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)