Despite entertaining fan projects such as listing Jedism on the faith section of the Canadian census I don’t think there are many people who genuinely hold science fiction philosophies at the centre of their lives. However, the short and catchy poems that represent those philosophies have become an interesting point of both fan culture and the lasting world of various fandoms. Both the Jedi and the Sith have short manifestos in Star Wars and even the Sith version is the kind of memorable snippet that fans tend to be able to recite verbatim. Similarly, the Litany Against Fear from the Dune books has become a defining element not just of the series but of the groups that inhabit it. These kinds of short but meticulously crafted poems are effective means of building a world that is rich, believable and inhabitable to fans.Read More »
In many ways society has moved beyond the traditional Western stories, largely because most people have a much more rounded view of history that does not allow for straight forward narratives about heroic cowboys on some empty American frontier. An understanding of the colonial process and the long term impacts of how the United States formed makes purely celebratory westerns seem somewhat naïve if not disrespectful to the experiences of indigenous peoples so these kinds of stories do not enjoy the same kind of wide spread popularity they used to enjoy. However, in recent years there have been several successful novels that return to the western genre with new goals. Books like The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt and The Devil’s Revolver by V.S. McGrath (interestingly both written by Canadians) lean heavily on exploring the flaws in the traditional western albeit in very different ways. The Sisters Brothers is dark comedy bordering on satire which plays up the archetypes of the western to make their absurdity obvious to the reader. In contrast, the heroes of McGrath’s fantasy western fit more closely to the cowboy hero but undermines traditional westerns by taking place in a world that includes the suffering and oppression that was erased in older westerns. These new westerns reflect new understandings of history and show how beloved genres can be brought into the current day.Read More »
No one is surprised when the advanced AI turns on its creators. At this point in the history of speculative fiction it is almost a given – so to make the villainous reveal satisfying the author needs to have constructed a believable character. Some authors pull this off well, not that their reveals are necessarily surprising, more so that they are satisfying for a reader. On the other hand, there are creators who very much lean into the trope and use it as a shorthand to take away from genuine character building. This shortcut taking is obvious in films like Avengers: Age of Ultron while books like Chuck Wendig’s Wanders make some attempt to mask their AIs in mystery. Convincing stories about rogue technology require character building and an awareness of audience in order to create an immersive believable narrative.Read More »
There is a great deal of speculative fiction that has been made impossible in recent years by the progression of science, technology and time. Stories that once presented a world that was not necessarily real but was still possible based on the understanding of the world that was prevalent at the time the story was being written. That isn’t to say that The War of the Worlds is no longer an enjoyable book to read because Wells didn’t know that there are no advanced aliens on Mars or that the message of 1984 is now irrelevant because Orwell got his timelines wrong. Rather, science has moved beyond the minutia of those stories and shifted the experience of reading those books. As a result, speculative fiction has had to shift if it wants to remain within the realm of possibility. One such place is the world of sleep and dreams which remain an area that science struggles to fully understand and explain. Films like Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie, Inception, or Hank Green’s debut novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing make dreams the setting of much of their world and build a speculative experience around something that science still cannot fully explain.
The entry into dreams is important, and very different, in the worlds created in Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. Christopher Nolan does not give all people easy access to the world of dreaming, instead it is a process that requires drugs and no small amount of skill, especially if the dreamer wants to have the kind of high stakes adventures that are at the centre of the plot. Additionally, dreams in this form are not the benign experience of the real world but rather are filled with dangers and pitfalls that come with looking behind the curtain – implying that what science might find when it does master the details of sleep may not be as pleasant as some would like to imagine. Hank Green is one of the people who utilize dreams as a site of positive experience that is universal. His novel uses a dream world in order build a shared experience where everyone begins on equal footing across cultures. Nolan and Green’s contrasting interpretation rest on decisions about how they want their readers or viewers to interact with the notion of dreaming.
Inception feels in many ways aspirational – you sit and watch Leonardo DiCaprio run around taking on all kinds of risks and think about how great it would be to become that kind of badass. But rather than requiring a monster workout regime the dreaming of Inception is just out of reach because the world of dreams remains a mystery (also because dream sharing is not actually possible). Alternately, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing presents dreams as something amazing that will happen to you, not something that can be pursed or created by rather a phenomenon that is driven by an external force. These are very particular decisions that have been made in during the world building of the speculative stories in the same way that a fantasy writer must decide who has access to magic.
Both of these stories feature dream sharing as a pivotal mechanic. The creators are not just interested in a setting that is separate from science, they want to explore the collective experience of these places. The collaborative aspects are what are beyond science but the need for sleep and for dreams means that it much easier to accept these constructions that it is the notion that we might one day be invaded by Martians. Technology has enabled us to see Mars in detail and to send probes to collection additional information but the picture that science creates about sleep is much less clear so creators like Nolan or Green are able to fill in these spaces with their own imaginings. Dreams are still a place where we are able to collaboratively imagine a world that is not restricted by science which means they have an immense range of possibilities that Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing take full advantage of.
People do not experience these stories and necessarily believe that they will occur in the real world, but the experience doesn’t require the same level of suspension of disbelief that other texts may depend upon. The speculative worlds that Hank Green and Christopher Nolan create are based in the possibilities that arise when science is unable to provide a clear list of restrictions. Whether the creator chooses to use the world of dreams as an exclusive place that visitors must earn entry into or if dreams are a kind of magic that happens to the dreamer the dream is still a space that is protected by real world mystery. One day Inception and An Absolutely Remarkable Thing will be made even less plausible as science explains the intricacies of sleep but until that happens dreams are a largely unexplained phenomena that make room for speculative imaginings of the future.
Humanity threatening disasters of debatable evilness are prerequisites for most speculative fiction. Although these stories tend to also include character growth arcs, romances, and some degree of environment survival as well, there is always some looming threat that needs to be defeated. JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings typifies this kind of threat as Sauron is undeniably evil and lacks the kind of moral tension that appear in some other narratives. Tolkien’s trilogy is the story of humanity and the other races of Middle Earth fighting back against that evil until ultimately the world is left to the humans as magic steps back. However, there is a reversal of this narrative where in humanity faces its great threat, one of much more debatable morality, and looses. This is the story in the 2016 film The Girl With All the Gifts which grapples with what will happen when new beings rise up to replace us.
The end of Lord of the Rings is poignant, and powerful because even though the heroes won there is a sense of consequences, of something lost. The elves are leaving, so is Frodo and even the hobbits are being slowly enveloped into the ranks of men. The Third Age of Middle Earth has ended to make way for the Age of Man. This is the kind of melancholy that pervades Tolkien’s work and it is incredibly effective, but it does show a very particular view of humanity’s place. There is a sense of entitlement to the world of Middle Earth, as if the great evil was a product of magic and since that evil is gone it is also time for magic to step aside. I think some of this feeling is tied to the world in which Tolkien was writing, that is in and around the two World Wars. Humanity was definitely seen as flawed, but it was a very particular kind of moral flaw that lead to the carnage of the two wars.
In the present moment we face a different kind of failing in humanity, one that poses a threat to everyone’s survival rather than the extreme moral stakes of the World Wars. Climate change and all the politics surrounding it lead to questions about whether or not humanity is worth saving, if we deserve the kind of heroic measures that the magical peoples of Middle Earth pull off for humanity. So where the complexities of the 20th centuries crisis (which should not be down played, it was a critical moment of history and we should take the time to appreciate the people who fought and died for the world we live in today) become a black and white battle that leaves a near blank slate for humanity to progress from in Lord of the Rings – The Girl With All the Gifts considers the broken world that will be left to those who come after.
There are no real heroes by the end of The Girl with All the Gifts, the teacher figure who begins the story as the protector of the vulnerable protagonist is by the end just a last vestige of defeated humanity, there to stand in for the viewer. Instead it is the zombie hybrids who are left in control after a zombie plague breaks out and the children born of mothers who became zombies existed in a place that is neither human nor monstrous. When Melanie, the little girl who is the narrator and protagonist of the film lights the tower of zombie spores alight and locks the teacher in the pod it is the final moment of humanity’s defeat. Rather than being a film about the heroic quest to find a cure and rebuild it is the story of a new species rising up to take their place. And as the tower of spores burns and destroys any hope reclaiming the world for humans there is a sense that this is a righteous victory on the part of Melanie.
I don’t think the writers and directors are arguing that humanity should be abandoned, nor do I think Tolkien considers morality to be as simplistic as it is in parts of Lord of the Rings. But the contrast between these speculative stories does show a shift in the way creators are envisioning the place of humanity in a world that contains other beings. The Girl With All the Gifts suggest that humans have had their moment with the world, their moment to build a legacy for themselves, but that moment has passed and space needs to be made for what comes next. A more optimistic view would be to find a balancing point between surrender and the domination of Lord of the Rings. The real world doesn’t contain magical beings, or zombies (at least as of yet) but there is a growing environmental crisis and a legacy of colonial abuses around the world that need to be addressed. So perhaps the balancing point is not just about how humans will ensure that the world will still support human life but also about how we got to this moment and moving towards a future on the earth for both people and the natural world.
In the grand scheme of the universe humans are very small and probably lacking any degree of importance – a fact that humanity has been aware of and sought to minimize through an understanding of the world we exist in. The works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth look back on a concept developed by Immanuel Kant out of even earlier models: the idea of sublime beauty in ideas or places that are terrifying in scope but also ultimately positive to experience. For the Romantic poets this was a notion that was heavily connected to nature and the place of humans as simply an observe in a natural world that they cannot change but much more recently the sublime seems to appear in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar film. These are artistic explorations of the natural world and of philosophical ideal that can be simultaneously frightening and inspiring.
The idea of the sublime is traced back to the Greek philosophical tradition but the concept as it is used today in philosophy originates with Immanuel Kant. He built on the work of earlier philosophers who viewed the sublime as a general kind of terrifying beauty and developed the sublime into something that is tied to the cerebral rather than the physical world. However, throughout these developments the central themes remained the same – the world is frightening but also aesthetically impressive. As with many important and enduring philosophical concepts the sublime seeped into the artistic tradition. The early English Romantic poets explicitly aligned themselves with exploring the concept of the sublime while later poets and artists of other disciplines show strong influences from the philosophical tradition without explicit ties.
Representations of the sublime in art is much more closely relate to the natural world than it is to the largely theoretical sublime that Kant wrote about. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were close friends and collaborated over a shared fascination with the sublime. Wordsworth was captivated by nature, its seeming infinite complexity or beauty while Coleridge stayed closer to Kant’s conception of the sublime with a focus on bleak landscapes like deserts or oceans. It is Coleridge’s approach that is most closely related to Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar which released in 2014, 180 years after Coleridge’s death. Nolan films are always masterfully created which supports the kind of terrible beauty that is showcased in the movie. It is a movie that doesn’t shy away from the science of the universe and both the characters and the audience are both in awe of and frighten by the uncaring universe that is revealed.
There is a continuity in the natural world that is fascinating to the Romantic poets. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner has repeating lines throughout of the sun rising and setting over the drifting ship. While some of Wordsworth later works grapple with his sense that there is a part of the natural world that he is consistently just a few moments too late to see. There is a sense that time, and nature are moving on without the observer and that feeling comes through in Interstellar as well because the characters are constantly trying to manipulate space-time phenomena to their advantage. Much of the plot of Interstellar hinges not just on human created technology but also on the potentially overwhelming inner workings of the universe. Where cryo-sleep and years of space travel can make the protagonists a mere seven minutes late to stage a rescue operation on a distant water world.
Even separated by several centuries the Romantic Poets and Nolan seem to share a fascination with the uncaring world around them. They both seek to represent their view of the world to an audience and they have arguably succeeded. The Rime of the Ancient Sea Mariner in particular is a poem that most English students will encounter and Interstellar is quickly becoming a gateway for young people into the sciences. This may not indicate that wider society is suddenly going to start having intellectual discussions about the nature of beauty and the sublime but it does show that the central principle remains solid: we are fascinated by the awe inspiring power of the universe and all the ways it doesn’t care if we die.
Looking into the overwhelming power of the natural world, or the natural universe, is an exercise in willpower and sometimes fear. In Interstellar, the characters are not scared by what they don’t know, they are confronting the terrors of a universe that is uncaring of human concerns forcing humans to just try and find a way to continue along inside of it. This is the same essential problem that the early romantic poets are exploring, nature exists in its own terms and especially at the time of writers like Coleridge and Wordsworth there was very little humans could do to try and tame it. However, those poets as well as modern creators like Christopher Nolan capture the concept of the sublime, a world that is enormous, terrifying and beyond our control but also ultimately beautiful and worth examining.
Figures of insanity are common in story telling, and perhaps especially so in the genres that depart from realism. They often serve as a counter point to the actions of the sane heroes of the story while also illuminating aspects of the world that are not accessible to those rational characters. In the case of asylum patient Renfield in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Harley Quinn, the psychiatrist turned lunatic of 2016’s Suicide Squad, the character’s insanity allows an exploration of a dark master. Both figures seek out a master who is already established as evil and their respective stories explore whether they are insane because of the dark master figure or if their insanity is what caused them to seek out that master in the first place. These are conceptions of insanity that are separated by 119 years and the establishment of psychology as its own science, but the trajectory of Harley Quinn and Renfield are remarkably similar in their dynamics with their respective dark masters.
Harley Quinn as we see her for most of the Suicide Squad movie is a product of the Joker himself. She is a twisted version of the psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel who had fallen for her psychotic patient. The film is somewhat recalcitrant about how exactly that transformation happened but what is shown includes manipulation, violence, and Harley Quinn demonstrating that she has let go of everything that tied her to her former morals. In the main plot line of the film the Joker manages to stand out as Harley’s dark master even when many of the other protagonists are insane in some way shape or form. The Joker is a kind of evil that the other protagonists cannot reach and Harley is shown as particularly insane because of her love for him.
In opposition to the at least partially constructed back story of Harley Quinn, Renfield in Stoker’s Dracula has a completely blank past. He is a character that only exists within the time constraints of the main narrative and is only accessible to the reader through the hero protagonists. Dr Seward presents Renfield as zoophagous, an obsessive eater of animals, once he is already in the asylum, the result is that Renfield’s draw towards Dracula is viewed as an extension of his pre-existing insanity. Like Harley Quinn, Renfield consistently shows that he is willing to give up personal freedom or identity in order to better serve his dark master. Renfield is dedicated to escaping the asylum in order to join Dracula but he is also willing to stay locked up if that better serves Dracula’s plans.
There are such great pains taken in both Suicide Squad and Dracula to establish the characters as insane because their insanity is the gateway to an exploration of the alternatives to the choices the protagonist has made to oppose the dark master. The protagonists are supposed to be based in rationalism and strong morality, which is what led them to oppose the dark master figure so within that framework anyone choosing to follow these dark masters must be insane. While this is demonstrated fairly obviously in Dracula because of Renfield’s patient status to Dr. Seward, the dynamic is perhaps more interesting in Suicide Squad. This is because it is not just Harley Quinn who resides in Arkham Asylum, the rest of the protagonists do as well. All of the protagonists are supposed to be criminally insane but somehow Harley Quinn still stands out. Her insanity in following the Joker is placed against people who are being shown as insane in their own ways but still aren’t crazy enough to follow the dark master in the Joker.
Aside from explaining why someone would follow the dark antagonists of these stories, the use of insane characters as the followers of the antagonists enables the storyteller to present these characters as victims. The same insanity that is used to explain why someone would follow a dark master at all also gives the audience a way to view the follower as not entirely at fault. In these two stories in particular the characters have been lured in by some promise of future happiness. Renfield wants to consume the life that is ultimately at the top of the chain of animals he eats, he wants to consume a human. This is not a promise that Dracula makes explicitly, in fact Stoker shows only a few moments where Renfield and Dracula actually interact, but it is clear that this consumption of human life and energy is Renfield’s ultimate goal. Harley Quinn on the other hand is not lured in by some promise of power but rather by the idea that she can give up her sanity in order to have a romantic relationship with the Joker. These desires that the dark master is to some degree offering to meet show the lunatic of as a victim of false promises and manipulation rather than being truly evil themselves.
Interestingly, these promises also become the breaking point for the loyalty both Harley Quinn and Renfield have to their dark masters. Renfield fights back against Dracula when the vampire indicates that he intends to drink from Mina, something Renfield seems to alternately want to do himself or prevent from happening altogether. Harley Quinn also seems to realize that she will never truly have the relationship she wants with the Joker as it is the presentation of this life that sparks her final fight against Enchantress, the main threat of the story. As much as both Dracula and Suicide Squad present the lunatic follower of the dark master as simply crazy these breaks in loyalty show that they retain agency at least to some small degree.
Narratives like Suicide Squad and Dracula are told in a way that portrays the villain as wholly evil and without redemptive qualities, so the construction of the lunatic follower is essential to the development of the dark master figure. By creating characters like Harley Quinn or Renfield who are represented as insane even in relation to other insane characters the creator is able to explore the ways in which the dark master figure can be appealing. The lunatic follower’s insanity is demonstrated simply by their willingness to follow a figure like Dracula or the Joker, but their mentally fragile state also allows these insane characters to be shown as worthy of pity. The lunatic follower and their relationships to their dark masters is construction that brings depth to the antagonists of these stories that is not possible through the sane protagonists.
Separated by over a thousand years Beowulf and How to Train your Dragon exist in very different mediums and in very different contexts. Beowulf is an epic poem written in Old English that traces the life of a monster killing hero as the moves from traveller to king to his ultimate demise at the hands of a dragon. It is a work that is debated by scholars on topics ranging the Christian topics to the date of composition with very few points of absolute agreement. On the other hand, How to Train Your Dragon is an animated film targeting children that spawned successful sequels and very little controversy. Despite the gap in time and genre these works do rely on very similar premises: the telling of a fictional story within the context of a verifiable past.
The establishment of the epic story of Beowulf begins with an origin story, naming Scyld Scefing the first of the Danes and imparting a sense of unbroken inheritance to the king of the Danes, Hrothgar, of the story. This is not a phenomenon that ends with the prologue but rather the entire poem is filled with digressions and tangents that continue to situate Beowulf within a long history of heroes, wars and adventures. How to Train Your Dragon echoes the opening genealogies of the Beowulf poem with narration that situates the fictional island in a vast sea and the hero in relation to his forebearers. The setting is a village the has been there for ‘seven generations’ and the hero Hiccup himself is placed as the son of the chief Stoic the Vast who is assigned his own monster killing feats which Hiccup emphasizes his belief in during his narration. As a children’s movie How to Train Your Dragon has less room for tangents into stories of the past, but it maintains its setting within the Viking history in ways which would be more recognizable to a modern audience. The Vikings sail off the fight the dragons in their strong ships, seeking a final defeat of their enemy that will be a legacy for future generations on their island. Beowulf is looking for much the same accomplishment when he goes out to fight his own dragon; he wants to put an end to the destruction of his kingdom and win enough gold to last into the rule of future kings. Hiccup defeats his dragon and shows his people the possibility of a new legacy of companionship with dragons. This is not a victory without cost, Hiccup loses his leg, but it is a world saving victory none the less. Beowulf also defeats the dragon, but the cost of his victory is the loss of his life and the winning of treasure is ultimately not enough to save his people from defeat at the hands of the Swedes. Regardless of these different outcomes the goal of these final battles are nearly identical as the heroes seek to continue the epic history of their people that was established earlier in their respective stories.
The monsters and settings of these works are not real in any meaningful way but by situating the stories in those contexts the creators are able to build upon the knowledge and imagination of their audience. For the original readers of Beowulf dragons and sons of Cain would have been well within their world view and the invocation of Scyld Scefing as the origin of the peoples in the tale would have held weight. History assures us that Denmark was not filled with monstrous decedents of Cain, nor was there a treasure hoarding dragon living underground in the Swedish peninsula, but records do indicate that the Geatish king Hygelac did invade the Frankish lands in the way the Beowulf poem describes. Similarly, there is no meridian of misery for a dragon plagued island to reside on, but the history of 8th and 9th century Europe is filled with tales of sea faring Viking raiders. The worlds of Beowulf and Hiccup are created through a combination of history and fiction making worlds that are rich in story, danger and adventure.
Just as the composers and transcribers of Beowulf looked to the history of the world they lived in to create their epic, so do creators of How to Train Your Dragon rest on the legacy of story telling and history. Most of the people who watched How To Train Your Dragon will never read Beowulf but they experienced the legacy of that work in the framing of the movie they did watch. The arts are a field constantly looking to the past and the echoes of stories like Beowulf will continue to peak through because the epic’s fasciation with history has not lapsed in modern culture. Rather it has simply become less explicit. We will continue to tell stories of the past that have been supplemented with imagination because creating a fiction of the past is also the creation of an immersive history that exists in parallel to our own.