July 10, 2015
To Entertain, to Instruct, or Something In-between
When comparing the styles associated with the different visions/scenarios of the future, specifically that of alien contact stories and utopias, one is generally seen as more about entertainment while the other is considered more instructional or thought provoking. However, both alien contact stories and stories that focus on utopias can be a combination of both entertainment and instruction as I discovered while reading the short stories assigned for the second half of the class.
Alien contact stories typically are set either on Earth where aliens are invading, or in outer space and deal with exploration. These works also tend to fall into the romance narrative category and more often than not feature male protagonists who are superior to others when it comes to physical fitness, intellect, and skills, and are not afraid of anything. The protagonists in these stories are often similar to “the heroic cowboy on the western frontier” (Alien contact page), and will almost always live to the end of the story. It is because of these typically standard concepts within the alien contact scenario that the works are “perennially the most popular theme of standard science fiction” (Alien contact page) and seen as more for entertainment than intellectual.
Stories that focus more on utopias, specifically ecotopias generally feature very different types of characters compared to alien contact stories. A great example of how different utopian characters are described is within “Chocco” which features characters that are labeled more by their job title than individual or personal names. “Most utopian citizens fade into the system's background, or appear more as functions or officials within the community rather than the individualized, conflicted selves” (Utopia page) compared to alien contact stories that tend to focus more on the individual. Alien contact stories or space exploration works further distance themselves from Utopias when they feature dystopia or apocalyptic like settings and don’t focus on more than the lifetime of the individual protagonist or even just one day compared to utopia/ecotopia works that focuses on sustainability and long term goals. Utopia/ecotopia concepts can feature post-apocalyptic or dystopian worlds the way that The Parable of the Sower did, but Lauren’s idea of Acorn fits within the long term ecotopia mold of hope for the future.
Ideally a work should both entertain and instruct, however most works do not have a perfect balance of the two. Sometimes a work can be disguised as entertainment when it is much more instructional or thought provoking than you might notice with just a quick glance. This is the case with the alien contact story, or really the lack of contact, within “They’re Made out of Meat”. Almost everyone in class seemed to really like this story and thought it was funny and thus entertaining, but like good science fiction it makes the reader really think about what we are and what an alien might see us as. “The Poplar Street Study” with its invasion of scientist aliens who wish to study humans also features both entertainment and instruction. The story had some rather funny moments and got a large part of the class to talk about the idea of humans being treated the way that humans generally have treated animals (or those we have thought of as lesser at the time). This ties back to the idea of how alien contact movies can sometimes feature actions by aliens that are similar to actions associated with colonialism, making alien contact stories possible commentary on what it means to be human and the consequences of our actions.
Works that focus on Utopias/ecotopias can also be forms of commentary; however, these stories tend to focus less on the entertainment factor, possibly because they tend to lack the large conflicts involved in dystopia literature which make a work more exciting. “Chocco” for example, while there is at least some mystery because it involves a contest, is much more instructional or thought provoking than entertaining. The other ecotopia that we read “House of Bones” featured a common utopia plot device by having an outsider come into the community and after “experience with utopian guides or citizens, the visitor-hero is subsequently re-educated and converted or absorbed into the community“ (Utopia page). While the narrator likes the community he is in, he does not fully understand them. Once he realizes that they did not want him to kill the Neanderthal, he can be fully accepting of them and they can fully accept him into their community. On the day that Hannah Wells came to present we discussed how ecotopias, like “Chocco” can be difficult to read due to their lack of entertainment, but these works can bring up ideas that are very thought-provoking. Ecotopias lack of action and large amount of dialogue sometimes with the Socratic Method built into the story can make for slow reading but great classroom discussion if you can only get the class to actually do the reading. Hannah Wells also discussed during her presentation other utopias and why dystopias are so much more likely to be accepted as teaching material. Utopias can be seen as communist or socialist because they focus less on individual freedoms and emphasize the importance of the whole community which is threatening to many Americans making Utopias even more difficult to teach.
For the most part alien contact scenarios can be more entertaining than instructional while utopia/ecotopia scenarios can be more instructional than entertaining. However it is important to recognize that works can be both entertaining and instructional, and not to discount the possibility of an entertaining work to be educational or an educational work being entertaining. After all, “the purpose of literature is "to entertain and educate"--distinct but not exclusive purposes” (Horace page).