Predicting the future (or trying to) is something that human beings love to do. It’s the realm of fortune tellers (i.e. con artists), futurists, and some would say science fiction writers. Whether it’s Jules Verne predicting men on the moon, or Mark Twain (or Douglas Adams, or Arthur C. Clarke) regaling us with stories about a not-yet-created internet, there are multiple cases of science fiction writers seeming to predict the future – or at least a small set of examples, referred to again and again in an attempt to keep the idea alive. Saying that science fiction is predictive isn’t just untrue, it diminishes the genre it’s trying to elevate. (more…)
I remember looking forward to the original Beauty and the Beast television show, circa 1987. What I was hoping for was an urban fantasy/adventure, complete with an underworld. What I got was a romance, featuring the handsomest beast I’d ever seen, riding on the top of subway trains. The Beast’s feral good looks were what killed the show, for me, long before it took a nose-dive into sap: I wanted an ugly beast, loved for his character. Unluckily, that’s just not the way things work: in our culture, ugly and love don’t mix.
Every weekend, I used to watch the Saturday afternoon creature feature. I especially loved the classic Universal monsters – Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein: those movies seemed to take place in an alternate, black and white world of antiquity, magic, and monsters – a blend of the early 20th century world and a parallel one, that grew over time to include demons, angels, wizards, witches, and a host of other creatures that lived somewhere between between reality and imagination. My stubbornly preserving this world – protecting it – is about more than maintaining an imaginative link to my childhood: it’s symptomatic of a universal longing to believe that there’s more to the world than what we see – to unearth the mysteries that we sense, just below the surface. To discover the secret world.
What happens when an outsider takes the throne? Sometimes, the story of the new kid, who enters a foreign environment and overcomes it through special skills, friendships, and knowledge (Neverwhere, The Harper Hall trilogy), becomes not the just a narrative about an outsider, but a story about power, privilege, and governance. The outsider monarch speaks to the insecurities everyone has when thrust out of their depth and into the spotlight, as well as to the idea that an outsider – someone excluded from the world of power and privilege – could make a difference, if they only had a chance. Stories that feature an outsider monarch are hopeful and affirming, but are they anything other than a fantasy?
I decided a few months ago to stop writing novel reviews, partially because I don’t read fast enough, but also because I was spending too much time starting and then losing interest in new releases. As it is, I sometimes pick up a celebrated or award winning novel based on the buzz surrounding it only to be disappointed, or even to put it down a few chapters in. I’ve had better luck reading community reviews as a way of helping me to get a feel for the elements in a given work. From there, I read the first chapter or two online, and if it still seems interesting, I buy it. Lately the issue of reviews – positive and negative – has entered the zeitgeist again, with Den Patrick’s angry response to Christopher Priest’s negative review of Barricade by Jon Wallace, and Damien Walter’s defense of same. Underpinning the discussion is one about the speculative fiction community’s approach to criticism, and the impact it has on the community as a whole.
As a kid, I read and reread The Harper Hall Trilogy by Anne McCaffrey, especially Dragonsong and Dragonsinger (for some reason, I read them whenever I had the flu). I loved following Menolly’s adventures, first as she discovered the fire-lizards, and then at the Harper Hall. Looking back, I recognize that there was more thematically going on than I was aware of, but what resonated with me as an adolescent boy was Menolly’s struggle to be accepted for who she was: first, in the fishing village she came from, and then at the Harper Hall. There was something affirming in watching her exceed the expectations of the people around her, overcome challenges, and come into her own. What I was reacting to was a specific version of the outsider narrative that I think of as “the triumph of the new kid,” one that has a special place in speculative fiction, in novels ranging from Dragonsong and Dragonsinger, to the Harry Potter books, to The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and many, many more.
A nuclear bomb is hidden in an old warehouse, and time is running out. When activists break into a research lab, a single monkey escapes. The artificial intelligence is spreading, and humankind is in a race to remain dominant. The earth itself is striking out with floods, fires, or intense cold. Or maybe it’s already over, and a group of survivors are making their way in a new, savage world. Maybe we have only a single, walled city left as protection against the zombies, or perhaps we’ve traveled to a post-apocalyptic future from the past. Whether the action takes place before or after the “end of the world,” the most striking thing about the the apocalypse narrative isn’t the many stories it tells, but the single story it doesn’t.
Doctor Frankenstein didn’t set out to create a monster. He wanted to create life – to show his mastery of it – and to share that knowledge with the world. He imagined his creation as an extension of himself: a being whose thoughts and actions would be the embodiment of his genius. Instead, he found himself confronted by The Other.