I have been reading a lot of science fiction lately, as well as thinking about why I read science fiction, thanks to a recent post I wrote discussing the value of the genre. As I was looking through my back log of books to review, I realized I actually had another reason to find value in reading sci-fi: Exploring the other.
A very early memory I have from around the time I was four years old happened when I went to a diner with my family on a road trip. I was fascinated by the group sitting a few tables over because one of the diners – an adult, to my eyes, though he was probably a teen – was in a wheelchair and being fed by another at the table. I remember thinking it was neat he didn’t have to feed himself. Then I got scared of him because he locked eyes with me and then started jerking around. I was shushed and told not to stare when I pointed him out. We are often forbidden at an early age to point out, stare at or comment on those that are different from us. But the other is still fascinating and scary. Reading sci-fi/fantasy gives us a chance to encounter these feelings without having to encounter an actual being who is different. My favorite science fiction takes the other and makes the reader love him, fear for him, cry for him, and laugh for him (or her, or a non-gendered pronoun). By learning to accept fictional others, sci-fi can help us to accept those around us who may be different physically, but the same as us in all the ways that matter.
Here are some mini-reviews of some recent science fiction I’ve read that focused on the other and the tensions between those individuals and society.
The Mechanicals by Ian Tregillis
The Mechanical is an alternate-history, steampunk novel where Dutch alchemists have created “mechanicals,” powerful, humanoid machines that serve humans. From servants to soldiers to even full-sized ships, the many and varied mechanicals and the control of them has allowed the Dutch to rise to the ruling kingdom of the world. The French, the last stronghold of which is holed up in a fort in the New World, launch a final bid to end the Dutch tyranny by sending spies to smuggle out a unique device created by the first alchemists. Torn between these two worlds is Jax, a “Clakker” servant who has been enslaved to the Schoonraad family for over 100 years. Clakkers, and all Mechanicals, are imbued with geasa, an alchemical spell that sends spikes of pain through mechanicals when they don’t complete a task fast enough or they attempt to do something that goes against their “programming.” When Jax is tasked by a priest to bring an antique item to the New World, a freak accident suddenly frees him of his geasa, thereby gaining free will, and goes on the run.
Understanding the Other: Tregillis spends a great deal of time analyzing the concept of free will and the enslavement of the mechanicals, mirroring their geasa with the constraints real humans face in society.
“Clakkers carried complex geasa by dint of alchemy; humans carried heavy obligations, too, but called them culture. Society.” p. 228
But more interesting to me is the way people respond to the otherness of mechanicals. General reactions include terror, loathing and disgust, all feelings that we have when we encounter our own “others.” Even those that are sympathetic to the plight of mechanicals, don’t truly accept them. But Jax is undoutedly the hero, with every trial and tribulation rushing readers on to the final climax because you have to know what is going to happen to Jax! The only downside, for me, is the use of a formal syntax and Dutch words, both of which add to the setting but slow the overall rhythm of the narrative. But it was definitely a great read and would be perfect for those looking to try Steampunk but who also prefer meatier fair than most popular steampunk series provide. Just remember: Clockmakers lie!
The Wonders by Paddy O’Reilly
Paddy O’Brien capitalizes on the popularity of fictional circuses and freak shows (Water For Elephants and American Horror Story: Freak Show, to name two) to bring readers the next evolution in freak. Told mainly from the perspective of a shy introvert who agrees to a radical (and illegal) surgery that replaces his busted heart with a metal one, this is a book all about the other and how we as a society treat them. When the daughter of a famous circus showman hears about Leon, she comes to him with an offer: Put yourself on a display for a few years along with two other modified humans, and you will be more rich than you can imagine. That’s how The Wonders are formed.
“When Leon was a boy, the human wonders of the world belonged in the category of men who performed amazing feats of strength, who ate metal and glass, who escaped from boxes chained underwater. Leon didn’t do anything-he had been forged as a wonder by someone with far greater powers. …An accident of fate had turned him into a wonder of the world while the person ahead of him on the waiting list for a heart transplant had probably died. The one risky decision he had made in his life had blown open the door to a new dimension. Again, he experienced that lurch in a part of his body that no longer existed.” p. 56
The Wonders go on tour, displaying Leon with a visible mechanical heart, Kathryn who is covered head to toe in wool as a side effect of a cure for a disease that would have killed her, and Christos, an artist who grafted prehensile mechanical wings to his body.
Understanding the Other: The Wonders must grapple with a world that both loves and idolizes them, and one that wants to kill them for being abominations. O’Reilly gives readers a behind-the-scenes tour, allowing us to encounter the other while learning how to see them as the humans they are. While the world is astounded by The Wonders, O’Reilly lets us see their faults and to better identify with them.
“He [Leon] supposed he was an exaggerated version of every human. Keeping up appearances and collapsing into pathetic debility at home.” p. 133
Despite being billed as the next Water for Elephants, this is not really what this book is about. The setting is in the present, for one, and this is no traditional circus. But it is worth reading, if only to force yourself to look even when the other makes you feel uncomfortable. Only pushing past this boundary can we reach the acceptance that we are all due.
In Real Life by Cory Doctorow
More than any of my other examples, In Real Life by Cory Doctorow is the most “real” of all the science fiction I’ve been reading. A graphic novel meant for a young adult audience, In Real Life is both a great story and a venue for helping teens grapple with issues they are bound to face as they come of age. This is how Doctorow explains it:
“In Real Life connects the dots between the way we shop, the way we organize, and the way we play, and why some people are rich, some are poor, and how they seem to get stuck there.” p. vii-viii
I stumbled upon In Real Life while looking for information about Cory Doctorow, who was mentioned in Ready Player One. I sped through and absolutely loved it! In Real Life is a short but beautiful graphic novel in which a teen grapples with bullying, age/gender/racial equality and workers rights through a MMRPG called Coarsegold Online. The illustrations are bright, colorful and lively and the story is excellent. I loved that Doctorow takes the chance to add more depth, giving teens a reason to care about the world around them. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the intersection of gaming and social activism.
Understanding the Other: Online gaming offers the ultimate chance to understand the other. First, online games are played across the world, forcing us to encounter other cultures, belief systems and values. Secondly, you can be whoever you want to be online. When gamers create avatars, they rarely look like their true selves. You become someone other than yourself, so you have a chance to be accepted by others. The first factor came to play in this graphic novel, as actions by the main character bring her into contact with the other and lead to her fighting to protect them.
My previous post about feminism
has led me think about the books I’ve been reading recently and whether they pass the Bechdel Test and how they present women. Most of them fail the straight-forward test. What’s interesting is that recently I’ve been reading books where the concept of gender, the value of women and their portrayal seem consciously highlighted by the author. Or maybe it is my new wish to pay attention to these aspects that make them stand out to me. In The Mechanical
, the leader of the resistance hides her gender to retain her power and avoid capture. Clakkers, identify as male or female or neither, through no intent of their makers. Indeed they are viewed as machines, without free will or the need for gender. In The Wonders
, a woman whose body is covered in sheep’s wool is revered for her sexuality, while being hated by those who see her inability to fit into the feminine stereotype as evil. Violence done to her is justified because she no longer seen as a woman, but instead she is viewed as an animal. Finally, In Real Life
, the main character is a girl and while her avatar kicks butt, she also doesn’t look like the main character. Instead her avatar is skinnier and sexier. The need to change how we look online is just another aspect of women feeling the pressure to look and act a certain way.