Tag Archives: Science Fiction

Forgotten Gems: John Christopher’s Tripods

Tripods 1John Christopher’s Tripods is almost the definition of a forgotten gem: a work so influential that we see its effects pervasive throughout modern fiction and yet few realize where the influence originally came from.

The Tripods trilogy, consisting of The White Mountains, The City of Lead and Gold, and The Pool of Fire, is a young adult science fiction story about a future Earth that has been invaded and conquered by Tripods – gigantic, three-legged machines controlled by unseen aliens. The alien overlords have enslaved humanity through the use of ‘caps’, implants that allow them to suppress and control thought. In The White Mountains, young protagonist Will fears his upcoming capping ceremony (to be performed on his 14th birthday), and so with his friends Henry and Jean-Paul in tow, he flees his home seeking the legendary human resistance located somewhere in the White Mountains. Over the next two novels, the boys face more challenges, as Will is captured and subsequently rescued, and the trio eventually helps overthrow the reign of the alien masters in The Pool of Fire.

The imagery of towering alien tripods has persisted to this day, such as in video games like Half-Life 2 and Crysis, but though Christopher may have helped popularize tripods, he can’t take credit for imagining them himself. That honor would appear to go to H. G. Wells, whose iconic novel The War of The Worlds featured massive Martian tripods armed with heat rays and sporting fearsome dangling tentacles. Nor did Christopher popularize the idea of alien mind control through his ‘caps’, an idea which was explored almost two decades earlier in Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. So how exactly is the Tripods trilogy so iconic, then? The answer, I think, lies in the novel’s genre, plot devices, and themes.

You see, the Tripods trilogy is an interesting beast. It’s a dystopian, post-apocalyptic adventure story. Nowadays, that sort of story is a dime a dozen. In fact, the market is so over-saturated with YA dystopian novels that editors will (almost without exception) not even consider buying them. However, The White Mountains was first released in 1967, and at that point in time, such stories were virtually unheard of. John Christopher expertly evoked images of 15th and 16th century Europe and merged them with imagery of a deteriorated industrial society to create a ‘lost-technology’ society, which, again, is very much in vogue now but was rather novel at the time.

In addition, Christopher also used plot devices that are now extremely popular in modern YA fiction. For example, in The City of Lead and Gold, Will, Henry, and Jean-Paul enter an Olympics-style competition where the winners are offered as tribute to their alien overlords. Sound familiar? If you’ve read The Hunger Games or any of a host of other recent YA sci-fi/fantasy books, it should. Not to say that Christopher came up with the competition plot device, as he certainly didn’t, but, like his use of setting and his ability to create a compelling atmosphere, he used this and other plot devices to create a memorable, cohesive story.

Now, to be fair, while I’ve labeled the novels as young adult, the fact is that they are more likely middle grade works, and as such, it has been a very long time since I have read any of them. Therefore, I cannot vouch for whether or not they would serve as entertaining reads for adults. What I can say, however, is that they’re extremely fun reads for young boys, and at least for me, they helped create enduring imagery that has lasted into adulthood.

Drawing a Line Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

So I’m currently about halfway through Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, a “dying earth” style tetralogy which has been described as both science fiction and fantasy and has won awards in both categories. Whether or not the series is science fiction or fantasy is a good question, but simply trying to decipher the answer raised a new question: can a story be both science fiction and fantasy, or are the two mutually exclusive categories?

To answer that question we must first define science fiction and fantasy, which we can do with a little aid from Wikipedia and the internet.

The traditional definition of science fiction is a genre that encompasses stories with speculative elements that are at least scientifically plausible, if not necessarily scientifically possible. What does this mean? Well, if we ask ourselves if a story is possible based on our current understanding of science and the laws of nature and the answer is yes, then that story would be considered science fiction.

Consider some of the common elements of science fiction stories:

–       Space travel: We know this to be possible, the only question is how we could travel long distances through space.

–       Aliens: Given that mankind exists, and that we can extrapolate from current data that there are probably trillions of planets in our galaxy alone, then it is likely that alien life forms do exist.

–       Sentient computers/robots: Not a far leap considering computational advances over the last 60 years.

–       Time travel: Many theoretical physicists believe this to be possible. Time travel forwards in time is known to be real (see: time dilation)

Other common elements of science fiction include teleportation, advanced weaponry, genetic modifications, and more. Essentially, as long as science does not indicate that something is impossible, then it can be considered science fiction.

Fantasy stories, on the other hand, feature elements of the impossible like magic and supernatural creatures, including vampires, dragons, and trolls.

While there are other important differences between science fiction and fantasy genres, including thematic elements, story structure, and accepted tropes, at its core, science fiction is possible, whereas fantasy is impossible.

However, this definition falls short, and the reason why is a matter of perspective.

Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published both genres, though not necessarily simultaneously.
Cover of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which published both genres, though not necessarily simultaneously.

There is a famous quote by Arthur C. Clarke in which he stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I’ve seen people argue vehemently against this, stating that either something is technological in nature or it isn’t. This is true – simply because someone does not understand how something works does not make it magic. However, Clarke was an author, and his quote is referring to stories.

You see, stories we read are told from particular perspectives, and from a single, uneducated perspective, technology and magic can be indistinguishable. Imagine a story about technology written by two different people, one who believes in magic and one who does not. The individual who believes in magic will tell a very different story than the one who understands the inner workings of technology.

So, whether or not a story is science fiction or fantasy is not dependent upon whether or not the fundamental story elements of a story are possible or impossible, but rather whether the individual telling the story (either first person or third person) believes the events taking place to be possible or impossible, or more accurately, whether the narrator understands technology or believes in magic.

It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

So going back to The Book of the New Sun, is it science fiction or fantasy? We simply have to look at the narrator, Severian. As it turns out, he has no knowledge of science or technology whatsoever, and so the story comes across as fantasy, even if it is set in a plausible* future earth scenario. Of course, The Book of the New Sun is an interesting case, because it’s not traditional fantasy either. Given Gene Wolfe’s rather unique literary voice, reading the books feels more like embarking on a peyote smoke-induced fever dream than reading a fantastic tale, but given a choice between sci-fi and fantasy, fantasy gets the nod.

*Honestly, the story is not plausible. It’s totally bonkers, but some elements of what Wolfe throws at the reader are certainly based in technology.

Image credit: Featured image by DanilLovesFood (http://danillovesfood.deviantart.com/) (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0), via deviantART. Post image by Steve (alittleblackegg) (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr.

Better Know a Sub-Genre – Space Opera

In my introductory post, I wrote a lot about not only what genres of music and literature I like, but about what sub-genres I like within those genres. As the total wealth of human knowledge becomes immeasurably vast, we as humans have felt the need to sub-compartmentalize genres of fiction and music into smaller and smaller categories, until each one is so specific that it excludes 99.9% of the other stuff that’s out there.

I assume we do this to try and make ourselves feel cool and unique. Instead of being one of millions of people who read sci-fi, you become one of a few hundred people who are really into dying earth/planetary romances mixed with space westerns (I just made that amalgamation up by the way, but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had written something along those lines). Suddenly, your passion is a niche that you can lord over your friends, making you seem infinitely cooler than them.

Of course, the problem is that there are so many sub-genres out there now that you might easily be confused by all the nomenclature. What in the world is Bangsian fantasy? Or sword and planet fiction? You need an expert to figure it all out for you.

Well, I’m your expert. Sort of, anyway. At the very least, I know how to use a search engine well enough to fake it.

First up: Space Opera!

Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction that emphasizes BIG conflicts and BIG adventures set in outer space, often in the far future, and usually between opponents that possess advanced technologies and powers. In addition, space operas often contain:

–       A focus on a singular, sympathetic main character

–       Elements of romance

–       Elements of mysticism and mythology (as opposed to hard technology)

–       Elements of heroism

–       An emphasis on drama (or even melodrama)

–       Plot elements of war and battle

–       An optimistic outlook and/or happy ending

The term ‘space opera’ was first coined in the 1940’s by a fanwriter by the name of Wilson Tucker as an insult towards stories that he described as “hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s].” The stories that he referred to first started showing up in the 20’s and 30’s following Hubble’s discoveries that hinted at the immeasurable vastness of our universe, which spurred fiction writers to start thinking beyond the confines of our own solar system. In fact, the first great space opera is sometimes accredited to E. E. “Doc” Smith, whose The Skylark of Space first appeared in the August 1928 edition of the pulp magazine, Amazing Stories.

Amazing Stories Aug1928By the early 40’s, the stories had become so repetitious and hackneyed that fans, such as Tucker, lumped them into a ‘space opera’ category to be summarily ignored. Of course, the type of story did not die, as writers like Poul Anderson and C. J. Cherryh continued to write them throughout the late 70’s. By this point, the term ‘space opera’ had grown beyond being a mere slushy insult and blossomed into its own genre.

Then in the late 70’s and early 80’s, space opera underwent a mini resurgence, not in literature, but in film, thanks to the release of Star Wars, which would go on to become one of the most successful movie franchises of all time.

Star Wars closely follows John Campbell’s monomyth, also known as the hero’s journey, which is something that I’ll go into at a later date. For now though, consider some of Star Wars’ thematic elements:

–       A focus on a sympathetic main character (Luke). ✓

–       Elements of romance (the Luke/Leia/Han Solo love triangle). ✓

–       Elements of mysticism (the Force). ✓

–       Elements of heroism (throughout). ✓

–       An emphasis on drama/melodrama (Luke. I am your father. … NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!). ✓

–       Plot elements of war and battle (the entire struggle between the Rebels and the Empire). ✓

–       A happy ending (the Rebels win). ✓

Star Wars is prototypical space opera, and its success launched a parade of other reasonably successful space opera films over the next few decades. Though space opera literature has perhaps never experienced quite the same popularity as it did in it’s very early days, it continues to have a solid following, and in my opinion, is poised for another resurgence.

Some notable space operas, other than those already mentioned, include:

–       The Buck Rodgers stories, first written by Philip Francis Nowlan

–       The Flash Gordon universe of fiction

–       Select novels from Iain M. Banks’ Culture series

–       The movie The Fifth Element (which amusingly enough features a scene with a real opera in space – well, on another planet really)

–       The Mass Effect series of video games

For those fantasy readers out there, I tend to think of space opera as the science fiction equivalent of epic fantasy. Both deal with big, epic stories, both focus around a powerful, sympathetic hero character, both often feature battles between forces depicted as good and evil, and both emphasize magic/mysticism over realism. If you like one, chances are you’ll like the other as well.

So, what do you all think? What are some of your favorite space opera stories? What important contributions did I miss? Duke it out in the comments.

Image credits: Featured image by Andre35822 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Post image by Frank R. Paul [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.