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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.

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Week in Reverse #3

WiR3

Cannes Film Festival has been running in the last week or so, so you’ll notice a bit of a theme to this week’s links. We all know the allure of a schlocky sci-fi flick. Sometimes we can revel in these, others you just have to wonder what they were thinking. In our latest issue of Aurealis, editor Stephen Higgins shares his thoughts as to which sci-fi books would make for interesting, successful, or fun sci-fi films (click on the Editorial tab).

-Perhaps you’re into some Soviet style sci-fi. If so, read this fascinating delve into 7 of the best Soviet sci-fi films

-Recently in the news has been a bit of hubbub about a rather high-profile sci-fi thriller being directed by Luke Scott, son of Ridley, son of Francis, first of his name. Who knows how the film will end up being.

-Of course, the latest Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster is the new Mad Max, which by all accounts, is quite possibly better* than any newfangled sequel should have any right to be.

I really cannot wait to see Ex Machina. Sounds very engaging, and looks intriguing (this week’s cover image is from the film). I do have a soft spot for Alex Garland.

-I was speaking to somebody lately about Ex Machina, and they mentioned the Swedish series Äkta människor (Real Humans). I just watched the first episode, and while it does seem a little heavy-handed at times, it seems to have a pretty fresh (and very Swedish) take on the theme of androids and AI. If subtitles aren’t your thing, there will be an Anglicised remake released soon this year, although the original creator isn’t happy.

-For those who have a taste for the home-grown (and the absurd), you can have a look at Matt Bissett-Johnson’s (former Aurealis illustrator) latest animated short, A Voyage Through the Mind Hole.

-The 50th Anniversary Edition of Dune has a spiffy new cover.

-For those that are interested in screenwriting – check out this interview with Australian screenwriter/director Shane Willis, who offers some tips on the process.

-To finish where we started: an off-the-wall flick called ‘The Lobster’ recently surfaced at Cannes. It appears to be a dystopian romantic forced-bestial-transformation kind of movie, which I’m sure will win points for originality.

Stand by for an upcoming feature by our very own Lachlan Walter, coming soonTM. Speaking of which, 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.

 

*entire movie may just be an extended chase scene.

Week in reverse #1

Source: http://bit.ly/1ciqsiA
Source: ChaoyanXu; http://bit.ly/1ciqsiA

In this new linklog series, we’ll be bringing some of the week’s more interesting speculative fiction news to you. No promises on an exhaustive list, we’ll just try our best to pick out some of the more engaging and relevant pieces. Stay tuned for it on Sundays.

Emily St. John Mandel wins Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science-fiction

Alternate history comes to the screen with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Brave New World to be adapted into a mini-series

Growing divergence between books and series disappoints Game of Thrones’ editor, Jane Johnson

10 Science Fiction Writers Predict How Our World Will Change In The Next 10 Years

Station Eleven crows a victory

post apocLast week saw the announcement of the winner of the Tournament of Books: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. In honour of this title, here are a collection of links about Mandel’s book, which has caused waves in the ever-widening pool of post-apocalyptic literature over the last year or so.

Bustle interviews Emily St. John Mandel, who explains how Shakespeare crosses over into post-apocalyptic sci-fi

i09 asks Mandel and four other authors why their stories are set beyond the point of mass annihilation

Mandel explains her vision of the protracted moment of apocalypse to the BBC

The New York Times review of Station Eleven (slight spoilers)

-A fascination article by The New Yorker about the evolving relationship between genre and literary fiction, with reference to Station Eleven

-An upcoming unique (albeit unrelated) project by a pair of Australian editors to publish an “anthology of apocalypse survival fiction featuring characters with disability and chronic illness”. Sounds interesting!

Titan: Soupy, frozen, exotic

A speculative view from Titan's surface
A speculative view from Titan’s surface

This week saw the 360th anniversary of Christiaan Huygens’ discovery of Saturn’s moon Titan. Titan is the second-largest moon in the solar system and the only known natural satellite known to have a dense atmosphere. As a result, Titan has long captured the imaginations of writers, film-makers, readers, and of course scientists.

Is water really necessary for life to form? Cosmos Magazine writes on the possibility of life evolving in Titan’s hydrocarbon seas

Space.com shines light on the conflicting reports of Titan’s mysterious, soupy atmosphere

Titan’s methane-rich nature comes up in io9’s discussion of the logistics of terraforming

-Along with Titan’s hydrocarbon lakes, the geography is also dominated by giant sand dunes that have an enigmatic origin

-In this video, NASA asks: why are there no waves on Titan’s lakes and seas?

-The History Channel explores what a day on Titan’s surface would be like

Lockdown

Photograph of a crumbling prison
Photograph by Marcin Haszczu

Today is the anniversary of the closing of Alcatraz, one of the most infamous prisons of all time. So we’ve put together a short post about prisons, freedom, and their representation in sci-fi and fantasy.

io9 covers 10 of the greatest prison breaks in sci-fi and fantasy

An impressive review of 14 of the ‘freakiest’ prisons

Bitch Magazine explores the concepts of retribution, punishment and freedom in the context of sci-fi prisons

-Robert Heinlein’s penal sci-fi classic ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress‘ will be adapted to film by X-Men director Brian Singer

Wired writes on the new sci-fi prison comic series ‘Bitch Planet’

Finally, the amazingly gory and hilarious Adult Swim show ‘Superjail’

Gibson and the cyberpunks

A man in a leather coat with intrusive augmentations

May 2015 Update: A fascinating (and in-depth) article from the New York Review of Books about Gibson’s works and life

This week saw the anniversary of William Gibson’s birth. Gibson is one of the canonical writers of early cyberpunk fiction, and his book Neuromancer was the first to win all three of the Hugo, Nebula and Philip K. Dick awards. Today’s post hits up some of the interviews that shed light on Gibson, as well as a few nicks and nacks.

The Paris Review provides an excellent precis of Gibson’s literary life along with an in-depth interview

An audio interview between the BBC World Service and Gibson (49 minutes)

-Bruce Bethke, whose eponymous story gave name to the subculture, writes on the etymology of ‘cyberpunk’

The Guardian speaks with Gibson in the wake of the release of his latest book The Peripheral

-In contrast, an interview with Gibson back from 1985, which includes a prescient prediction about Michael Jackson

6 cyberpunk books to introduce you to the cyberpunk literary genre

The trajectory of cyberpunk is traced by the Guardian

-A video from the Chicago Humanities Festival, where Gibson speaks on the decline of ‘Cyberspace’

-For a laugh, here’s Lorem Gibson – a website that provides filler text, ala Lorem Ipsum, based on Gibson’s work

Apollo 9 anniversary, blasting off

apollo 9

Today marks the anniversary of the launch of the Apollo 9 mission, which was one of the manned precursors to the first successful moonwalk only 4 months later. In memory of the mission, here are a handful of posts that refer to Apollo 9 documents and books, and the Apollo series of missions in general.

The hidden importance of the Apollo 9 mission, and its fallout

Five of the best insider accounts of the Apollo moon landings

i09 discusses two new recently released books. The books describe the Apollo missions in detail, along with the reality of NASA’s financial situation at the time

A video of Earthrise as witnessed by members of Apollo 8. The video is reconstituted from audio and photographs as well as computer animation.

National Geographic’s original series of photographs of the Apollo program 

-Although it has been around for a couple of years, Chris Hadfield’s rendition of Space Oddity is something I’m always happy to come back to (even if it doesn’t relate directly to Apollo!).

Chinese New Year special

This week, we bring you a post inspired by Chinese New Year – recommendations for some of the best Asian-inspired fantasy and science fiction around. Some we suspect will be familiar, some will be brand new, and some will take you by surprise. Gong Xi Fa Cai!

-Reviews along with a list of some Wuxia and Oriental fantasy

Asian inspired (not necessarily set in Asia) fantasy novels

-A discussion by The Guardian of three of the best recent Asian fantasy series

-An exhaustive list of fantasy titles from all over the world, sorted by culture or nation

Wall Street Journal interviews Cixin Liu, author of China’s newest best-selling science fiction book ‘The Three-Body Problem’

 

Bonus fact: Did you know Chinese New Year festivities actually last for 15 days?

Extraterrestrial Culture

Today’s theme was heralded by the arrival of Extraterrestrial Culture Day last week. While the day itself is native to New Mexico, USA, it does give us a chance to talk – or wonder – about what extraterrestrial culture might be like.

-In an attempt to learn more about alien culture: the 7 longest messages sent into space.

-In counterpoint to the above, a discussion of whether we might be shooting ourselves in the foot by transmitting messages.

-Speaking of alien culture, the last wishes of deceased author of the Culture series, Iain M Banks, were recently released: that the series be continued by his friend Ken MacLeod.

-A summary of some interesting and well-realised aliens and their cultures from the last 70 years.