Saturday, April 6, 2013

Science Fiction comes of age...sort of

Speaking as a writer primarily of science fiction, I can speak for many SF fans in lamenting the fact the genre really took a nose-dive after the national tragedy of 9/11.  Science fiction is the genre of starry-eyed dreamers, those who like to hope, to dream of distant horizons and unexplored frontiers.  As our society passed through a dark period of paranoid fear and cynicism, the hope for brighter tomorrows and brave new worlds that fueled that kind of science fiction petered out.  During that period, the only sci-fi films we saw were mindless military blow-em-ups in  which a brave, stalwart, and of course gun-crazed humanity took on purely evil invading aliens and prevailed by sheer violence.

But now, it seems, that dark chapter is coming to an end.  American sci-fi is growing up a bit.  The period of boys and their toy soldiers is giving way to blossoming adolescence.  Stephanie Meyer of "Twilight" fame gives us another film adaptation of her work which many hope will be the novelist's next great franchise.  I refer to "The Host" a very off-beat kind of science fiction which combines the sci-fi concept of extraterrestrial invasion with young romance.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic near future in which parasitic alien beings have successfully taken over the earth and possessed the bodies of nearly every human being in what was our world.  Not as bad as it sounds.  In many ways, the new Earth is Utopia.  No war, crime or pollution.  Everybody is polite and helpful and everyone gets what they need for free (food, medicine, housing, transportation, etc.)  Yes, a benign socialist dictatorship complete with universal healthcare.  Naturally, there's a small and often vicious human resistance which will stop at nothing to take Earth back from its insufferably goody-goody alien overlords and bring back the joys of war, crime and pollution.  (Any of this sound familiar?)  The heroine, Melanie Stryder is a rebellious, take-no-prisoners southern teen whose dad committed suicide rather than surrender to alien possession, leaving Melanie to fend for herself and her younger brother Jamie.  Mel and Jamie are separated and Mel follows in dear old dad's footsteps by trying to off herself to escape alien capture.  She is saved against her will by alien medicine and becomes the involuntary host to an alien parasite known only as the Wanderer.

The struggle in Mel's head between her and her unwanted mental boarder is a metaphor for a struggle we all face in trying to make moral and personal decisions, having long and bitter arguments with ourselves, two opposing voices screaming in one over-crowded mind.  The religious metaphors get pretty obvious at times.  The alien invaders are called souls.  They're not slimey, icky leech-like parasites.  Rather, they're beautiful, fragile creatures of pure light, with a thousand exquisitely delicate probing feelers, intricate as snowflakes and just as perishable.  (Far too good for the likes of us.)  The symbolic struggle between the higher, nobler spiritual will and the more base animal instincts of humanity is ever-present.  Melanie and the Wanderer start out as bitter enemies fighting for control of the same body.  But, Melanie's shared memories of loved ones lost kindle the Wanderer's compassion, and they soon (far too soon in my opinion) become unlikely allies in an ill-fated road trip which takes them to what may be the last pocket of un-possessed humans.  The resistance compound ruled by the grim, enigmatic, shotgun-toting yet oddly gentle Uncle Jeb is in some ways cliched; hearty, stoic farm folk who look like a cross between the Amish, David Koresh's cult and the Children of the Corn.  But, the vision of Man's last haven is also strange and beautiful.  From a vast, underground hydroponic wheat field nourished by a brilliant assembly of solar mirrors to a dark cave which comes alive with bio-luminescent worms which appear like beautiful constellations.

The resistance has to decide whether to kill their now-possessed long-lost daughter, or try to reach her, if they can find the faith to believe she's still alive inside her now alien-controlled body.  And, can they find common ground with the Wanderer, whom they come to name "Wanda" for short.  Things get very complicated.  Melanie's boyfriend Jared is there, trying to reach that part of her that's still Mel.  Another boy, Ian is falling in love with the part of her that's Wanda.   Yup.  Two boys fighting over two girls fighting over the same body.  (Yeah, I can see the T-shirts now; Are you "Team Jared," or "Team Ian"?  "Team Mel" or "Team Wanda"?)  Meyer's male leads are, as always, Ken-doll hunks and ever-so-gentlemanly.  The schizophrenic heroine is effectively played by Saoirse Ronan, whose anguished, expressive visage and big, sad, penetrating eyes carry the eerie blue contact lenses of mock alien possession marvelously.  The talented young actress has played many strange characters.  (My personal favorite was Hanna, the genetically engineered homicidal outcast in the 2011 film of the same name.)

The metaphors of teenage first love for which Meyer is famous come through loud and clear with Mel's voice screaming inside Wanda's head as she's kissing one or the other of the two handsome suitors:  "What are you doing?  Stop!"  Mel and Wanda seem to take turns being each other's conscience.  In one scene, a real scary bad boy tries to kill her/them and ends up falling into an underground river.  Mel wants to let him die, but Wanda insists on saving him.  When Jamie is mortally wounded and dying, Wanda betrays her people and risks her life to save him with alien medicine.  Wanda is shaken, her blossoming sisterly bond with Mel almost severed when she discovers the dark secret of the resistance:  a kind of nightmarish abortion clinic where alien parasites are forcibly removed from their human hosts and killed.  "Well, what did you expect?" Uncle Jeb asks Wanda in his sad, mournful way.  "We're dying out.  We just want our people back."  She teaches him that violence is not the answer.  The only way to remove the souls without killing their hosts, it turns out, is to coax them out with love.  The scene where she holds a newly removed soul in her hands and gives it to Ian is the scene which confirms their all-conquering inter-species love.  Wanda teaches the humans to forgive and let their alien enemy move on to another world.  The tear-jerking finale is perhaps a bit overdone, awash in Meyer-esque sentimentality.  The surprise ending is perhaps a bit too easy an answer, but it gets the desired audience reaction.

Yes, it's a very atypical kind of sci-fi for our times.  And, very timely.  It can be viewed both at the personal level and the cultural/spiritual/political one.  It's a story of war, but neither side is truly evil.  The core values of the two sides just seem hopelessly irreconcilable.  The world is like the heroine:  divided between two opposing wills that have to find a way to coexist.  As the humans find themselves divided and at each other's throats over how to deal with the changing world, the aliens are horrified as they begin to become corrupted by their human hosts, becoming increasingly violent in fighting the resistance.  In a time in which our society seems hopelessly divided and longing for healing and reconciliation, this story takes the position that love is the answer.  Too easy an answer, perhaps, but it strikes the right chord at the right time.  The story closes with eyes turned up at the stars and closing credits running against a beautiful panorama of brightly-colored nebulae and galactic spirals.  At last, the hope of youth has returned to science fiction.  And, through the vehicle of romance; an interesting fusion of genres that takes sci-fi into the second decade of the 21st century, making it more accessible to a new generation.

Mocha Memoirs Press is a good place to look if you're in the market for paranormal romance.  It may well be the genre of the future, and Mocha presents a lot of very interesting angles on it from many fine authors.  If you'd like to check out my personal take on sci-fi (maybe leaning more to the comical than the romantic, but with elements of both) try my Mocha Memoirs release, "Long Haul."

- Tom Olbert

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