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Apocalypse Soon-ish: In Defence Of Ordinary

By Lachlan Walter

Nowadays, it seems that most of the fantastical places that exist within science fiction and its sub-genres (post-apocalyptic fiction, superhero narratives, teen dystopias, literary genre fiction, and so on) only serve to to let us explore The End Of The World, to the point that it almost feels like you can’t sit down to watch a movie or television show without being confronted by yet another variation on the apocalypse or yet another depiction of humanity under threat (written fiction is a different matter, and shall be dealt with at a different time).

Even though these ‘visual fictions’ can use the fantastical places existing within them to frame an exploration of a million different themes and ideas, for many of their creators it seems that the end of the world and threats to humanity have somehow become the sole themes worth exploring. Consequently, these two themes then serve as the default endpoints for their narrative structures – it’s as if the only way to now end a science fiction story is by having the protagonists confront a fast-approaching extinction event or apocalyptic moment. These endpoints, of course, have an ‘echo’ effect regarding the narrative events preceding them, whereby the various characters’ actions, choices, attitudes and evolving psychological natures really only reach resolution in the face of the fast-approaching extinction or apocalypse. In other words, the character development and character-based confrontations that do occur usually serve only to set-up their eventual resolutions during the endpoint. When done well, combining the personal story of characters resolving their differences with the action story of the characters confronting the extinction event or apocalyptic moment can create an interesting textual fusion. Sadly, all-too-often it just adds another layer of ‘noise’ to the mess of action and spectacle, and frequently seems perfunctory and underdone.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. By conflating character development with narrative resolution, these kinds of fictions deny us the very things that allow us to lose ourselves in a story: empathy and connection. By definition, none of us have experience of an alien invasion, or a destructive AI (or any kind of AI for that matter), or a complete ecological collapse, or people who can fly or possess super strength, or a war against robots. Therefore, none of us can ‘directly’ relate to these situations. But what we can directly relate to are character traits that we all share, the things that make us all human, the things that define all of us: love, community, companionship, joy, purpose. And let’s not forget their more negative but equally important correlates: anger, hate, loneliness, unhappiness, ennui and angst.

These are the triumphs and tragedies that make us who and what we are; they represent the wonder, horror, beauty and ugliness that is life. For want of a better word, they are ‘ordinary’ things, so everyday and everywhere that we are often barely even consciously thinking of them.

And it seems like nowadays a lot of people think that ‘ordinary’ equals ‘boring’.

This kind of disdain isn’t only seen in the proliferation and popularity of narratives that revolve around yet another variation on the end of the world or yet another depiction of humanity under threat at the expense of character development or emotional exploration; we also see it in certain critical reactions to those fictions that eschew this fascination with extinction events and impending apocalypses and instead turn their focus on smaller and more ‘ordinary’ themes. Take James Mangold’s The Wolverine (2013), Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man (2015) and Drew Goddard’s Daredevil (2015) as just examples (superhero narratives are fitting subjects for examination, as they seem to constantly be one-upping each other in terms of the dangers faced within). While none of these fictions are ‘perfect’ (if such a thing as a ‘perfect’ fiction even exists), Mangold, Reed and Goddard should be commended for restricting the scope of their narratives and focusing on character-driven and emotion-rich stories where the fate of the world isn’t at stake – they are ‘smaller’ and more intimate than their kin, dealing with themes of betrayal, loyalty, family, redemption, guilt and responsibility. Instead, a significant number of critics chided them for their more human focus and less over-the-top approach, bandying about belittling yet superficially polite terms such as ‘modest’, ‘humble’, ‘small scale’ and ‘perfectly fine’. At times, the word ‘boring’ was even used to describe the emphasis on character and development over that of spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; not because the particular scenes highlighted were actually boring but because they slowed the momentum or detracted from the action or didn’t include a fight scene every 15-minutes.

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Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is another film that received this kind of dismissive critical reception, despite Edwards’ declared intention to give his version of the pop-culture icon a sense of realism (and therefore a sense of ‘ordinariness’). While the film does have its flaws – some of the dialogue is stilted and some of the acting is wooden, and Edwards’ decision to somewhat obscure Godzilla himself rather than show him outright is sometimes taken too far – the line between criticism of technique and criticism of style and thematic intent is blurred. Take the character of Brody as an example. His tendency to look a little blank-faced, to speak in a bit of monotone, to obey orders almost without a thought, and to pare his syntax back to its bare essentials, could be chiefly explained in one of two ways: bad writing and bad acting, or the realistic actions of a soldier in the field who has been trained to be proactive and to make split-second decisions. When we take this second line of thinking further, and take into account the fact that Brody has suddenly found himself not only orphaned but also unable to know whether his own wife and child are alive or dead, his slightly robotic movements, flat speech patterns and almost-automatic behaviour starts to look more like a form of auto-pilot suffered by a soldier undergoing a type of PTSD whilst simultaneously having to keep on fighting. A similar dual perspective exists when we look at the character of Dr Serizawa. His transition from action-oriented character to one that looks on with glazed eyes and a slack jaw could be attributed to overacting and bad writing, unless we consider the fact that he has suddenly had his life’s work vindicated in the most terrible of ways. If we can imagine what he would actually be feeling – if we can put ourselves in his head and imagine the churning emotions, the mixture of elation at being proved right and relief at finally finding an answer after years of searching and horror at what that answer means – then we can see that his almost-complete blankness is actually a fairly appropriate response to what is happening.

These men aren’t supposed to be supermen; they aren’t supposed to just shrug off these incredible and devastating events and creatures or make a smart-arse quip or get their flirt on. And yet it’s almost as if people have come to expect just about every science fiction character to be more than human, even in films as avowedly realist as Godzilla. It’s as if they expect these kinds of characters to be able to shoulder any burden and smile while doing so, or be able to patch-up a damaged relationship and fight off aliens at the same time. And so they’re disappointed when these characters are anything less than godlike. The end result? More and more films and TV shows that sacrifice story, substance and emotional weight for action, spectacle and that ever-elusive ‘wow’ factor; poorer and far-less immersive narratives; and far fewer characters like those above, who behave in a realistic way in the face of something that’s almost beyond understanding, and either freeze or become automatic.

I know which themes, techniques, characters and styles I prefer. And I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that most of us would respond in the exact same as Brody or Dr Serizawa.

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Apocalypse Soon-Ish: How ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Has Set a New Benchmark for Genre Films

By Lachlan Walter

Like presumably most diehard fans of Australian genre-fiction, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). The hype had been built long before it hit the screens: George Miller had dropped tantalising titbits of information during its production, and the multiple trailers held out hope of something that was not only fast and rugged and thoroughly ‘Mad Max’, but also somehow more real than other contemporary blockbusters. Expectations were high, and no-one wanted another pale imitation of a cinema classic masquerading as a remake/reboot/pseudo-sequel a la Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013), Conan the Barbarian (2011), Predators (2010), Prometheus (2012) or Matthijs van Heijningen’s version of The Thing (2011).

mad max 1To cause us further worry, fans of Australian genre-fiction cherish Miller’s original Mad Max series. Its lived-in world, deeply-set sense of place, larrikin sense of humour and almost-punkish DIY ethos are ‘Australian-isms’ that we were all proud to see enshrined on screen in such fresh and original ways, and none of us wanted to see Miller tarnish this legacy.

I’m happy to say that, in what might just be a first, my expectations were exceeded. In fact, I believe that Mad Max: Fury Road might just be the best genre film in a long, long time.

But not entirely in ways that I had foreseen.

The first thing that differentiates Mad Max: Fury Road from most other contemporary genre films is the way in which it weaves its ‘action’ into the narrative (and vice-versa). Too often, action scenes seem to exist solely for their own sake: we seldom see character revealed or story told through action, and the big set-pieces that pad out so many genre films usually serve little narrative purpose. Think of the ‘Metropolis Battle’ in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013), the ‘Sieges of Zion’ in the sequels to The Matrix (2003), any of the action scenes from Michael Bay’s Transformers series (2007-20014) or any of the space battles in the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005). These types of scenes and set-pieces present themselves as little more than spectacle; the narrative usually stops dead along with any sense of momentum, and we the viewer are suddenly disengaged from the film – we might look upon the images with something approximating awe, impressed by the CGI magic unfolding before us, but this awe comes at the expense of our connection to the characters and the story. Thus disengaged, we become far more aware of everything that exists outside of the film, and it consequently becomes far less immersive.

Mad Max: Fury Road avoids almost all of these pitfalls: most of its action exists either as part of the story or to push the story forward. Its narrative never grinds to a halt to let a pointless visual suddenly dominate and shout: ‘I am spectacle, behold!’ Instead, Mad Max: Fury Road is pure spectacle from beginning to end, spectacle that drives and frames the story. This is mostly because of Miller’s genius at fusing narrative and action. By structuring Mad Max: Fury Road around a chase without end, he ensures that there is always a sense of forward momentum (the chase itself) as well as a confined location (the War Rig), which is almost constantly under attack and home to a number of different characters. The chase begins in the first scene, and Miller initially withholds the reasons as to why it is happening. Instead, we are forced to share Max’s perspective and position, and are bundled up and swept along by the momentum of the chase. This engages us straightway as it provokes questions in us: What’s happening? Why are those particular characters chasing those particular characters? What exactly has been stolen, and how does it impact on the established world? Over the next half-hour, answers are slowly revealed, until Max arrives at the War Rig and certain things fall into place and the next phase of the story and the chase begins.

Here, the War Rig ‘concentrates’ the characters’ interactions within it; with nowhere else to go, their conversations and interactions feel natural, and reveal narrative detail and backstory and so on. Exposition like this tends not to feel forced, as we can all relate to similar situations that provoke unexpected and character revealing conversations (road trips, family holidays, long distance house-moves). However, the fact that the characters confined in the War Rig are always either under attack or under impending attack means that some of these conversations and interactions necessarily occur during the attacks. And so the two become one as the rest of the film plays out, action and story occurring simultaneously, often with each informing the other (for example: a freshly talked-about memory triggering an unexpected behaviour, or the need to shoot straight revealing a newly learned understanding).

The second thing that really makes Mad Max: Fury Road stand out from the crowd is the depth of its world-building, which is manifested in the sense of a wider ‘Mad Max’ universe that exists beyond what we see in the film.

This is something that is all too often neglected in genre fiction, as much of it instead concentrates only on the world inhabited by the protagonists and antagonists, with the story’s wider universe only shown if it directly affects the characters and their arcs. This is to the stories’ detriment, as it can ‘remove’ us from the story because we begin to wonder how the world we’re shown fits into its wider universe. In the absence of any evidence of a wider universe, we then find ourselves less immersed in the story because its existence as a ‘limited’ piece of fiction becomes apparent. This is doubly true of post-apocalyptic fiction, as the universes therein pose very specific problems: Where do food and water come from? How are these neo-societies structured?

Once again, Mad Max: Fury Road avoids most of these pitfalls, and it does so in the best possible way. Rather than making Mad Max: Fury Road’s wider universe obvious and obtrusive, Miller subtly hints at its existence, providing just evidence to keep us within the story. Just a few examples include the existence of The Bullet Farm and Gasoline Town, which are mentioned but never shown, and hint at an established trade network with The Citadel; and the eerie ‘Crane People’ that inhabit the swamplands, which provide a glimpse of a society seemingly completely disconnected from the previous settlements.

However, Miller also ensures that these hints of a wider universe are complimented by a thorough approach to building the world that we do see. This ensures that the ‘logic’ of Mad Max: Fury Road’s narrative is almost watertight, which once again keeps us ‘within’ its world. And even when world-building story features aren’t properly explained or are only alluded to, their sheer existence allows us to more fully suspend our sense of disbelief. We see this time and time again: the ritualistic behaviour and appearance of the War Boys; Immortan Joe’s status as a pseudo-emperor; the brief glimpses of hydroponic and outdoor gardens in and around The Citadel; the offhand remarks regarding the aquifer beneath it; the classist structure of its society; the existence of Gasoline Town explaining where their fuel comes from. These things tell us that the world of Mad Max: Fury Road and the societies within it have structures and hierarchies; they have ways of feeding themselves and access to water; they have ways of travelling and a trade system. In other words, they are societies that are a warped reflection of our own, and because we understand the logic by which they operate, we can once again embrace the story rather than question it.

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The third thing that really makes Mad Max: Fury Road stand out lies in the fact that women drive its narrative and are, along with Max, central characters that possess their own agency. Some people have also made this a controversial aspect, with certain hairy-knuckled critics decrying the fact that ‘Max gets ordered around by a woman’ and that he functions more as a co-main character than an out-and-out hero. These criticisms occur despite the fact that in both The Road Warrior (1981) and Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Max was hardly the one who drove the narrative forward. Instead, to prolong his own survival, he allowed himself to be ensnared in the schemes of others, just like in Mad Max: Fury Road. However, Miller takes this process further by ensuring that in Mad Max: Fury Road, the schemes that Max is ensnared in are thought-up and carried out by women and for women.

But this doesn’t make the film a feminist critique or mean that men’s enjoyment of the film is somehow diminished. Firstly, Miller’s weaving of feminist thought-lines into the narrative is subtle and never allowed to overshadow the central story or the thrill and momentum of the chase. Secondly, because the film is so defiant in its own approach, and because its world has been so thoroughly built and its story and action are so well intertwined, the story of these women feels like a completely ‘accurate’ story within the confines of the film’s universe, and it occurs with enough momentum and rawness to make it seem authentic. It doesn’t feel forced or faked, but ‘right.’ And this is something that not enough genre films do. Too often, men’s stories seem to dominate the narratives of genre fiction, and it seems that this is sometimes because many writers and creators aren’t prepared to think far enough outside the box to posit women-centric stories being the focus of their imagined future worlds. As Miller shows, a good story told well is something magnificent, no matter whether it’s a story about men or one about women.

These aren’t the only reasons why I think that Mad Max: Fury Road might just be the best genre film in a long, long time (a lack of space prevents me from continuing, and such is my excitement that I could just go on and on). But if your appetite needs further whetting, I’ll just quickly say that you should also look to the maniacal glee that Miller pours into the film (yes, that really is a truck carrying drummers and a guitarist and a wall full of amps, whose job is to whip the War Boys into a frenzy); and the sheer rawness that comes from what’s happening on screen being almost completely real (the little CGI that was used was mostly reserved for backgrounds and scenery); and the deft homages to the original trilogy (The music box! The hidden weapons! The fizzing shotgun! The handcuffs and the saw!).

Or just go and see it. You won’t regret it.

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Apocalypse Soon-Ish: Blue-Collar Science Fiction and the ‘Ordinary’ Worker As Hero

By Lachlan Walter

I was in my favourite second-hand bookshop the other day, looking for something new to read, something unexpected, something that I hadn’t already contemplated too many times to count. I browsed and browsed, and found nothing. And then, half-hidden by the inevitable pile of Analog magazines, I found a copy of Menial: Skilled Labour in Science Fiction, a collection of short stories edited by Shay Darrach and Kelly Jennings.

Wow. Just wow.

Before I become too effusive, it’s probably best to mention that not every single story in Menial is great (as always, I won’t name names here). This isn’t that uncommon when it comes to short story collections, and when we talk about great collections, the dullards and the duds can often make the diamonds shine brighter.

This is how it is with Menial.

However, its real impact and its true originality live within its theme, which is probably best paraphrased as, ‘“ordinary” workers as science fiction heroes’. Now, any science fiction fan with even a passing knowledge of the genre would probably be aware of the existence of this type of hero. Various novelists and short story writers have either used them or employed the type as prominent secondary characters, including Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Phillip K Dick and John Brunner. Acclaimed screenwriter Dan O’Bannon created two seminal science fiction films centred on blue-collar heroes in Dark Star (1974) and Alien (1979). The mise-en-scene of blue-collar homes, workplaces and lifestyles has almost become the default setting for the vast majority of contemporary science fiction that aims to be serious, realist, or dark and gritty.

But what Menial does differently is bring these types of stories together as a whole. Instead of seeing them as simply picks from the pack that exhibit a point of difference, their existence as a collection allows a certain continuity of thought to occur; ideas and themes provoked and presented by each individual story are easily allowed to grow and flourish, thanks to further complimentary ideas and themes provided by the subsequent stories. The further I read through it, the richer the food for thought provided by these types of stories.

Menial finally left me wondering just what it is that makes blue-collar science fiction so different from regular science fiction.

And what does blue-collar science fiction actually do?

The first thing that makes it different is so obvious as to be staring us in the face: it shows us the existence of the ‘ordinary’ person (and, by de-facto, an ‘ordinary’ world). The existence of something so seemingly banal as ‘the ordinary’ is an aspect of science fiction that many writers tend to normally gloss over or ignore, and so accustomed are we to seeing science fiction heroes personified as either professionals and authority figures, or as belonging to what we could call the ‘underground’, that we often don’t even question these personifications.

As an example, which one of these different character groups seems a lesser embodiment of science fiction than the others? A ‘professional’ group of scientists, inventors, programmers, doctors, astronauts, politicians, bureaucrats, soldiers and military paper-shufflers? An ‘underground’ group of criminals, private detectives, blackmarket couriers, hackers, activists, punks and cyberpunks? Or an ‘ordinary’ or blue-collar group of bricklayers, waiters, labourers, bank-tellers, shop assistants, kitchenhands, posties, plumbers, gardeners, cleaners, orderlies, street-sweepers, garbos and sandwich hands?

If the last group seems more like the cast of a Mike Leigh film than typical science fiction characters, the answer as to why there should be more blue-collar science fiction has been answered. After all, what makes the last group’s stories less important than those belonging to scientists and soldiers, or those belonging to criminals and private detectives?

By using ‘ordinary’ workers as the heroes of their stories, authors aren’t just showing us a side of the genre that is too-often absent—they are also making the genre more relatable. While some of us may actually work in jobs that would fit into the professional group, it’s probably fair to say that most, if not all of us, have worked far less glamorous jobs at some point in our lives. Waiting tables, working in a shop, washing dishes, mowing lawns, serving fast-food, cleaning houses, labouring for builders—these are the most blue-collar of blue-collar jobs, and are probably how most of us got a start in paid employment. When science fiction stories are focused around characters employed in these kinds of occupations—characters who consequently live more blue-collar lifestyles and, stereotypically, have more down-to-earth attitudes—our ability to engage with them is strengthened because we have so much more in common with them. Professional characters tend to either act as an expression of wish fulfilment for those of us still engaged in blue-collar employment, or serve as a throwback to the genre’s roots in real science and science-philosophy; underworld characters reflect the still pervasive influence of crime fiction and noir upon the genre. Blue-collar characters normally serve to ground the genre in a facsimile of reality, a facsimile in which we can see our science fiction reflection.

The crew of Alien are an excellent example of this. While they are technically astronauts—they are travelling through space, after all—theirs is a life more akin to that of a truck driver, a crane operator, a baggage handler or a labourer. They complain about their pay and the conditions they have to work in; they form cliques and circles within the larger group; a hierarchy exists, with status determined by pay grade. And to top it off, their ship is functional and utilitarian, more a factory or warehouse than a high-tech thing of beauty. We’ve probably all been where they are, aside from the science fiction trappings. This means that when the drama kicks in and the crew are faced with danger, the empathy we feel for them is deeper than it might usually be and we can better relate to the choices they make and the way they react.

An excellent example from Menial is Jasmine M Templet’s ‘Leviathan’, which tells the story of a newly employed janitor at a seedy office building in a vaguely dystopian future. This dystopian future is masterfully sketched, albeit in broad strokes. Both this dystopian future and the ‘take it as it comes’ attitude bestowed upon the janitor by Templet bring to mind the themes and setting and overall vibe of Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Highway’, a wonderful blue-collar science fiction story. The actual event that shaped the worlds lived in by the farmers of ‘The Highway’ and the janitor of ‘Leviathan’ doesn’t really matter to them. In the end, despite what seem like massive changes to the societies that they are a part of, their shared way of life remains the same: farm or clean, work hard for little pay. And without spoiling the ending, the unnamed janitor’s reaction to the final revelation of ‘Leviathan,’ whereby he simply accepts his duties in his stride, perfectly encapsulates the ability of blue-collar science fiction to provide a more grounded perspective on fantastical worlds than that of regular science fiction.

The other important thing that blue-collar science fiction can help facilitate is world building. How many times have we read or seen science fiction that is ultimately nothing but a lofty structure supported by some flimsy two-by-fours? To best explain this, you’ll have to forgive me for indulging in a little pop-culture citation:

A construction job of that magnitude would require a helluva lot more manpower than the Imperial army had to offer. I’ll bet there were independent contractors working on that thing: plumbers, aluminum siders, roofers… All those innocent contractors hired to do a job were killed—casualties of a war they had nothing to do with.

-Randal Graves, from Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), talking about the second Death Star from George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi (1983)

Death-Star-II aurealisWhile Lucas undoubtedly deserves praise for the sheer depth and span of his universe—think the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, or the meetings of the Galactic Senate in the prequels—I found that the above quote built Lucas’ world much more thoroughly than any ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’ or any of a thousand different CGI crowds. When I mull over Smith’s words, I can imagine these ‘plumbers, aluminium siders and roofers’ who brought those magnificent spaceships to life, as well as all the other ordinary people and blue-collar workers who logically must exist within Lucas’ universe, cleaning up after all those Jedi Knights or serving food to all those Galactic Senators. Suddenly, a universe that was already pretty big is now enormous, and is also much more diverse than we first thought.

This line of thinking, however, isn’t solely confined to the Star Wars universe. Instead, we can apply it to any science fiction world. After all, someone had to build those spaceships; someone has to grease their engines. And all those shining futuristic cities? Someone had to dig the foundations; someone has to sweep the streets; someone has to collect the rubbish. I would argue that every (every!) single piece of science fiction has within its world some connection to ‘the ordinary’ and to blue-collar people, but unfortunately, they are more often than not ignored or glossed over. This is to their detriment, as instead of seeing a whole we’re just seeing a part.

Blue-collar science fiction shows us this whole. Its ordinary heroes, by their very definition, serve to flesh out the different levels that exist within society. And by telling the story of an individual whose lot in life is more like that lived by the vast majority of the population, writers of blue-collar science fiction aren’t just creating stories that are more relatable. Instead, they are also giving us access to future-worlds from the bottom up, and showing us wonders and marvels from a more grounded perspective.

Rush out and get yourself a copy of Menial. You won’t regret it.


For more by Lachlan Walter, check out his previous work in the Apocalypse Soon-ish series of articles.

 

If you (or someone you know) are interested in writing for the Aurealis blog from time to time, message us either through our Facebook site or send an email to lachlan.shrives@gmail.com, and we can have a chat.