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[GUEST POST] M.L. Brennan Looks Beneath the Veneer of Escapism

M.L. Brennan‘s urban fantasy debut Generation V was published by Roc this year. The adventures of Fortitude Scott will continue in the sequel, Iron Night, which is slated for publication in January 2014. Follow M.L. Brennan on Twitter as @BrennanML.

Beneath the Veneer of Escapism

by M.L. Brennan

On its surface, science-fiction and fantasy are about the strange, the unreal, the future, the past, the never-will-be-never-was, and sometimes the maybe. For the most part, except for a few line-walkers like Margaret Atwood, it’s viewed as genre escapism and shelved far away from the literary stuff. But peel back the surface and what you see is that these books are always about the present, and the questions they raise are very humanistic ones. Who are we as a people and a species? What horrors and wonders are we capable of?

I’ve taught college classes for a few years, and twice I’ve managed to slide William Gibson’s Neuromancer onto my syllabus. Oh, the horror on some of my students’ faces when they see it and hear me say the word “cyberpunk” for the first time.

It’s inevitable. A business major will squeak, “But I don’t get science!”

“It’s not about science,” I assure them. “It’s about morality.” (fact: that statement does not reassure a college first-year)

You can read Neuromancer as just about the technology, I suppose, but that’s not what it is. It’s about what the technology has done to people – or, more accurately, what people have done to themselves. Case and his rejection of his body (the meat, as he thinks of it) in favor of the freedom and control that technology offers his mind. Molly, taking the other route – embracing her body and getting enhancements made to it – yet ultimately also being revealed as having fallen into the trap of viewing her body as simply a tool: to be weaponized, but also to be bartered and leased. With the rejection and manipulation of flesh rises the question – is it our bodies that make us human? Neuromancer has the wonderful vat-grown ninja – he has flesh, but does he have humanity? There’s the Flatline – a computer copy of cybercowboy McCoy that possesses personality, memories, and even desires, but lacking a body. The Flatline asks Case to erase it – is it murder if there will be no body? And that’s not even delving into the AI, Wintermute, and its desire for freedom and sentience.

These aren’t escapism topics – these are topics that can be gnawed over and argued and struggled with to equal extent as any literary classic that occupies space on high school reading lists. And, with no intention to malign George Eliot or Herman Melville, science fiction can sometimes even grapple with the big questions more openly and with more immediacy to an audience than, say, Silas Marner or Moby Dick.

The most wonderful thing about speculative fiction is that the big questions about morality and humanity are in the books more often than not, but are surrounded by the camouflage of strange worlds and starships, elves and magic rings, or even the occasional vampire. When I was writing Generation V, I was thinking about bigger ideas of family, identity, and belonging. But on the surface I was writing about vampires, fistfights, Japanese kitsune, and the occasional (or not-so-occasional) Star Trek joke. And that’s the truth about these books (and films and shows) – they lure in readers with flashy covers and lasers, but then make the reader confront what is difficult – sometimes without even fully realizing it.

When I was a graduate student, I went to the library one day to do some research, and I grabbed a book from the sci-fi section to read on the bus home. I was hoping to let my brain unwind, plus I wanted to have an excuse to avoid eye-contact with the crazies, so I didn’t spend as much time selecting as I usually would’ve. Instead I picked a book by an author I’d never read before, just because the cover had a neat drawing of a wave on it. That book was Sheri S. Tepper’s Singer From The Sea.

Singer From The Sea is about constructed morality, and the commodification of the body, and gender, and environmentalism, and how easily an evil action can be justified. It is amazing, and shocking, and wonderful – and you don’t even realize that half of these topics are on the page until about halfway through, when Tepper explodes a bomb of a reveal that suddenly upends everything you’d thought for two-hundred pages.

When I finished reading Singer I turned right back to the first page and started again – but this time I underlined important sections, dog-eared pages, and wrote in the margins. I read it like a text, and if you pick up my copy of Singer today, it is about as worked over as my copy of Foucault’s essays. Worse, possibly, because each time I reread it I end up making more underlines and notes, unlike my copy of Discipline and Punish, which I avoid except for the times when I have to teach panopticism. (sorry, Michel.)

But that’s the beauty of speculative fiction at its best – you can read it for fun, and you can read it for big ideas. You can even read it just for one of those – but you’ll still get both.

1 Comment on [GUEST POST] M.L. Brennan Looks Beneath the Veneer of Escapism

  1. Nice write up!

    I agree with you on many of the points you e brought up throughout the text. As an author and high school English teacher, I see this common misconception by students all the time. Yes, sci-fi writings can simply be looked at in a technological light, or under the assumption that they’re all about Reptiles and other odd monstrosities, and while these elements might be present (why wouldn’t they be!) it’s the underlying themes and tones that hopefully causes us to stop and think.

    Jonathan Howard
    Author of Of Things Man Made

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