I can dimly remember a sunnier yesteryear after ET first appeared on screen. The 1984 film Starman featured an alien who comes to Earth to teach and befriend humanity (after we inadvertently invited him by sending the Voyager 2 space probe with a phonographic disk advertising our location). Benevolent aliens in the public hive mind included the lovable furry ALF and Superman (Kal-El of Krypton). Mork & Mindy was before my time, but still remained a part of the cultural zeitgeist. One of my first comic books featured an alien hero – Zen the Intergalactic Ninja. The aliens of Sagan’s Contact left behind communications beacons with the hopes of aiding developing races. And my beloved Star Trek had a number of alien species of all variety, often with obvious allegorical overtones. Among them were Spock, a half-Vulcan devoted to logic and science but also with a tendency to let his half-human emotions slip.
We have not always been welcoming of the others among us. This nation has a sordid history of fearing, demonizing, and also persecuting the “other.” We sometimes projected our fears of the unknown to the stars, but there was also a natural curiosity and willingness to explore. At some point, we culturally stopped being curious about aliens and started to normalize fearing them. The 1996 Roland Emmerich movie Independence Day isn’t the first film to portray hostile aliens invading Earth (War of the Worlds was a forerunner in this regard), but it was a pivotal popcorn blockbuster that both galvanized the contemporary popularity and marketability of the trope and also led to a general stupidification of alien encounter narratives.
One of my literary idols, Clifford D. Simak, wrote in the foreword to his collection of short stories titled Skirmish:
“My reluctance to use alien invasion is due to the feeling that we are not likely to be invaded… It would seem to me that by the time a race has achieved deep space capability it would have matured to a point where it would have no thought of dominating another intelligent species…it must have arrived at an energy source which would not be based on planetary natural resources. It should also, by that time, have come to a management of population so that expanded living space would furnish no motive for the domination of other planets. By the same reasoning, it would not need the muscle power of enslaved planetary populations, but would have evolved machines that could perform all necessary work. Because of this thinking it seems to me that the whole idea of alien invasion is unrealistic.”
Oftentimes, authors can’t or don’t bother to think of reasons for alien aggression. It’s assumed to be innate, perhaps because it’s innate among us. They then resort to lazy contrivances (IE in the Troy Rising series by John Ringo, maple syrup is like “crack” for the plot’s invading aliens). Military SF novels, being an extension of the authors and the world that they live in, express contemporary anxieties. There was an explosion of hostile alien narratives following 9/11. It’s not only fiction that expresses certain sentiments about the others. Elizabeth Moon and Dan Simmons, both well-known SF authors, penned blog posts concern trolling about Muslims post-9/11 (which critics correctly identified as thinly-veiled islamophobic rants). Moon’s post, while displaying some shocking ignorance, was rather tame compared to Simmons’s meandering story-like narrative wherein a time traveler from the future tells a naïve man in the present about how badly things have gotten in Europe. The “Eurabia” that Simmons describes is a land where waves of immigrants from the Middle East have implemented sharia law and non-Muslims are lesser-thans always at risk of mistreatment from the authority of a Europe-based caliphate.
“You peace-loving Europeans. You civil-liberties loving Americans? You Athenian invertebrates with your love of your own exalted sensibilities and your willingness to enter into a global war for civilizational survival even while you are too timid, too fearful . . . too decent . . . to match the ruthlessness of your enemies.”
The blog post, which reads like bizarre revenge porn, reminded me of fictionalized propaganda used to dehumanize Jews and non-whites/non-Europeans (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Camp of the Saints, The Turner Diaries, etc.). Films like the Birth of a Nation were successful in inciting violence against Black Americans. Simmons in one post paints a religion of over a billion people with a broad stroke and clarifies who the thems are and why we must fear them. He instinctively associates civilization with the “West” and assumes barbarity for the rest. President George W. Bush himself used the polarizing rhetoric of two camps when promoting his global war on terror, invoking the language of a renewed “crusade,” and also of a clash between inherently adversarial civilizations. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Goebbels, understood the power of narrative and for this reason used mass entertainment (in his case radio and film) as a tool of persuasion. As anyone who has ever heard a fable knows, stories can have immense utility. The Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand in 2019 was perpetrated by a shooter who not only subscribed to the “great replacement” theory but also penned a 74-page manifesto titled “The Great Replacement.” He expressed strong anti-immigrant sentiment, used explicit white supremacist language, and also called on European whites to remove migrants from their lands. The incident inspired a number of additional attacks, including a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a shooter who deliberately targeted Hispanics. A sense of aggrievement and loss is dangerous, particularly when coupled with a sense of entitlement and obsolescence. This notion of “white genocide” is becoming increasingly popular, and is combined with a growing hostility towards refugees, migrants, and some of the least-fortunate people among us. Their visible otherness signals to xenophobes that they are a threat. When dehumanizing language and propaganda run their course, it becomes easy to inflict violence against the “others.” If you can direct someone’s anger, hate, and frustrations – not only at an immigrant but at a third-wave feminist, liberal, etc. – it may only be a matter of time before they act. This might be an extreme example, but it is far from unthinkable. This form of violence is all but inevitable once you have the correct combination of ingredients, and it’s something that we’re unfortunately only likely to see more of.
Our national and global anxieties go much deeper than paranoia over replacement and obsolescence. I’m noticing also a trend in military SF stories where the protagonists are forced to join the military; either because of debts or some form of compulsive service. The agency demanding that the heroes fight aren’t always governments. Sometimes they’re powerful private institutions fighting ever-going and unwinnable wars outside of Earth for some such McGuffin. A reality which is all-too familiar for an ever-increasing number of Americans drowning in unpayable debts. Everyone is conscious on some level of the power that corporations seem to have, as well as their involvement in endless wars which are fueled by profit incentives. A large percentage of American troops operating in overseas theaters are private military contractors. Many of the advisors working in our nation’s capital are part of a professional paid consultant class. They’re often paid – directly or indirectly – by some of the same corporations that directly profit from war. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, not a lefty by any means, gave this nation a grave warning in his farewell address:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
I can only add to his prescient advice that we must always be wary of people who tell us who to fear. We must be doubly vigilant against those who tell us who we must fear when they have a profit motive attached.
Why do I bother writing military science fiction if I’m so critical of it? That’s like asking how I can be so critical of America’s domestic and foreign policy if I’m an American. I don’t equate patriotism with complacency and I have heterodox stances on a number of issues. I have conflicting feelings about my own experience in the military and identity as a veteran. In some ways I miss the sense of fraternity. That no matter what, I had earned a title and was worth something in the eyes of peers and strangers alike. That if I was ever in trouble, a fellow service member was willing to die for me. The American public, at the height of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaped praises on people like me – an experience that I was utterly unfamiliar with as an unremarkable kid from a modest working class background. When people thank me for my service, I don’t know how to answer them. I wonder what they’re really thanking me for. I don’t think that we even know any more. Like so many people who sign up, I did so to seek steady employment and avoid poverty, not to bleed on the flag and prove to everyone what a good American I was. I think that it’s okay to admit that my contribution to the nation is debatable, and that our ceaseless lionizing of our “heroes” has become a banal formality. Our veterans come home broken and horrified by the things that they did and witnessed. And for what? To move pieces on the geopolitical chess board? Major General Smedley Butler, a legendary commander in Marine Corps history, wrote in his now-famous speech War Is a Racket:
“Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the "war to end all wars." This was the "war to make the world safe for democracy." No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a "glorious adventure.”
I will never denigrate anyone for writing or reading military science fiction, and I’ll continue to write in the genre. My stories are a way for me to explore, remember, and make sense of a tumultuous time in my life. Military SF was all that I could write after I got out of the military as if it was all that I had on the brain. It was part of a personal journey to rehabilitate myself and transition back to civilian life – something that I frankly still struggle with. Some of my writing is inspired by my own experiences in the military, and writing these stories can be therapeutic – helping me articulate my contradictory feelings. A time filled with colorful characters from diverse backgrounds against the backdrop of immense looming specters. I still haven’t quite nailed the tenor that I’m after. I still have something in me that I need to have out, and I’m not the only one. A number of military SF writers are also veterans, who I will always feel a sense of familiarity with. I feel certain that they’re also, in their own ways, trying to have out what they can’t otherwise.
In “Dirge Without Music,” Edna St. Vincent Millay writes “I know, but I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” Let’s not restrict ourselves to what’s common out of habit or convenience. Innovation is not some relic or novelty. Let’s not conflate what’s common with what is manifest. Military SF appears to be a popular genre, but at the risk of using anecdotal evidence, I’ve encountered testimonies from readers who specifically will not read it because of its perceived subject matter. For better or worse, military SF has a reputation and a stigma. We may never know how many potential readers we are negating. We should be allowed to criticize our own, whether it be our own subculture as well as our own country. It’s patriotic to remind people of the USA’s violent past. To point out that we’re perpetually engaged in an unwinnable war against faceless enemies around the globe. That we’re ignoring so many more pressing domestic matters. That while many of us are drowning in poverty and debt and our nation’s infrastructure and institutions crumble around us, our elected leaders seem so eager to engorge an already-bloated military-industrial complex. The American dream and our unique conception of meritocracy have been exposed as national myths. And as fertility rates plummet in the developed world, my generation will be the first to see a lowering of life expectancy despite all of our technological advancements. The bright future that we were promised was a lie. It’s perhaps no wonder that military SF expresses so much cynicism. We can no longer imagine what peace looks like any more than our military leaders have a conception of what victory looks like. It seems like the only thing that Americans can do besides consume products is make war, even if we can’t hope to actually win them. We have as a nation given up on the pretense of fighting for self-protection. During the Cold War, the enemy was the red scare. We ironically supported groups like the Mujahideen of Afghanistan when they were fighting our old adversary, the Russians. We watched the Soviet Union break its own back in the mountains of Central Asia to then foolishly invade and occupy a nation fortuitously dubbed the “graveyard of empires.” It’s so remarkably poignant that it’s absurd. The British Empire, once the largest and most powerful in the world, carelessly engaged in wars around the world and suffered a number of embarrassing defeats. Its casual willingness to fight wars around the world was like a desperate impulse that overcomes empires in their latter days. To hold onto or rediscover a waning sense of greatness. The charge of the light brigade, now immortalized by the Tennyson poem, was an unmitigated military disaster in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War wherein a light cavalry brigade attacked the wrong target and suffered high casualties due to an error in communication.
A free society should be shielded from the horrors of war. War should only be undertaken as a last resort, not as a tool of coercion. It should not be glamorized or mystified, and especially not engaged in for profit. The public should not be acquainted with it or de-sensitized. Confederate general Robert E. Lee himself said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” The press should be adversarial to institutions of power. It needs to question official narratives and not do cheer-leading for whoever’s in power. It should not help administrations “sell” war or manufacture consent. It needs to show the public where our bombs land and not just our sleek jets as they take off. Maybe we should see the mangled bodies of the innocent people that we kill with our weapons, and the weeping widows and parents. We need to thank the whistleblowers, not throw them in jail for exposing our war crimes. And every politicians that gets a paycheck from weapons manufacturers should have to display a price tag when they address congress so that the entire world can see how much it cost to buy them.
The trends that I’m seeing are part of a cultural trajectory. A taint has worked its way into the mold which so much military SF is cast from. A toxic alloy of hypermasculinity, American exceptionalism, jingoism, nativism, and xenophobia. The rise in far-right ideology and nationalism around the globe is tied in with a renewed interest in fascism. Perhaps in the same way that martial lore holds a certain allure to predominantly young men, the idea of strong-armed totalitarian rule might appeal to people living in such a dystopian time. Some folks will gravitate towards strength and choose to eschew the liberal democratic principles that they’ve lost faith in. This is partially why contemporary SF expresses a deep pessimism about the social and political climate as well as the literal global climate. They correctly identify the compounding problems of late stage capitalism and the gutting of our civil institutions without offering remedies. The military SF market feels intellectually, spiritually, and creatively bankrupt with a shellac of derivative tropes constantly being re-skinned and recycled at a time when we need to be inspired and uplifted the most. Stories, however fictional or speculative, express sentiments which are dangerous because of the very real attitudes that they reveal. Waking up to our personal biases and national chauvinisms requires time and introspection.
The situation is far from hopeless. I’m given hope by the younger people as well as the majority of SF fandom by extension. The public attitude towards war changes from generation to generation and from conflict to conflict, but war is generally not viewed favorably. And even though my cynical take on our global aspirations are strident, I know I’m not alone. Many of us are waking up to the scam, and are getting sick and tired of it. The landscape of military SF will always have examples of work expressing progressive explorations of the tropes and themes that have become so pervasive as well as readers willing to read them. Stories where characters are capable of or willing to challenge the official narrative. In The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, the main character, Dietz, is a fresh recruit in the “corporate corps.” After a few combat drops, she ‘wakes up’ and doesn’t see the missions the same way that the rest of her unit does. She begins to question the official story that her corporate superiors are selling her. The public at large and the vast majority of military SF readers do not hold or express extremist views. Extremist views by the nature of statistics tend to be marginal and, because of the stigma that they rightfully attract, are generally not granted public forums. But we cannot rest on our laurels and think that intolerance will die on its own. The internet especially has allowed communities of hate to thrive and find one another, growing more organized all the time. Out of all the genres, science fiction is one of the most adept at making social commentary. We must dare to dream large and hold ourselves and each other accountable. And yes, our words as well. Words are tools, and powerful ones. We must always push back against the dark and demand more from ourselves and each other, because the cost of failure is too damn high.
I've decided to split this post into two parts because it was getting a bit long to read in one sitting. Writing about this topic dredged up alot of feelings and I needed some time to prune and tone-check what I wrote before putting it out into the world. Part one will mostly cover the background and context and part two will get deeper into my thesis. I plan on putting it up early next month to coincide a bit closer to the release of my next newsletter. Thank you for reading!
I like to see what’s trending in military science fiction. It doesn’t just behoove me to know the market, I’m also genuinely curious. As a fan and author of military science fiction and as a veteran, I feel steeped in both cultures and compelled to weight in some worrying trends that I’ve been noticing. They irk me because art does not exist in a vacuum. Like all art, fiction is a product and extension of the society that produces it.
You can see in newer military SF taglines and descriptions trending toward a bleak view of humanity. That’s not in itself a bad thing. I’m all for examining the ugliness of the military or expressing skepticism about humanity’s place in the stars. We’re all coping with the doomerism of our current time, and writing can be a powerful outlet. As a veteran, I have complicated feelings about my own experience in the military and as a civil citizen, I’m dismayed by America’s foreign interventionist tendencies. I would much rather that war be portrayed as the hell that it is and not some first-person shoot-em-up video game. One of my biggest concerns is that my own fiction might glamorize violence by portraying combat as an adventure.
What I feel is lacking in much military SF these days is a sober realization of how horrific, tragic, and costly war truly is. Some people may feel averse to bringing politics into discussions about fiction and fandom, but as many have pointed out, science fiction is often an inherently political genre. Politics is not merely which political party you vote for but also how we civically engage with our neighbors and shape our society. It’s a reflection of our national goals and aspirations and a weather vane for our trajectory as a country. Science fiction has long made predictions, signaled warnings, and helped us dare to dream about societies far more fecund than the ones that we already know.
The titles that are often celebrated in the military SF community, whether they be the classics or the modern bestsellers which they’re invariably compared to, often revolve around plots where military might is absolute, war is noble, and brutality is a virtue. Instead of war being the result of complex social and political differences between governments and civilizations, it’s a widget. Whatever the casus belli, they’re as intractable as they are contrived, and that’s by design. War is not just perpetual, it is the point.
And while humans will never tire of killing other humans, the faster-than-light convention which is common in SF offers the possibility of taking the forever wars to the stars and killing nonhumans almost as a novelty. I could be internalizing some of the otherizing of the aliens in science fiction because I know what it feels like to be otherized. A hyphenated American in a country that paradoxically celebrates diversity while pressuring citizens to conform to some homogenized assumption of typicality. And while the “thems” in these stories aren’t always meant to be stand-ins for an ethnicity/race/nation/religion, we all know that they sometimes are based on how successful the author is in disguising the parallels.
Authors like Tolkien warned his readers that his stories were not meant to be allegorical, but finding connections and looking for deeper meaning is what humans do. Art remains always open to interpretation. The individual artist might not even be aware of what their subconscious impulses or biases are. Oftentimes, outside observers point out recurring themes and motifs that the writer is blind to. I’m hoping one good rant can raise some eyebrows and generate some much-needed discussion.
Military SF has been one of my favorite genres since I was young. I was even a military enthusiast before I enlisted in the Marine Corps. At a young age, I was seduced by warrior culture: martial arts, military history. Warrior edicts of honor and codes like chivalry and bushido seemed romantic and lofty. I could name the sleek, sexy fighter jets in my compendiums just by their silhouettes.
I wonder if this preoccupation with militarism is uniquely American. We seem to have a national obsession with war as if it were a pastime. The worship of America’s warrior class is something which perhaps exploded in the days following September 11th, when we were painfully reminded of how vulnerable we are even here in self-isolation across the globe. Mass entertainment eagerly followed suit following 9/11, and it’s now impossible to keep track of the Michael Bay-esque blockbusters extoling America’s undeniable and virtuous might in what feel like two-hour commercials for the military. Some of this swaggering bravado could be seen earlier. The days of Ronald Reagan ushered in an idiosyncratic fusion of commercialism and militarism. Perhaps our tolerance for war is a vestige of our nation’s bloody history. A colonial nation that derived power and prestige from its ability to conquer and acquire land and resources from the less fortunate.
It could be that the allure of violence is something intrinsic to human nature. There is something inherently seductive about war. Perhaps the taboo only adds to the appeal. It’s more than the rush from jumping out of an airplane or the false sense of power that we might get from taking a life. In the 2014 Esquire article "Why Men Love War," William Broyles, Jr. writes:
“I miss it (the Vietnam War) because I loved it… in strange and troubling ways… I don't mean the romantic notion of war that once mesmerized generations raised on Walter Scott… it's not the mindless bliss of martyrdom that sends Iranian teenagers armed with sticks against Iraqi tanks. Nor do I mean the sort of hysteria that can grip a whole country… the way during the Falklands war the English press inflamed the lust that lurks beneath the cool exterior of Britain. That is vicarious war, the thrill of participation without risk, the lust of the audience for blood. It is easily fanned, that lust… Like all lust, for as long as it lasts it dominates everything else; a nation's other problems are seared away...”
When it comes to military SF classics, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is the oft-cited example. While military science fiction existed before it, Starship Troopers (published in 1959) is a relatively recent entry when compared to the lesser-known examples from science fiction’s golden age. It came at just the right time, bridging the era between the pulps and the coming days of the literary new wave. Old enough to be a classic but young enough to feel modern. Because of Heinlein’s military background, it has an air of authenticity and feels grounded and well-referenced. It was written not only by a well-known author in the SF community, but a grand master. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein lays down a great deal of groundwork and invents some of the conventions that would become staples in military science fiction even today like orbital drop shock troops and mechanized “powered” armor. This one book is so iconic that I still find myself subconsciously imitating some of the style and flair that first wowed me when I read it as a kid.
Naturally, I wasn’t picking up on the virulently reactionary politics that saturates every chapter. It wasn’t until later in my adult years whilst revisiting the book that I saw some of the not-so-subtle messaging. In the second chapter for example, Johnny Rico is being indoctrinated by his high school History and Moral Philosophy teacher, Mr. Dubois, who informs his class that the sentiment that “‘violence never settles anything’ is historically untrue and thoroughly immoral.” In Starship Troopers, violence is an expression of righteousness, and failing to practice violence is an act of depravity. It’s perhaps no surprise that the society the story takes place in, the Terran Federation, is a militaristic totalitarian state where service members and veterans are at the top of a rigidly-enforced social hierarchy. And that the book was written as a way for Heinlein to criticize Cold War America for not being sufficiently hawkish against the USSR and the looming red threat. The arachnids of Klendathu with their hive mind and lack of individuality are a thinly-veiled analog for godless communists. While the book disturbs me now as an adult veteran who’s much more civically conscious, I would never discourage anyone from reading it. If nothing else, it can still inspire new waves of military SF authors and discussions about civic responsibilities. What I do fear is that Heinlein’s conceits, which were reactionary in the 1950’s, are constantly lent legitimacy despite their gross anachronisms as his classic gets dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. And if Starship Troopers is a spiritual great-grandfather to my writing, it’s a literary ancestor for the vast majority of military SF out there now. As disturbing as it is to use mindless bugs as a stand-in for an ideology, I get the odious impression that some authors use this convention as a way to dehumanize groups of people in fictionalized form.
Genocide (or xenocide as it’s called in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series) is how the literary hero Ender Wiggin ultimately defeats bug-like alien antagonists called the Formics. Genocide is also how humans defeat an alien species unremarkably called Bugs in The Shiva Option by David Weber and Steve White. Naturally, not every military SF story depicts genocide, but we begin to see an alarming trend here. Whatever the reasons for the conflicts, aliens are undeserving of sympathy but rather worthy of our hatred and disgust. These resolutions are a convenient in-universe “fix” for a problem which authors perennially create themselves because convenience or unoriginality, and one that we must never warm towards.
This blog post is an edited version of an article originally published on Bronzeville Bee. The website is now suspended and the original blog is unavailable. In any case, enough time has lapsed per my contract to republish this here on my blog.
I’d like to take this time to issue a few additions. Since I’m mentioning similar works, I should really give a shout out to the Japanese manga series Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. It was a very influential series in Japan and North America, with many adaptations across various media. I should also point out that many fans have cited the budding father/son relationship between Mando and Baby Yoda as part of the Mandalorian’s appeal.
*** CONTAINS SPOILERS***
A cloaked figure walks towards a small establishment on the horizon. His past is a mystery, and yet this morally ambiguous man-with-no-name seems at once familiar. We can practically piece together his backstory as we watch in anticipation – and that’s long before the almost nostalgic score from composer Ludwig Göransson kicks in. The fact that our protagonist refuses to take off his helmet only adds to his intrigue. With a rifle slung over his back, he has a profile that might one day become as iconic as the outline of an Imperial AT-AT walker.
The establishment is a bar on a world in a galaxy far, far away, but might as well be a tavern in a small Southwest town. We know this bar because we’ve seen it before – metaphorically.
Our main character pops in and practically strikes a pose just long enough for us to admire his costume – before trundling up to the bar keep. He leans over and mutters a line of dialogue as a trio of shady characters in the background glare and leer, and everyone – from the patrons to the audience at home – knows what’s about to happen. The tension is so thick you can slice it with a lightsaber.
This is how the pilot episode of Disney Plus’s new show, The Mandalorian starts – and it’s glorious. The Mandalorian appears to have not only secured enthusiasm for the Star Wars franchise, but has also enticed viewers to subscribe to Disney’s new online streaming service. There’s a lot of talk and buzz (especially about baby Yoda, which we’ll get to later). And – at least for now – the fans seem happy. The show is set five years after the fall of the Galactic Empire and is noticeably darker in tone yet still feels like a return to what we know and like (right down to shady bounty hunters who seem abundant in this universe). With the show being a smash hit, it’s fair to ask why, or how. I suspect that the secret behind the interest lies not so much in any of the individual bits – not even baby Yoda – but rather how each of the components work together in a narrative form that might be as old as the history of storytelling itself.
It might seem unthinkable now, but Westerns used to be as hot as pop music and reality TV. From TV shows and movies to radio programs and comic books, America memorialized the legendary Wild Wild West with characters like the Cisco Kid and The Lone Ranger. Westerns helped launch the careers of well-known actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Even former US President Ronald Reagan cut his proverbial teeth as an actor in cowboy flicks. Westerns captivated the imaginations of its audiences to such an extent that when Gene Roddenberry pitched the now-iconic Star Trek to CBS executives, he described it as a “space Western.”
This is undoubtedly part of why we like The Mandalorian so much. Not because it’s a Western in exotic trappings, but because it has consciously (and perhaps sometimes unintentionally) inherited many of the themes and motifs that have been transmitted throughout the long history of narrative art. There’s a very familiar archetype in the titular character – a man of few words and a cold heart who nevertheless has a turn and “does the right thing.”
“Mando” the Mandalorian’s bounty turns out to be a fifty-year old “baby Yoda” at the end of the pilot; himself a character steeped in mystery and intrigue as fans speculate about his origins. And while the adorable little green guy has a “Wanted: dead or alive” contract practically stamped onto his little forehead, Mando ultimately decides to save him from his would-be captors. It immediately draws the ire of the galactic bounty hunters’ guild, and is sure to make Mando plenty of enemies in future episodes. We don’t know why he changed his mind, and it doesn’t matter. In that instant, viewers learned everything that they needed to know. Despite his flaws, he chooses to fight the good fight even if it seems unwinnable. This makes Mando likeable if not lovable. And even though this turn is an oft-predictable convention of the genre, it still seems to satisfy a desire to see righteousness prevail. It’s a deep-seated psychological draw made all the more welcomed because we know just unfair and dark real life is. Make no mistake – The Mandalorian shares a lineage with old Westerns, but that lineage goes back even further than that.
It’s a well-known fact that the classic The Magnificent Seven was loosely based on the famous Japanese black-and-white film The Seven Samurai. And while it’s not a secret, it’s sometimes overlooked how another Akira Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress, inspired a young filmmaker named George Lucas when he made Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
If one browsed a selection of samurai movies, one would see many of the features that found their way into American cowboy flicks. Typically taking place in medieval Japan, our protagonists were frequently mysterious swordsmen – commonly dishonored Ronin with conveniently obscure pasts and questionable ethics. And yet, these rough-and-tumble characters win the hearts of their audience by fighting against unthinkable odds for: love, revenge, honor (sometimes for money, let’s be honest), or old-fashioned justice. It’s a formula that speaks directly to the viewer – in whatever trappings and in as many different permutations as you can think of.
All that said, do audiences ever get tired of the formula? Do the conventions get stale? Most assuredly. And while The Mandalorian is hot right now, is such a format sustainable moving forward? The Star Wars universe is vast. We have only seen a fraction of its lore which in film stretches across several fictional periods from the Old Galactic Republic to the creation of a new one. And the decision to focus on darker themes and tones could open up storytelling possibilities that weren’t an option for previous treatments.
It would be a mistake to discount how compelling the conventions of storytelling are. They persist, and for a reason. They are retold because they need to be. We once remembered our pasts and tried to divine our futures through stories. We used them as safe spaces to discuss radical ideas and taboos. We dared to dream and ask questions, and sometimes fantasized about things that we knew could never happen.
And despite the social revolutions that have happened since the black-and-whites, many of the more persistent themes somehow still seem relevant today. The genre seems to renew itself from time to time depending on the tastes and societal norms of the generations. They’ve long evolved from the silly, singing cowboy serials to the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone with their morally gray antiheroes. In time, we would see an explosion of sub-genres and variations: revisionist, steampunk, acid – even horror-infused Westerns such as the film Bone Tomahawk. And throughout all of these endeavors, the anti-hero archetype – itself a variation of the hero archetype – refuses to die.
Kurosawa was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth when he made Throne of Blood. Another one of his films, Ran, was inspired by King Lear. This illustrates how ubiquitous Shakespearean literature can be in art – and demonstrates some of the connective tissue that links together many forms of narrative art.
The English in the Elizabethan period didn’t have television, but a Shakespearean play production was a form of popular entertainment. The works of Shakespeare had connective tissue linking together other artists of the English Renaissance from Milton to Edmund Spenser, as it was common for poets and playwrights to draw inspiration from biblical and classical sources. The recited poems of Homer were inspired by myths that were already old by the time he put his twist on them. And the Greeks would hear stories that reached their shores from the Near East – stories about Asian god-kings like the epic of Gilgamesh and King Sargon of Akkad. And going back further still there were the orally transmitted tales – most of them forgotten without a written language to record them. These tales have been told and retold in various forms since the days when our ancestors huddled around fires. We used to dream about heroes who explored a demon-haunted world, unafraid of the monsters that we knew haunted its borders. They made us feel safe by slaying the beasts – beasts that we had a hard time even visualizing. And these heroes and monsters themselves are psychic projections of collective fears that we would need millennia to decode. Everyone has copied everyone and no one is original. As it says in the Bible ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ The Mandalorian is not original – rather, it’s an abstraction of what’s existed before woven into an already-existing franchise. It’s a product with ingredients that have been expertly distilled, and then aged admirably.
For the time being, it seems that the show has found its following. And while those sound like famous last words, there is nothing to suggest that the show’s popularity will wane any time in the near future. The reviews look good, and while many streaming services are notoriously opaque about their subscription figures, stats used to track viewership seem to indicate that The Mandalorian is dominating in the online show category with one of the largest viewership gains in history. Whether fans are invested in the character, the plot, or just really love baby Yoda, they are tuning in regularly and enthusiastically to see what happens next.
In addition to reeling in a new generation of Star Wars fans, or maintaining the interest of old ones, the success of the show might illustrate how compelling narrative art and storytelling are. One of the secret weapons of the Star Wars franchise is merchandising – but that merch won’t sell itself without a story – the cuteness of baby Yoda notwithstanding.
The Mandalorian – despite whatever hiccups or lulls it might have in the future – will likely inspire a new generation of fans who are interested in this style of story. They may check out the classic Kurosawa films or curiously skim through the many reels of old Westerns. They might even crack open a dusty volume of Shakespeare as they explore and re-explore these fertile settings, plots, and character types for many more years to come.
Science fiction has become popularized over the years across various media. SF at its best has potential for shocking thought experiments that can mold the public consciousness. Some of the most memorable and influential SF asks important questions or takes important ideological stances. It can be bold, or nuanced, or hidden under layers of familiar conventions and tropes. People that know me know that I’m a fan of Dune by Frank Herbert. It’s not just my favorite SF novel but one of my favorite books under any category. I don’t just find the story and rich universe fascinating, I also appreciate Herbert’s message and sentiments. The Dune series was a big influence on my own writing and inspired the approach that I took towards worldbuilding in my own Gordian Knot trilogy. This blog is partially based on an essay that I began writing while studying creative writing in grad school. It was always my goal to keep refining it and eventually pitch it to a market, but based on the tepid replies I was getting from editors, my impression is that the timing is unfortunate. With the Denis Villeneuve film coming out this year, people like me are excited and can’t get enough. Unfortunately, many websites and magazines have been publishing Dune-related content for the better part of a year and frankly many of them are tired to death of talking about it. That puts me in an odd predicament, and it could be that my pitches and article aren’t what markets want.
For an international bestseller and SF classic, Dune is probably one of the most poorly-understood books in the genre (in the future I may do a whole series of blogs related to classics). I’m including myself. I’ve been re-reading this massive book before the new movie’s release and realizing that I misremembered or conveniently forgot entire plot points and critical details in a kind of cultural Mandela effect. The Dune books are also overshadowed by the 1984 David Lynch film which, despite its charms, is almost singlehandedly responsible for a lot of the common misconceptions still floating around. And while I admire Villeneuve’s work and think he’ll do a great job, a book like Dune has been widely viewed by fans as impossible to adapt because of its incredible complexity. Despite having a number of conventional SF staples like FTL “space-folding” travel, the Dune universe is notably lacking aliens and AI (in the latter case, thinking machines were outlawed following an event known as The Butlerian Jihad). Ostensibly, this was a deliberate choice so that Herbert could keep the focus of the story of humans and humanity. This is important because Herbert philosophically had a lot of things to say about humanity. Aliens and AI could easily overshadow a story that seeks to highlight this kind of deep discussion. This blog isn’t a review or literary criticism. It’s about why I feel that Dune is extremely relevant to everything going on in the world today. Dune is a massive book and an expansive series, but I’ve focused on three topics: social commentary, ecology, and what Herbert called a warning about “charismatic leaders.”
The feudal system displayed in this far future setting seem anachronistic initially. I believe that this was another deliberate choice. It wasn’t just a storytelling shortcut to create a social milieu that would seem rather familiar to us. I think it was also a way for Herbert to express skepticism about human progress. In the Dune universe, technology doesn’t guarantee an “advanced” society. Technological advancement and social advancement occupy separate lanes, and in Dune’s fictional timeline, humanity can advance nonlinearly or took enormous steps backwards. Despite all of our recent scientific advancements, we are witnessing an unprecedented global wealth gap which is widening a class divide and effectively creating a two-tiered society. Perhaps not the rigid and highly-organized Landsraad of the Dune universe, but a warning of precisely the kind of hierarchal system that we could return to.
While a subject like global climate change might seem rather contemporary, Herbert was using Arrakis to examine the symbiotic relationship between humans and their planet. At the time of its publication, ecology was thought about on a smaller, local scale. We had yet to learn about how fragile the Earth was. We are still learning about the complex feedback loops and cycles that play out over the eons. The Fremen people in Dune have an intimate relationship with their environment. They respect it because they know its power. They have a profound reverence for the sandworms (the Shai-Hulud, literally “makers”). They feel a sense of awe beyond the commonplace fear that outsiders feel. The desert planet forces the humans on it to adapt, and reminds us that the same planet that can foster life can easily take it away. I don’t think I need to add any further context, but wonder how sad Herbert would be if he were alive today and saw how little we’ve done. Humanity continues to demonstrate exceptionally poor stewardship of the planet and all creatures on it.
The main character, Paul Atreides, is not a conventional protagonist. Like all well-written characters, he’s complex and compelling. And superficially, he seems like a prototypical “hero.” Dune is rather a work of the SF literary New Wave, unlike the pulp fiction of the Golden Age that preceded it. Herbert sought to subvert many of the genre’s tropes and claimed "I wrote the Dune series because I had this idea…that charismatic leaders ought to come with a warning label on their forehead: May be dangerous to your health.” With Paul’s prescient powers, he can see a coming genocidal jihad that will kill billions across the galaxy. A war that he will help initiate. I can think of other perhaps more poignant examples of leaders who, despite their noblest intentions, have unleashed unspeakable atrocities. Especially now when we are seeing the return of nationalism and strongmen, the horrors that can come from cults of personality are all too easy to imagine.
The scenarios in the Dune books are as familiar as the idea of struggles over planetary resources. And sadly, the fictional conflicts playing out seem as real and relevant today as when Dune was written in 1965. No Messiah can save us from our own doings any more than a new machine can. Humanity must somehow work within and around its own restraints and shortcomings. It must change and evolve–not necessarily through selective breeding programs and genetic engineering. Rather, humanity must grow on a deeper, more foundational (possibly even spiritual) level. We must have faith and bear our hearts and risk ruin, because we know what’s at stake if we fail and the kind of society that we can slip back into. Just as people mature with age, so must humanity if we have any hope of surviving on just this one world, let alone on many.
Let’s start with some context
This is a topic that I wish would trend. Not because I want credit for coining the term. Not because I think it’s a major contribution to philosophy or anything like that. I do think that it’s a concept worth thinking about and discussing, but as far as I know, it’s not brought up all that often. Sometimes when I use the term alien absurdism I get chuckles or weird looks. Maybe they think I’m trying to be witty or cute. I just honestly think it’s an apt term that gets right down to the heart of my…thesis?
This blog post is in many ways an extension of an article that I wrote for Tor back in August of last year (the original title specifically mentioned alien absurdism but was changed by the editor). To be fair, that article was largely about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, which is an excellent example in written SF form of what I’m talking about. The original article had substantial cuts which I frankly thank the editor for. Self-editing is one of my weaknesses and I was still writing like an MFA student turning in an assignment paper. But I fear that some nuggets might have been lost along the way. I might have also failed to fully express myself the first time around.
So, let’s give it another shot.
What is alien absurdism?
When I say alien absurdism, I’m deliberately invoking a word associated with a school of philosophy and a branch of literature and literary theory. Luckily, both apply to my argument.
On one hand, absurdism seem like a response to the literature of the past. It’s an attempt to contrast with realism and old writing conventions and illustrate the (absurdism?) of a form which ironically imitates reality while employing all manner of artifice. It doesn’t attempt to be didactic and eludes any attempt at reductionism (you can try if you want, but it’s a lot of work!). It mocks, ridicules, and sometimes goes to such bizarre lengths in its deconstructions that it crosses over into the surreal. There it meets with the philosophers on a dark plain overlooking the cliff of nihilism where we timidly ask ourselves if anything has meaning. It’s an eerie answer to the age-old questions about life, the universe, and everything. Well, what if there is none? What if, as Macbeth said, life is just a ‘tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing?’ Whoa. That’s too heavy a thing to lay on people on a Monday, John! For God’s sake, we have an entire week ahead of us.
But then, what’s alien absurdism? My (sadly sincere) belief that attempting to understand that which is truly alien is inherently absurd. As fruitless as trying to divine the ephemeral nature of the cosmos. I think that all too often, we assume that an alien ‘mind’ is something that can ultimately be understood. Perhaps because we all adhere to the principles of materialism and reductionism and very rarely deviate from that mode of reasoning (and only then with training and effort). And our experience thus far is that anything can be ‘gotten’ as long as you have the will and the means. It’s a conceit that I’m growing increasingly skeptical about. And, I humbly suggest, with good reason.
The Ps and Qs of aliens
One of the reasons why I’ve been putting this off as long as I have is because it’s a very difficult topic to write about. It can quickly dip into that wallowing pit of existentialism and this is all highly speculative.
The main crux of my thesis is that it’s hard to envision that which is truly alien. Even the word alien might carry implicit biases and limitations of thought. And, vocabulary. Alien can be a noun or an adjective. How do we define alien? Alien can be an experience removed from the mundane. It can be an encounter with the ‘exotic.’ Does something alien cease to be alien when it becomes familiar to us? Historically, alien was a matter of origin. Other lands were alien to us. Our eyes looked up and outward, and what we imagined as alien was expanded to include other worlds. But recent scientific discoveries suggest that our barren Solar System might actually be teeming with life. Life that we first failed to imagine because of our Earth-bound chauvinism. We may one day discover that life on Earth was seeded in some primitive from another body like Mars. So then, maybe alien life could be categorized as life that’s far-removed from our own. Beyond our system perhaps. Maybe life that’s not even based on Carbon. Maybe we wouldn’t even recognize it if we saw it, because it would just be too alien. It might not even be kooky and weird, but as dull-looking as a pile of rocks. And all of the processes that we’ve trained ourselves to look for as signs of life wouldn’t apply, so we (our automated long range interstellar probes I mean) would just pass it by.
Now if the school of alien absurdism ever takes off, you might have a split in the community between hard and soft absurdists. For the time being, I’d belong with the soft absurdists. I am at heart a realist. I used to be a firm believer that science and rational thought would illuminate the unknown and liberate our species from ignorance. Ha! I used to be so naïve.
What I’ve learned in my years is that humans are…tricky. Logic and common sense do not always persuade, and there are many different ways of thinking. Sometimes data is inapplicable when you’re talking about real lived experiences. Sometimes hard facts do nothing to help us understand the moral dimension. And with science branching out into very specialized fields, it might take more than test kits and space probes to identity and understand alien life let alone intelligent alien life.
Right around here, I would bring up Lem’s Solaris, because I think it is one of the best illustrations of alien absurdism in literary form. In it, scientists rely on their instruments to understand the behavior of a giant living ocean which seems to possess some kind of intelligence. It seems to have the willingness to communicate, but the exhaustive efforts are ultimately futile because the planet/ocean/species/being Solaris is a puzzle never meant to be solved by humans.
I haven’t even delved into the feasibility of space travel to other star systems. If we ever do get our collective act together, it would be a feat orders of magnitude beyond any endeavor of previous ages. With the universe being as vast and old as it is, humanity might go extinct before we ever encounter an alien civilization. That’s a real bummer because I’m a huge Star Trek fan. But even as a kid, the whole idea of a federation of planets and alien empires seemed to work much better as social allegory than an accurate depiction of actual space exploration.
I think that humanity has a long way to go before we can even understand ourselves, each other, and our own place on the planet. I don’t think that we’re good enough stewards of our own planet to risk endangering life on other worlds. And, perhaps luckily, that’s nothing that we need to concern ourselves with for the time being.
There is still a great deal that we can learn even here on Earth and our own stellar neighborhood. I do believe that the nature of reality and observable laws lend themselves to discovery. I happen to think that life on other worlds as on this one can leave behind telltale signs and indications of its presence; chemical and gas traces, physical remains to be analyzed, etc. The hard part will be what we do with this information once we start to encounter intelligences that are not our own. It’s a thought that fills me with awe and wonder, and I feel humbled by it.
Honorable mentions for stories about encountering the alien:
Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer
Stalker is an Andrei Tarkovsky film based on the Russian SF novel Roadside Picnic
There are many other examples I'm sure in this rich niche genre.
I thought about mentioning that Star Trek TNG episode "Darmok," but once the initial communications and cultural barrier broke down, Tamarians and humans seem to get get along rather well without any deep existential alien-ness hindering them. Maybe this could fall under soft alien absurdism.
I've finally hunkered down and launched my website. I'm still new to this, but the process of learning (and failing, and trying again) can be rewarding. In any case, I've wanted to do this for some time and a professional website is crucial for what I want to accomplish. The purpose of this website is to serve as a headquarters for my writing and artwork: upcoming releases, works in progress, ideas, blogs, and other projects which might otherwise be hard to describe.
If you're here, you might know who am I. Just in case you don't, I'm Jonathan E. Hernandez the artist. Nice to meet you! My name is incredibly common (in grade school I was one of three). Thus, the middle initial is to help distinguish me from the many many other Hernandezes. Being a veteran is part of my identity and a cornerstone of my life and backstory, but many of my efforts in the last few years have been to move me towards a career as a writer and visual artist.
My debut novel, ONE DAY AS A LION, comes out this year with Aethon Books. It's a Science Fiction novel that can be categorized in the military SF and space opera subgenres, though I feel that it's an idiosyncratic piece of work. And yes -- I know that alot of authors say that, but I assure you that the novel was deliberately designed with heterodox views/ideas in mind.
ONE DAY AS A LION is book 1 in my Gordian Knot trilogy. Most of my efforts in the coming days (and months) will focus on editing book 2 (luckily I've written a complete full draft that's currently with the editor), and finishing book 3 (started and quickly gaining muscle). If you're curious about this project, feel free to contact me or continue exploring this website, which will be used to help promote it.
If you would like to see my art, I plan on building galleries here for the public and I would be honored to have an audience. Managing my creative time will be an ordeal as I try both writing and visual art. I have a passion for both, but they're very different disciplines which each consume time in different ways. I'm hoping that building an online portfolio will help my...shall I say inconsistent output. I could always use some cheer-leading too. It helps (wink wink).
Thank you again for visiting. Please feel free to look around, and enjoy. If you don't mind, you can drop me a message, comment, say hello - whatever! Also please consider subscribing. I plan on creating a newsletter and sharing exclusive content in the near future as well.
Jonathan E. Hernandez is a science fiction writer and visual artist who decided to pursue a career better suited to his muses after an honorable discharge from the military. His first novel, ONE DAY AS A LION, debuts March 2, 2021 with Aethon Books. A Nuyorican originally from the Bronx, he now lives in Astoria, New York with his partner Anita and a cat named Jonesy.