“Smart” Science Fiction

The Museum of Science Fiction recently tweeted out an essay with a question attached:


I at first assumed that “smart” science fiction was referring to “hard” sci-fi, where real-life science defines the rules and, more often than not, drives the plot. Reading through the piece, I discovered that the author Darren Beyer instead defines smart science fiction as:

Novels like The Martian and the Atlantis series rely on plot, theme, tempo, and realism to draw the reader in, versus attracting them simply because they belong to a genre the reader finds appealing.

Beyer goes onto say that smart science fiction has been a staple of the genre over the years, but it has never made the leap to the mainstream until recently due to the majority of novels catering to old tropes.

I am of two minds about this. The first part says that there is no hard-and-fast rule for how a genre is defined. The second part makes worrisome noises and warily eyes old quotes of literature elitism.

In the past, many authors have done their best to have their books avoid the dreaded “science fiction” label. After all, that meant talking squids and spaceships, and nothing serious or insightful could come from such things. While Beyer’s essay does keep the novels like The Martian firmly planted in the science fiction genre, I disagree with separating them from the other piece of science fiction based on quality.

For one, the way I discover new works is that I look for common themes that I would like to explore further. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell was picked up because I wanted to read more science fiction in which songs played an important role. I first read Starship Troopers because Halo had given me a craving for military science fiction. Sub-genres work because they are based on similar elements.

Secondly, it seems to be a similar separation, though on a lesser scale, to avoid a dreaded label. That work isn’t space opera – it’s a serious exploration of imperialism. This work isn’t an alien invasion book – it’s a metaphor for communism. These works are GoodTM and therefore cannot be scifi horror, alternate history, cyberpunk, etc. Perhaps this is not what Beyer meant, but the sub-genre of “smart” science fiction rings a little too close for my taste.

But then that loops around to the first part of my mind; there is no solid definition for science fiction, and like genres themselves, there are many overlaps in sub-genres. If smart science fiction is a sub-genre that Beyer can use to organize his readings and his understanding of science fiction as a whole, then he is welcome to use it. I, on the other hand, will pass.

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Reading Buddy

Almost a year ago, an old friend of mine passed away. Her name was Mary Hyvonen, and we met when I was in fifth grade.

Our school had recently established a new program to encourage literacy in students – the “reading buddies” – in which adult members of the community would come in once a week on Friday to spend an hour reading with a student. Mary was my assigned reading buddy, a woman who worked for one of the local dentist offices. After our introduction, we soon found our place of reading, the landing between the second and third floor of a stairwell. That corner became very familiar with our backs the year.

Come to think of it, I wonder if that landing I shared with Mary is part of the reason why I, in high school, folded myself to fit a skinny windowsill in a small back stairwell near the library to read.

One of our books was Redwall by Brian Jacques. Mary didn’t shy away from the silly accents or verbal tics of the different species, nor from saying them out loud in an echoing stairwell. Instead she took to the characters with gusto, giving every sentence its proper dramatic weight. She made the characters, the small woodland critters, feel tall.

The other book we read together was a tattered copy of The Lost World: Jurassic Park junior novelization that I plucked from my teacher’s shelf. I had already read it, but I was eager to share my dinosaur love and knowledge with someone. Mary could have nodded and said simply how smart I was every time I stopped our reading to spout off a random fact, and ten-year-old me would have been happy.

Instead, Mary took notes. She would scribble in the margins of the paper she brought with her, as if the things I said were as important as a professor’s lecture. When my teacher stopped by to check on us, she would proudly show him the new fact I had shared with her. In appreciation, I drew her a picture of a raptor and she would tell me for years after, whenever I went to the dentist’s office, that she still had it. Mary made me, one of the shortest kids in the class, feel tall.

Thank you, Mary.

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Kind (of) Like J’onn

In a recent interview, Supergirl’s executive producer called J’onn J’onzz “the warmest soul in the DC universe,” and heavens above if that isn’t the perfect description of the Manhunter from Mars. Ever since I truly took the plunge into the DC universe, J’onn was the character I latched onto the most.

My first introduction to Martian Manhunter was in middle school, I believe. I picked up a Justice League graphic novel on a whim and thought: a “manhunter” is a good guy?  That sounded like a villainous title to me. I never made it past the first few pages of the novel, and would have to wait almost a decade before I learned exactly who this fellow was, and I wish I had known him sooner.

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“These are your first steps.”: Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth in The Force Awakens

Dear stranger to whom I gave a ride home from The Force Awakens, I was delighted that you invoked the Hero’s Journey when sharing your thoughts on the new Star Wars. Part of me wishes that the space between the theater and your house was longer so that we could get farther than simply establishing that we both knew the monomyth. However, one thing that you said stuck with me: that you wished there was more of the Hero’s Journey present in Rey’s story in The Force Awakens, like there was in The Empire Strikes Back for Luke. Yet, no matter how good The Empire Strikes Back is, it only contains a portion of the monomyth which started in A New Hope. Similarly, The Force Awakens gives us the beginning of Rey’s Journey, and in fact, doubles-up on certain steps in the Departure stage of the Classical Monomyth.

[Spoilers under the cut]

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Alien vs. Predator: Battle of the Sexes?

This is by no means well-thought out or with any solid arguments, and probably will have to be revisited once I’ve done further research, but I needed to get this on paper.

Alien feels like a very feminine franchise whereas Predator feels very masculine, in the traditional sense of both words. Please keep in mind that when I speak of masculinity and femininity in these films, it’s in a very traditional (sometimes veering into stereotypical) sense.

Also keep in mind that the only Predator movies I have seen are Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, and I freely acknowledge that the latter likely adds no more to the Predator franchise than it did to the Alien franchise, which is zero. I will not be counting Requiem as part of either franchise for the rest of this post.

So going off of the enjoyable AVP film, this is where the contrast was immediately highlighted for me. For one, the Alien films all have a female lead, even Prometheus: Woods, Shaw, and of course Ripley. With the exception of AVP, all the Predator films have male leads (or so IMDB tells me. Weaver did get second billing when the first Alien film came out. Maybe Predators did the same?).

The design of the monsters in the AVP film also seem to have distinctly feminine and masculine features. We hear of the square jaws of heroic men and the curves of beautiful women. The Predators have a very geometric aesthetic, the xenomorphs are all curves and fluidity.

The actions and very presence of the two aliens are also in this dichotomy. The Predators take up space; they make their presence known. Their threat revolves around technology and the destruction of life (men are stereotypically the ‘violent’ sex). The xenomorphs flit from shadow to shadow; they make themselves small. Their threat revolves around reproduction and the birth of new life (women are traditionally the nurturers).

I definitely want to revisit this hypothesis after I watch the Predator films.

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The Socratic Method in Science Fiction

I recently read James White’s Hospital Station for the first time, thanks to a friend’s recommendation. One of the things that stood out to me very strongly was the similarity to Isaac Asimov’s style. Both White and Asimov approach their protagonist’s respective fields – diagnosing and treating alien patients and troubleshooting the Three Laws of Robotics – much like a mystery novel. We follow along as Dr. Conway or Dr. Calvin work out the solution through reasoning and thought experiments.

However the way the deduction was handled between White’s work and Asimov’s work is also an interesting exploration. In many of the adventures of Conway in Hospital Station, once he has has an inkling of what the correct diagnosis and proper treatment of the patient is, the reader is left in the dark with coy references to a new discovery supporting Conway’s hypothesis. It’s only at the end, when Conway triumphantly reveals his plan to the other hospital staff, that the reader is let in on the discovery. It still makes for an entertaining puzzle, but I personally prefer Asimov’s deductive process.

Asimov does not leave the reader in the dark unless the viewpoint character is in the dark as well. We are baffled alongside poor Powell and Donovan as they encounter yet another loophole for the Three Laws. We get to test our deductive skills alongside Dr. Calvin as she discovers the solution to a robot’s malfunction. And because Asimov is so dialogue-heavy, much of this deduction is done in a dialectic fashion.

If you’ll pardon my use of Wikipedia, the dialectical method is a “discourse between two or more people holding different points of view about a subject, who wish to establish the truth of the matter guided by reasoned arguments.” The more well-known Socratic Method is a subset of dialectics, and both are accredited to Socrates. In fact, I’ve discovered that a number of science fiction works utilize dialectics in order to explore concepts further. There could be an argument made that such discourses are lazy writing and exposition dumps, but I think that these have their place in fiction.

Asimov, a dialogue heavy writer by his own admittance, uses this technique frequently, and not just in his robot short stories. Pebble in the Sky has a the antagonist go on a very convoluted stream of logic to connect the wholly-unconnected protagonists three. In The Gods Themselves, all three parts of the book are wrapped up in different dialectic discussions from different viewpoints about the story’s central conflict. Asimov’s most dialectic conversation occurs again within his robot series, namely Robots and Empire. In the previous three books, Daneel the robot is more a sounding board for the detective Lije Baley, but in the fourth, Daneel and his fellow robot Giskard take up multiple pages in discourse discussing the future of humanity and their own identities, and they are both active and equal participants.

Another example of such discourse is found in The Crimson Claw, book two of the Lucasfilm Alien Chronicles by Deborah Chester. Throughout the book the protagonist Ampris and her best friend Elrabin have an ongoing dialogue regarding the merits of fighting for freedom and of surviving in an oppressive regime. While this does tend to edge more towards debate, given the emotional investments of both Ampris and Elrabin, they do work together towards a compromise of both their needs.

Probably the best instance of the dialectical method that I have seen, alongside Daneel and Giskard, is the short story “Night Meeting” in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. “Night Meeting” is an incredibly short story, not even a full ten pages in the 1979 Bantam printing, and six of those pages are simply a dialogue between a human and a Martian who encounter each other in a brief overlap of their timelines. Their discourse is a method of discovery. Together Tomás and Muhe Ca explore what is happening to them by the comparison of notes. It’s simple, almost cozy, and entirely dialectic.

The most notable Socratic Method for me is in Starship Troopers by Rober A. Heinlein. The Socratic Method relies on the use of a student/teacher dynamic in which the teacher plays a sort of devil’s advocate and engages the student to consider moral dilemmas through a series of questions. This is the exact method used by Juan Rico’s History and Moral Philosophy classes. Both Mr. DuBois and Major Reid engage their students in this manner, and they are some of my favorite portions of this book. Now granted, I don’t take every piece of these dialogues as gospel, but I realized that even with an emphasis towards a viewpoint, Starship Troopers feels less like a didactic sermon and more like an invitation. Even the brutal take-down of “violence never settles anything” seems to me as more an opportunity to note flaws in my own beliefs and examine why I may disagree or agree in part.

And here is where I find the importance of the dialectical and Socratic methods in fiction. Fiction can have a wonderful balance of pulling you into the story and making you think about life questions both big and small. These dialogues invite us to join in in exploring the wonder of a fictional world or to reconsider what we believe and apply that to the larger dialogue that happens in our everyday life.

In what other fiction pieces have you seen examples of the dialectic discourse?

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How Jodi Picoult Wrote the Vampire Story I Wanted from Guillermo del Toro

When I picked up del Toro’s The Strain, I was ready for some vampire fun and some cool monsters in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth crawling about.

Of course, del Toro and his writing partner Chuck Hogan deliver on the monsters. The Master is especially a fascinating villain, but I didn’t care much for his interactions with the lead Dr. Ephraim Goodweather. The brief moments we had felt bland, generic. Instead, I was far more captivated by Professor Abraham Setrakian and the small snippets of his fight against the Master in the Treblinka extermination camp during the Nazi regime. That was the story that seized me by the throat. I could have read an entire book about Abraham’s struggle in that camp, flanked by human and vampiric monsters alike. Furthermore, the one solid interaction that Abraham had with the Master worked.

The small moment of these two – Abraham’s attempt to slay the Master, and the Master breaking his hands in return – felt like the birth of a true hero/villain dynamic. It was Javert and Valjean meeting at Fantine’s deathbed in Les Misérables. It was the duel of Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. It was the story that I wanted to read.

It was the story that was merely a frame for Ephraim’s, and I truly believe that the book suffered for it.

A year later, I had to select a novel from the genre of Women Literature for a university course. I was not looking forward to this assignment. Women Literature was rarely my genre and of course being a naysayer, I held tightly to the 90% of Sturgeon’s Law. There was no way I was going to find a novel that would capture my interest.

The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult proved me so wrong (That happens a lot when I step out of my genre box. Go figure).

Like The Strain, the story is told in two time periods, the past interlacing with and affecting the future. The past story also revolves around a Jewish protagonist surviving in a concentration camp.

Just as Abraham’s attempt to kill the Master was a way to save his people, so is Minka’s struggle. Within the camp, Minka begins to write a Gothic book about a pair of upiór brothers, vampires, terrorizing a town. This book, and her chapters day-by-day, help to keep the other captives going. It also catches the eye of the SS officer in charge of the camp, which is where the story connects to the present-day.

There is power in Minka’s storytelling and in her upiór tale. It comforts her fellow Jewish women, it helps a friend pull through an infection, and it allows her to enter the good graces of the camp’s officer. In a sense, it’s both through and against the upiór that Minka finds the strength to win.

The biggest win that Minka’s tale has over Abraham’s is that it is given much more time and breath to be. It’s not just a framing device – it’s a story on it’s own, even if it’s just half of the book.


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