The science-fiction author John Scalzi is currently highly regarded and popular within the science-fiction community, and, from reading his novel The Last Colony I can see why. I did not particularly rate The Last Colony myself, for reasons I will try to set out in this review, but at the same time it is by no means a bad book and as a piece of science-fiction I would not hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the genre. Scalzi is a science-fiction writer for science-fiction fans, if this novel is anything to go by; literate within the genre, aware of the pitfalls of writing science-fiction and generally able to avoid them, he writes with an enthusiastic and quite readable prose style that feels like a modern equivalent to the brisk, at times methodical prose of science-fiction greats. The Last Colony is, perhaps, as a result the epitome of the science-fiction novel – and yet as a result hard to recommend to anyone other than diehard fans looking for more solid, unremarkable science-fiction.
Although my initial impressions of The Heroic Legend of Arslan were highly positive, enthusiastically pointing to its depiction of the crises of confidence facing an exiled heir to the throne learning the injustices the house he represents has placed its people under, this enthusiasm has waned as the series has settled into its stride. Quite why was initially hard to describe; knowing that Arslan was from the same writer as the superlative Legend of the Galactic Heroes made initial criticisms about the style, narrative voice or aesthetics seem like they were based on placing this new, unrelated series in the shadow of something known to be a standout classic of its genre. Galactic Heroes is a 110 episode minimum OVA from some decades ago, meaning it was made under a very different release pattern and era of animation to a modern-day weekly broadcast television series. Making direct comparisons between things in fundamentally different media in this way is a common misconception among writing about anime, particularly in aesthetic terms; as a result, it took some time to settle into accepting Arslan for what it is, and then in turn discussing what works and does not work within that medium.
Although The Legend of the Galactic Heroes is an anime I greatly enjoy, its immense scope (110 episodes, detailing the rise and fall of immense superpowers through the lens of two men who emerge as their figureheads) makes it a challenging prospect to write about. It is not just epic in terms of its plot – epic in the sense of scale, with planets and star systems changing hands and yet also in the sense of character, talking about the rise of charismatic leaders of men with ambitions to bring down political entities centuries old – but in terms of ambition as a piece of fiction. It presents two entire ideologies embodied by its warring factions, in a sense – monarchy (and a quasi-respectable monarchy under an “enlightened” ruler at that) versus democracy (a corrupt, self-serving democracy that is no more enlightened than the monarchy it fights againt) with capital – the private sector and corporate interests represented by Phezzan – and religion, via both the spirituality of the Empire and the mysterious, destabilising Earth Cult – as third-parties who play both sides. This scale makes discussion of the series as a whole less fruitful than character studies or discussion of individual plot arcs – but these are still articles I have trouble beginning to write. More accessible is the creator of The Legend‘s, Yoshiki Tanaka’s, more recently adapted work, The Heroic Legend of Arslan. Currently two episodes into its 2015 adaptation, Arslan presents the same thematic intent as Galactic Heroes but within a different context.
Reading Stella Gibbons’ novel “Conference at Cold Comfort Farm” from a position of ignorance of her previous work divorces it from its position in a series – preventing comparison or thematic contrast with “Cold Comfort Farm” or discussion of continuity – and considers it as a discrete text. This gives the novel’s own themes room to speak for themselves, and any continuity consideration must be implied. Taken on its own in this way, the novel is a critical depiction of modernity that does not hesitate to condemn both the artistic world and those who ignorantly criticise modern art. It is superficially an anti-intellectual novel parodying pretentious intellectuals, and similarly a criticism of anti-intellectualism. Comprised as it is of a series of lampoons of modernist and postmodernist political, philosophical and cultural thought, Gibbons’ deftness of wit disorients the reader and invites scepticism.
Ann Leckie’s 2013 novel Ancillary Justice is a good piece of science-fiction, a space opera novel that innovates within its subgenre by adapting elements of other science-fiction subgenres. In its more philosophical plot it evokes classic science-fiction in the vein of Pohl or Simak, as interested in presenting an alien, experimental future as telling an all-action story. Most interestingly to me, it is a story about the aftermath of a war of occupation and the ethics of occupation, from the perspective of a protagonist detached from emotional and moral norms in a society whose norms are themselves distant to the reader’s. That one can read the novel and at times wonder if the society being described is human in any understandable sense – or indeed “good” from a modern perspective – without it falling into caricaturish acts of exaggerated cruelty sets it apart from many of its peers.
The pastime of karuta is a fascinating one; a kind of competition of literary knowledge mixed with a test of reactions, based upon recall and identification of poems from the 100 verses of the hyakunin isshu. It received significant visibility in pop culture – especially overseas, thanks to the growing popularity of international availability of animé – with the airing in 2011 of the series Chihayafuru, which focused on a young girl learning the apparently unpopular hobby. While the series, with its emphasis on presenting how welcoming and inclusive apparently forbidding niche activities can be, and on the importance of persevering with things regardless of how unpopular or difficult they may seem, works as good entertainment in its own right, it drove me towards the hyakunin isshu themselves.
The future has shone upon us with its glorious brilliance! The time to seize our destiny and conquer all our fears is now! In ancient times man rubbed sticks together to create fire. Then they slaughtered the whale and battled one another for oil! After that came the atomic age! In every chapter of our history we’ve danced with danger but now it will be different! For the first time in the history of existence we will be delivered from fear! Finally, we will escape the prison of our illusions and the beautiful night will embrace us all!
Franken Von Vogler, from Giant Robo episode 2
The search for plenty and the obviation of resource shortages is a preoccupation of science fiction; the main obstacle in the way of unrestricted progress in reality is the scarcity of materials on which the modern age relies. As a result, the science-fiction utopia must either embrace a post-scarcity world in some fashion, or accept that the future must be a more frugal and responsible one. This former solution can come either through the colonisation of other planets and thus the assumption that new resource stockpiles may be found, such that the current rates of consumption may be maintained indefinitely, or through the assumption that science will provide for society with a method of obviating the current reliance on specific natural resources. Giant Robo, in its optimistic, pulp-esque opening narration filled with atomic-age optimism, describes the “third energy revolution”, predicated on the Shizuma Drive, a miraculous invention which overnight ended mankind’s need for natural resources thanks to the sudden cheap availability of free energy. Even the core conflict laid down in this opening – that between the almost naively titled Experts of Justice and the villainous Big Fire Society – is straightforward. Science has provided humanity with limitless power in the most literal sense, and it is inevitably abused by evildoers.
1979’s Mad Max is a film which, for all it has been visually inspirational to the post-apocalyptic genre with its iconic fast junker cars, biker gangs and knots of people clinging to the shards of traditional first-world mod cons, serves mostly to show up the traditional post-apocalyptic ideal. The genre now – in games like Fallout 3 or films like 28 Days Later – picks up on aspects of Mad Max but never quite engages with it in the same way, perhaps in part because of the changes in society that the last decades of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have seen. As modern society – with its reliance on the capitalist, materialist ideal of high consumption – begins to be proven untenable by an economic slide away from prosperity, the nature of what might bring about an “apocalypse” changes and the values that society may fight for post-apocalypse also change.
In past articles on science-fiction I have talked about how the politics of the future inherently lend themselves to more socialist viewpoints; ideas of co-operation, of plentiful resources and of reduced need for work and more time for leisure. This can lead to a return to a rural or antique idyll – a leisure-focused society free from concerns such as poverty and want, and indeed a move away from concepts of money and the value of objects. Yet beneath this surface the issues raised – of the economics of a post-scarcity world – warrant deeper consideration.
In previous articles on the subject of evil in fiction, and its many manifestations, I have considered how the best depictions of evil show not that society is consistently active in it as a whole, or that people are frequently complicit in it, but that instead often there is a pervasive attitude of tolerance that manifests as a failure to condemn evil acts committed by others – the effect of societal prejudice is normalisation of evil, not necessarily increased participation in it. Indeed, my ultimate conclusion is that the most unsettling and unpleasant depictions show worlds where evil has “won” – that people have sleepwalked into a dystopic stasis as in Gormenghast or that inherently unfair systems have become widely accepted as in Under Heaven.