What makes it Science Fiction?
Lately, I’ve been reading some fabulous books from Rosie’s Book Review Team, and thinking about them in terms of Christopher Booker’s metaplot theory. Using Little Red Riding Hood as a metaplot here, I considered what it might look like as science fiction:
- If Granny is somewhat transparent and keeps fading in and out, but she’s still hanging around her cottage and interrupting when Little Red tries to show her occasionally furry boyfriend Wolf her goodie basket, it’s urban fantasy** and Red can only try to keep Granny under wraps until she closes the sale on the cottage.
- If bits of Granny keep breaking off and she starts to take an unhealthy interest in Red’s brainzzzzz, it’s a zombie apocalypse fantasy**, and Red has to distract Granny with Joe the Woodsman’s er…wood to save herself.
- If Granny is a hologram sent by a galactic princess to steal the evil death star plans which can only be saved if Joe and Wolf team up in a bromance with a faked love triangle involving Red, this is Hollywood SciFi and you’re probably a robot or at least a conflicted android.
- If Granny turns out to have faked her death and has come back to stop the evil global conspiracy, it’s number 237 in the Bourne Series, and really—who cares?
- If you’re actually seeing Wolf’s life as a metaphor for the hapless absurdity of modern life, it’s literary fiction**. (In which case he probably also knocks up Red and bangs your wife.)
- If Little Red and the Wolf stop in the dark forest for some interesting mushrooms they find, which leads to a shared vision of planetwide climate change danger which only their quick action (and possible supernatural/alien assistance) can avert, then it’s Fern Gully SciFi. (After Roger Ebert, who said: “I am in favor of saving the rain forests and I am appalled by their wanton destruction, but is it not true that Man is the only animal to which it has ever occurred that murder is wrong?”
If nobody pays attention when Ghost Granny joins them to bitch about the way Red and Wolf have made billions selling synthesized magic mushrooms even though they’ve had to destroy all the rainforests on the planet, it’s magic realism** and Red’s Basket of Goodies is an Ironic Reminder of something or other. (And, of course, Wolf still probably bangs your wife. So does Red.)
[**Unless Wolf’s drinking a beer, in which case it’s probably a commercial for Corona.]
For a stunning example of the merge between literary fiction and magic realism, please check out The Latecomers, Rich Marcello’s latest release and my review below.
The Latecomers by Rich Marcello
AN AGING COUPLE AND THEIR CLOSEST FRIENDS PIECE TOGETHER A LIFE-CHANGING PLAN FROM AN OTHERWORLDLY TEXT.
Maggie and Charlie Latecomer, at the beginning of the last third of their lives, love each other but are conflicted over what it means to age well in a youth-oriented society. Forced into early retirement and with grown children in distant cities, they’ve settled into a curbed routine, leaving Charlie restless and longing for more.
When the Latecomers and their friends discover a mystical book of indecipherable logographs, the corporeal world and preternatural world intertwine. They set off on a restorative journey to uncover the secrets of the book that pits them against a potent corporate foe in a struggle for the hearts and minds of woman and men the world over.
A treatise on aging, health, wisdom, and love couched in an adventure, The Latecomers will make readers question the nature of deep relationships and the fabric of modern society.
I’ve been struggling with this review. According to the blurb, The Latecomers is about—“…what it means to age well in a youth-oriented society.”
Except I don’t think it is. Or at least, that’s only the beginning.
At first, the breakdown of Maggie and Charlie Latecomer’s love story does seem like any other relationship crisis tale involving aging lovers. Both had children by earlier failed marriages, meeting when they were prosperously established in professional careers. Their twenty-year relationship has survived job loss, infidelity, and reinventing their lives as a couple sufficient unto themselves—a smaller, more private world of art and music where Maggie paints and Charlie builds custom guitars. So as Maggie prepares to celebrate Charlie’s 60th birthday, she’s stunned by his announcement that he has to leave her.
As the layers peel back on this first part of the novel, we find out more about both Charlie and Maggie. To Charlie, Maggie personifies The Goddess—actually, a variety of them. Aware of this, Maggie allows him to believe in this view of her, without ever demanding that he accept her real person. But unknown to either of them, Charlie’s goddess has a sell-by date. His world view is skewed by his mother’s death—at age 60—and he can’t see beyond that.
At the same time, Maggie’s determination to fit them into a perfect two-person unit isn’t working either, as evidenced by her inability to paint the last canvas of her Charlie series, the one she calls Charlie’s Moai. They’ve defined their relationship by the Okinawan word moai, which means (to them anyway) “…a circle of people who purposefully met up and looked out for one another.”
After reinventing herself to the limited version of Charlie’s goddesses, Maggie doesn’t know how to cope with Charlie’s departure.
But what happened after your husband no longer saw the goddesses in you…
Both Charlie and Maggie turn to old friends and new relationships. And—if the book really was going to be about the whole aging gracefully theme—we would soon realize that Maggie would always be ultimately successful, while Charlie would have to battle his past.
Only… that’s not what happens. First, there’s the not-so-secret ghost in their private moai—Charlie’s dead mother Sabina who intrudes in Maggie’s portrait attempts. Her necklace, rejected by Maggie and a poor fit in his new relationship, becomes the noose beckoning him to join Sabina in death.
In the second part of the book, everything changes. With little fanfare, the lovers move into a world of magic. Magic realism is a genre I usually like better before and after (as opposed to during) the experience. Actually reading Gabriel García Márquez or Thomas Pynchon is hard work. Or maybe the hard work happens at the beginning, when you have to turn off all the ways you normally look at and think about the world.
But The Latecomers is different. Unlike the Banana Massacre by the United Fruit Company that could only be told in a fictionalized version such as Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, or like Thomas Pynchon’s 400-plus character “intro” to modern times in Gravity’s Rainbow, magic realism in Charlie and Maggie’s story is more accessible, perhaps because it occurs on a more intimate stage.
Traditional two-person family units won’t work anymore, Maggie realizes. When she reunites with Charlie, she proposes their new relationships and old friends be joined into a new and larger moai. But the pivotal event that changes all of them forever is about to occur. Following shocking acts of violence, their expanded moai experiences a magical event that changes their worldview, leaving them poised to possess secret knowledge that can literally change the world.
Again, it’s a necklace that represents this change. As each member of the new moai struggles to understand and accept the altered worldview along with an incredibly precious gift symbolized by a new necklace, an unthinkable decision must be made.
The Latecomers is an onion of a book, which demands willing suspension of disbelief in favor of the slow reveal of layers of answers to questions about the human condition. Flawed, strong, weak, murderous, loving, and above all human characters are asked to come to terms with that hardest of all questions:
What are you willing to give up in the name of remaining human?
This isn’t an easy book to read. But despite its symbols, indulgent self-examination, willful blindness, homage to SciFi classics, unwilling heroics, and super-annoying (to me anyway) foreign terms defining “new” relationship categories, The Latecomers is a stunning achievement. Getting to know Maggie is like meeting the Queen and realizing she’d be fun to grab a coffee with—and that the guy she hangs out with might be charming and attractive, but she’s the one who needs to be in charge. The writing is beautiful, the flawed characters are three-dimensionally human, the plot both surprising and inevitable.