Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891

Lettres

Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

Ramblin’ Allegorical Fiction Blues

Penned upon the 10th of September, 2008

I’ve been thinking about the practices of fiction. I love a good story, but I’m rather picky – and I think fiction too often gets bogged down in plot, plot, plot. A good plot can be a powerful thing, of course, but I like stories that have some character to them, and some meaning. Fiction, like all art forms, is a way of exploring the edges of our knowledge, of experimenting and learning, and I don’t mind if a story is a real-world issue manifested in another form. The more that’s the case, the more risk of something becoming shallow and preachy, of course, but when it’s done well is when classics are created.

Science fiction is one genre that, archetypally, tends to be more allegorical than most. Scifi takes some aspect of human society – past, present, or a possible future – and makes it solid in a constructed setting. Usually, the theme will be some aspect of technological or economic change, and its ramifications, but as scifi becomes evermore popular, it’s not unheard of for the science aspects to be backgrounded in favour of some other commentary which just happens to be in space. Or for plot, plot, plot! – but hey, that pops up everywhere. I’ve ruminated thoroughly before on steampunk in particular, and how, along with all the punk genres, it’s rooted in this same social commentary with an acerbic critical edge – and, naturally, how that’s kind of been lost in a lot of empty spectacle, giant monarchical robots and top-hatted aristos sipping steam-powered tea and nibbling clockwork currant buns.

Despite all this, there’s no reason why allegorical scifi, even steampunk – and without falling into endless decade-by-decade derivations, clockpunk and waterwheelpunk and transatlantictelegraphpunk – can’t still make an excellent, fresh, engaging story. Leave the spectacle behind and ponder – what developments might we see in the next hundred years or so? How about gravity boots? It’s tempting to give them to a wall-hopping laser pirate, but considering the energy costs of such things, it would probably be more efficient to keep them to industrial usage – perhaps in construction! Interplanetary colonisation would surely mean a new boom in the construction industry, which is interesting, considering the current divide between scientific powers and manufacturing powers.

Already we’ve got a story of class going, and the strong motif of a construction crew, working on a beam high above a budding city, like in an early 20th century photograph. We can wax speculative about the practicalities of their gravity boots – they’d need safety features, like an emergency stabiliser which freezes them in place in case they slip while standing sideways, high above the ground. We could contrast this model of workplace with a more European, artisinal model, too – perhaps there are national rivalries, between the rough-hewn, efficient building crews and the artistic, painstaking crafters who cling to the ceiling for days, installing grand murals. We could even call out to artists like Diego Rivera, who combined both! And I mentioned colonisation – that’s a whole ecological background story in itself!

I’m sure there are plenty of readers who prefer the plot and grandeur – who want the hero to turn out to be the long-lost prince who leads the galaxy to victory, and who would be bored spoutless by a story about floating builders’ labourers. Still, I think the best stories let you take away more than “it’s about someone who’s really brave and saves the day” or even “someone whose qualities come to naught and who suffers tragically in an interesting way.” A little social critique, some waxing lyrical on the human condition. Look at Firefly – a scifi western with some enormously strong episodes exploring, say, the existential concept of bad faith. Joss Whedon and his crew having some of the finest aesthetic senses in modern televistion probably helps, of course – but “extremely beautiful outfits, props and sets in Joss Whedon productions” is a post for another day.


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Commentary upon “Ramblin’ Allegorical Fiction Blues”

  1. Faye was heard to remark,

    Upon the 10th of September, 2008 at 7:11 pm,

    This is exactly why I don’t really go for genres like crime fiction, where the plot and the unravelling of it takes centre stage. Ultimately, if I don’t really care whether the detective cracks the case (because I don’t know enough about them, the criminal or the victims of the crime to relate to them on a human level), then the book remains lukewarm for me.

    Exceptions do occur (The Silence of the Lambs, for example), but they are usually exceptions because they have strong characters leading the story.


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