Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

23 Aug 2010, 8:26 a.m.

Science Fiction That Argues Back

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2010 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Julia and I were talking yesterday about Maureen McHugh and her excellent, searing novella The Cost To Be Wise came up. The Cost To Be Wise is in part a critique of Star Trek's Prime Directive and noninterference policies like it. This reminded me of how Nancy Kress's great Beggars in Spain novella is nearly explicitly a response to Ayn Rand, specifically Atlas Shrugged (I wouldn't say the expanded book and Beggars trilogy are). Several characters in Beggars in Spain follow Yagaiism, which reads clearly as this universe's Objectivism.

This got me thinking: what scifi interestingly critiques previous scifi? Cory Doctorow has a series that explicitly does this:

In spring 2004, in the wake of Ray Bradbury pitching a tantrum over Michael Moore appropriating the title of Fahrenheit 451 to make Fahrenheit 9/11, I conceived of a plan to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives.

A few other examples: Leonard makes the case that the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Measure of a Man" responds to the original series's "Court Martial"; it "puts one of the underlying themes of TOS on trial and shows that it hasn't held up well." ("on trial" - zing!) And lots of fanfic does this, like "Second Verse (Same As the First" by Friendshipper/Sholio. "The power disparity between the 'Lanteans and the other peoples in Pegasus is something I think about occasionally, but it's never addressed on the show."

It's all a shared discourse, sure. We talk about themes we've read and play with them. "Another End of the Empire" by Tim Pratt, for example, is responding to a common fantasy trope. But I'm interested in hearing about science fiction and fantasy that says, "In this specific work, there is a specific ideological failing that I will now use, or refute, and that idea will be a primary premise for my story." Do you have a favorite bit of speculative fiction that's like that?


Sumana Harihareswara
23 Aug 2010, 11:59 a.m.

How could I forget The Good That Men Do?

Thomas Thurman
23 Aug 2010, 12:49 p.m.

Something that comes to mind immediately is Jan Needle's Wild Wood, which retells The Wind in the Willows while critiquing its inherent class issues. Funny that I never thought of it as fanfic before.

Thomas Thurman
23 Aug 2010, 12:51 p.m.

(Assuming that TWITW counts as fantasy, but I've generally assumed it does.)

Dan Percival
23 Aug 2010, 15:07 p.m.

Another critique of The Wind in the Willows (with bonus critique of Winnie the Pooh is George Alec Effinger's "Two Sadnesses."

I've been thinking for a long time about putting together a reading list like this, but I never got very far. These aren't exactly oppositional -- there are far more similarities than differences, but the inflections come out differently:

1984 (Orwell) vs. "Stories for Men" (Kessel)

"The End of Summer" (couldn't find the author, shame) vs. "Start the Clock" (Rosenbaum)

...and I feel like I had a good one for Asimov's "The Feeling of Power," but it's not coming to me now...

It's funny, I never thought of Beggars in Spain as critiquing Atlas Shrugged... but that's a whole other argument.

Debbie Notkin
23 Aug 2010, 16:22 p.m.

In feminist science fiction, the canonical example is Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To, which responds to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Landfall. Darkover Landfall takes the canonical position that if a spaceship is stranded on a distant planet and the only way the survivors can ever reconnect with civilization is by living several generations, the women on board become essential breeding machines and should/do lose any agency over their own bodies.

Russ, unsurprisingly, takes a different view ...

23 Aug 2010, 17:07 p.m.

I've heard Jo Walton say that Lifelode was a response to Ursula Le Guin's later Earthsea books, but I haven't read it yet, even though I have it at home.

23 Aug 2010, 17:09 p.m.

Oh, and Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom" definitely takes a crack at racist assumptions in Lovecraft.

23 Aug 2010, 22:29 p.m.

James Patrick Kelly's 1995 story "Think Like a Dinosaur" was a response to Tom Godwin's 1954 classic "The Cold Equations".

Dan Percival
25 Aug 2010, 16:58 p.m.

Oh, don't forget Delaney's Trouble on Triton: an Ambiguous Heterotopia vs. Le Guin's The Dispossessed: an Ambiguous Utopia.

25 Aug 2010, 21:42 p.m.

I take it "Single Bit Error" vs. "Hell is the Absence of God" is taken as implied?

27 Aug 2010, 6:15 a.m.

Thank you for all your suggestions and thoughts! I have a bunch more reading to do! Jed and I had an interesting conversation about this that I shall try to reconstruct and summarize, but first:

Dan, I want to hear your thoughts on the relationship between Kress & Rand! And you and Thomas and my husband are all no doubt horrified that I've never read Wind in the Willows.

Brendan: How could I have forgotten to mention that specifically?! Thanks.

Avram, I've heard that there are several stories that specifically respond to "The Cold Equations." "Think Like a Dinosaur" is probably the most awesome (I say without knowing anything of it) since it has "Dinosaur" in the title.

Julia: Thanks for the tips! You're ahead of me, since I haven't read any Earthsea (and barely any Lovecraft). (I am just accumulating prerequisite-style dependencies all over the place.)

Debbie: Thanks for the heads-up! I'm so underread in feminist scifi, and in Russ and MZB in particular, that I will have to read a lot more before I have anything interesting to say about that comparison.

Dan Percival
27 Aug 2010, 12:49 p.m.

A few years ago, an acquaintance of mine precipitated a great conversation about Beggars in Spain on her journal, and I might have dropped a couple of remarks in there. (The whole comment thread is worth reading, my bits of it probably the least.) I was saved from having to write something coherent, though, by a friend of hers who posted this great response.

31 Aug 2010, 15:20 p.m.

"The Forever War" as a retort to "Starship Troopers"?<br/>

10 Sep 2010, 23:44 p.m.

[Posted by Sumana on Jed's behalf since the comment window had closed before he got a chance to reply.]

I've been meaning to post some thoughts here for two weeks now... Some assorted notes:

* I loved "The Cost to Be Wise." Brilliant story. Was not as happy with Mission Child, though.

* China Miéville has criticized Tolkien for being "consolatory"; I gather that some of Miéville's work is intended partly as a response to Tolkien, but I'm not sure to what degree, or which works in particular.

* I always thought that Panshin's Rite of Passage was an explicit response to Podkayne of Mars. Turns out I was wrong; still, it works very well as a direct response to, and critique of, Podkayne. (On a side note, Emergence is another in the thirteen-year-old-girl-genius subgenre, and complements the other two in some interesting ways, but doesn't directly critique the others.)

* Great answer, kirkjerk! That should've been the first thing I thought of; I think of it as kind of the canonical instance of this kind of thing.

* Although it's true that "Think Like a Dinosaur" was partly a response to "The Cold Equations," it was also partly a response to Star Trek's transporters.

* And for that matter, as I noted to Sumana in our offline discussion of this stuff, "The Cold Equations" itself (along with, btw, its predecessors) is a response to various tropes and approaches that most sf up to that point had used, though not to a specific story. But I guess there are an awful lot of stories that present "this is how things always happens in stories but it's not very plausible; here's what would really happen" kinds of scenarios, without being responses to a specific story (cf also metafantasy like The Last Unicorn), so maybe this isn't relevant to Sumana's particular question.

* Speaking of Trek, how about episodes that explicitly revisit old episodes, like the DS9 tribble episode? I don't recall whether that had any philosophical disagreements or was just for fun, though.

* Rumor has it that Deed of Paksenarrion was partly a response to Moon being told about how a paladin had been played in a D&D game.

* Illuminatus! prominently features a scathing parody of Rand and of Atlas Shrugged, but I guess I can't quite say that the trilogy was specifically a response to Rand.

* Le Guin's "Coming of Age in Karhide" is arguably a response to her own Left Hand of Darkness; perhaps more a more-nuanced revisiting than a disagreement per se, though.

* Dan: Interesting re 1984 vs "Stories for Men"; I think I thought of the latter as partly a response to Varley's Eight Worlds work (by way of Fight Club, of course). But I may be misremembering. ...Which obliquely reminds me to mention Triton vs Steel Beach, although that's going really far afield from what Sumana was asking about.

I feel like I'm missing some huge major obvious example, but a quick skim through my bookcases isn't turning anything up. It's possible that I'm just thinking of the general notion sf builds on other sf (not to mention on folktales), that we take tropes and ideas and we rework them and we look at them from different angles,

Or maybe I'm just thinking of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which also isn't really the same thing you're asking about.<br/>