Category: Science Fiction

The Admirable Crichton: One of the Most Influential and Unknown Stories of Science Fiction History

The Admirable Crichton: One of the Most Influential and Unknown Stories of Science Fiction History

robots_crichton2The name Crichton pops up in science fiction over and over again. From the irritable know it all robot in Buck Rogers, to the robot butler in Red Dwarf, and again as the lone human surrounded by a universe of aliens in Farscape. Why are all these characters named Crichton and what do they all have in common?

In 1902 J.M. Barrie (yes the same J.M. Barrie who created Peter Pan) penned a short comedy about a butler named Crichton modeled on the real life Scotsman James Crichton who was himself a genius in several disciplines at once (a polymath). In the play Crichton is shipwrecked on a desert island with his employers and quickly proves more capable than those who would profess to be his betters. He is so capable that he becomes the leader of the group of castaways. His knowledge is also so complete and efficient that he turns the desert island into a small self-sufficient colony. On being discovered by the outside world Crichton once again returns to the life of a butler and those whom he saved on the island take credit for everything that Crichton accomplished.

The play itself is in no way science fiction and does not have the fantasy elements of Barrie’s other works. The purpose of the play was to serve as a critique of British society and the class system. Barrie wanted to show that the lower classes could be, and quite possibly were, more level headed and capable of ingenuity than the vaulted upper crust. Barrie had also considered ending the play with Crichton marrying the daughter of his employers. That ending would have stretched even his ability to poke fun at the stifling class system and it was not used for fear of causing an uproar. Little did Barrie know that he would be creating a literary meme that has popped up over and over again in both literature and film. This play has reached  across the entire panoply of literature and it has often found a fertile home for itself in science fiction. It is a perfect match for a genre in which ideas of class, and race are often explored in a fictional milieu.

This site probably owes its name to the meme Barrie created. The Freehold was named after Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold. In Farnham’s Freehold the African American servant Joseph not only prove himself the equal to his employers he goes on to save them time and again throughout the novel. Heinlein’s novel shares many characteristics with the Barrie play and while there is no overt proof that the two are linked, such as the name Crichton, Heinlein often utilized classical literary references in his work.

The most obvious references to The Admirable Crichton all occur in television serial science fiction. The Crichton robot in Buck Rogers, the Kryten robot in Red Dwarf, and the human character in Farscape were all named after the lead character of Barrie’s play and all have one or more traits of that character. In all three of these shows Crichton acts as a repository of knowledge and information.

Crichton in the Buck Rogers serial is the least like the Crichton from the play but still retains certain aspects of the character. This Crichton considers himself above his human masters. Refusing to acknowledge that such lowly beings could have created him. While he retains the knowledge of the play’s title character, and his ability to save the crew from certain death from time to time, this Crichton lacks any amount of humility and serves only because he is programmed to do so.

The other two Crichtons are much more in line with Barrie’s creation. The Kryten robot in Red Dwarf is the closest. He is a mechanical butler who has been shipwrecked, has vast amounts of knowledge, and who saves the crew of the Dwarf with his ingenuity. Kryten is far more capable than anyone else on the crew and is only held back by his programming from becoming the defacto leader. He is also constantly encouraged by his fellow crew mate Lister to act beyond this programming. It is very likely the fact that this show is British that it comes so close to the original idea. The idea of class struggle has become a common trope on British television.

The latest version  of Crichton comes in the form of John Crichton of the television show Farscape. At first glance this version does not seem to match the Barrie play. John Crichton is a scientist, and an astronaut. He does not seem to meet the classic idea of the servant who finds himself preforming above the abilities of his betters. However, once you scratch the surface it comes closer philosophically to the original play than either of the other two television iterations. The best example of this is the episode “Crackers Don’t Matter”.


In this episode the show explores the idea that all the aliens consider themselves superior to John Crichton. It is constantly reenforced on the show that Crichton is a barbarian from a technologically primitive society. The reality of the situation is that, while Crichton may not have the luxury of coming from a society with advanced technology, he is willing to learn how that technology works. His alien adversaries and friends take this technology for granted and don’t understand the first thing about how it actually functions. Crichton soon understands their technology better than the aliens and uses this knowledge to his advantage.  John Crichton stranded millions of light years from home turns the tables on those who profess to be his betters. An exploration of class, race, and culture that rivals and even surpasses Barrie’s original work.

The Poet as Prophet: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as Post-Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction

The Poet as Prophet: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as Post-Apocalyptic Speculative Fiction

T.S. Eliot

 

There are so many distinct levels in The Waste Land that this short essay will not even begin to touch the surface of the work. The Waste Land goes beyond simple poetry and reaches into story telling in a way that is both poetic, prose, and song all at once and with many voices telling many stories that coalesce into one single overarching narrative. The Waste Land tells the story of a world that has lost it’s innocence and spirituality. Moving from prophetic warnings  of utter desolation, to a world of barbarism and war. The spirits of  dead warriors return to the desolate destroyed city of London seeking to speak to the living. It is a poem of the loss of spiritual and physical reality. It can also be seen as one of the finest examples of post-apocalyptic literature.

To understand Eliot’s work in terms of speculative fiction we must look at his influences as a poet.  In many ways Eliot builds on the legacy of Mathew Arnold. Arnold’s poetry is considered in some corners the first of the modern poets. His work delved into classical Greek and Roman ideas putting them into a Victorian and early modern. His work combined these classic elements with more fantastical  ad dark elements creating such works as The Forsaken Mermaid and Dover Beach. Dover Beach with its dark prophetic themes and apocalyptic nature could almost be a  prequel to Eliot’s later work. The poem’s theme even inspired Ray Bradbury and appears in his novel Fahrenheit 451.

Arnold, who died in the same year Eliot was born, is seen generally as one of the progenitors of Eliot, but Eliot adamantly disagreed, “[W]hile Mr. Eliot assumes the same general position as Arnold in criticism; he will own no connection with him.” (Loring 479). Eliot admitted no connection between their work but he stated that he understood “deeply” what Arnold was saying as a poet. Arnold stressed in his poetry that man should look inward for meaning between nature and spirituality. His work is introspective and contemplative. Arnold considered himself the concluding poet of his own age the last of the romantics. Eliot seems to have picked up the torch where Arnold dropped it, building on Arnold’s dark romanticism and creating a modernist approach from it. Eliot’s approach was to seek out the introspective nature of man and draw it out. For example we can look at the second section of  “The Waste Land”. Here Eliot seems to be trying to draw out that inner contemplative world into the open. “What are you thinking of? What Thinking? What?” (Di Yanni 458). This drawing out of the inner world is especially evident in the section of the poem which describes the prophetic tarot reading. Eliot exposes the innermost self to the world transcending the romantic poetry of Arnold and the Victorian period. He creates a new canvas for poetry and uses that to explore a dark future.

Another author and thinker upon whom Eliot drew inspiration is  Alfred North Whitehead. Whitehead was particularly important when looking at ideas of metaphysical and physical balance in Eliot’s poem. Where Matthew Arnold was introspective and contemplating of self in his poetry, Whiteheads work concentrated on the conflict between the physical world and on the spiritual world. Whitehead was a philosopher rather than a poet, a contemporary of Eliot. His work was highly influential in Eliot’s day and may have helped solidify the spiritual and scientific aspects of Eliot’s work. Whitehead also pioneered a philosophy that postulated the world must give up science and embrace spirituality. Whitehead stated that we must find, “an end of the dominance of scientism and materialistic naturalism, and the beginning of the re-construction of a livable and believable world out of the fragments” (Waggoneer 101). This was also the theme that Eliot was attempting to explore in The Waste Land. Mankind had embraced physics and science and with that emphasis on the material world he has lost his soul. These same themes can be found throughout modern post-apocalyptic literature. David Brin for instance expresses almost the exact same sentiment at the beginning of The PostMan.

      The Waste Land is a multi-layered narrative that defies easy classification. Is it a poem about a spiritual wasting away of the human spirit, or is it about the wasting away of our physical existence, or could it be both at once? I believe that it is both and neither. I think it defies those simple classifications and is a creature all on its own. It transcends the inner contemplative work of Arnold and embraces the ideas of the new modern “god” and new metaphysical reality envisioned by Whitehead. Here is a poem that is truly modern in scope and essence. The Waste Land exposes the duality of modern man set adrift in a world beset by the physical on one side and seeking meaning in the metaphysical on another.  In embracing this duality Eliot uses it to speculate on the fate of man. He asks the question have we lost our souls while embracing science and materialism? Questions like these are at the very heart of speculative fiction. Eliot gives mankind a choice, he must find a balance between the spiritual and the scientific or forever be lost in the apocalyptic wasteland.

Works Cited

 

 

DiYanni, Robert. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994. Print.

Hyatt Howe Waggoner. T. S. Eliot and the Hollow Men American Literature , Vol. 15, No. 2 (May, 1943), pp. 101-126. JSTOR. Web.

M. L. S. Loring. T.S. Eliot on Mathew Arnold, The Sewanee Review Vol. 43, No. 4 , pp. 479-488. December 3, 2012. JSTOR. Web.

 

The Girl Adventurer Comes of Age: Heinlein, Feminism, and the Juvenile Novel

The Girl Adventurer Comes of Age: Heinlein, Feminism, and the Juvenile Novel

 

In the early days of science fiction the genre was almost entirely the domain of male heroes. While female characters existed in science fiction they were generally the love interest of the hero, his mother, or a convenient damsel in distress. There are a few notable exceptions. Wilma Deering in Philip Francis Nowlan‘s 1929 novel Armageddon 2419 A.D is a capable and commanding female character. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Dale Arden in Alex Raymond‘s Flash Gordon. These women were momentary aberrations in science fiction and even they were soon to be relegated to the damsel in distress and love interest roles in later publications. A handful of other female characters exist that would challenge the traditional roles, but no science fiction author wrote consistently strong females into his work until Robert Heinlein. This is especially true of the juvenile market. One would be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel marketed for teens produced before the middle 1960s with a strong female character…..except for those of Heinlein.

Heinlein began writing his juvenile novels in 1947 for Scribner. In all he wrote twelve of these novels most all of them centering on a precocious young boy at odds with an often violent but fascinating universe. In that time Heinlein changed the juvenile adventure novel forever and in many ways he changed the face of science fiction as well.

Heinlein added a new dimension to science fiction stories. Before him the female character had a very specific and submissive role. That would not be the case with Heinlein. Heinlein’s female characters were equal to any male character. In a scene from the Heinlein juvenile novel Tunnel in the Sky, Rod Walker a young boy about to embark on his adventure is given advice from his older sister. The advice is about survival on an alien planet and she gifts him her favorite knife  “Lady Macbeth” and tells him not to be overconfident or it could get him killed. Not only is her advice sound, it comes from authority. She is a soldier and the equal of any man who may be giving this type of advice. Further into the book we find Rod teaming up with girls from his survival class. Not only do they not need saving, they are more prepared than Rod or any of the boys who have been sent to survival training. This is a revolution in story telling for young boys. Here is a novel aimed at the tween/teen demographic that not only shows that some girls are better and smarter than boys  it also includes veiled sexual situations with powerful females that are more than the traditional platonic friendships. This book was published in 1955 in the same year Tom Swift had still never held hands with his love interest, the Hardy boys barely spoke more than a sentence in each novel to theirs, and Biggles the main British juvenile hero was left wondering if he even liked girls. Love interest or not Heinlein had grabbed the juvenile market and injected females and feminism into the mix.

Heinlein not only introduces us to interesting and engaging female characters he goes deep into sociological explorations of female centric cultures. These are not the sex crazed Martian women of so many 1950’s science fiction movies but examination of living cultures. According to C.W. Sullivan in his article Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years he states,  Space Cadet is important because it contains the first of Heinlein’s interesting aliens, the Venerian natives. All of the Venerians with whom Matt and his friends come in contact are females. The group is headed by a female, the “mother,” and the others are her “daughters.” Matt finds himself being referred to as a “daughter” and his superior, Lt. Thurlow, referred to as his “mother.” (Sullivan 65)  here Heinlein is at his best as the anthropological storyteller leading his youthful charges in a National Geographic tour of the solar system. Introducing young boys to concepts that they would have never experienced until they were in college in 1950’s America. Heinlein had leaped light years ahead of the other children’s literature that was being published at the time. According to Marrietta Frank, “Although the females portrayed in Heinlein’s juveniles break the stereotypical roles most females were assigned in science fiction stories, especially stories of the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Heinlein is all but ignored by feminist science fiction critics.” (Frank 119)

There was one thing Heinlein had yet to do and it was not until 1963 that he published what would be one of the most important pieces of science fiction in feminism. With the publication of Podkayne of Mars Heinlein accomplished something that no one had done before, he gave juvenile science fiction it’s first girl centered adventure novel. Podkayne is written in the boy adventure novel vein but instead of the typical teen boy here we have a typical teen girl as hero. This should be a landmark in feminism and in children’s literature. Frank suggests that feminists dismiss Podkayne and all Heinlein’s juvenile work because in the novels  some of the female characters disregard feminism and seek very traditional gender roles. Podkayne for instance has trouble deciding whether to be a space pilot or a mother. “In Heinlein’s juveniles, readers will find examples of female characters in traditional females roles. Heinlein also peoples his juveniles with strong female characters, often in untraditional female roles. Because Heinlein chose to show females in both types of roles, Heinlein’s juveniles reflect today’s society, even though he began writing them more than fifty years ago” (Frank 130). Regardless of the dismissal by feminists themselves, Heinlein’s work is the culmination of feminism in juvenile fiction.

You would be hard pressed today to find a juvenile adventure novel without a strong female character. You may be hard pressed to find a boy adventure novel marketed solely to the male audience. The genre has begun to fade as juvenile fiction begins to blend male and female characters together. This is legacy of Heinlein. His novels began the integration of the strong male and female protagonists and led to the combination of male and female gender roles in boy and girl adventure fiction. Would a Hermione Granger exist without the influence of the genius girl child Podkayne? Would Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials have as it’s protagonist the plucky little girl that went up against the religious establishment of her entire world without the confident and intelligent female colonists in Tunnel in the Sky? It is hard to say, but the Heinlein juveniles did change how people looked at females in  male dominated adventure literature. Children who grew up reading those books did take away something from them.  That something has helped create our current literary world. From the sailing ships of the Victorian period and the boys who jumped a ship, were shanghaied, and were washed onto deserted islands to massive starships of the future cruising through the solar system the male/female dynamic continues to be illustrated through the literature of our youth.  Over the past hundred years in boy adventure fiction women have slowly climbed out of their traditional roles from mother and love interest all the way to equal partners. Sometimes they are even more than equal in the adventures that boys read and take to heart. While the prejudices of the past are never gone completely the time of the women who knows “her place” is over… Long live the strong, intelligent, adventurer.

 

Heinlein wrote something in his novel Tunnel in the Sky that sums up his belief in the power of the feminine…

“I’ve said this nineteen dozen times but you still don’t believe it. Man is the one animal that can’t be tamed. He goes along for years, peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat. Which goes double for the female of the species.”(Heinlein 6)

 

Works Cited:

 

C. W. Sullivan III, Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Year.
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly – Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 1985, pp. 64-66 Web 25 Nov. 2011

 

Frank, Marietta, Women in Heinlein’s Juveniles. Young Adult Science Fiction. Ed. C. W. Sullivan, III. Greenwood Press, 1999. p119-130. Web 28 Nov. 2011

 

Heinlein Robert A., Tunnel in the Sky. NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 2005 Print.