Friday, 30 October 2015

A conversation about Science Fiction and Gothic Literature

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra and Witches’ Stones Series

October 28, 2015 Garneau Pub, Edmonton, Alberta

Part Twenty-Two –Science Fiction and Gothic

Question – Last time we talked about “How evil should your villain be?”.  With Halloween almost upon us, it might be interesting to discuss the how Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gothic (Horror) interrelate.  What do you think is a good example of a Science Fiction/Gothic crossover, assuming that such a beast exists.

Answer – The obvious classic example is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  The story about creating a live creature by animating dead flesh has both Science Fiction elements and Gothic elements, in as much as it uses the imagery of science (e.g. laboratories, electrical devices, a learned main character), but also the imagery of the Gothic (e.g. castles, a gloomy atmosphere, religious overtones, a general sense of dread and decay).

Question – So, basically the tropes of what might be called Victorian Gothic.

Answer – Yes, but interestingly enough, the book’s concluding chapters lead to the Arctic icefields.  At the time that Shelly wrote the book (1820s I think),  little was known about the Arctic and less about the Antarctic.

Question – For all they knew, ants lived in the Antarctic.

Question – Um, sure.  But the section of the book set in the Arctic, can quite reasonably be thought of as incorporating more of the American Gothic motif.  She wrote Frankenstein well before Edgar Allen Poe was published (1830s), so she could be considered ahead of her time in that respect as well.

Question – I might just note for the sake of some blog readers, that the Hollywood version of Frankenstein differs quite substantially from Mary Shelley’s book.  But in some senses, it is the story that most people know better.  So, feel free to call up memories of the book or the movie, as the case may be – they both have legitimate claims on being “the story”, in the popular mind.

What aspects of Frankenstein do you consider American Gothic?

Answer – Well, having recently studied the wiki entry on this, I would say that one key difference between the two sub-genres is that American Gothic often places its characters in raw nature, such as Shelly placed Dr. Frankenstein and his monster at the end of the book.  That differs from Victorian or German Gothic, which tends to be set in castles, abbeys, or other old, threatening, decaying buildings.  But the overall sense of dread and foreboding is common to both.

Question – And what aspects of Frankenstein do you consider Science Fiction?

Answer – Obviously, putting a creature together from human parts, then animating it with electricity, was a very “current” scientific idea of the time (excuse the pun).  But it can also be thought of as a scientized way of conjuring a spirit.  And the very fact that the main character, Victor Frankenstein is a young science student, is a standard trope of Science Fiction. But he can also be paralleled with the Gothic genre’s “religious figure gone wrong”.  So, Frankenstein can be thought of as classic Science Fiction, in as much as it made use of scientific knowledge and speculation of the day, but pushed that to a logical extreme, which infuses it with Gothic elements.  You can read the story either way.

Question – As you say, the idea of animating dead flesh with electricity was very much on the minds of scientists of the day.  It wasn’t that long after Galvani’s experiments, where he made the muscles of dead frogs twitch via stimulating them with electricity. But, as we know, re-animating the dead is now considered extremely unlikely, other than perhaps the paddles used to resuscitate heart attack victims.  But who knows what the future holds – there are a few bodies in cryogenic chambers, put there on the assumption that science will one day crack that nut.

What other Gothic have you read?

Answer – I have to admit, Gothic and Horror are not really my thing.  But I have read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and various pulp fiction type Gothic books as a kid.  Some Stephen King.  Harry Potter, if you want to consider that Gothic.  You have to like scaring yourself to really enjoy Gothic, and that’s not to everyone’s taste.

Question – I have seen you jump at the scary scenes of an X-files or Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, so I can attest to the fact that you scare pretty easily, at least while engrossed in a television show.

Answer – I suppose that’s part and parcel of being a certain type of writer.  I think a fairly strong sense of empathy is needed to create fully rounded characters.  You share their emotions as you create them, so it’s not surprising when you can also get caught up in the plight of movie or TV characters in peril.

Question – Even though you are not a big fan of Gothic, I think you have incorporated some of the tropes of the genre in your own work.  For example, the character Chrush, in Kati of Terra Book 3, is pretty Gothic.  He wants to prolong his life at the expense of others, as many characters in Gothic literature have, the obvious example being the vampire sub-genre.

Answer – That’s true, though Chrush does get his comeuppances.

Question – As did Dracula.  You also use some of the atmospheric imagery of the Gothic genre in Kati of Terra.

Answer – I suppose the Citadel in Kati 3, and the prison cellars in Kati 2, would qualify in that way.  And Kati’s having to traverse River City’s sewer system at night in Kati 1 is also kind of Gothic.

Question – And you used a fair bit of religious imagery in Kati 1 – for example, The Children of the Survivors, The Temple of the Morning Star of the Spring Equinox, the Temple District in River City.  Those are all pretty Gothic.

Answer – I suppose, though I was thinking that after a planet went through an environmental catastrophe, as the Drowned Planet did, a lot of religious movements would naturally spring up.  So, I wasn’t really intending it to come off as Gothic, though as you say, there are connections.

Question – So, all things considered, did you consciously use Gothic archetypes in your Science Fiction?  Or did it just happen?

 Answer – I would say that I didn’t set out to include Gothic elements, but one is a captive of one’s culture, so you can end up using these things unconsciously. 

Question – Just to close off, let me ask you about your short story “Beyond the Blue Door”.  That seems like very much a classical “American Gothic” story.

Answer – Yes, in fact my working title as I wrote it was “Northern Gothic”.  But that seemed a bit too general, so it was changed.  At any rate, it was a writer’s experiment.  Sometimes you want to dabble a bit, try out different ideas and explore other themes.  You might have an idea or an emotional context that you want to experiment with, and it might not be a good fit for your usual genre.  So, you stretch yourself a bit, and write in a different genre.

That’s the nice thing about the short story – you can do that, without investing the time and intellectual resources of the full-length novel.  If it works, you can attempt to incorporate similar ideas into your usual genre.  Or, you can pivot to a different genre, at least for a while.  It helps keep you fresh, or at least you hope it does.

Question – “Beyond the Blue Door” concludes without solving the mystery, exactly.  What do you think about that.

Answer - Often in Science Fiction, there is the tendency to explain away the mystery, via advanced technology.  That has its place, certainly.  It can be fun and intellectually satisfying. 
But in some ways, it is best to be like “Beyond the Blue Door”.  You have to leave the issue open.  Otherwise, you cheat the reader out of the mystery.

Question  - And some questions can have no conclusive answer, no explanation can be satisfying enough.

Answer – Just so.  Sometimes you don’t want or need closure.  You want to leave it up to the reader’s imagination to find their own closure.

Question – As always, it is up to the reader.  And that seems like a good place to stop, shortly before Halloween.

And here are links to some of Helena’s books that were mentioned in the conversation:

Kati of Terra, Book 1, Escape from the Drowned Planet  (where we meet the evil slaver Gorsh and his associates):
Kati of Terra, Book 2, On Assignment to the Planet of the Exalted (wherein a whole planet's elite has become corrupt and evil, with the help of Gorsh):
Kati of Terra, Book 3, Showdown on the Planet of the Slavers (Gorsh, and his yet more evil ally Chrush):

Beyond the Blue Door (free on Amazon for Halloween): 

And speaking of Frankenstein, here is an XKCD comic on that very subject.


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