Code or Creed: Statements of Belief In Star Wars and Dune

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 »

Act Your Age: A Rant about Children in Fiction

Children in most fantasy fiction decidedly do not act their age but instead behave like adults whose appearance has just been adjusted for emotional impact. Most often this is in pursuit of giving the book a gritty or disturbing feel rather than an actual need for child characters. Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks is a shining example of this strategy and the incongruous ways the supposedly child characters behaved was a source of frustration throughout the entire book. There is a place for child characters, like in The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card where the setting and plot are truly dependent on the youth of the protagonists. Any mention of age in Way of Shadows is a source of immediate frustration and break in immersion which could have been solved either by letting go of the pretense of the character’s ages or by adopting a strategy more like the one in the Ender series.Read More »

Unsurprisingly Evil: When Rogue Technology Stories Are Interesting

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 »

Where Science Cannot Follow: Dreams as the Site of Speculative Fiction

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.

Becoming More Like Themselves: Naming in The Southern Reach Trilogy and The Pilgrim’s Progress

Names and naming are a fascination in literature in general, and fantasy in particular but sometimes the lack of naming can convey an even stronger message bout the characters. Some names have symbolism or convey inherent character traits such as the JK Rowling’s incredibly literal Wolf-Wolf in Remus Lupin while other characters remain largely nameless like C.S Lewis’s White Witch who’s first name is rarely mentioned. Religious allegory is another place in which names serve a very particular purpose and the characters are identified by the singular trait that they represent in the story. Both allegory and science fiction rely heavily on symbolism and the way the reader engages with the created worlds of the texts which makes the role of naming clearer than it is in other genres. Examining the way characters are identified in the John Bunyan’s allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress and Jeff VanderMeer’s science fiction The Southern Reach Trilogy shows how the namelessness of a character can communicate their journey to the reader.

These are characters that are one dimensional and who’s entire being can be summed up in the singular word that serves to identify them. They rely on the reader’s preconceived notions that accompany the identify whether that be a trait like Virtue or Christian like in The Pilgrim’s Progress or professions like the biologist or surveyor in The Southern Reach Trilogy. These characters do not expand beyond the singular characteristics identified by their title and the reader may find it harder to attach a personality to their existent ideas attached to that title. Namelessness restricts the ways in which a character can grow and the ability of the reader to connect with that character which is often used intentionally by the author to further thematic aspects of their work.

Reading the Southern Reach Trilogy the reader finds themselves searching for names that just do not appear. The Biologist is not really a person, her story isn’t even happening in real time and it isn’t until she is replaced by a more complex creature that Ghost Bird begins to truly function as a name that is associated with a particular person. She is separate from the biologist of the first novel and the other characters view her as a distinct being. The biologist on the other hand is trapped nameless in her journals and remains in that state even as she transitions into the creature that is identified as a monster who was once the biologist. She is a watcher of nature as identified by her title but she is no more than that even as the plot advances around her.

Ghost Bird and the biologist have very linear trajectories in relation to their names but there are other more complex uses of naming in VanderMeer’s trilogy. Control’s journey from namelessness is a complete circle, he begins as Control and he ends as Control but much his arc revolves around this transition. The second book of the trilogy, the first in which he appears, is his progression from the brainwashed Control through his fight back to the moment where he ultimately reclaims his name while standing in the wilderness with the also recently named Ghost Bird. However, the complexity and self determination that Control gains when he takes back John Rodriguez is quickly lost as he is consumed by Area X. His departure as Control is in fact what brings Area X into a new, perhaps more stable state, and just as the allegorical figures in The Pilgrim’s Progress live into their identifiers so to does Control.

Contrary to the audience of The Southern Reach Trilogy, the readers of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress the challenges of reading an allegory would be familiar as it was a key part of the Christian tradition. This means that for the original readers of the story there would be no search for other names or characters in the same way that the modern readers of VanderMeer’s work do. There is also no expectation of growth in an allegorical text like Bunyan’s. Christian’s journey is not one to acquire a name like Ghost Bird but rather he is simply growing into the title he begins the story with. The name is true of villainous figures in the text like Formalist or Hypocrisy, the identifiers assure the reader of exactly what kind of behavior to expect. Where VanderMeer uses namelessness to show character journey Bunyan – and allegory in general – use namelessness to create static characters who do not develop.

The decisions that authors make about what to call their characters is central to how the reader with interact with those creations. Ghost Bird grows on the reader as she develops beyond the biologist and earns a name of her own while Christian’s journey into his faith feels inevitable and probably comforting to Bunyan’s original readers. When names come full circle like with Control it is a demonstration of how closely tied naming, even of fictional characters, is to a sense of identity. Allegory as utilized by writers of the past uses identifiers rather than names to show a character claiming of the traits that tied to that word while restricting their ability to develop beyond that trait. In modern fiction however, those who are nameless are without depth or identity, while the journey into a name is a journey of growth into person hood.