Learning my (sci-fi) ABCs

November 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

Can you believe it? The semester and the year are nearly over, and while I have plenty to look forward to (the holidays, meeting my dog again, catching up on hundreds of hours of sleep), there is a lot to look forward to in the world of science fiction as well. The release of Star Wars is just around the corner, and there is news of a Star Trek revival too!

I’m going off on a tangent now. I guess I’m trying to combat my melancholic feelings of this class coming to an end with the promise of new things. Coming back to the blog post! This is my very LAST post of the semester, and while I did start off with writing stories, and am now finishing up on my final paper, an original sci-fi story, I wrote a few analytical pieces on Gravity, Snowpiercer, and The Martian. But I want to sign off with a fun post to show much sci-fi knowledge/lingo I’ve picked up along the course of the semester. So here are my ABCs of science fiction:

A| Aliens. It seems a bit clichéd to start with aliens, but after growing up watching The X Files, and exploring the (potential) existence of extra-terrestrial life through our readings, my fascination with them has grown exponentially. I especially liked the first contact stories we read in class such as Arena and Mars is Heaven. My final paper/original science fiction story also deals with aliens!

B| Because it’s there mentality. For those of you unfamiliar with the quote “Because it’s there”, it was said by mountaineer George Mallory when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest. I find this mentality in a lot of the protagonists of the stories we’ve read so far. Why are scientists so desperate to initiate contact with aliens (looking at you, SETI)? Why are we so obsessed with traveling to planets such as Mars (The Martian, Mars is Heaven)? The need to satiate human curiosity has never felt more real.

C| Climate fiction. Thanks to Gregory Benford’s Timescape and works such as Snowpiercer, I am slowly becoming a fan of this sub-genre. Climate change is a controversial issue today, even with all our sophisticated detection and measurement measures that prove its existence incontrovertibly, so I find it interesting that science fiction authors look at the climate to be the reason for our doom, not alien attacks or other more dramatic reasons.

D| Dystopia. Why are so many science fiction stories about an apocalyptic event or its ramifications? From nuclear war in Fermi and Frost, invasion in Mayflower II to meddling monks in The Nine Billion Names of God, I have relished reading the causes and effects of a dystopian future. If you observe the rise of The Hunger Games, Maze Runner, and Divergent, you’d see that I’m not alone in my obsession with a not-so-happy future (I’m not a sadist, I swear!).

E| Eugenics. Another controversial topic, eugenics has both pros and cons. In class, we looked at pros such as improved ability, reconstructive surgeries, extending the life of a dearly beloved dog (thanks to Anya!) etc., and cons such as ‘Playing God mentality’, ethics, and income distribution effects. Eugenics also came up in Octavia Butler’s Dawn, with the trading of genetic material. Is it right or wrong? That’s a tough question.

F| Fermi paradox. The first time I heard of this term was while taking an SAT practice test, in which there was a passage about the Fermi paradox. Since then, I have been reading up on it, but this class gave me a whole new perspective on this paradox through readings such as The Fermi paradox is our business model. I also enjoyed coming up with a specific number of alien civilizations in our galaxy, a process closely modeled on the Drake equation, with our awesome and victorious team, Stellah Dope 🙂

G| Generation starship. This science fiction trope came up during Heinlein’s Universe, and Baxter’s Mayflower II, the latter my favorite reading so far. I like how stories that involve generation starships deal more with human themes such as endurance, a sense of purpose, and (devastating) anthropological effects, than actual science. I,for one, do NOT want to ever live on a generation starship, but the idea is intriguing.

H| Hollywood. I’m a movie nerd, and most of my exposure to science fiction had been through Hollywood films (ET, Contact, Gravity), but I hadn’t really thought much about the treatment of science fiction in this medium. But now, armed with an arsenal of science fiction knowledge, I have become more analytical while judging how good sci-fi movies are, as I mention in my post about The Martian. Hollywood is slowly embracing the hard science fiction genre by relying on actual scientists in the making of films, and I can’t wait to see how this plays out in the latest Star Wars and Star Trek movies.

I| Intersection. Although science fiction is based on extrapolations of science, it also deals with other themes such as religion and ethics, presenting us with a whole arrays of works in which different scientific and social themes intersect in fascinating ways. For example, in Nightfall and The Nine Billion Names of God, science and religion intersect in both conflicting and harmonious ways, offering us different perspectives from both sides of the coin.

J| Jetsons. I just had to put The Jetsons in here. The Jetsons, a popular children’s show, was my first introduction to science fiction, and while a 3 year old me didn’t really care about science fiction as a genre (and couldn’t even spell science fiction!), I was fascinated by domesticated robots (seen in Helen O’Loy) and flying cars. This interest continues even now, and while The Jetsons may seem unsophisticated and childish, it was my first consumption of science fiction, and I’m grateful to it for sparking an early interest in the genre.

K| Klingon. I’ve always been passionate about languages, and how we use it to communicate our thoughts and ideas. Klingon (an alien language in the Star Trek universe), in this blog post, symbolizes a range of alien languages. While initially I was irritated with reading foreign phrases in Dawn, I came to appreciate how authors develop a whole new language to bring authenticity to the extra-terrestrial setting of their works. I also liked how Butler explored Lilith’s experiences with Nikanj’s language. He wasn’t the only alien thing, after all; language itself can become an alien.

L| Literature. Before this class, I didn’t really know much about the heated battle between literature purists and science fiction enthusiasts, but after reading Ursula Le Guin’s critique of Margaret Atwood, and seeing the lack of science fiction works in prestigious awards such as the Man Booker prize, I have become more sympathetic towards the genre. After all, what is literature? The literature purists are not in my good books (my pitiable attempt at joking).

M| Medias res beginnings. Thank you, Sam, for introducing me to this term through one of your posts. (In) Medias res means in the middle of the action, and many science fiction stories begin abruptly, throwing you right in the center of events. It was uncomfortable for me to not know what was going on until after a few pages, but this technique is ingenious; it makes you want to keep reading due to frustration/anticipation. It also removes us from our routine lives, making the radical discontinuity between the real and science fiction worlds even more intense. I first encountered this in Nightfall.

N| Nightfall. The first reading of our class, Nightfall holds a special place in my heart. Much can be said about this story, but for me, the main thing I liked about it was how it introduced me to the world of classic science fiction, as championed by Asimov (Clarke and Heinlein too). By reading Nightfall, I learnt about many science fiction tropes such a low character development, radical discontinuity, and medias res beginnings.

O| Options. This is related to the multiverse theory or the existence of parallel universes. This concept intrigues me because according to this theory, every decision I could make is true in some universe. There are so many options in this world, and as economics major, opportunity cost is one of my favorite terms. But according to the multiverse theory, opportunity cost holds no meaning because I do pick the next best alternatives in some parallel universe.

P| Plausibility. Science fiction has some crazy extrapolations of science, but as long as they are plausible, it’s completely fine. We also talked about the ‘tooth fairy’ concept (a fictitious phenomenon), and one of the qualities of a good science fiction work is sticking to just one tooth fairy (existence of aliens, multiple universes), rather than going overboard and complicating matters. So even if you do come up with a crazy idea, make sure you manipulate existing scientific concepts in such a way that they seem plausible, if not possible (e.g., people believing that The Martian is a true story)

Q| Quantum theory. Here’s where we get really crazy and abstract. Quantum theory and mechanics are wayyyy above my intellectual capacities to understand. In fact, Richard Feynman, a famous theoretical scientist, once said “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics”. Still, the theory celebrates the randomness in the universe, and I enjoyed reading about Schrodinger’s cat/plague, and the multiverse theory. Einstein wasn’t a huge fan though.

R| Relativity. Another one of the more complex theories in theoretical physics that we read about in class, relativity is a theme often explored in science fiction. I particularly enjoyed reading The Old Equations which dealt with the effects of relativity on the human psyche and relationships. Interstellar is another film we watched for class that gave relativity a hard science fiction treatment.

S| Square –cube law. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is one of my favorite movies, but I had not heard of the square cube law before. But after reading Surface Tension, giANTs, and watching some (hilarious) clips of Them!, I have come to better appreciate the scientific facts behind it. For example, blowing up an ant to a giant size is not really practical because it’ll collapse under its own weight; water’s viscosity intensifies for microscopic creatures etc.

T| Time travel. When you think of science fiction, time travel is a topic that immediately comes to mind. Time travel is a fascinating concept, but Professor Scherrer disproved it for us in class by using the concepts related to relativity and the speed of light. Still, it makes for an interesting theme that runs in many famous science fiction stories we read, such as The Time Machine, and By His Bootstraps. I also liked how stories such as Bradbury’s Sound of Thunder combined dinosaurs, time travel, and the grandfather paradox in one framework. Bottom line: don’t mess with time!

U| Underdog. As I mentioned before, I did not know about the marginalization of science fiction in literary circles, and how even acclaimed science fiction authors such as Atwood hesitate in fully embracing their works as science fiction. Even at the Oscars, with a few notable exceptions (Avatar for one), science fiction movies are relegated solely to the visual effects category. I hope this trend reverses, and science fiction can be considered ‘proper’ literature. But I guess external validation by a few purists shouldn’t be a goal we should obsess over too much      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

V| Variety. There is no one true definition of science fiction, and this evolving genre has so many subgenres within it. Thus, science fiction never leaves me feeling satiated or bored. From science fantasy to climate fiction, from dystopia to space opera, science fiction is a vast world for a voracious reader to explore.

W| Women. Many of the stories we’ve read so far have sexist and archaic depictions of women’s roles, often confined to the domestic sphere. I found myself frustrated with the science fiction stereotypes about women, but I guess much of it can be attributed to the societal conventions of the time these stories were written in. However, I see a positive change in this genre, and sci-fi films such as Gravity are doing a great job at showing women in a more flattering light.

X| Xenophobia. The fear of the other and the unknown is a common theme in the genre, particularly in first contact stories. But I also liked how some stories such as The Fermi Paradox is our business model flipped the convention, and showed aliens as slightly xenophobic towards humans. The feeling of fear and apprehension is not one-sided.

Y| Yuck factor. This came up during the week when we discussed genetic engineering. There are many oppositions to fiddling too much with the status quo, as I mentioned before, but sometimes there’s a more abstract, harder to justify reason, as Demosthenes mentioned in one of the blog posts, which is called the yuck factor, or our inherent disgust with certain phenomena. Exchanging genetic material and breeding two different species have many complications as it is, and the general population’s yuck factor mentality isn’t helping scientists.

Z| Zeitgeist. Science fiction often reflects the social issues and anxieties prevalent in the time they are written in. For example, Professor Clayton pointed out that the aliens in Arena, a story written during the Second World War, resembled the Japanese flag. I also briefly looked at how Star Trek echoed the public sentiments in the Cold War era. The negative portrayals of women in many of the stories we read also reflect the accepted gender norms of their age. I’m not exactly sure if zeitgeist, or the spirit of the age, is the right term to lump all these examples in, but Z is hard letter, so forgive me for my laziness.

-dreamer2205/Aditi Thakur


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