Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Hobbit Revisited

Several weeks ago I wrote a response for J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit, in which I explained that I was most impressed not by it's silly characters or epic-style plot, but by it's beautiful, expansive, believable world. Since then I have written several blog entries regarding my interest in the fictional worlds of the different fantasy and science fiction stories I read. Throughout this school year, particularly with the help of this class, I have realized my complete obsession with world building in fiction. I was very happy to discover this love, as it made me extremely confident in my choice to major in Game Art and Design with it's focus on world and experience creation, as opposed to the focus on character and story creation in Computer Animation. Looking back, I recognize The Hobbit as being one of my first introductions to this idea of a complex fictional universe, and it is memorable simply for this reason.

The Hobbit, along with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is based in a fantastical and completely fictional world that is so thoroughly and extensively created that it feels completely believable. It is filled with different races, languages, beliefs, mythology, fantasy politics, and a complex history. It is a world created with intense care and attention to detail. With a world so deep and believable as this, a book like The Hobbit seems like only one miniscule story in the massive history of Middle Earth. An infinite number of excellent, as well as convincing, stories can be told when their creator makes their world deep enough to fit in. In fact, a series of “history books” could be just as easily produced, and would be just good as if not more interesting than the actual “stories”!

As a whole, this class has introduced me to many pieces of literature that have greatly inspired or influenced me. From The Hobbit and onward, I am glad to have been exposed to such a range of genres not only for their entertainment at the time, but for their lasting effect on me and my future work in school and in my career.

The Ray-Gun: A Love Story

To finish off my weeks of science fiction readings, I picked a story from “The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy” to read. I decided upon “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story”, by James Alan Gardner, simply because it had a title that stood out to me as I flipped through the book. It ended up being an adorable feel-good story that affected me in an entirely different way than any of the science fiction stories I had read for this class before. I suddenly realized, after puzzling over this for a while, that I hadn't read anything yet that had not left me with a feeling of unease, displacement, horror, or at least confusion.

I love science fiction. This is something that I've always kind of known, but really grew to realize in the last few weeks of this class. I find it completely inspirational to read these stories of the near-future, or of our-world-but-different, or even (sometimes) of the really, really weird. But, as a whole, they all tend to leave me with an uneasy feeling once I've finished with them. Something that was mentioned in class in fact, that I found particularly interesting and took note of, was the feeling of paranoia that runs through science fiction stories as a whole. The purpose of science fiction, as I have personally come to understand it, is to force the reader to question and see things differently.

What makes “The Ray-Gun: A Love Story” so interesting to me is that it actually left me feeling happy and satisfied. It actually was a love story, with a feel-good-version of science fiction layered over it. The story, basically, ended in a typical “it must be fate” way, except that “fate” was replaced by “the influence of this alien ray gun which was blasted from a space ship and crash landed here on Earth thousands of years later”. But then again, going by my previous definition of science fiction, this story was definitely a way of looking at a love story that was different than ever before.

All in all, I enjoyed this love story. It left me with a nice, satisfied feeling. And, possibly more importantly, it made me look back on the past few weeks of readings and try to figure out what, exactly, it takes for something to be considered science fiction.


To be entirely honest, “Bloodchild”, by Octavia Butler, horrified me. It managed to combine several of the things that freak me out, like worms and insects and parasites and people being cut open and then stitched back shut, into one terrifying story. However, to continue being entirely honest, I was also extremely intrigued by the metaphors it contained and the messages it expressed.

For starters, men were pregnant for the second week of readings in a row. Not only that, but their pregnancy was portrayed in a completely terrible-looking way, which really made me as a reader look at normal female pregnancy in an entirely different, but completely legitimate, way. The characters played roles from there that at times got very weird, but also extremely interesting. The narrater, Gan, and the alien T'Gatoi had a very strange relationship that set them as some kind of strange mix of mother and son, owner and property, and lovers. One description of them was given as T'Gatoi as the boyfriend or husband to Gan's pregnant girlfriend or wife, demanding to know if he is loved and if he will be taken care of as he carries T'Gatoi's children.

Relationships became an important part of this story to me, not just between characters but also regarding the alien Tlic's and the humans' coexistence. It was mentioned in the story how the humans had been mistreated in the past, but something had forced the Tlic to take better care of them, in order to put them to better use. While Gan clearly comes off as T'Gatoi's property, it is also made clear by the end that his compliance and happiness are important to her, and then he is not powerless in their relationship.

This was a weird story with some weird relationships and weird ideas. That said, it also contained some ideas that I really felt interested and even in agreement with. So, in short, the reading freaked me out quite a bit, but the discussion that followed completely captivated me.

Battlestar Galactica

Last semester, I was introduced to the newest incarnation of the TV show “Battlestar Galactica”, and have been checking it out from the library to watch whenever I get the chance since. It's slow work, and I regret that I will be going home without even having finished the first season, but at the very least I can write my first impression of it.

Battlestar Galactica”, I've noticed so far, is extremely character-driven. Despite being set in a exciting and foreign world, it is not so much the dogfights in space or the futuristic setting that takes the center stage as it is the complicated relationships between characters and their own very personal reactions to what is happening around them. The plot point of “the last human survivors” has been done before, but “Battlestar Galactica” really makes me understand and feel the emotions that should be, but usually aren't, associated with it. Even in the pilot episode, the show managed to convey the horror and shock at seeing a majority of the human race destroyed that, somehow, I have never felt watching another film or movie with the same situation.

A small piece of the show that I really am a fan of is the spaceship battles, if only for how different they are from how other science fiction films handle things like this. Rather than being filled with epic music and huge explosions, the scenes are quiet. The music is fast-paced yet minimal, and does a wonderful job of making me excited without breaking my focus from what the characters are doing or saying to one another. Once again, the characters are the whole point of this show, and I have yet to feel bored or distracted from it by even something as epic as evil robots in space.

I've written several times about how much of a fan I am of the fictional worlds of fantasy and science fiction literature. However, when a story can have such a world that serves only as a completely believable backdrop to a completely character-centered story, I feel like this world is just about perfect.

Johnny Mnemonic

For this week I read the short story “Johnny Mnemonic” by William Gibson which, luckily for me, ended up being the short story that was discussed in class that same week. Looking back, I can see that this is the point where I started to get very excited and inspired by class discussions, or at the very least when I started writing down notes of things that were mentioned in these classes.

First of all, I was extremely satisfied to finally learn what cyberpunk actually was: I'd heard the sub-genre's name before, but never actually knew what kind of story it referred to. After that, I was very quick to learn that I like this sub-genre a lot. Over the course of this year, and particularly through this class, I've learned that I am kind of obsessive over fictional worlds. I feel like the cyberpunk stories that I was introduced to did exactly this kind of world-building that I love. The stories take place in a not-so-distant future, and the many similarities they have to our real world make the things that are different seem so much more foreign and strange than if they were in an entirely different, fantastical world.

The mixture of technology with life and society are what really make these exotic worlds. Nearly every character in these stories is some form of genetically altered creature or cyborg. Biology itself is replaced by machinery. The loss of the importance of resources to that of technology is an extension of this. Wars are fought over information. Information is carried in humans with hard drives implanted in their brains. It is a fascinating and completely realistic idea of our future: in fact, I would say that it seems unlikely that humans won't be implanting computers into their bodies in the coming years.

I'll close by mentioning again how happy I am that we spent a week discussing this sub-genre of science fiction, because now I know exactly what kind of stories to look into when I am in need of a huge amount of inspiration.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Stars My Destination

Although I didn't read this novel for the week it was assigned, Cassidy managed to convince me to read it for the next week, for which I am grateful. The Stars My Destination was not only an exciting, high adventure (in space) story, but it was set in an interesting, new world that I enjoyed reading about almost more than I did the (usually horrible) actions of Gully Foyle on his quest for revenge.

The one thing that is the center of Foyle's new world is the ability to jaunte, or teleport. The entire world, in fact, is entirely believable as being our own, with only this and a few years difference. Jaunting affected the economy of Foyle's world, eventually bringing about war. Jaunting affected the interactions of peoples from around the Earth, leading to the near destruction of recognizable races as well as the explosion of diseases around the world. Jaunting affected the lives of the wealthy and the working class, the status of women, and the way people socialize. The ability of this single, small change in the world to lead to an entirely different universe from our own is amazing to read about. From this alteration, Bester creates a world that is completely immersive and believable and, still being a sucker for fictional worlds, I loved reading about it.

It was stated during the discussion in this class that this book felt like a believable, modern depiction of the future, even though it was written half a century ago. I have to agree with this: there were only a few times during this reading that I stopped and reminded myself of when the book was written. Bester created a world so foreign that it remained so even fifty years in the future, but that still manages to be recognizable as our own world.

The Stars My Destination also happened to contain a very good story with compelling characters and some completely crazy scenes. In the end, though, I found myself just as interested, if not more so, in the politics and technicalities of Bester's fictional world as the story itself.

Sci-Fi Short Stories

For this week, I chose to read two short stories: “Star Light, Star Bright”, by Alfred Bester, and “The Tenants”, by William Tenn. Both were interesting, a bit slow but with an ending that really made me go “OH!” (which probably confused my roommate at the time).

Star Light, Star Bright” introduced the characters, and then dragged me around there arguing for a while before introducing the actual plot, and then dragged me around even more before finally explaining everything in the conclusion. The concept of the genius children, in retrospect, is only mildly cool. What made the story work for me, though, was the way it lead me to the final realization of just what was going on with this wishing boy. It very successfully pulled me in, lead me around, and then made me think that I was clever for reaching the conclusion.

The Tenants” played out in a very similar way. It started off by introducing something very odd in an otherwise normal world, and then let me read for several pages, just as confused as the main character about what was going on. When he finally gained access to the room, and the two tenants left it, I was once again hit with the “oh, I get it!” feeling, immediately followed by an audible “Oh no!” when the character realized he was trapped in the room forever. Despite being short, both of these stories played my emotions exactly how they were intended to.

After listening to the discussion in class about The Stars My Destination, I wasn't entirely sure how the short stories I read fit into this topic of “the final frontier”. I did, however, see how they were a great lead-in to the genre of sci-fi. Even without robots, aliens, or even a mention of outer space, these stories still did what sci-fi should do: took a normal world and made it weird and new.