TT: Looking Beneath the Surface

JANE: Last week you mentioned something about SF having a literary critical element or issue of its own.  I’ve been puzzling, but I haven’t been able to guess what you meant.

Lion Beneath the Surface

Lion Beneath the Surface

ALAN: I think it’s because of the unique nature of the audience – science fiction tends to appeal very strongly to people who have a scientific or technical education. You can see this very clearly in the reviews of Andy Weir’s novel The Martian. One and all, the reviewers praise its technical accuracy and the clever way in which the hero applies his scientific knowledge to keep himself alive when he is accidentally marooned on Mars.

JANE: I haven’t read The Martian or seen the movie, but I’ve been amused by the split between those who prefer the book over the movie or the movie over the book.  One element that always comes up is just how much technical detail a story needs.

ALAN: I used it as an example of what I mean because the story is all technical detail. And that’s the whole of The Martians  appeal. The hero is presented with a set of technical problems which he must solve in order to stay alive. He solves them (generally with infodumps explaining his reasoning). It’s pure science fiction, no more and no less.

Many SF readers are very widely read in the field, but they are not always well read outside the genre. Also, their educational background encourages a very literal way of thinking – technical problems tend to be very black and white. Things work or they don’t. There are seldom any shades of grey or any deep subtleties. Consequently the SF audience sometimes fails to see the elements that may lie underneath the words of the story. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that there are people who think that Stranger in a Strange Land is just a story about a human being who is raised by Martians.

JANE: Interesting…  I’d certainly agree with you that some SF readers are educated in afashion that encourages literal thinking, but I haven’t solid data regarding how well-read they are outside of SF/F.  Certainly, based on the feedback on my Friday Fragments, those who comment tend to have widely diverse reading habits – but that’s not anything like a representative sample.  In fact, those who comment may be those with more diverse reading habits!

Now you make me want to collect some data.  When did you start becoming aware of this trend?

ALAN: I first became aware of it when I was discussing C. S. Lewis’ Narnia novels with my father, an engineer. I was probably about eleven years old at the time…

My father was completely blind to the religious allegory of the books. “Why can’t it just be a story about a lion who died and came back to life three days later?” he asked me, honestly puzzled. “How do you know it’s about Jesus?”

I didn’t know how to respond to this, and I still don’t. Not only was my father unable to see the allegory, he denied that it even existed. To him, the surface story was all there was.

JANE: Oh, boy…  That’s a tough one.  I first read the Narnia books as a kid.  Despite my Catholic background and a pretty solid education in all the religious tropes Lewis used, I completely missed the allegory.  Later, when it was pointed out to me, I shrugged it off as unimportant.  The story was what the story was.

Over time, however, I have encountered people who are flat-out hostile to the Narnia books – and indeed to C.S. Lewis’ fiction in general –because of his tendency toward religious allegory.  They won’t even give his fiction a try.

This was harder to take.  Honestly, the books contain so much more.  The dryads and other nature spirits are wonderfully depicted.  But so are less “mythic” elements.  I loved the depiction of the Beaver’s house in the dam or Mr. Tumnus’s cave.

ALAN: You’ll get no argument from me! I completely agree. I have no religious beliefs whatsoever, so I simply regard the Christian aspects of the story as just one more element in a clever, subtle and many-layered work.

JANE: Even the more overtly Christian elements, such as Aslan’s death and resurrection, are intimate and moving.  I still remember Susan and Lucy struggling to untie the knots that bound Aslan to the Stone Table, their hands so numb with cold that they can hardly move their fingers, and how the mice came to help by gnawing away at the cords.

In Narnia, Lewis wasn’t showing the exclusive Christianity of monotheism.  His Narnia was a vision of divine salvation that included not only “pagan” creatures like dryads and fauns, but even mice and birds.

Maybe because I’ve never been able to be humanocentric, I liked Lewis’s vision and thought it had more to offer than mere allegory.

ALAN: And that richness allows you and I to discuss the Narnia stories in many different ways – a discussion I was completely unable to have with my father because of his insistence that the surface story was all that existed.

He applied the same attitude to other things as well. He was quite an accomplished piano player, in a technical sense, but all he would play were the notes as written. The idea of interpreting a piece of music was completely foreign to him. “If the composers didn’t want the notes to be played that way, they wouldn’t have written them down like that.” So every time he played a piece of music, it sounded exactly like the last time he played it. Jazz completely bewildered him…

He was a human player-piano, and I think he might have regarded that as a compliment.

JANE: Interesting.

ALAN: I have a technically oriented friend who is very widely read in the SF field. We have quite similar tastes and that’s one of the things that is the basis of our friendship. But he’s never read a Shakespeare play (or seen one performed). Dickens is a closed book to him (pun intended). He doesn’t even read other genre fictions – he’s never read an Agatha Christie novel, for example. So he tends to be an unsophisticated reader. Recently we both read Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” books, which are set in a post Zombie Apocalypse world.

JANE: You’ll need to tell me a bit about them.  If there’s something that interests me less than vampires, it’s got to be zombies.

ALAN: The books are very clever allegories about the measures that America has taken to try and combat terrorism. The zombies are the terrorists – they are unpredictable and their motives are obscure. They attack at random intervals and nowhere is safe from them. In an effort to protect the uninfected population, the government imposes stricter and stricter limits on the freedom of their citizens, all in the name of security…

The message is reinforced when, later in the series, the protagonists visit Australia, which has the same zombie problem as America. But the Australian government is protecting their citizens from the zombie attacks very efficiently without curtailing their freedoms in the way that America has. The protagonists are very impressed…

When I pointed this out, my friend was very surprised. He’d completely missed all those aspects of the books. He thought he was just reading a zombie story. It had never occurred to him that there might be something else going on. He was more than willing to admit that I was right, but he would never have been able to see it if I hadn’t drawn his attention to it. He simply doesn’t read books that way and he never looks under the surface.

JANE: Oddly enough, your comments are less likely, rather than more to entice me to read the books.  To me, what Ms. Grant has done is not so much allegory as a thinly disguised rant about the current political situation.  That’s precisely the sort of fiction I avoid!

For allegory to work for me, it should expand the material, not contract it.  However, I do recognize that one of the roles of SF in particular has always been to provide commentary on social trends, often in the hope of drawing attention to them and thus encouraging reform.  I simply don’t care to be lectured, whether by George Orwell or Mira Grant.

ALAN: Actually, I quite like it. It helps if I agree with what the writer is lecturing about, but I don’t insist on that. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers annoys me to the point of apoplexy. Nevertheless I love the book to bits.

JANE: My feeling about those elements that add another dimension of story to a work of fiction – whether a full-blown allegory or a literary allusion – was shared by Roger Zelazny.  As you and I have explored here and again here.

Roger was one of the SF/F novelists who began to add dimension to SF/F through literary techniques such as allusion, but Roger never forgot that telling a good story came first.  On the subject of allusion, he said (and I paraphrase, although I probably could look it up), “A story has to work even for those who don’t get a single allusion.  However, for those who’d catch them, then there’s the opportunity to see the story on a different level.”

ALAN: I think Roger was quite right. Spotting those things is part of the fun of reading and, for me at least, it’s a very important part. But sometimes a story really is just a story. That’s fun as well.

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9 Responses to “TT: Looking Beneath the Surface”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Many SF readers are very widely read in the field, but they are not always well read outside the genre. Also, their educational background encourages a very literal way of thinking – technical problems tend to be very black and white. Things work or they don’t. There are seldom any shades of grey or any deep subtleties.

    Oh lordie. It’s too bad you never got to meet my dad the engineer. He and my mom (another engineer) bonded over reading EE Smith in grad school.

    They thought those books were comedies, because stuff worked the first time, cost was no object, and neither was the scale of the craziness.

    I’d suggest that you missed the point. Certainly some engineers see in black and white, but sociopolitical allusions and playfulness with the English language are separate dimensions: call them reds, greens, blues, and so forth. You don’t measure red in terms of how green it is, and it’s similarly daft to criticize a book that goes into the rich subtleties of greens and earth tones about how simplistic and muddy its redness is. The tech and science worlds are incredibly rich, not at all two-toned, and unfortunately, all the literary education in the world doesn’t particularly help one see this, any more than science majors who hated most of their English classes are likely to appreciate allusions to 19th Century Romantic themes or early 20th century philosophical arguments.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      There’s a certain truth in what you say. But, to continue your analogy, you can’t discuss red at all if you can’t see it in the first place. Or, even worse, if you deny that it’s even there when it’s pointed out to you.


      -Alan

      • janelindskold Says:

        What’s especially interesting here to me is that both of you are scientists…

      • Heteromeles Says:

        Well, I can speak to hating almost all of my English teachers (sorry, Jane). The thing I hated most was being told that whatever I saw was not only wrong, it didn’t matter, that whatever they saw was the only thing that mattered. To this day, that kind of attitude is, I’m very sorry to say, a trigger for me.

        With the exception of that one teacher, who taught me how to write essays and to appreciate some writers, I’ve mostly learned to appreciate the English cannon by reading it by myself, for myself. Presumably my personal understanding of these works is heterodox and deficient in understanding the true, glorious subtleties of those works, but that’s the world I live in.

  2. Chad Merkley Says:

    “If the composers didn’t want the notes to be played that way, they wouldn’t have written them down like that.”

    Eek. That statement made me wince. Musical notation is limited in what in can express, just like the written word. You can’t have a document that specifies absolutely everything for a performance, whether it’s a poem, a play, or a partita. Just imagine trying to read a play that specified everything about tone of voice, talking speed, volume….That’s why directors, conductors, and so forth are such a big part of preparing a work for performance, as well as what the actors or musicians bring on their own. I find it fascinating to compare different performances of the same pieces of music.

  3. Paul Says:

    I read a LOT of science fiction growing up, but I don’t think there was ever a time when I read it exclusively. With all its virtues, it’s not everything.

  4. henrietta abeyta Says:

    WE ALL HAVE A FREE WILL TO COME AND GO AS WE LIKE AND WE ALSO HAVE THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE OUR OWN LESSONS, CONCENTRATION IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST DEALS. SKILLS OR KNOWLEDGE THERE ARE VARIOUS WAYS TO LOOK AT A STORY’S DETAILS, IT DEPENDS PARTLY ON WHAT KIND OF IMPROVEMENT YOU WANT.

    RESULTS AT THE END OF THE STORY WHICH CAN SOMETIMES HELP YOU PLAN, YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER OF THE STORY, WHO YOU WISH TO BE LIKE SOON, GAINING SKILLS, OR MIXING OLD DETAILS OF VARIOUS STORIES TO MAKE A WHOLE NEW STORY USE THE BOOK HOWEVER YOU’D LIKE SCIENCE FICTION FANS.

    POSITIVE SELF-CONCEPT AND TRUE ALERTNESS!! CONSOLATION WHENEVER NEEDED, BOOKS AND MSUIC.

  5. henrietta abeyta Says:

    IN NARNIA THE LION ASLAN MAKES THE PLANTS AND ANIMALS APPEAR, CHRISTMAS IS LATE, GRANDMA THINKS OF EASTER WHEN ASLAN IS REBORN AFTER LUCY AND SUSAN SOB FOR A FEW MINUTES, THERE ARE THE TIMES ASLAN LOOKS LIKE HE’S COMING FROM THE SUN, LIKE WHEN THE LORD TALKS TO MOSES THERE ARE MOMENTS ASLAN’S HEAD SHOWS IN THE FIRE, AND LIKE THE LORD ASLAN CAN BE INVISIBLE AND STILL BE HEARD, PLUS NARNIA HAS MYTHICAL CREATURES OF THE GREEK AND LIKE ZEUS WHO’S THE LEADER OF THE GREEK GODS ASLAN IS IN CHARGE OF NARNIRA’S WORLD, IF HE STILL QUESTIONS HOW YOU THOUGHT OF NARNIA MATCHING BIBLE THESE ARE THE EXAMPLES I’D GIVE YOUR FATHER ALAN!! THIS IS HENRIETTA ABEYTA’S GRANDDAUGHTER JASMINE OLSON TRYING TO HELP YOU. I’M ONE OF JANE LINDSKOLD’S BOOK FANS AND I HAVE THE NARNIA BOOK SERIES MYSELF PLUS TWO OF THE MOVIES.

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