A Study of the Hollow Earth

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Archive for the category “SF”

Exploring Mars in Paratext

Of the many distinctive features of the post-Viking Mars narrative (and there are many, as the sf topic attempted to reinvent itself following the discovery that it was a lifeless planet) the increase in paratextual information is most striking. For tales of fiction, these stories include a multitude of introductory and concluding essays, maps, bibliographies, personal references, and ‘info dumps’ that lay outside the narrative. It is interesting to explore the context of these paratextual elements, and the purpose of their inclusion, in forming a narrative of speculative realism. Between 1976 and 2008, over two dozen books dedicated to realistic human prospects on Mars were published, and the justification employed by authors for those realist tones are what make these a unique feature in sf literature.

In 1976, the Viking probes revealed a hostile, barren world, more inhospitable to life than anyone had imagined. No water, no discernible microbes or fossils, nothing. They almost entirely closed the book on the last century of Mars literature. For the next decade, narratives set on the Red Planet dropped off sharply, while authors attempted to reconcile their creativity with this new, stark reality, and the products that finally emerged share an uncommon amount of similarity. In return for closing the window of pure imagination about Mars, Viking opened the door onto a new world. When commenting on hard science fiction, Gregory Benford stated, ‘writers of “the hard stuff” produce more collaborations than other types of science fiction authors, they hold in common the internationalist idealism of scientific bodies, and in their free trading of ideas often behave like scientists’. [1] This ‘hard stuff’ is the basis of the narratives, but there is less inclination in other hard sf novels for the inclusion of so much paratext, making the new Mars novels unusual. Several professional scientists and NASA employees even took up the pen to write on the new Mars. The science portrayed in all of these books places a premium on accuracy. The days of John Carter on Mars are long gone, and Tweel simply never was. Few could think of what to say about Mars until a new narrative paradigm – built around science and the human need to explore – came into print. An adventure plot no longer consisted of aliens and princesses, but science and politics. A plethora of narratives embracing the new knowledge of Mars came forth, heavily scientific ‘travel narratives’ and colonisation stories, set in a finely-researched near-future with every pain taken to convince readers that manned expeditions to Mars are indeed possible, and their scenarios plausible. To put it succinctly, these novels have become the rostra from which authors (and their scientist alter-egos) may profess their faith in the future of humanity on Mars. By framing the narratives with paratextual elements such as footnotes, appendices, authorial introductions and conclusions, and the occasional informational interlude, the authors are establishing a deliberate pedagogy of Speculative Realism to draw readers into their scientific and political fantasy of making Mars travel a reality. The function of including so much information serves three purposes: firstly, to appease the educated reader who is already familiar with the realities of Mars, and secondly, to educate the reader not as well informed. Lastly, it provides a validation for the narrative, supporting evidence for the plot action and authors’ interpretations of the data. This can be a challenge, as ‘part of the art of writing hard science fiction is to introduce technical concepts with which the reader may be unfamiliar without appearing to lecture and without being boring.’[2] These writers have all taken a very scientific approach to the planet, utilising the multitude of publications that discuss NASA’s findings, and pass the information (and its sources) on to the reader.

One of the first methods of paratextual conviction in these beliefs comes from the use of introductions by other established (might we say even revered) voices in sf. Isaac Asimov provided the introductory essay to S. C. Sykes’s Red Genesis (1991) which gives a rundown on Martian facts (distance, diameter, etc.), history of scientific exploration of the planet, from early astronomers to NASA’s Mariner probes, and how this affected literature about Mars. This introduction is meant to familiarise readers with aspects of the history and science of Mars they may not be familiar with, to acclimate their expectations. He also provides some personal, psychological commentary on the human ability to adapt to new environments like the sort colonists might find on an alien planet: ‘I live in Manhattan, a most artificial region of the Earth, not very different from a settlement on Mars. I am far removed from nature and I like it that way.’[1] The attachment of his name to Red Genesis, the implied approval of a Grand Master of the narrative to follow, fortifies the legitimacy of Sykes’s tale. Arthur C. Clarke would go on to emulate this technique and write an introduction to Jack Williamson’s Beachhead (1992) in which he espoused to readers that

“Anyone writing about Mars today is labouring under a severe disadvantage, from which his/her precursors like Wells, Burroughs and Bradbury were happily free. We now know that, alas, there aren’t any Martian princesses, ruined cities or vast canal systems – or indeed any atmosphere worth talking about. It’s quite a challenge, therefore, to write an exciting story about the exploration of Mars, without inventing implausibilities which may be refuted in a few years’ time.”[2]

Clarke has established a framework of plausibly for the narrative, and plausible deniability, should any of Williamson’s prognostications fall short. To add the impression of power to Williamson’s work, Clarke’s introduction attests to Williamson’s ‘long and influential career’ and the assertion that ‘the first expedition to Mars is the topic for the closing decade of this century’.[3] He is tempering reader expectations while bolstering the author’s credibility and providing an informational framework with which to approach the text.

The end of Sykes’s Red Genesis includes an essay, ‘Off to Explore Mars’, by MIT astronautical and environmental engineer Dr. Eugene Mallove. Where a renowned writer of science fiction introduced the novel, now a genuine scientist will conclude it by providing all of the information readers might require knowing that the narrative they have just read is indeed speculative realism. The first section, ‘Mars at Last!’, begins with the statement ‘Mars is so near we can almost touch it.’[1] It goes on for 26 pages, detailing Mallove’s own Mars aspirations, contemporary hindrances, technological capability, and what it would be like for colonists living on Mars. He concludes, ‘The vicarious exploration of Mars by automated spacecraft only whets the appetite for a more intimate meeting with this still mysterious world. […] There is no question that if we can muster the resolve, there will be a way for people to alight on the sands of Mars to begin a world anew.’[2] This is rhetorical language in the extreme, no longer forensic but epideictic. At the end of The Martian Race, Gregory Benford includes both an acknowledgement of the scientists that provided information for his work, and concludes in much the same way the Mallove’s essay did eight years before:

“This novel attempts a portrayal of how humanity might explore Mars in the near future, at low cost and with foreseeable technology.

Undoubtedly reality shall prove the details wrong. Still, I hope to sound a note of realism in the sub-genre of exploration novels, to depict how demanding true planetary adventuring will be.

Going to Mars could be a defining moment in the twenty-first century, precisely because it will be hard, tough and exciting. Our most basic questions about life there simply cannot be answered by robots.”[3]

This is an unmalevolent piece of propaganda, the statements of conviction that exploration on Mars is essential to humanity, and that the narrative itself is a long pamphlet on the realistic possibility of getting there. Much the same could be said for many of these new narratives, all presenting readers with the plausibility of a shiny new frontier on a neighbouring planet.

The publication of Mars texts has slowed to a trickle in the last decade, as if the genre has been tapped out on new ideas, one of the side effects of having to write within an already well known world that will abrogate no derivation from the known. In the books to come it will be curious to see if the same care is given to paratext as was taken during the apex of New Mars narratives, especially with the recent Mars probes sending back information in increasing detail. Or will readers already be so well informed, and so disillusioned by the inability for forward moment in the space programme, that these elements will no longer be necessary?

[1] Eugene Mallove, ‘Off to Explore Mars’ in Sykes, Red Genesis, p. 233.

[2] Mallove, in Sykes, Red Genesis, p. 358.

[3] Benford, The Martian Race, p. 445.

[1] Isaac Asimov, ‘Introduction’ in Red Genesis by S.C. Sykes (New York: Spectra/ Bantam Books, 1991), p. xix.

[2] Arthur C. Clarke, ‘Introduction’ in Beachhead by Jack Williamson (New York: Tor, 1992), pp. 10-11.

[3] Clarke, in Williamson, Beachhead, p. 10.

[1] Gregory Benford, ‘Real Science, Imaginary Worlds’, in The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF, ed. by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (London: Orbit, 1994), p. 15.

[2] Robert Lambourne, Michael Shallis and Michael Shortland, Close Encounters?” Science and Science Fiction (Bristol: Adam Hilger, 1990), p.34.

A Case for Character: ‘Doctor Who’ as Character Study


[Shorter version of paper presented at Current Research in Speculative Fiction, June 2012]

It’s been nearly fifty years since William Hartnell first appeared on television screens in 1963 and introduced one of the most enigmatic figures not just in science fiction, but all television history. But Hartnell fills only a small portion of those years; his character has carried on in more actors’ incarnations than any other character we’ve ever seen, not as a recasting, but as a rebirth. Often in other shows, when one actor departs, either the character is written out, or less often, another is brought in to take his or her place, usually met with snickers of incredulity from the audience and reviewers, who with either adapt to, or reject, character 2.0. So how has Doctor Who been able to do this, where others failed? Because in 1966, someone noted, ‘Well, we’ve never said that the Doctor couldn’t do this. He is an alien after all.’ The unbound imagination of science fiction, and a creative production team desperate to keep their successful show afloat, gave us the concept of ‘regeneration’, or what a multitude of religions have called ‘reincarnation’,  a single soul reborn into new bodies, new lives and personalities, upon the death of the old. What I want to examine here is the making of this unparalleled television achievement.

There are two dichotomies at play when it comes to analysing the character of the Doctor. On the one hand, there is the need to accommodate history and maintain the continuity of character so that he his is still recognisable to the audience. On the other, the acknowledgement that each new actor, each new life, will bring with it a unique set of personality traits. Rote imitation of a predecessor would not just be a disappointment, but a failure in character development. This variety of character is what makes episodes such as ‘The Three Doctors’, ‘The Five Doctors’ and ‘The Two Doctors’ so unique, a chance to watch different actors playing the same – yet different – man in one setting, something that to my knowledge we have never seen before in television. As the decades have progressed, writers, actors and producers have become more self conscious of this dichotomy and brought it to the forefront of the early hours of a new Doctor. As an example of this, upon David Tennant’s entrance as the Tenth Doctor, he is repeatedly asked who he is, and though he has the memories of his past lives and recognises those around him, he can only respond ‘I don’t know!’ When Matt Smith entered as the Eleventh Doctor, there is a humorous scene of him attempting to find something he wants to eat, recalling past preferences but finding that he does not like any of these foods any longer. The difficulties of being born, just as it is for any child, has been played up since the arrival of Jon Pertwee as Doctor number three, emphasising the need for rest, sustenance, and improvised clothing, as a Doctor’s costume will always become a defining part of his incarnation.

But let us move back to the beginning, the character of the old man who lived with his granddaughter in a scrap yard on Totter’s Lane in late 1963, a man we would hardly recognise as the Doctor today, who has been described as crotchety, short tempered, stern, distant, and even dangerous. He kidnaps his granddaughter’s school teachers to prove that the TARDIS is really what he says it is, and to prevent them from revealing what they’ve learned. These teachers are supposed to be our central perspective; the Doctor is not a hero, just a pretended know-it-all grumpy about his exile and willing to bash a caveman over the head with a rock rather than risk his life to save him. Ian and Barbara are the only companions to ever unwilling join the Doctor, stuck with him for two years just trying to find their way home. This is a Doctor who wilfully sabotages the TARDIS to force everyone to go investigate the Dalek city with him because he is curious, a Doctor who drugs his companions because of his suspicions of them, a Doctor who is at times woefully inarticulate, an unfortunate symptom of Hartnell’s deteriorating health more than a designed trait. Over the course of his run, though, the show begins to focus not on the companions, but on the unnamed Doctor, who becomes a new kinds of hero, frail yet clever.

When Hartnell’s visibly ailing Doctor collapses in the last episode of the ‘Tenth Planet’ story, he wakes up on November 5, 1966 a new, younger, darker man, Patrick Troughton, full of life, impish, self-deprecating, player of the recorder, a ‘cosmic hobo’, but still incautious, childishly curious, a bit short on explanations, and capable of defeating the Daleks who recognize. This is the Doctor we know. The Daleks have told us so. Regeneration was new, spoilers on the internet were non-existent, and audiences didn’t know what was happening. But rather than just have Troughton tell us he is the Doctor, he shows us. In the same way that we do not believe someone who comes up to us on the street and swears they are a distant relative we once knew without providing photographic evidence and anecdotes, the producers take a long time to spin out the mystery of this new man, forcing the companions and the audience to do their own sleuthing and deduce for themselves who this strange individual is. But once everyone figured it out, they believed him, accepted him, and moved on. From 1966 to 1969 he continued to blunder about the universe with young companions at his side, surrogates for his lost granddaughter, fighting totalitarian forces wherever he finds them, for better or worse.

With the introduction of Jon Pertwee in 1970 (and in colour) we have our first true action-hero Doctor, capable of throwing his own punches and defending his own person and assistants, without the aid of a male companion. This time audiences were a little more prepared, the Second Doctor having been told by the Time Lords (introduced for the first time) that as punishment for his meddling in the universe, he would be forced to give up his current life and regenerate into a new one, arriving on Earth exhausted and forgetful, and exiled with a stranded TARDIS. Rather than fighting the proverbial man, he worked for the man, or UNIT in this case, as a science advisor, having little better to do while he tried to repair the TARDIS. A dandy scientist/adventurer with a fashionable car, this Doctor is more serious than his predecessor, engaging in the anti-nuclear proliferation and eco-warrior political trends of the day. This is where we see the pattern develop of the Doctor’s personality being shaped by his encounters in the first hours of regeneration, via the people he meets, clothing he finds, and situation he needs to survive. Pertwee’s descendant, Tom Baker, called a ‘watchable nutter’, appeared almost barking in comparison to his more serious colleague. The Fourth Doctor was the longest serving one, and did more to establish the Doctor’s lasting care-free, haphazard philosopher traits than any previous incarnation. Baker himself (like one of his very first lines) has been called The Doctor, the definitive article. He is no longer the play-acting know-it-all, and is growing into a genuine know-it-all only half-blundering his way through the universe, a curious, adventurous do-gooder. The older he gets, the younger he seems.

The strengths of the actors are played upon to help develop their character contributions (though to be fair, Hartnell’s stuttering and stumbling over lines was a genuine disorder). Troughton’s Doctor could more easily put on fear than his predecessor, and even recently, Matt Smith’s football skills were written into an episode. It would be reticent of any producer to not take advantage of a new actor’s special abilities and meld them into new character traits. Unfortunately, it often means that these unique traits must die with that incarnation. Death itself becomes a new factor in regeneration: the First Doctor’s body ‘wore-out’ with age, the Second Doctor was forced to regenerate into a new body, but each instance of resurrection after this involved the untimely death of the Doctor’s body, with much sadness at each subsequent passing of a life not yet fully lived, often given in sacrifice to save others.

By the time we reach the re-launch, and rebirth of Doctor Who in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Incarnation, the Doctor has become something we’re never seen before: he is now capable to trading on his own name, not just as an identity, but as a warning, a promise, a weapon, a prayer. It’s not just all of us, the viewers, who know the Doctor and what he means – his own universe has learned. He has become what Kim Newman calls ‘a dangerously perfect being’ (p. 12). But this is a kind of Doctor we’ve never seen, one terribly scarred by war and the atrocities he has committed, a character development that has been carried over into the next two Doctors. We’ve never seen a Doctor so prone to bouts of melancholy as we have over the last six seasons, and are not likely to see that change in the near future. But this melancholy for a lost people and a lost past has opened the door to discussing the past lives and adventures of the Doctor with a new generation.

In the 2007 Children in Need sketch, ‘Time Crash’, Tenth Doctor David Tennant and Fifth Doctor Peter Davidson come face to face in character, and though tongue in cheek, also addresses some of the sentimentality of regeneration, the Tenth crediting the Fifth with his taste in spectacles and trainers, as well as a squeaky voice when excited. He explains his past character traits of being old and grumpy and important as something you do when you are young, but by his Fifth life, he learned to relax and enjoy life more.

How you chose to define science fiction will determine how you feel about the Doctor’s lives. Do you consider rebirth and reincarnation to be science fiction? There are certainly religious sects in the world who do not think so. Is it simply the manner in which he is reborn that makes it seem like science fiction or fantasy? Buddhist thought has certainly played a role in script ideas and show philosophy for decades.

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