Stanislaw Lem and Science Fiction

My first year of university, I took a course on Russian and Eastern European sci-fi. This was, of course, to fill a gen-ed requirement, and the only time I actually use anything I learned in it is to explain why Animorphs is an excellent series that should go down in the ranks of classic sci-fi stories. I figured this is as good a time as any to try something else: let’s talk about Stanislaw Lem.

Lem was a pioneer of Eastern European science fiction despite not even liking the genre and considering most works in it terrible – the exception being Philip K Dick, who did not return his respect (though probably not due to any extreme feelings about Lem’s work, just his own paranoia and belief that Lem wasn’t a real person.)

His most famous work is Solaris,  which is okay. I don’t love it, but it was readable. For me, it, like most of Lem’s work, is more memorable for its impact on science fiction than its own merits. It has had two film adaptations that Lem disliked, including one that I find ridiculous because it somehow managed to fade into obscurity despite being directed by Steven Soderbergh, produced by James Cameron, and  starring George Clooney, Viola Davis, Natascha McElhone, and John Cho (though granted, before the last three of the aforementioned actors were well known). It’s had multiple theatre adaptations, and apparently even an opera.

Lem’s work, even beyond Solaris, has been highly acclaimed. I don’t get it. I’m all for themes and philosophical questions and moral quandaries in books, but in order to address those things, the book has got to be entertaining, first. Most of what I’ve read from Lem is just boring, and almost painfully pretentious, with the one exception being The Star Diaries.

It’s possible that part of the reason it stands out to me as so much better is that it had a better translation. Maybe if I knew Polish, I’d find that Solaris, too, was filled with a mildly snarky narration. But I don’t. So Solaris seems to me like two hundred odd pages of dry nothingness. The Star Diaries, on the other hand, is hilarious. It’s largely a parody of common science fiction tropes, and involves aliens horrified by humans as a species; the lead character being hit with a pan being wielded by his future self; and space travel so casual, that the aforementioned lead character turned his ship around and went some huge distance because he’d forgotten something at the spaceport. I’m told there was a German sitcom adaptation, and if anyone knows where I can find that, I will be eternally grateful.

It raises an interesting point about science fiction in general. Fans of the genre, as well as its writers (Lem himself being an obvious example), are often divided on almost every issue. Hard vs soft sci-fi? Do the space opera Star Wars-esque works count?  Hell, I’ve even seen people debate the term sci-fi. One thing that I frequently see is complaints about the lack of appreciation for the genre when it comes to literary communities and awards.

When it comes to film and television science fiction, I’ll admit that they have a point. There aren’t many sci-fi movies or shows that get critical acclaim. But when it comes to literature, I think we need to broaden the question, because there are plenty of authors and works that get heaped with critical praise. Before we talk about if/why science fiction gets looked down upon in the literary community, we need to address how said community judges books. There’s a valid discussion to be had about what we consider a “classic”, or a work of “literary merit”.

I find the whole concept of literary fiction to be a nonsense, made up category. The way I see it, there are four categories a work can fall into:

  1. Entertaining with no deeper themes.
  2. Boring with no deeper themes.
  3. Entertaining with deeper themes.
  4. Boring with deeper themes.

Obviously, the first and second shouldn’t be considered classics. But I’ve found that often, the third is overlooked in favour of the fourth, especially in regards to science fiction. Things that are entertaining and that don’t necessarily delve into the minutia of the science – which is probably a smart choice, given that technology marches on and doing so could leave a work extremely dated in a few decades – are sometimes dismissed as nothing of merit, just popcorn for the masses. Even setting aside for a moment the arrogant pretentiousness of claiming that popular works don’t have merit, that’s a shame.

You can see it in Lem’s work. Solaris as a book bored me, but it was short enough that I could get through it quickly. The movies were worse – we watched them in class, and I fell asleep. In both of them. I recognize that it raised interesting questions, but God, it would have been nice if it had done it in a more entertaining way. The Star Diaries, though? That also raised important philosophical questions, like the nature of humanity, and the consequences of scientific progress. But it did it in a humorous fashion. It never felt like a lecture, or like it was dragging on. But it’s Solaris that’s considered the classic, not The Star Diaries. Works like that being considered representative of the genre instead of the more entertaining and accessible pieces is alienating and contributes to the lack of widespread appreciation.

Stanislaw Lem was himself rather obnoxious and arrogant, dismissing other writers in his genre as ignoring the possibilities in favour of writing nonsense, so perhaps it’s fitting that some of his works are ignored in favour of focusing on others. His work and exploration of sci-fi tropes before their popularization was very valuable to the genre he disliked. But unfortunately, he exhibited the same kind of elitism that prevents excellent works from being acknowledged and alienates readers that could otherwise find a great deal of science fiction enjoyable.


Romantic Subplots, Love Triangles, And The Strange Need to Vilify the Hypotenuse

The other day I was thinking about love triangles and the different ways in which they’re resolved: death sometimes, friendship rarely, and one of the vertices being portrayed as a villain often. I don’t like love triangles, or any kind of polygon, primarily because of this. So often, they involve pitting characters – especially women – against each other when a much better story would involve them being friends. When I started writing about that, I realized that I had much more to say than I thought I did, so this will be the first of three posts about the resolution of love triangles. This one will focus on the vilification of a character in said triangle.

Oddly enough, one of the best examples of this is a series that I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I’ve read – the Vampire Academy books. They’re not my type of book at all. But a friend of mine got me to read them several years ago when the last book had just been released – I was about twelve, I think – and I’ve never gotten over the poor treatment of Tasha Ozera.

Tasha started off as arguably the best character in the series. She was my favourite by far. She appealed to me in large part because I have very little patience for romantic drama. I’m twenty, and perhaps my teenage experience wasn’t quite standard – I went to a small magnet high school that took kids from around the county, there wasn’t really all that much drama, and we were all pretty supportive of each other – but  it always seemed to me like most of these high school novels that are supposed to appeal to teenage girls are written by people that don’t remember what high school was like at all. Tasha? Up until the end, she was tangential to the romantic drama, not an active part of it.

While everyone else was obsessing over their love life, or being really creepy about a girl in high school, she was being politically active. She was smart. She was proactive. She was out to protect children that her own people wanted to shove onto the battlefield and use as human shields. She wasn’t distracted by how much she loved someone else, or how she was fighting with her best friend, or by anything. She was on top of political developments, and was focused on accomplishing what she had to.

Even years before the events of the series, Tasha – young Tasha, barely out of school, without any training or help – fought off both her brother and sister in law to protect her nephew. And she did. She was outnumbered and scared and facing people much, much stronger than her, people that she loved and was not prepared to fight, but she still managed to hold them off, even after one of them ripped out half her face. That’s just badass. Her story was tragic, and in just about any other genre, she’d be the mentor, if not the hero herself.

Meade expected the audience to believe that this woman – the woman that’s always supported Rose; always been kind and compassionate, even as she was cunning and politically aware; always fought for what’s right, that taught her nephew how to use his magic to fight back instead of expecting other people to protect him; always been brave, smart, and strong – would frame someone else for murder for no other reason than jealousy over some guy.

She was the first character to ever bring up how the Moroi weren’t contributing and were instead just relying on the dhampirs, who didn’t even have voting rights, to keep them safe. She and Christian were the first characters to use their magic offensively. Tasha taught Christian, which resulted in Christian lighting a Strigoi on fire, not only saving Rose, but becoming the only Moroi to kill a Strigoi within the series.

Tasha stood by her convictions. She wasn’t ever speaking theoretically, or because she was looking to score points somewhere – what points could she possibly score from alienating the people with power to support the marginalized? She sincerely believed their society needed change, that they had to fight for equality. She and her family were already ostracized, but she loved Dimitri enough that she was ready for even more societal scorn from having dhampir children. But she was turned into the villain because she was a competing love interest.

The killing the queen part of it? I took absolutely no issue with that, because that was a logical extension of the character’s actions. It made sense. That alone would have been a fantastic direction to take the character – how far would this smart, goal oriented woman go to achieve what she felt she needed to? But framing the protagonist because of…what, jealousy? And not any legitimate reason for wanting her out of the way? That took a good character – one that, had she gotten a little more development, could have even been excellent – and turned her from the only mature adult around to just another petulant child that the author wanted to “get out of the way”.

Several of the most interesting points in the series never got a real resolution – the way the dhampirs never got to make their own choices, the way they were ostracized for not going into a life of personal protection of the rich, the deep classism of the society, the political system. Rose and Dimitri ended up together, the lead characters were alive in the end, but the status quo that the books began with didn’t change. I guess maybe that’s the point of a teen romance, but all the same, it never felt like anything was accomplished. A lot was made of Lissa being a revolutionary, ultra liberal leader, but what did she do to support dhampirs and their right to have their own lives? The primary thing she did was not change the age requirement. For me, it came across as incredibly shallow – like today’s white liberals, focused on putting out fires as they arise and celebrating minor achievements instead of working for real, meaningful, lasting change. The real revolutionary was vilified. The one pushing for real reforms was depicted as just a scorned lover. Perhaps it would have been a totally different story if it focused a little less on romantic drama and a little more on individual characters and the politics of it all, and I know that I can’t judge a work based on what it’s not, but I think what it was could have been much better.

On TV Tropes, this method of resolving love triangles fits into the category of Derailing Love Interests. This category is broader than making one of the characters into a villain – it extends to giving said character any kind of random character flaws to divert sympathy away from them and justify them not becoming the final love interest. It’s lazy. It’s one thing to turn a character into an antagonist. It’s one thing to have development and consistent characterization that explains just why they shouldn’t end up in a relationship with character X. It’s even okay to say, “hey, maybe they would work, but not here”. It’s another to decide that the supposed obstacle needs to get out of the way.

The way I see it, if you need to completely change a character’s characterization to completely resolve a romantic relationship, it’s not a well written relationship. Either that, or you’re not confident in your writing to believe that you’ve crafted a good enough romance to be compelling even with other love interests. Romantic drama can exist without love triangles, and can certainly be resolved without the derailment of another character. If a love triangle has to exist for whatever reason, though…I’d hate it much less if a writer managed it without any character derailment.

Part Two
Part Three

Philosophy, War, and Challenging Conventions: Why Zack Snyder Should Direct an ‘Animorphs’ Movie

From Dawn of the Dead to Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder has demonstrated his skill with both stunning visuals and deeply heartfelt moments. Animorphs beautifully blends action and emotion, as I discussed in this post. A movie adaptation wouldn’t necessarily be a great idea. A lot happens over a period of several years, and nearly all of the books contribute something valuable and meaningful. Even most of the fillers were good character pieces. It would be easy to lose some of that impact by trying to condense the story into one movie. In that regard, another attempt at a TV series would probably be a better adaptation. It would allow for more accuracy, as well as a less rushed seeming story. However, if the series were ever adapted into a movie, who better to take on the challenge than Zack Snyder?

Visual Storytelling

A major part of what makes Animorphs special is the characters and their internal turmoil. Each book is written in first person, and some of the most poignant quotes aren’t dialogue but part of their internal commentary. It’s something that would be really hard to bring across in an adaptation without excessive voiceovers, which is where Snyder would be perfect. He’s a very visual storyteller. His scripts don’t have any wasted words. He doesn’t tell, he shows. He’d be able to bring across all the emotion in those scenes without overusing voiceovers.

batman v superman clark kent lois lane
Clark saying goodbye to Lois in ‘Batman v Superman’. [Credit: Warner Bros].
Snyder is the king of a distinctive visual style and subverting common tropes. We know for certain that Snyder’s not afraid of so-called silly topics. He’s made his career on geeky interests and comic book movies, after all. He makes bold choices and tries new things instead of constantly playing it safe. He uses his awesome visual sense and artistic eye to create beautiful, epic, memorable scenes in movies based on comic books. I’d love to see him take on the action sequences in Animorphs. They’re all fast paced, bloody, and almost ridiculously violent. They’re horrifyingly graphic, and Snyder is bold enough to commit to that.

Apart from his visual skills, Snyder specializes in philosophy. I still think Batman v Superman is his best work yet because of that. Animorphs is a masterpiece that beautifully questions right vs wrong and never flinches from discussing the realities of war. Snyder often works with religious philosophy, which isn’t the main thematic element in Animorphs, but the issues stemming from the morality of war would be something a little different that he could pull off beautifully. He conveys complicated issues clearly without oversimplifying them. He has mastered the art of making people take things seriously. A huge part of what makes his work special to me is that he clearly enjoys what he does and has fun working in the superhero genre without making fun of that genre. Adapting Animorphs would be a challenge he’s perfect for.

Most of all, though? Snyder’s strength is embracing all of those issues in the big blockbuster type movies that earn lots of money, in a way that a lot of people just don’t see. That’s exactly what Animorphs was. Everyone has at least heard of them. With the perception of them today, both among fans and people that haven’t read them, it’s easy to forget that they were hugely popular in their heyday. They were one of the best selling children’s series ever.

Prominence of Female Characters

Every movie Snyder has made has featured complex, awesome women that are completely different from each other. And his idea of a strong female character isn’t just one that punches people. No, his idea of a strong female character is a smart, brilliant journalist that isn’t a fighter, but is brave enough to stand between her injured boyfriend and the raging vigilante holding a spear that’s trying to kill him and is so important that Superman considers her his world, and the Flash travels back in time to tell Batman that she’s the key. Is a senator that’s not going to bow down to special interests just because she has somewhat similar reservations. Is a victim that fights back when against impossible odds and rendered almost powerless. They certainly can get into physical fights, but that’s far from all they are.

Babydoll in ‘Sucker Punch’. [Credit: Warner Bros].
Animorphs has fantastic female characters, and I’d love to see Snyder’s take on them. From Rachel, the smart, talented, beautiful golden girl who got thrown into a war and learned she liked it to Cassie, the perceptive, kind, manipulative killer that hated all the violence but was nonetheless more dangerous than Rachel the Blood Knight to Eva, the mother that calmly walked right back into slavery because it was either that or risk open war that would kill billions of people when her slaver was no longer in power, the female characters were just as fully realized as the male.

Deconstruction of Conventions

Animorphs embraces a lot of dark topics. It’s a complete deconstruction of everything you’d expect from a kids’ series about aliens and saving the world. It’s also hysterically funny – made doubly so by how ridiculously nineties it is – with an underlying theme of hope. One book featured the lead characters staging an incompetent rescue of an android from a mall using a Bill Clinton mask, a misspelled sandwich board sign, a lava lamp, and Tommy Hilfiger underwear. One of the books was an extended reference to Yeats’s The Second Coming. The entire series is very reminiscent of Kafka. The last book was dedicated to the aftermath of a three year war and the ways in which the characters recovered – and didn’t – from the trauma of being child soldiers. It refuses to ever be pigeonholed as just one thing. It’s a science fiction war story about slavery and morality that’s told as the story of a bunch of idiot kids trying to save the world.

Snyder is fantastic at deconstructing tropes. Batman v Superman is a political drama on top of an action movie with superheroes. He has directed all sorts of cool, kind of trippy takes on classic genres. I wrote about how Batman v Superman and Man of Steel deconstructed the superhero genre here, and I think the ways in which it does are similar to the ways in which Animorphs deconstructs the sci-fi adventure genre. If Animorphs were better known, I’m sure a lot of people would decry it as “grim-dark”, like they did with BvS. It’s not. It’s grounded. It’s not dark for the sake of being dark, it’s dark because it’s a war story. And Snyder could do it justice better than anyone else.


Animorphs shouldn’t be compressed into just one movie. It would need a series to do it justice. If I had to choose just one book for Snyder to adapt, though, I’d have to go with a combination of The Andalite Chronicles and The Hork-Bajir Chronicles, two of the prequels to the main series.  I’d have to sacrifice his take on the main protagonists of the series, but the Chronicles are some of my very favourite books in the series, and it would suit his directing very well.

These two books are set on multiple different planets, which would make full use of his skill with world building. They have a wide range of characters from different backgrounds – the idealistic scientist whose greatest wish was for the sentient species of the universe to explore the stars together; the person who had never known war or violence but found himself forced in the position of leading an army to defend his people’s freedom; the jaded, cynical warrior that had lost friends and becoming willing to do whatever it took to win.

Krypton, depicted in ‘Man of Steel’. [Credit: Warner Bros].
Ethical issues galore, the difficulty of doing the right thing, complicated and well developed character dynamics – these two books capture a lot of the essence of what Animorphs is while being more self contained than any part of the main series.

Animorphs the book series was geared towards children, just like the TV show. But if a movie were to be made, and made accurately, it couldn’t be. I love the books, but even so, they probably traumatized me for life. There’s a scene in one of them where one of the characters loses an arm, then uses said arm as a club. The first book opens with an alien being eaten alive. Those are things you can apparently get away with in books. Not so in film. So even if Snyder – or any director that would commit to an accurate adaptation – were interested, it seems highly unlikely that any studio would go for an R-rated adaptation of a children’s series.

If more people gave Animorphs a chance, they’d love it. These books are dark. They never, ever shy away from discussing trauma. They’re so clearly an anti-war message that deals with slavery and the ethics of combat and intergalactic politics. But they’re also hilariousEven today, years after I read them for the first time, when I reread them, I still laugh, because the teammate is a slacker who mainly paid attention to girls and sports while in class and loves cinnamon buns and soap operas and caused a scene in a movie theatre because he’d never eaten chocolate before. A Snyder adaptation of it would open a lot of people’s eyes to how fantastic a series it is.

Zack Snyder is a perfect fit for an Animorphs movie because of his grasp on how to present philosophical ideas, his distinctive style, and his treatment of women. This movie will probably never happen, but if it did, it would have the potential to be one of the best science-fiction adaptations ever made.

Animorphs: A Children’s Series That Deserves To Be Remembered As a Science Fiction Classic

Remember Animorphs? That super ridiculous nineties series about kids turning into animals fighting parasitic aliens that opened with a character being eaten alive and ended with most of the main characters dead that was somehow ubiquitous in just about every library, even if no library had all the books because there were more than sixty of them? Yeah. That was fantastic.

Something that’s pretty minor in the grand scheme of things that I still love about it -it had some of the most creative aliens ever. There was no all aliens speak English – the universal standard was something else; aliens were equipped with translators so they could understand each other; and they learned English when they were on Earth, some better than others. They didn’t all look humanoid – in fact, none of them did. Giant, cannibalistic centipedes with insatiable and uncontrollable hunger. Seven foot tall herbivores that solely ate bark and were covered with blades so that they could better harvest it. Mouthless centaurs with two additional stalk eyes and scorpionlike blades on their tails. Parasitic slugs that lived in the heads of other sentient creatures and controlled their every action. They were all different and fascinating and some of them were absolutely terrifying.

Animorphs had all the basic hallmarks of a traditional science fiction story. Freshman year, I took a class on Eastern European sci fi, and it struck me just how well Animorphs adheres to the main tenants of the genre, while not being confined to standard in any way. What is the nature of good and evil? What is love? What is life? What does it mean to be human? The books questioned the nature of right and wrong again and again. The fierce protectiveness and love the main characters felt for each other was constantly brought up. One of the supporting characters was an android, and the constant undertone when he was around was if he was really alive, and if his pacifism was at all justifiable next to the actions of the living things doing the fighting. A running theme was maintaining one’s humanity when fighting a war.

Animorphs is top tier fiction, because it’s completely accessible while embracing darker themes and working through hope, tragedy, humour, and heartwarming friendship moments in every book without it ever feeling rushed.

Animorphs makes me feel all kinds of emotions. There are scenes that I find horrifying and tragic and gutwrenching and all that, but they’re juxtaposed with some of the most ridiculously funny scenes I’ve ever read in anything. I’ll reread the books, and I’ll never not laugh at things like the lead characters’ incompetent rescue of an android using clothes from Tommy Hilfiger, a Bill Clinton mask, and a misspelled sandwich board sign, while they argue something stupid in the middle of a dangerous situation. It’s so hilariously nineties, that now even lines that would have been pretty neutral twenty years ago have me laughing. Then I turn the page, and it’s dead serious again. The same book that had an alien driving a yellow Mustang across a planet that neither he nor Mustangs come from while drinking Dr. Pepper had the same alien run away to Earth because he didn’t want to fight a war anymore.

The writing is geared toward children, and it’s blunt and direct and very far from subtle, but it doesn’t matter at all, because it’s effective. It’s simplistic and it gets the point across without ever getting bogged down in flowery language or needing elaborate symbolism. There are plenty of allusions to classics which allows for some really fun analysis, but the series stands perfectly well alone without needing to understand those references. Before all else, it’s an entertaining story. Most of the books are very short, but they still both address serious issues and entertain.

Animorphs is indisputably kind of weird and unexpected, but it’s fantastic. Sure, there’s some inconsistent quality issues and plot holes/contradictions – that’s to be expected when there’s so many of them and a large chunk of the series was ghostwritten. But the weirdness contributes to making it memorable, because it never holds back. It’s so, so good, and everyone should read it.

The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine


This book was beautifully written. Miko Peled, son of General Matti Peled, tells the story of how he began to question the worldviews he’d grown up with and how he became a peace activist.

So often, the Middle East is viewed as black and white. You support one side of the Arab Israeli conflict or you support the other. This book takes a different perspective, instead focusing upon how beyond the military and the violence, Israel and Palestine are made up of two peoples that love a common homeland. It’s a beautiful simplicity at the heart of a complicated, painful issue.

Perhaps the main points Peled makes aren’t particularly sophisticated – the essence of the book boils down to, we’re all people. But what makes this more interesting, more appealing, than so many other books that present the same basic point is how it goes into the specifics of the inequality that exists in ways that aren’t often addressed – how Nader got hassled at the border. How he, as an Israeli in the United States, felt more at home among the Palestinians he met than the American Jews. How the proposed “land swaps” would be inherently unfair, and how with a two state solution, the issue of the Palestinian refugees will never be resolved.

It’s a deeply emotional plea, and more personal than anything else I’ve ever read on the issue. It comes from a person that clearly cares deeply about the issue, someone that values peace.

Something I find fascinating is the conclusion Peled comes to in the middle of the book – that the only hope for peace was no longer a two state solution, but “a complete removal of all the barriers between Israelis and Palestinians”. It’s interesting to me because the person that first comes to mind when I think of this perspective is Reuven Rivlin, a man that I’m never quite sure what to make of. And while instinctively, when Rivlin pushes for a one state solution, I want to say that it’s not a good solution, a right one, I don’t think that impulse is entirely based on fact.

I think it’s based on my dislike of the Likud party and my distrust of Netanyahu. The fact that Rivlin is aligned with them makes me skeptical of him, and makes me instinctively doubt his intentions. I have a hard time reconciling the actions of the current Israeli government with Rivlin’s personal actions to achieve equal treatment for Palestinian-Israelis. I do believe that he wants what’s best for the people of both Israel and Palestine. And yet, as a liberal, I find it difficult to trust that his party cares about creating one state where all the people of the region can live in peace.

This book is very persuasive in that regard. The one state solution, as I so often see it, is something that’s almost inevitable at this point that will be achieved through Israel’s continued settlements and the suppression of Palestinian rights. However, Peled regards it as the only way to ensure equality – a binational state, after all, will be the only way for all the people forced to leave to be able to return. He presents a rational, logical argument that manages to make the idea of one secular, democratic state, as difficult as it will be to achieve, sound perfectly simple and reasonable.

There are times when the book seems disjointed – Peled jumps around a lot in regards to chronology, which would be fine if he had at least had clear divisions by theme, but he didn’t. There is also a lot of material crammed into a short book. It feels a little rushed, when I’d have enjoyed reading Peled go into more depth on some of the issues. On the whole, the book could have done with better editing, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.