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[GUEST POST] Martin Berman-Govine (HEROES OF EARTH) on Message-Driven Science Fiction

martinMartin Berman-Gorvine is the author of five other science fiction/fantasy novels: the Sidewise Award-winning novel The Severed Wing (Livingston Press, 2002); 36 (Livingston Press, 2012); Seven Against Mars (Wildside Press, 2013); Save the Dragons! (Wildside Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the Prometheus Award; and Ziona: A Novel of Alternate History, an expansion of a short story published in Interzone magazine, May/June 2006 (Amazon/CreateSpace, 2014). His short story “Of Cats’ Whiskers and Klutzes” appears in the just-released anthology Brave New Girls, and his horror novel All Souls Day is due out from Silver Leaf Books in February 2016. He lives with his wife, younger son, three orange tabby cats, two shy, overgrown kittens, and a sort of Muppet dog. His older son lives in the Chicago area

The Message in Question

by Martin Berman-Govine

In my last guest post for SFSignal, in December 2013, I suggested that message-driven science fiction drives readers away. This is because, even if one agrees with the message conveyed, the writer’s insistence on shoving it down one’s throat at the expense of the plot, the characters, and everything else that makes fiction enjoyable is liable to trigger a gag reflex even in the most sympathetic reader.

Of course that doesn’t mean that science fiction, or any other kind of fiction, should or even can be written without any ideas behind it. In the post, I quoted Mark Twain’s famous disavowal of any educational purpose at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And yet the novel is rightly celebrated as a powerful challenge to anti-black racism in America at a time when such prejudice was widespread, open, and even celebrated among white Americans.

How does Twain accomplish this? By quietly but effectively presenting the escaped slave Jim as a human being one cannot help but identify with, and by sensitively depicting Huck’s struggle with the racist ideas that are almost universal and unquestioned in the white slave-holding society he is part of. He is somewhat successful in throwing off these mental chains, only to find himself confronted with a series of moral and practical dilemmas.

The reader goes on this journey with Huck and is left to make up her own mind while Huck makes up his. But within the world of the novel, the teenage Huck has to stumble through this moral wilderness alone, without any adult he can trust and turn to as a model.

A similar situation confronts the teenage protagonists of my novel Heroes of Earth. Their world is subjugated to an alien race that calls itself “The High Ones” and claims to have conquered the Earth and made it a part of their empire, “The Cosmic Harmony,” only to save human beings from themselves. Like the British in India, they see their own motives as benevolent and want their subjects to see it that way, too. And also like the Raj, the High Ones took over, back in the summer of 1969, by co-opting indigenous leaders and having them do much of the dirty work of running the empire.

Nearly fifty years later, many humans appreciate the numerous benefits alien conquest has brought, while the vast majority takes no real stand and just carries on living day to day. A minority is troubled by the destruction of civil liberties under the rule of the aliens’ American “Satrap,” one Richard M. Nixon, and a few have turned to terrorism to fight the aliens and their human collaborators. For an angry, alienated teenager like fifteen-year-old Arnold Grossbard, who has just moved with his family to backwater Chincoteague Island, Virginia from the Baltimore area, and who is horribly bullied because he is an outsider and a nerdy Jewish kid, the lure of the terrorist resistance proves impossible to resist.

Arnold is thrilled when his English teacher, Mr. Wolff, hooks him up with the “Human Defense League.” Suddenly he has the respect of the bullies, a cute girl named Kayleigh starts going out with him, and even his parents and his older sister Alison are looking at him with new eyes. And all he has to do at first is set fire to some empty buildings around the island. It’s scary but fun watching the flames light up the night, and if someone gets hurt, well, it was an accident and it’s all in the good cause of kicking the High Ones out and ending the reign of terror of the nasties in the all-human “Society for Common Decency,” right?

The trouble is, the stakes keep getting higher for Arnold and his family and friends. And another outsider who has lit up his life, a mysterious eleven-dimensional cat-woman-librarian named Gloria who has opened up a gateway to a parallel world where America is still part of the British Empire and dragons soar the skies, openly disapproves of Arnold’s actions. Kayleigh, Alison, and their friend Jo, a girl from the British America timeline, all have different views. Arnold himself is torn as he learns terrifying new facts about the High Ones while the League demands more and more of him.

I hope the reader is torn as well, because my intent is not to provide pat answers but to get inside the minds of people who live under foreign occupation—“the person sitting in darkness” of Twain’s famous anti-imperialist manifesto of 1901, which I took for the subtitle of my book. Why would anyone, subjectively, find it possible to justify terrorism? Where is the line between “resistance” and murder? What are the true costs of nonviolent civil disobedience, and when are they worth paying? If I’ve done my job right, the reader will be left with more open questions than ready-made answers.

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