Intimacy at the End of the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Originally published in Aurealis #85, October 2015)

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Super Without the Hero

It can easily be argued that superhero narratives have a concrete sense of literary and artistic legitimacy, and have done so for quite some time. This may come as a surprise to those people whose knowledge of the genre consists of little beyond an image of the stereotypical ‘geek’ fan and an awareness of the current fad for superhero movies. However, serious superhero narratives in comic-book form have been around for some time, and have proven to be highly influential on the contemporary crop of superhero films, which tend to either treat their subject matter rather seriously (Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Drew Goddard’s Daredevil series, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Pete Travis’ Dredd) or approach it with serious intent (Marvel’s ‘Cinematic Universe,’ Greg Berlanti’s The Flash series, Josh Trank’s Chronicle, Bryan Singer’s X-Men series and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series).

This sense of legitimacy began in the 1980s, primarily thanks to writers Alan Moore and Frank Miller (Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, respectively). Their literary deconstructions of the superhero genre were as satisfyingly ‘super’ as they were postmodern, and their reworking of the themes inherent to the genre were carried out deftly. Where they began, others followed: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Garth Ennis’ Preacher, Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina and Bill Willingham’s Fables (to name but a few) have all proven their credentials as ‘serious’ superhero narratives, existing within the genre and at the same time expanding the reader’s expectations of what the genre can contain.

However, even these examples have one thing in common which can often work against their best efforts at attaining legitimacy—the capital-h Hero, a self-explanatory and seemingly inescapable presence in superhero narratives. And where there’s a hero there must be a villain, and if the hero is ‘super’ then it’s only fair that the villain is as well, and from thereon things can get a bit silly—superpowered vendettas and grudges can disconnect a serious superhero narrative from any sense of realism that has built up, while the concept of an archenemy/nemesis/adversary/call-it-what-you-will has existed for so long that it now tends to reek of cliché.

But what if a writer did away with the villain? What if they took this radical idea even further and did away the concept of the capital-h hero? What if their protagonist(s) were merely normal people who just happened to be ‘super?’

In essence, Steven Amsterdam’s novel What the Family Needed strives to answer these questions, and it does so beautifully. It follows the domestic lives of sisters Ruth and Natalie and their extended families, examining their emotions, behaviours and actions and delving into the ways that the after-effects of each member’s actions can cause a ripple across the other members’ lives. So far, so family-drama. However, Amsterdam’s central conceit is that as each individual character struggles to cope with the stresses of family life, they discover a hitherto unknown superpower that offers to help them on their way. These superpowers are typical of superhero narratives: invisibility, flight, super-strength, psychic powers, time travel, and so on. But unlike in the vast majority of superhero narratives, none of the characters in What the Family Needed use their newfound powers to fight crime, right wrongs or proclaim themselves a hero. Instead, their powers merely act as metaphorical extensions of their interior and exterior lives—the teenage Giordana, suffering from the usual adolescent social-anxiety and torn between her warring parents, longs to disappear and thus is bestowed the power of invisibility; unlucky-in-love Sasha discovers a cupid-like power, whereby he can make any two people fall for each other if he touches them simultaneously, and yet is unable to improve his own romantic life; beleaguered mother Natalie, exhausted from dealing with her ‘difficult’ son, is given the power of super-strength; Ben, who feels trapped by the reality of domestic life and fatherhood, discovers that he can fly; the widower Peter realises that he can alter reality with the power of his mind, and yet is unable to bring his dead wife back to life.

The result of this conceit is that the power that each character possesses eventually proves to be both a blessing and a curse. And yet, at the same time, each power is neither—they are simply a part of the characters’ lives, something that they may believe they need (hence the novel’s title). However, they ultimately prove unnecessary to the resolution of their individual problems. This is a devastating and deeply-moving narrative device because it is so easy to relate to. It doesn’t matter how strong or smart or practical or attractive or quick-witted we are—it doesn’t matter what real “powers” we possess—because they can fail us when it comes to dealing with our own families. Love is what really matters, and communication, affection, effort, perseverance, understanding and acceptance. These are the powers that all families need, modest though they may be. Ultimately, powers like invisibility, flight, super-strength, and time travel exist on the sidelines of the family that dominates What the Family Needed, just as their real-world analogues (strength, smarts, practicality, attractiveness, quick-wittedness) exist on the sidelines of our own.

The first two seasons of the TV show Misfits (2009-2013) work in a similar way to What the Family Needed (its latter seasons, sadly, fall into stereotypical superhero narrative territory, relying on superpowered battles and supervillians and superheroes). This time, however, rather than a family, the group of characters gifted with powers are ‘juvenile delinquents’ working in a community service program. But just like in Amsterdam’s work, the varied powers that each character in Misfits possesses act as metaphorical extensions of their interior and exterior lives—Kelly, a chav who hides her insecurities behind an obnoxious, loudmouth persona, develops psychic abilities and can ‘read’ people’s minds; Curtis, filled with regret regarding a mistake in his past, finds that he can rewind time; Simon, an ignored and overlooked young man, realises that he can become invisible at will; Alisha, a sexually voracious young woman, suddenly sends people who touch her skin into a sexual frenzy; the reckless, headstrong and impulsive Nathan becomes functionally immortal.

Once again, these powers are typical of superhero narratives. Once again, they are both a blessing and a curse and yet, at the same time, are neither. What really differentiates Misfits from What the Family Needed (apart from the obvious) is the bond that develops between these most-unlikely of friends, a bond that is formed from their status as underdog ‘juvenile delinquents’ (hence the series’ title) and from the shared and publicly-secret burden that they carry together (being superpowered, yet another play on the term misfits). In many ways, they become a family, reliant on each other for support, love and understanding; just like real families, they are held together by something that no-one else can really understand. And while the narrative arc of the first season hinges on them covering up the death of their caseworker, who they killed in self-defence after he too was gifted with powers and subsequently attacked the group, series creator Howard Overman seems much more interested in having his characters explore how to go about their ordinary lives now that they each possess something extraordinary. The combination of these two factors—the metaphorical function of the different characters’ powers and an exploration of how these powers effect the characters’ ordinary lives—serves to elevate Misfits above most other superhero narratives, in much the same way as Amsterdam’s use of these techniques in What the Family Needed. But Overman’s choice to focus his series through another fact of life that we can all relate to—youth—means that Misfits triggers a different emotional response than Amsterdam’s work, and that we empathise with its characters in a very different way. Haven’t we all been young and felt somewhat isolated and a little bit lost? Haven’t we all, when we were younger and sillier, clung to our peers and seen them as a surrogate family? Haven’t we all had to face the fact that what makes us special doesn’t necessarily make us better or make life easier?

Andrew Kaufman’s All My Friends are Superheroes is a very different beast. Unlike the sense of realism and seriousness that permeates What the Family Needed and Misfits, it possesses a great sense of fun and more-often-than-not makes you laugh aloud. This isn’t to say that it’s shallow or somehow lesser because of its unserious tone and voice —its emotional weight is every bit as deserved and convincing as that of Amsterdam’s and Overman’s work. It exists in a liminal genre-place somewhere between fable, sublime absurdism and outright ridiculousness, these different techniques and trappings almost daring us not to take it seriously. Narrated partly in present tense and partly in flashback, it tells of the relationship between The Perfectionist and Tom, who is an ‘ordinary’ man whose friends are all superheroes, hence the book’s title. The story opens with The Perfectionist and Tom having recently separated; she was hypnotised by their mutual friend Hypno and so literally can’t see Tom, despite his constant presence in her life. Believing herself abandoned, she has decided to move cities and has booked a flight; Tom has booked the seat next to hers, and has until the plane lands to make her see him again.

Straightaway, we can see one the biggest ways if differs from What the Family Needed and Misfit—All My Friends are Superheroes is explicitly concerned with superheroes, although they are superheroes more in name than in deed. The Perfectionist’s power is that she is the ultimate perfectionist; just about everything in her life turns out right because she is so devoted and/or obsessed with order. Hypno doesn’t really seem to really hypnotise people; instead, he seems to be excessively charismatic, and uses the force of his charm to convince people to make the wrong decisions. Other characters have actual powers, but these powers act as ridiculous extensions of very human desires and obsessions —The Elongating Woman, who lost her lover in an accident, wishes she could ‘reach into the past’ to right what went wrong, and so can stretch her arms Mr Fantastic-style; Spooner, who has a strange instinct that guides him into the homes of lonely people asleep in bed, whereby he then spoons with them and comforts them. Others simply wear the title as a sort-of nickname for an annoying habit—Loudmotorcycle (self-explanatory); The Impossible Man (someone who can’t stop raving on about silly ideas that are actually impossible).

As the parallel stories of The Perfectionist and Tom’s relationship unfolds —the present tense narrative set on the plane and the history of their relationship told in flashback—the initial silliness of much of what is occurring soon begins to morph into something that it is both light-hearted and touching—a gentle and affectionate exploration of all the ridiculous and incredible things that make us what we are. The bizarre superhero names and the weird and whacky powers that they possess become nothing more than reframed examples of the crazily illogical and wonderfully contradictory behaviours that make us all human. Likewise, the strangeness that runs through the relationship between The Perfectionist and Tom, which is presented as due to her status as a superhero, is just another way of showing the stresses and strains and joys and rapture of any relationship.

By the end of the book, having been happily confronted by so many eye-opening and almost naively optimistic metaphors, symbols, fables and absurd examples, my view of humanity was refreshed, as it was when I finished What the Family Needed and Misfits. Maybe that’s the true value behind superpowers—they can act as symbols of hope.

(Originally published in Aurealis #84, September 2015)

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)