Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.
Editor

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


 

Originally published in Perihelion Science Fiction. Free science fiction stories, science articles, comic strips, reviews, and more, on the Internet. Every month, Perihelion presents solid stories with strong plots, intriguing characters, with a sense of wonder reminiscent of the classic science fiction pulp magazines from the ’60s and ’70s. Artwork is by award winning illustrators. Articles are by experts in their fields. Established in 1967, originally as a print magazine, by Sam Bellotto Jr. and Eric M. Jones, the magazine was revisioned in 2012 as an online publication, and has been published regularly every month since. For the best in entertainment and information, bookmark Perihelion on your favorites list.

Copyright © 2013 by Erin Lale.

 

 

 

Politics and Story Structure in

Science Fiction

By Erin Lale

IS GENRE FICTION INHERENTLY political? Hard science fiction is about science and technology, but also equally about how that science and technology affects people and society, even if it’s an alien society. Where the content is strictly about physics, say, the structure of a story still has to appeal to a human reader. The more speculative the content, the more traditional structures help readers relate to the material.

For example, “The Closet of Discarded Dreams,” by Rudy Garcia, is speculative fiction set in a dream world. Everything from the functional operation of floors to human behavior running in time loops functions differently than it does in the real world. In this dream world, the reader cannot rely on real world physics to anticipate how the main character will be able to navigate the world. In this bizarre setting, the story structure of a hero quest provides the familiarity upon which the reader can understand and enjoy the novel.

That novel was published as science fiction, not because it has science fiction content—there is no science here, except perhaps the soft science of psychology of dreams—but because it is a story with a traditional structure in a speculative setting, thus fitting in with science fiction and fantasy. A novel of the complete opposite type, with an experimental structure and realistic content, would be considered literary fiction.

Examples of experimental literary fiction, which play with structure, include the typographic experimentation and experimentation with the level of formality in language use in Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves,” the plotlessness of Nicholas Baker’s “The Mezzanine,” the random-access chaptering of Julio Cort├ízar’s “Hopscotch,” and of course, often cited as the earliest example of experimental literature, the famous black page in Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” To the extent that these works are considered literature while genre works are considered entertainment, despite works such as Garcia’s being just as intellectually stimulating in its own way, the publishing and literary fields carry the message that what is avant-garde is good, high class, worthy of study, for the intellectual elite, while what is traditional in structure is low class, for the masses.

Do all stories carry a political message? It depends on how you define a political message. Let’s consider a genre that is generally considered to be apolitical: romance and erotica. Does “political message” mean an overt moral to the story that makes a political point relevant to today’s modern American politics? If that’s the definition, then those who say romance and erotica have little political content are right, at least in intent.

Romance and erotica as genres are considered to be for entertainment only, and without loftier purposes such as teaching morals, exploring important issues such as political issues, or pushing the envelope in artistic expression. This lack of political intent is interpreted as the absence of a political message. However, it is precisely the thinking-inside-the-box nature of a formula romance that makes its structure conservative and its content normative. These stories tell us what society considers a normal relationship. Keeping the traditional structure and changing one thing—the gender, race, or religion of just one member of the couple—is a radical act that transforms the book into one with a political message, that message being “same sex couples are normal and acceptable,” in today’s world, or in a previous generation, “mixed race couples are normal and acceptable,” a message most of society seems to agree with now.

If “political message” is defined more broadly, then all romance and erotica does have a political message, thusly: a happily ever after romance between a man and a woman is a traditional story form which is inherently conservative purely because it is a recognized and psychologically satisfying traditional form. A romance or erotic tale that breaks that form in various ways, either because the couple parts ways, stays together but does not get married, engages in a one night stand, has multiple partners, is a same sex couple, etc. is inherently progressive because it deliberately breaks traditional form. In exactly the same way, Anton Chekhov broke traditional form in his plays. Chekhov used subtext implied in pauses in his plays, was one of the first to employ the stquotedream of consciousness style, and concluded his works in ways that left the audience feeling they had missed something in the ending. He subverted traditional structure by challenging the idea that the audience must feel closure at the end of a play or story.

Elvis Presley broke traditional form in his music and performance antics, which led to even less-traditional literature and music along the path they blazed. Rock and roll led to rock, which led to a profusion of music styles from punk to death metal that would not have been recognized as music before the 20th Century, and the pendulum swung back toward tradition with alternative rock and folk rock. Experimental plays like “Waiting for Godot” led to even more experimental forms labeled performance art, street theater, and interactive theater. In novels, the modern take on the traditional hero tale might make the main character an antihero, or an everyman who does not do the work of a hero as in a slice of life piece. The hero may be remade through a deliberately political lens, as when a feminist message is created through the structure of having the main female character in the traditional hero role rather than in the traditional heroine role.

The words formula and formulaic are used dismissively, to indicate low quality. For example, in a movie review of “Safe Haven,” Dan Metcalf wrote in The David Clipper, “When a formula works, I suppose you stick with it. That may be a good philosophy in running a successful business (or franchise), but the outcome is often a mobile consumer base and a reputation for having a stale, low quality product (sort of like McDonald’s).” However, classical works such as the plays of Homer and Shakespeare, legends from the sagas of King Arthur and his knights to the shortest fairy tale all follow traditional story structures, and are therefore formulaic.

That which is not formulaic is postmodern. An example of a postmodern novel is William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch,” which had no narrative arc and employed pastiche, paradox, parody, and a sense of playing in the ruins of modernism. Postmodern stories which deliberately break traditional forms are labeled literary and are considered a higher form of fictional art than genre fiction, which generally adheres to traditional structures, even which the subject is speculative to the point of bizarre, as with science fiction featuring aliens gendered other than humans, made of silicon, or even transdimensional and nonlinear (all of which have appeared on “Star Trek,” so we’re talking about mass-appeal science fiction.)

Structures which are inherently conservative, that is, formulaic, have a lower social status than structures which are inherently progressive. Formula or genre literature and representational art are considered low class, on a par with pole dancing, while postmodern literary works, and abstract modern art are considered high class, on a par with ballet. The low class entertainment forms are dismissed among high class circles to the point where people write in all sincerity that Las Vegas needed to build a tax funded performing arts center, the Smith Center, because Las Vegas doesn’t have enough performances and performance space. The entire for-profit casino-hotel industry with its theaters for music, dance, magic, comedy, and so forth are dismissed precisely because they are for profit and for the masses, and therefore do not count as culture—even when the casinos are displaying originals by Monet to the public. It is not the content but the structure that determines how these works are perceived.

The class status of the literary over the genre is akin to the status of pure research over applied research in physics and the other sciences. The very word pure implies there is something impure, dirty, low class about research into practical applications. This parallels the status of art over craft, where art exists for its own sake, is shown in galleries and sells for high prices, while craft is made to be used and sells for low prices. Call a work fiber art and it belongs in a museum, on display under lights, to be admired but not touched; call the same work a quilt and it belongs on one’s bed. Painting, a traditionally male occupation, has a higher social status in the art world than quilt making, a traditionally female art form. Within the painting world, oil painting is traditionally male, high class, and high priced, while watercolor was in history more accessible to women artists, and was not valued as highly.

Science fiction devotees often debate what exactly makes something science fiction as opposed to another type of novel. There is a hardness scale, based on the Mohs hardness scale for stones, that distinguishes hard science fiction from soft science fiction, from science fantasy, from techno-thriller. The question in that case, if you took out the science, would there still be a story? If the answer is yes, the story is said to not really be science fiction. However, perhaps a better question is, if you took out the story structure, and left the science, would there be anything there? And would it be science, or hand-waving and technobabble, or magic, or nothing at all?

“Barking Death Squirrels” by Douglas A. Van Belle is a story of warfare as a series of engineering puzzles. The basic premise that brings the characters where they are for the story to happen is based on the scientific theory that high gravity worlds favor small, compact animals, and that humans are the rats of the galaxy, able to withstand gravity wells that the giant alien rulers of the galaxy cannot. Take away the science and engineering and there is no story. That makes it the hardest of hard science fiction.

“Mind Over Mind” by Karina Fabian is a coming of age story. It’s about a friendship between an intern and a patient in an insane asylum whose lives run on an inverted parallel as the doctor pursues romance with a nurse and the patient is pressured to give up his fantasy woman to be considered normal. It never becomes clear whether the woman and her science fictional world are real or all in his head. Take away the science and you have exactly the same story. That makes this book nearly mainstream. The uncertainly about what is real and what’s not in this book give it crossover potential to non-genre literature, as a deconstructed reality is a hallmark of postmodernism, even though the book has a traditional structure. That makes this soft science fiction.

“Brass Hearts” is a steampunk twist on the 19th century romantic comedy of manners. The heroine, Dulcy Spry, is a steam engineer determined to inherit her father’s business, saddled with a scheming, social-climbing younger sister set on netting a rich husband. When a rich man’s steam-powered car breaks down in their little town, comedy ensues, with all the usual bells and whistles of mistaken identities, traded clothes, a masque ball, a con man, and an intricate web of wrong love matches, all while the gears are turning in the younger sister’s mind to achieve her marriage plot—plus actual brass gears, bells, and whistles in fine steampunk style. Take out the science, and you have Jane Austen. Everything that is original in the book disappears, including most of the personality of the heroine, who is at heart a classic hard-science fiction engineer-hero, albeit plunked down in an alternate history setting.  This book is medium on the hardness scale.

Science fiction does not itself have a traditional plot structure. Rather, it borrows the traditional plot structures of other genres, such as the hero tale, the mystery, the romance, and so forth. Because these structures are familiar from works set in the real world, they provide a psychologically comfortable way for the reader to learn about the science fictional world and explore the scientific and social questions which are the science fictional elements of the story. For example, “Outies” by J.R. Pournelle is a sequel to “The Mote in God’s Eye,” and is about how contact with an alien culture upends an all too human struggle for wealth, power, and souls. The climactic action of “Outies” turns on the physics of space travel, and therefore the book belongs in the category of hard science fiction. The action itself, however, involves the engineer-hero solving the problem of how to invent a totally new way to get out of a gravity well so that the human inhabitants of the world can be saved from political tyranny. Structurally, this is the Robin Hood plot: a great man does something amazing that saves the common folk from a tyrant. The “something  amazing” is creating a machine in the science fiction version of the plot, and shooting a bow in the traditional version, but they both evoke the same emotional response in the reader because they are both about a hero, who is exceptional, saving the rest of the people, who are ordinary, from the villain, who is evil. Without the story structure, a hard science fiction book stops being a novel and becomes a speculative science essay.

Romance as a women’s genre has less social status than the other genres, especially those perceived as male, such as horror, science fiction, and western. This is not a new phenomenon. Those who wrote down the oral traditions of Iceland chose to preserve the sagas and eddas which dealt with male heroes, and not to preserve the women’s literature which had romantic and erotic content, and was perceived therefore as wrong, immoral, and unworthy of study.

Social status of types of literature has a general tendency to relegate basic emotions and needs to low status, intellectually challenging but not form-defying books to a middle status, and envelope-pushing, experimental works to a high status. Books that are concerned with basic biological needs and feelings are on the low end of social status, and include romance (love, lust, reproduction) and horror (fear, predation), which are also the two most popular, best selling genres. Science fiction and mystery both provide mental challenges to the reader, but follow traditional story structure, which makes them accessible to the masses and entertaining, and also have a low status, but not as low as the emotion-driven genres. Within science fiction, hard science fiction which deals with real science has a higher status than soft science fiction, and the lowest status among critics and also the most popular and best selling among book buyer is science fiction that is a romance plot in a science fiction setting. Literary fiction which does not have traditional structure and is not required to be entertaining or emotionally satisfying enjoys the highest social status and the least sales, which is not considered a flaw because it is meant for the elite.

Books that are low social status are the most likely to be censored, and to draw calls for censorship. Public libraries debated whether to stock “50 Shades of Grey,” and when they did, often drew public criticism for doing so.

Logically, the reverse should also be true: high social status works should be more likely to be publicly funded. It is true in fine art, film, architecture, and other art forms which require capital to complete. Public art is often modern art, and appears ugly to the general public who are forced to pay for it through their taxes by the elites who purport to know better than the public what the public should see. Public buildings meant for the public to use, such as schools, mental health centers, etc., are notoriously ugly, while public buildings for the elites themselves, such as legislative buildings, court houses, performing arts centers, are usually conventionally beautiful and classical, even when they are built new in the postmodern age. Writing being an activity which does not require a high capital investment like producing a massive steel public artwork or a major motion picture, tends not to attract subsidies in the way that documentary filmmakers do, nor commissions in the way that architects do.

Literary criticism, on the other hand, is often invisibly subsidized as the product of university faculty who are under pressure to “publish or perish” to get and keep their jobs, which are directly tax-supported at public institutions, and indirectly tax-supported through federal student loans and grants. As most university faculty are politically liberal, the literary criticism they produce filters though a politically liberal lens. This contributes to the feedback cycle in which progressive, tradition-busting works are accorded higher social status than conservative, traditionally plotted works.

The expected result does happen, then: the highest status literary works are the beneficiaries of money taken from the common people and distributed by the elites, because the very highest status is conferred by the professors on their own works. The only thing higher-status than the avant-garde artwork or experimental literature is the works of criticism by the elites who enjoy them. Low-status works are censored and high-status works are subsidized. The distribution of tax money is politics in the raw, and it flows from the rural to the urban, from the less educated to the more educated, from the middle of the country to the two coasts, from the conservative to the liberal, and from the poor to the rich. infinity

Further Reading

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories,” Christopher Booker, Bloomsbury Academic.

Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness,” TV Tropes, TV Tropes Foundation.

Feminist Literary Criticism,” Allen Brizee, J. Case Tompkins, Purdue Online Writing Lab.

So You Want to Write a Romance: the Formula Revealed,” Nicola Martinez, Pelican Book Group.

Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature,” Warren F. Motte Jr., Dalkey Archive.

Contemporary Literature and Criticism,” Daniel Green, The Reading Experience.

Genre and the Institution of Research,” Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Modern Language Association of America.

Why Art Investors Should Avoid Watercolour Paintings,” Artforprofits, Art Market Blog with Nic Forrest.

Red State/Blue State: Geographic Clustering,” John Mackenzie, University of Delaware.

The Common Reader,” Virginia Woolf, The University of Adelaide.

Genre is Not a Synonym for Formulaic,” Vivian, Kvetch of the Day.

Modernism and Comparison With Postmodernism,” Mitzi McFarland, University of West Georgia.

College Faculties A Most Liberal Lot, Study Finds,” Howard Kurtz, Washington Post.

Libraries Debate Stocking ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Trilogy,” Julie Bosman, The New York Times.

The Sagaman and Oral Literature,” Stephen Mitchell, Harvard University.

Erin Lale is the Acquisitions Editor at “Eternal Press” and a freelance writer since 1985. She holds a degree in Soviet Political Analysis from UC-Santa Cruz. She recently ran for Henderson City Council and previously ran for Nevada State Assembly.

 

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