Sometimes the path toward science fiction is paved with the familiar. Newcomers to the genre sometimes find sci fi more accessible if the stories are ones that they've heard before. That's the idea behind science-fictional retellings—stories that are retold using the tropes of science fiction.
Read the last week's SF Signal on eight author biographies.
To my mind, this is different than the idea behind the current trend of genre mashup novels that mix classic novels with genre themes. Genre mashups generally don't take themselves too seriously, and they are more blatant about their associations with their source material. For example, the mashup that started it all—Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith's version of Jane Austen's classic novel—uses the same time period and same characters and throws zombies in to see what would happen. Science-Fictional Retellings seem to be cut from a different cloth. Their stories are more divorced from the specifics of the original yet closely mimic the plot.
Here are some examples...
"GULLY FOYLE IS MY NAME…"
Consider The Stars My Destination (originally published as Tiger! Tiger!) by Alfred Bester. It's about a man named Gully Foyle, sole survivor of an attack on the spaceship Nomad. Alone in space for six months, salvaging what he can to survive, Foyle has all but given up hope that he will be rescued…until the spaceship Vorga is detected nearby. Foyle signals the Vorga for a rescue but they intentionally leave him to die. This instills an intense rage in Foyle, now bent on revenge against the crew of the Vorga. With renewed determination, Foyle manages to escape the Nomad and embark on his new mission of revenge.
The specific details of this plot description may not ring any literary bells, but if you skim the surface you will see a familiar story. The Stars My Destination is a futuristic retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, a story about a man unjustly imprisoned who later seeks revenge on his false accusers.
"BE OUR GUEST"
Catherine Asaro is perhaps best known for her Saga of the Skolian Empire stories, a vast milieu that is home to several novels and stories. One of her Skolian Empire books, The Quantum Rose takes place on the planet Balumil, whose inhabitants are genetically engineered to be perfect slaves. Kamoj, the governor of the impoverished Argali province, is contractually betrothed of Jax Ironbridge, the governor of a well-to-do neighboring province. Since the agreement to merge the provinces will benefit Argali, Kamoj accepts her duty even though she doesn't love Jax. But along comes Havyrl Lionstar, an exiled prince from off-world who offers to help the destitute province. Kamoj is forced to accept Lionstar's assistance by tradition despite the mysterious stranger's otherworldly origins and the fact that his face is hidden by a mask. Ultimately, Lionstar forces Kamoj to marry him.
Sound familiar? Parts of it should. The Quantum Rose has been called a science-fictional version of the folktale Beauty and the Beast, only instead of the protagonist Belle saving her father from a beastly prince, Kamoj saves her province.
"BE NOT AFEARD. THE ISLE IS FULL OF NOISES"
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer takes place in the retro-future of an alternate 1900s, specifically Xeroville, a city with a sky filled with airships and streets packed with mechanical marvels. The story concerns a mild-mannered greeting-card writer named Harold Winslow who becomes the unwitting prisoner on the airship Chrysalis thanks to the machinations of Prosepro Taligent. Prosepro is an evil genius, now residing on board the Chrysalis in a cryogenic suspension chamber. While mechanical men take care of the ship's day-to-day necessities, Harold is essentially alone. His only source of human companionship is the woman he loves, Prosepero's daughter Miranda, who Harold never meets but hears through the speaker system that runs through the airship. Harold strives to find Miranda, save them both from imprisonment and escape the clutches of Prospero.
The parallels to source material might be easier to guess here since some of the names remain the same. Did you recognize Shakespeare's play The Tempest?
TELL ME AGAIN
The difference between mashups and retellings is one of execution. Mashup writers take the source material and make it look like science fiction, fantasy or horror. Authors who retell stories tend to use the source material as a template for telling their own stories.
If you like the idea of science-fictional retellings, some additional reading suggestions include
- Port Eternity by C.J. Cherry's—a science-fictional version of the legends of King Arthur.
- Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg—a retelling of the American Revolution set on a distant planet.
- Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick—a retelling of the Faust legend with modern science and technology.
- All Men of Genius by Lev AC Rosen—a story that is part Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.
Can you think of any other science-fictional retellings?
John DeNardo is the editor of SF Signal, a group science-fiction and fantasy blog featuring news, reviews and interviews.