that they inspired were indeed vacuous exploitation pictures bereft of heart, substance and any subtext worth mentioning, some recent films have bucked this trend – Cloverfield was unmistakably drenched in allusions to 9/11; Monsters (2010) was explicitly concerned with immigration, dispossession, and asylum-seeking; while The Host (2006) managed to successfully (and humorously) blend issues of pollution, environmental degradation and imperial exploitation with a moving story of a dysfunctional family that pulls together in the face of adversity.

It is when we look to the written word that we find slim pickings.

This is surprising, as giant monsters seem a perfect fit for our uncertain times – the variety of metaphors that they can embody dovetail neatly with the shifting artistic boundaries and fluid cultural borders that are a part of contemporary life. In other words, giant monsters can mean whatever we want them to mean, as seen in the fact that they can act as stand-ins for nuclear war, 9/11, climate change, pollution and immigration. But whatever it is that we want them to mean, it is highly likely that it is something that has the potential to overwhelm us, to awe us, to dwarf us and make us feel helpless and small. After all, the only feature that giant monsters have in common is their size. In light of this, the vast potential and rich stew of metaphors to be found underlining giant monsters would suggest a well-spring of inspiration for genre-inclined authors.

But no.

In true obsessive-fan style, I spent untold hours researching, borrowing, buying and reading fiction centred around giant monsters. The results were frustrating; the overwhelming majority of what I read delighted in the crash-bang-bash of urban destruction and favoured it over any emotional weight, while commonplace literary attributes such as narrative plausability and convincing characterisation were dumbed down to the nth degree. Thankfully, it wasn’t all bad news – some authors printed in the Daikaiju short-story series took their subject matter seriously, creating convincing worlds and narratives that were truly moving, while longer works such as Mark Jacobson’s Gojiro: A Novel and James K. Morrow’s Shambling Towards Hiroshima engaged in playful and unique postmodern games. However, the limited scope of the short stories left me wanting more, and while the games played by Jacobson and Morrow were undeniably impressive, the playful nature of their narratives somewhat drained away the sense of awe that I enjoy in my giant monsters. To explain: Jacobson’s novel is narrated in the first-person by none other than a Godzilla stand-in, who sets out on a quest to find his world’s version of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb; Marrow’s novel (set towards the end of the Second World War) tells the story of the American government’s attempt to create a giant monster which can be used as a weapon against Japan, and is told from the perspective of an actor employed to don a rubber-suit and impersonate said monster in a live-theatre piece of propaganda. As could be expected from such brief summaries, much fun is had by all.

I didn’t find a single novel that took giant monsters seriously, nothing that can compare to the likes of Godzilla, Rodan, Cloverfield or Monsters.

Where are they? Are they even out there? Forget creating more works that feature grim superheroes, harrowing end-of-days landscapes, and richly evocative tributes to the western; our writers should be portraying giant monsters as they are meant to be, damn it. Who wouldn’t love a novel that intelligently shows giant monsters as fearsome, terrifying, world-shaking beasts, thoroughly explores the what-ifs of their being, and empathically examines the psychological toll that they might have upon us?

If I don’t find one soon, I might just have to write one myself.

(Originally published on AurealisXpress19/2/2014)