My Frustrations With A Lot Of Speculative Fiction

So, I finally gave in and read A Song of Ice and Fire. This has been a long time pending. I remember I was introduced to the books at a Christmas party in 2011. I…didn’t actually finish them then. But I have now! And I really enjoyed them! I have some issues, but on the whole, they were very enjoyable. Enough to get me to watch and finish the show. Unfortunately, that kind of made me aware of some other issues that I have, both with the books and the show. They’re issues of personal taste, not anything objective, but when I think about them, they’re the same reason so much stuff lately has been hard for me to get through, why that genre that I once loved and still do enjoy isn’t satisfying me anymore the way it once did: the trend towards huge, expansive universes rather than completing actual stories is too much for me.

I like tightly plotted works. I like focus, I like conservation of detail. I like to follow the trail of cause and effect. When it comes to most genres, people would agree with me – excess detail in thrillers or crime novels is unappealing because it slows down the pace. Excess detail and tangents in romances would often be deemed pointless purple prose. But when it comes to fantasy? It’s almost the opposite. Fantasy novels are expected to be sprawling, on an epic scale, with details about every character we ever meet or every place the characters ever go. Like so much else to do with modern fantasy, this began with Tolkien. And my only reaction is…why? Of all the possible ways to be inspired by Tolkien’s work, why did this one have to stick around so much?

I like world building as much as the next person. But a story is more than that. Quite frankly, I think in most cases, it’s overrated. It takes away from characterization and plot development. And while both things can and should exist together and enhance each other, my experience has been that few writers balance it well, instead focusing on the world building to the detriment of everything else. That’s true when it comes to fantasy, that’s true when it comes to “hard” science fiction. Writers are so busy showing off how great their imagination is, they just info dump stuff that isn’t relevant to anything at us just to do it. They never use one word when they could use ten and when they think of a phrasing they like, they use it over and over again. It’s getting really tiresome.

One of my main takeaways from A Song of Ice and Fire was that George R. R. Martin needs a better editor. At least someone to remove some evidence of his creepy fucking fetishes that have no reason to be in the story, but preferably someone with the firmness to insist he pare down and stop going on tangents about the food at a feast or the colours and sigils of some minor house we’re never going to see again. Hell, maybe that would help me decide if I actually like his writing or not. Because as much as I enjoy the story, I’m a lot more conflicted about the writing. It alternates between some utter nonsense that seems to confuse verbosity with eloquence, embarrassingly bad sex scenes, and genuinely wonderful pieces like Arya’s delightfully simple and gorgeous reminiscing about how Needle is all she has left of her home and family. For all that it claims to be a political drama in a fantasy setting that explores how war is hell and power corrupts and all that happens is misery for the commoners that don’t care who sits on the throne, that’s diminished by the fact it’s still almost exclusively told through the eyes of the aristocracy. It tells us a lot more than it shows, and it tells a painful amount.

Take the so-called Broken Man Speech. Out of context, it’s fine. It’s good. But put it back in context and it’s like…we don’t ever really see those broken men. Not like the speech describes. We see traumatized people that start to do worse and worse things to survive, but we don’t see the effects of plain old war on regular old people in any way that really matters to me. Think about the commoners we meet. They’re rarely actually portrayed in a positive light, as the victims that they are, and when they are, it’s still through the lens of the nobility. Like…during the riots at King’s Landing. The focus isn’t on the misery of the people starving when the powerful play their games and use innocents, it’s about how their suffering turns them into savages that rape and abuse women tangentially related to the people responsible. Are there antiwar themes in the story? Of course there are. Are there criticisms of the monarchic systems? Sure. Is it ultimately a story about the human relationship with power and its corruptive influence? I think it is. But when it comes to specifically the idea of the impact all these things on the people on the outside of the power struggle, it doesn’t explore them in any real depth. While I’d be willing to accept that that’s not the story this is, the Broken Man speech indicates that that’s what it’s intended to be, and if that’s the case…I really would appreciate getting more attention on it, rather than the same amount that gets devoted to countless things that don’t actually matter. Concise is a good thing. Conservation of detail exists for a reason. Either explore something or don’t. But don’t just talk about everything for the sake of it.

I’ll admit it – I don’t care about the historical members of each house that are only tangentially related to what is going on in the here and now of the story. I don’t care about however many hundreds of thousands of words that he’s dedicated to the history of the Targaryens that aren’t relevant to the story. It’s great that he has so many ideas about his universe. But what does any of that matter if that’s all so big a distraction, he can’t focus on the central story? I’m in favour of writers writing what they want in their own universe. But I also shouldn’t be expected to care about it. Tolkien spent his whole life revising The Silmarillion. But he did finish the key story that was Lord of the Rings.

Martin defies every rule of conservation of detail ever, and honestly…breaking rules is overrated. Holes is one of the greatest novels ever written. I mean that most sincerely. It’s the closest thing to a perfect book that I’ve ever read. And that’s partially because it follows the rules in a way that children’s fiction tends to do better than adult. It’s not about the what, it’s the how. I wish more people took cues from it when it comes to developing plots. It’s less than fifty thousand words long and it uses every single one of those words to full effect. Three interwoven storylines. Beautiful characterization. Criticism of the American justice system. An explanation of the history of Camp Green Lake and how everyone got to the points they did. There is a reason that it’s taught in schools. It goes on exactly as long as it should and not a minute longer. It’s laser focused. It’s elegantly simple. On a technical level, it’s brilliant, and I wish fantasy writers – and people writing for an “adult” audience – took the same approach.

This focus on the details often seems to me to be another way in which writers try to convey maturity in their works. Sex, profanity, violence, and painstaking detail. I get where that idea comes from…but I don’t think it’s very accurate. First of all, there’s no actual reason why there needs to be such a distinction between what is made for children and what is for adults. Many of the best pieces of fiction can be enjoyed by both. The best children’s books are written in blood, after all. Some works, by nature, are best appreciated by people in a given age group. But artificial ways of intentionally catering to one demographic over another…it seems silly to me. I think what’s needed in adult fiction is the mostly same as what’s needed in children’s literature. That includes focus when focus is needed and exploring the impact of darker subject matter, rather than just including it for its own sake.

On a tangentially related note, I am not even remotely interested in constructed languages. That they exist in so many fantasy – and science fiction, I suppose – works is another clear indication of Tolkien’s inescapable influence on the genre, but seriously? All these other writers are not Tolkien. And I don’t mean that in terms of a quality judgement, I mean it in terms of the fact that Tolkien was a linguist. He wasn’t composing these languages to flesh out the world. In many ways, the languages were the world. They mattered. That’s not the case with most other works, because Tolkien, Arrival, others like them – those are exceptions. I watched Game of Thrones and some of the time, I wanted to scream! It took every bit of willpower I had to not just fast forward through the scenes of Daenerys shouting made up words for entire scenes. There are situations in which having the rudiments of a conlang are useful. A few words, grammar rules, and so on. But entire languages gets annoying. It’s detail at the expense of the broader story. It’s the same reason that I don’t enjoy a lot of hard sci fi.

I have a STEM background and I am fascinated by scientific developments. But when it comes to stories, I mostly prefer softer sci fi, because in most cases, I don’t care about the details of how these things work. Especially because science and technology march on. Ten years from now, a meticulously researched piece may turn out to be completely obsolete. Hard sci fi, all the details about how this fictional thing could work, are usually the purview of people that want to demonstrate how smart they are or how much research they’ve done, not tell a story. For me, the best science fiction has to be the kind that uses enough detail that we can accept it’s based on science, rather than a space fantasy – not that there’s anything wrong with space fantasy at all, it’s just not really science fiction in my eyes – but not so much that that becomes the story if it’s not a driving part of the plot. It’s why I liked things like The Martian, with its clear focused man vs. nature conflict, but have a harder time with some other pieces: the focus on the technicalities gets to be too much for me.

I love fantasy. I love science fiction. And I love expansive universes that feel like real, lived in places. But sometimes, I just we could have more stories that end. Plot, characters, voice, tone, themes…those are what interest me most of all about stories. I’d rather have more focus on them to give me a story that gets to a point than one that drags on forever in the name of worldbuilding.

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The Strange Sense Of Elitism In Film Criticism

There was a debate all over my Twitter timeline a while ago about something Ethan Hawke said about how superhero movies get overpraised and that Logan is a fine superhero movie, but not a great movie. And regardless of my feelings towards Logan  specifically, I think this betrays the typical genre elitism that does more harm than good by preventing excellent works from being recognized as excellent and thus keeping standards from getting higher.

There are countless counterexamples to Hawke’s point. So instead of listing all of them, let’s focus on three main points: the literary merit of commercial entertainment, the dismissal of the superhero genre, and the pretentiousness behind the idea that literary fiction is its own category.

Meaningful Stories In Popular Media

If you pick out any member of the Animorphs fandom and ask them about the series, I doubt you’d find a single one that would argue that it isn’t kind of trashy sci fi aimed at children. Because it is. They were cheap paperbacks pushed out at a breakneck pace to sell toys to kids with a lot of lighthearted, funny scenes largely centred around fish-out-of-water comedy. No one will deny that. But that absolutely does not preclude them from having literary merit.

It’s a story about child soldiers and trauma and galaxy wide imperialism. Sure, there are moments where the lead characters argue over Teletubbies and an alien eats chocolate off the floor, but that doesn’t negate the themes of genocide, slavery, and depression. They coexist. They work together to build multifaceted characters. Anyone is free to not like it, or think it’s not well written, but if your argument for why it doesn’t have merit or why those themes aren’t meaningful is it’s about kids turning into animals, you’re not making a good case.

“It’s written in a simplistic style targeted at children and lacks the sophistication necessary to appeal to me” is a fair enough statement. I can’t say I’ve ever felt the same way about a novel – sure, I like things that sound good, pieces of literature that can flow over me where how it makes me feel is somewhat more important than what specifically is happening, but I’ve always felt that that is best suited for poetry and short stories than for a full length novel – but I can understand why someone would feel that way. I don’t agree, but it’s an infinitely better case than “it’s not a great book, it’s a fine adventure story, it’s still about kids turning into animals”.

I don’t have much use for media that doesn’t tell me a compelling story. Characters, plot, themes, and style all work together to create a story. No amount of interesting style or themes or both of them put together is enough to make up for boring characters or a nonexistent plot. Animorphs? It does a great job handling all of them together. The books take themselves just seriously enough. They’re a perfect example of how meaningful and pretentiousness don’t have to go hand in hand, how there doesn’t have to be a trade off between developed characters and a developed plot, how themes in children’s literature can be handled more subtly than by dropping an anvil over the reader’s head, how a blunt style isn’t inherently worse than anything else. Most of all, they demonstrate how it doesn’t even matter what the plot is – any plot can be the plot of a meaningful story.

Dismissal of Superheroes

I genuinely don’t understand this need to be all it’s not a superhero story, it’s a whatever story with superheroes! “Superhero” isn’t a genre, it’s an archetype. A wide range of stories can fall into the superhero category. It comes across as people trying to separate something they enjoy from other things with similar elements, not for the sake of describing what it is, but for the sake of making it sound more “high brow”. This extends far beyond superhero stories. Like, what does the phrase “genre fiction” even mean? Nothing. It means nothing.

It becomes a vicious cycle. People expect superhero movies to be straightforward, so people go watch them when they want some shallow entertainment. That results in those that try something new not doing as well, which in turn results in less creative movies, which solidifies people’s belief that superhero movies should be straightforward entertainment. Then you have Batman v Superman, which is a whole different thing altogether.

Never once does it shy away from being a superhero story, because there’s no denying that’s what it is. It’s based on a comic book. It’s about the most iconic superheroes of all time. But that doesn’t preclude it from being a layered story, filled with allusions and themes. It’s the most high budget arthouse movie ever made. All the political themes are interwoven into the story. It’s more than just pseudo-deep quotes, all the themes are rooted throughout the movie. That the characters are public figures and heroes mattersIt’s thoughtful and unique. But critics expected they didn’t have to pay much attention because it’s a superhero movie and didn’t get nearly as much out of it as people thought about what they were watching.

If our expectations for superhero movies included that they must mean something, and critics actually thought critically, the reaction to Batman v Superman would have been hugely different. If you took the same movie and didn’t tell them it was directed by Zack Snyder – because critics clearly have something against him – it would have just as much action and bombast, but critics would be more receptive to the themes and quiet drama of the whole movie. They’d call it – rightfully – a work of art and a political statement. They might even go so far as to make the mistake in saying it’s not a superhero movie, it’s a drama about our relationship with power. It is that. But it matters that it’s told using superheroes. Pretty much the only reason that critics didn’t analyze it through that lens is because it’s a superhero movie. This goes back to the “superhero movie” as compared to “movie with superheroes” issue. If you extend that further, you get the frequent argument that something is not part of a given genre, it just has elements of that genre. That takes us to the “literary fiction” debate.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction

Perhaps the reason a certain demographic claims “genre fiction” is a lesser art form than so-called “literary fiction” is that they’re constantly redefining the best works in any genre as something other than what it is – especially in retrospect. Consider – The Book Thief has beautiful characterization and striking prose. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in Nazi Germany, and it’s widely considered to be an excellent book. It’s also narrated by Death – that makes it a fantasy. But I’ve seen multiple critics ignore that fantasy aspect and focus solely on the historical setting. Similarly, I saw an article once about literary fiction that claimed All the Pretty Horses is not a Western and 1984 is not sci fi. I think most of us can agree those claims are absurd. Style doesn’t change the genre. Being well written or memorable or having literary merit for whatever reason doesn’t stop something from fitting the conventions of a given genre.

It especially irks me when it comes to the topic of science fiction, because some of the core tenants of sci fi have always been questioning the world and society. It’s a weird kind of self-importance to suggest that only literary fiction addresses those themes, and even weirder to pitch your work as literature, as if that’s something you or critics get to decide and not time. There are lots of movies and novels that have literary merit. But that doesn’t change the fact that they belong to different genres. It reminds me a bit of the way some Game of Thrones fans try to talk about how much it transcends a genreThere’s a line about it in Parks and Recreation that’s something along the lines of “they’re telling human stories in a fantasy world”. Is there something about fantasy which means fantasy writers don’t tell human stories? No, because that’s stupid. Everyone tells human stories. Saying that it’s not a fantasy story, it’s something else in a fantasy setting doesn’t actually mean anything.


Hawke had a very valid point in that when it comes to superhero movies, most aren’t very good, and they’re praised for being mindless entertainment. But the reason for that has nothing to do with what they are. It has nothing to do with “people wearing tights” or “having metal coming out of their hands”. I’ve been vocal about my issues with Logan as a movie, but something I will never say is that one of the problems with it is the fact it involves people with metal claws. You can make anything sound silly if you talk about it like that – Slaughterhouse-Five is about a man who gets put on display in an alien zoo.

With live action superhero movies, we’re talking about a fairly small sample size. Sure, that’s expanded a huge amount in the past fifteen years, but we’re not talking about anything so broad as “fantasy” or “science fiction”. So we can say things like most superhero movies are lazy without generalizing, because a lot of people have seen a significant percentage of the movies that fall into that category. If that’s what Hawke meant, that’s what he should have said. But what he did say was dismissive of entire genre based on what the genre is, rather than what it’s produced. We have to judge people’s statements for what they are, not bend over backwards trying to find a way to justify them as correct because we agree with something kind of relevant to what they’re talking about.

Logan isn’t a great movie and most superhero movies are overpraised and carefully calculated to sell rather than actually make a point. Yeah. True. But that has absolutely nothing to do with the science fiction and fantasy elements of those stories.

The Evolution of Film Noir

For most people that know me, noir probably wouldn’t seem like my type of genre. I’m a sucker for a happy ending. Not all happy, mind – for me, bittersweet is always the safest bet. Not the same kind of cop out as a pure happy ending, but more hopeful than the downer. You wouldn’t think I’d get much of that in noir. But I don’t see noir as a genre so much as an idea. It’s difficult to define as anything, because works as different as The Killing and Blade Runner (though the latter is also the codifier for tech noir) both fit just as well into the category, while being vastly different movies. A noir film can have a happy ending or a sad one. It can be anything. Classical noir, neo-noir, pulp fiction – they blur together. Relatively inexpensive to make. Entertaining. “Low brow”. The tropes have influenced other genres and have had a lasting impact on storytelling.

Take Perry Mason. The books were written by a pulp author, even though they were never published in a pulp magazine and the influence shows. They take many of the same traits as film noir. Mason isn’t an antihero by any definition. He’s a lawyer, a crusading defence attorney, that is determined to do the right thing. This separates him from the modern definition of an antihero. He’s also confident and successful, preventing him from entering the classical antihero category. They’re set in California without particularly corrupt police or prosecutors. But the stories are filled with people lying, murderers with sympathetic motives, schemers and manipulators. It’s hard to define a written work as an example of noir, but I’d argue that the Perry Mason books are the closest written example just on the basis of how they feel. Several episodes of the television adaptation embraced that vibe and translated it into true noir through the use of the signature visual style.

The iconic visual style – with the bold contrasts, the heavy shadows, the interesting use of lighting, the chiaroscuro – is a great aesthetic. We can debate what makes something film noir, but as far as I’m concerned, the difference between something with noir elements and a genuine noir is that visual. The tropes matter, but it’s the aesthetic that makes a noir. That aesthetic along with the common musical themes that go along with it make a good film noir uniquely satisfying.

Today, we see a lot of parodies and homages – how many shows have done a noir episode? – as well as noir vibes in a variety of genres noir elements mixed in with another genre, but not as much straight noir stories. To an extent, it’s understandable – the idea of film noir is so iconic, to try to play it straight could easily veer into cliché, and beyond that, pretty much everything has been done already. It’s also a shame. Noir films (films noirs? We’ll work on that.) are great. They’re a reminder that movies are an art form, that the point of visual storytelling is to show rather than tell.

Film noir is one of the many things that helped blur the lines between “true art” and the type of things the average person genuinely likes to see and watch, beyond just appreciating the technical skill involved in  making it. The works that stand the test of time are those that are enjoyable. Meaning is great, but that alone will only get you so far. The classic noir films from the forties and fifties are interesting and suspenseful and make you want to know what happens next while also being visually appealing and exploring a variety of themes involving the psychology of man. They embrace film as a visual medium and use style to convey issues of substance.

I’d love to see more films embrace the noir tradition in a creative sense. Film noir is a style more than anything else. So why does that have to only apply to the same kind of city and people? Film noir was built off the idea of post-World War II cynicism, that much is true. Much of what we associate with noir is tied to the era that birthed the “genre”. But the state of the world is often pretty dire. There’s plenty to be cynical about that isn’t tied to a world war. Modernizing it further while never shying away from the fact that it’s noir may well annoy purists, but it’ll also bring in plenty of new fans by giving them something more relatable.

A noir film doesn’t have to be filled with jazz clubs, smoking, unique matchbooks from hotels, and old fashioned revolvers. I love films with those things, but they’ve been done, and I’d really like to see something else. Like, classic film noir is pretty sexist. Updating it to today – or further, even, placing it in the future – could be an opportunity to change that. The brooding anti-hero can be a woman. The femme fatale can be an homme fatal. Hell, those two roles could be merged into one character.

The idea of the femme fatale may have been progressive, once upon a time. After all, film noir pushed the boundaries of the Hayes Code, and femmes fatales (Okay, we really have to come to a consensus. How do you pluralize a loan word? Do you do it the way it would be in the language it comes from, i.e. films noirs and femmes fatales, or do you anglify (anglicize?) it, i.e. noir films and femme fatales? If anyone has an opinion on grammar, come talk to me.) gave actresses deeper and more interesting roles than they’d otherwise  get. A femme fatale has traditionally had more agency than many other female archetypes. She has her own agenda. She’s sexually independent and morally ambiguous. She’s fun to watch. But the context isn’t the same today, so while the femme fatale archetype will never be outdated, modern incarnations are inevitably going to be seen as sexist if they don’t get well thought out characterization.

Women today have a wider range of interesting roles, and while many are still presented in a sexual light that often verges on exploitative, that sexuality isn’t usually presented as a trademark of an evil character anymore. The traditional femme fatale that uses sexuality as her weapon of choice instills a fear of feminism and of strong women, pushing forward the idea of women that will lead to the downfall of man. She propagates the idea that sex is bad and wrong and that women like her are automatically morally ambiguous, if not outright villainous.

I like morally ambiguous characters and find them entertaining to watch. I’ve seen a lot of debate on the specific kind of moral ambiguity associated with the femme fatale. Is it sexist? Or is it empowering? I guess like with everything, that depends. There aren’t really all that many fundamentally sexist tropes. A good writer can make the most seemingly misogynistic ideas interesting and not gross. A wrong camera angle can turn something innocuous into something exploitative. I adore a well written femme fatale. I would never want to see that archetype die. But I would like to see examples that are better developed than just a hot chick in a tight dress that uses sex to get what shes wants.

Veronica Mars. American Hustle. Ex Machina. Jessica Jones. Even some parts of Orphan Black. Those can all be taken as examples of contemporary noir, and the list of neo-noir titles on Wikipedia has many more. All of these utilize film noir tropes, with the visuals perhaps downplayed, but still recognizable at least some of the time. Most of them have interesting takes on the anti-hero and/or femme fatale, takes that are real characters rather than stereotypes or caricatures. I live for this sort of thing. What I’d like even more is for the aesthetic to be embraced again more fully.

Cyberpunk and film noir have a lot in common, what with being heavily stylized stories about a grim world filled with poverty and exploitation under a glitzy surface. I consider cyberpunk one of the descendants of classic film noir, and I think it’s that genre more than the more traditional neo-noir (is that an oxymoron? It feels like an oxymoron) pieces – the crime dramas, the murder mysteries – that more directly uses the visual style I associate with noir. I adore the noir-esque crime dramas and murder mysteries. A lot of my favourite movies fall into those categories. But I get giddy and delighted when watching something cyberpunk, just for the sake of those familiar tropes and excellent visuals. To me, that’s the real modern noir, and I love it.

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.

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.