Intelligent Science Fiction

Warning: This post contains spoilers about the books Who Goes There? as well as I Am Legend and The Hunger Games.

Have you ever wondered what is it about science fiction that gives this particular genre such a broad appeal?

Looking at Hollywood movies, it’s tempting to think it is the visual sensation of blockbusting special effects, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the reliance of movies on mind-bending special effects has diluted rather than enhanced great science fiction stories.

Science fiction has a strong appeal because it is intelligent, it stimulates our thinking. And, often times, this distinction is lost when books morph into movies.

In Who Goes There? John Campbell introduces us to a creature Hollywood immortalized as The Thing.

Although The Thing is a vivid and faithful rendition of Campbell’s novella, it misses a significant amount of the reasoning the scientists go through as both they and the readers struggle to comprehend a hostile alien encounter. And that is where the brilliance of the story lies, in the exploratory, inquisitive, reasoning nature of man.

The essence of the storyline in Who Goes There? is, how can reason triumph over a mindless, instinctive monster, one than can perfectly mimic its target? Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but the way the scientists drive their minds to understand the nature of this alien beast in the novella is brilliant, and it is lost in the screen adaptation.

In the novella, the trapped scientists consider the biological nature of the alien, they think about how the infection spreads at a cellular level, realizing that the infected cow at the Antarctic station would have laced their milk with parasitic spores, dooming them all. They discuss why the alien won’t engage in open combat with them, realizing it has evolved a unique strategy to avoid such confrontations, and they come to the chilling realization that it would sweep unopposed throughout the world if even the smallest biological trace remains. When it comes to The Thing, just a few cells is all that’s needed to overrun Earth’s entire biosphere. As a reader, you feel like an unnamed member of the ice station, traveling with them on this voyage of the damned.

In the same way, I Am Legend, takes an absurd, mythological notion and says, what would happen today if the legend of vampires were true? How could vampires exist in a modern world?

The protagonist of the novella, Neville, talks us through the logic of why vampires fear the cross. Surprisingly, it’s not because of any inherent supernatural power in that particular shape, it turns out that the shape is a catalyst for thought, a vivid reminder of what the vampire has become and so causes a physiological revulsion. Neville even conducts experiments with vampires of Jewish origin, noting they suffer the same aversion to the Star of David as former Christians do of the cross. He hypothesises that a Muslim vampire would find the crescent shape equally repugnant, but would not be worried by a cross.

In the same way, mirrors allow vampires to see themselves for what they really are, and they are repulsed by the realization that they are monsters.

Garlic, rather than an old wives’ fable, becomes a biological agent that causes anaphylactic shock within the vampire.

Sunlight, it seems, breaks down the vampiric bacteria, just as UV is known to destroy other types of bacteria.

And in the course of the story, the question is raised, why do stakes kill vampires and not bullets? Neville, our rational hero, applying science over superstition, learns that the hemorrhaging caused by a stake cannot be contained as easily as the smaller holes caused by a bullet. And the reader finds themselves inhabiting a world where the absurd has suddenly become plausible and rational, at least in a fictitious sense in which disbelief can be suspended for the enjoyment of the adventure.

The Hunger Games is another recent example of intelligent science fiction.

The movie is breathtaking, but action and adventure win out over the awe of reason. In the movie, we see Katness attack the supplies of the upper crust contestants from Districts 1-5, but without the audience really understanding why. In the book, we get a sense of the hunger and desperation Katness suffers in the wilderness (after all, it is called the Hunger Games). And so, rather than a mindless attack on the stores of wealthy tributes, we see Katness attack these stores to level the playing field, to square up the fight and ensure that the rich kids also have to scavenge and forage for basic necessities. In this way, they can no longer ruthlessly hunt down the other tributes with such ease.

And so the book allows us to explore this fictional world with Katness, and to understand its means and motives in a way that is glossed over in the movie.

As a science fiction author, I appreciate what these authors have done, they’ve started with a simple premise and explored the possibilities latent therein, seeking to build fictional worlds for our enjoyment.

It is said that the plot is the character in action. When it comes to science fiction, the plot is the character interacting with science in a way that influences both their actions and the actions of their opponents. I’m a little bias, of course, but I love the way science fiction makes us think about the challenges facing a protagonist.

Peter Cawdron is the author of the highly acclaimed dystopian novel, Monsters

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