Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sci-Fi Satire and My Last Rant

This week, I read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It was some very… British… humor. Regardless, I enjoyed it, and definitely enjoyed all the satire.
In each place Ford and Arthur journeyed, there was some kind of (not-so-) veiled satire of current issues here on Earth. For example, the president of the entire galaxy did not “wield power” but rather “attracted attention away from it.” And of course, only six people in the galaxy know this. Another example is when a student who discovers the solution to the Improbability Drive problem is lynched for being a “smartass.” Yet another example is Marvin the depressed robot, who is supposed to have a “Genuine People Personality.” And finally the planet Magrathea, which took all the Galaxy’s money and didn’t put any back into the galactic economy, causing a huge galaxy-wide depression. There are many others besides these, but I remember these examples specifically being pretty clever satire. This satire obviously serves as commentary of life on Earth, and sometimes as a criticism. In some cases the satire in the book is political, but is just as often a criticism or joke on personality types. It is interesting how a book about travelling the galaxy and meeting aliens can have so much to say about the human experience.

One thing I wish at least one space sci-fi story would do is to break down planets into smaller units. By that I mean: on earth, there are humans, but human culture differs by continent, by country, even by city. I always find it hard to believe when a space sci-fi story has planets where all the inhabitants of the planet are basically the same culturally. I wasn’t really expecting this kind of detail from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, since this is supposed to be a comedy/satire, and that kind of extra detail would naturally be overlooked if it didn’t add humor in some way. However, I wish a more varied alien culture could have been present in some of the earlier science fiction I read, and since it was never present, I’m mentioning it now in my last post.


1.     What is your reaction to the text you just read?
It’s clear that the reader’s reaction to the text isn’t meant to be just a black and white approval or condemnation. Just like how the relationship between the humans and the Tlik is complex, so is the reaction to the text.
      The Tlik are not portrayed as malicious. They (or at least the one Tlik shown in the text) are caring and understanding towards humans, allowing them freedom even though they are clearly the more powerful species. The parasitic children are disturbing, as is the “birth” of these children, although this does have some very clear parallels to human pregnancy and birth. Although the Tlik use the humans for their own purposes, who is to say that how they treat humans is any worse than how humans treat animals, or how humans treat each other? And yet, the short story brings up a question of morals: is it okay to take from someone as long as you give them something in return? And who gets to decide whether the give and take are equal? In the Tlik’s point of view, a longer and more comfortable life seems like a great trade in exchange for the use of human bodies as hosts, but in the human’s eyes this is not the case.
      My reaction was one of interest and curiosity. I enjoyed the graphic scenes of “violence,” since they really slapped you in the face with how different the Tlik culture is from human culture. I wanted to know more about the Tlik, where they came from, what they do. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to actually live in the world described by the story. The physical implications did not bother me nearly as much as the psychological implications; that humans would essentially be animals in their own minds, always questioning their importance to an unknown species.

2.     What connections did you make with the story? Discuss the elements of the story with which you were able to connect.
The story was, to me, a parallel to the human practices of raising livestock or keeping pets. Clearly, this is not an exact parallel, since humans don’t require the use of outside species to reproduce. However, other connections are still there, such as how we provide for our pets’ needs in return for affection, or how we do the same for livestock in return for some sort of service. Most importantly, we do not ask our pets or livestock what they think about this exchange, we simply assume that since we give them things in return that the exchange must also be satisfactory on their end. (Of course, there are ways to tell whether animals are happy or not, so there is a kind of communication that can occur between animals and humans. Regardless, any “exchange” between humans and animals is usually heavily weighted in the humans’ favor.)
Similarly, the Tlik create a “trade” with the humans without asking the humans how they felt about it. And there is clearly a mode of communication between the species, but the Tlik still do not ask the humans if they are fine with the exchange. It may be possible that, like humans with animals, the Tlik believe that the humans would not be able to comprehend their reasoning.

3.     What change would you make to adapt this story into another medium? What medium would you use? What change would you make?
I think that this story would translate very well into graphic novel form. There is plenty of gripping visuals described in the story, such as the birth scene, the fight between Gan and his brother, and the scene from the brother’s memory, that would be greatly enhanced by actual pictures. Facial cues and reactions from the characters would, in my opinion, also heighten the emotion of the story.

A necessary change this medium would bring, however, is the reduction of written words. In the original short story, Gan’s thoughts and inner turmoil is described in words that would not necessarily translate well into pictures. In my opinion, throwing large chunks of inner monologue text into a graphic novel is usually too jarring to tolerate, and it would end up breaking up the flow of the story. In order to adapt this short story into a graphic novel, a lot of Gan’s thoughts would have to be cut, to be replaced with carefully thought out facial expressions and reactions. The graphic novel version of the story would become less first person and more third person, transforming the reader into a spectator rather than someone actually part of the action.

Speculative Literature can get Very Speculative

For this week, I read the first few short stories from Cosmicomics, “The Distance of the Moon” and “At Daybreak.” Coming from a background of math and science, during my first reading of these stories I found it hard to reconcile their content with what I knew to be scientifically possible. This pretty much ruined my reading experience. I had to reread the stories and focus more on the creative/artistic aspect than the scientific aspect in order to appreciate them. Unfortunately, a lot of the creative aspect comes from the scientific aspect, so there’s only so much separation I could really do. These stories just didn’t click for me.

            It’s definitely hard to put either of these short stories into one specific genre. They don’t have any kind of moral either, really. They’re just short stories, meant to relate a certain event, and not any more than that. This especially makes it difficult to shoehorn these stories into any kind of genre. Genre writing uses the genre itself to make a statement; adhering strictly to genre codes can be a statement, just as deviating from genre codes can also be a statement. An absence of genre altogether can also be a kind of commentary, although this commentary runs the risk of being vague if there are no well-known genre codes for audiences to go off of. This seems to be the case with Cosmicomics, because I had no idea what these stories were trying to do besides entertain. Besides having no genre codes, “At Daybreak” went one step further and started removing “human codes.” The characters experience struggles such as… never having anything to “play” with (or really any concept of “playing”), and falling down for the first time. These are things that we as humans take for granted; how can we conceive not only a reality where these things don’t happen, but a reality where even the concept of these things doesn’t exist? There is nothing at all to relate to in this story. That at least, I appreciate, because I have never been so frustrated by a story before. It takes a very creative author to conceive an alternate reality that we as humans find hard to comprehend. If anything, it speaks to its nature as a true “alien” reality.