Sci-fi in a time of globalized immediacy

Education | Brighten Youth Edu Centre 19 May 2020

The post-modern dictates that literary genres are inclined to porous leakage. Modern literature spawns hybrid genres, conventions lose their essence. Pastiches free of a cogent sense of space or time emerge, only correspondent to the here and now of a burgeoning meme culture.

The self-referential reflects infinitely without end - like a mirror within a mirror, within a mirror.

The nihilistic consequence of upending conventional genres does, sometimes, lead to silver linings. If a single genre dictates a work's structural integrity, other elements - whether they are crisp stylistics or fresh thematics - can complement and even enhance the parent genre.

The more staid a genre's formula, the more it can benefit from a shot of the "other." As tired genres go, science fiction is a top contender. Little in the way of popular sci-fi could be described as path-breaking.

It's not serendipity that led Joseph Campbell to use Star Wars' story arc as the blueprint for his theories on the power of myths.

Myths give generic sci-fi its alluring endurance.

Myth and folklore are why the Star Wars franchise has spawned a myriad of book series.

The template remains unchanged. It is tried and tested across generations, millennia. We preserve archetypes and morals within cultural artifacts because they have always served us well.

Time is a spiral, then. Change comes but what is retained is perpetuated in the cycle.

The gripping book series, The Expanse and Altered Carbon, don't just bleed noir crime drama into their characterization and back story arbitrarily.

Instead, there is a sense that they are products of a speculative time reaching back from the future, a cultural turn ushering in a sober take on spacefaring: how unified would man be in outer space?

Judging by Altered Carbon's dark individualism and The Expanse's recasting of familiar human drama, very little. Both series project the tumult of terrestrial living into space. Wars over land and resources become tied up in jurisdictional space-based strife, the geopolitical replaces countries with planets and specism turns into reverence, even indifference, for the husks of long, dead aliens.

Expectations that a post-human world where gender and race are temporary suits for consciousness "stacks" - as in Altered Carbon - will clear the ground for a rainbow-hued, intersectional world are dashed when mega-corporations and crime syndicates weaponize this fluidity.

For students, The Expanse is the easier read and will appeal to younger teens, with little in the way of tough vocabulary and an overarching, operatic feel similar to popular sci-fi. Like the popular page-turner Game of Thrones, intrigue is deepened by the vast ensemble of characters and their Machiavellian dealings, double-crossings and factional conflicts.

For the more advanced reader, the dizzying world-building of Altered Carbon might not hold the reader's hand, but Richard Morgan's vivid descriptions and staccato fire dialogue place it head and shoulders above both the adapted Netflix television series and other recent literary efforts.

Sci-fi noir is a multifaceted subgenre worth delving into. Both book series deal with pressing concerns for our species: at the level of terra firma and when (or if) we truly reach for the stars.

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