Warning: This post contains spoilers about the books Who Goes There? I Am Legend and The Hunger Games.
What is it about science fiction that gives this particular genre such a broad appeal? If you look at Hollywood you’d be tempted to think it was the visual sensation of blockbusting special effects, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the reliance of movies on mind-bending special effects has diluted rather than enhanced great science fiction stories.
Science fiction has such a strong appeal because it is intelligent, it stimulates our thinking. And, often times, this distinction is lost when books morph into movies.
In Who Goes There? John Campbell introduces us to a creature Hollywood immortalized as The Thing. Although the movie is a vivid and faithful rendition of this novella, it misses a significant amount of the reasoning the scientists go through as both they and the readers struggle to comprehend what they’re dealing with. And that is where the brilliance of the story lies, in the exploratory, inquisitive, reasoning nature of man. The essence of the story is, how can reason triumph over a mindless monster, one than can perfectly mimic its target? Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but the way the scientists reason through the nature of this alien beast in the novella is brilliant, and it is lost in the screen adaptation. They consider the biological nature of what they’ve run into, they think about how the infection spreads at a cellular level, realizing that the infected cow would have laced their milk with parasitic spores. They discuss why the alien won’t engage in open combat with them, realizing that it has evolved a unique strategy to avoid such confrontations, and they come to the chilling realization that it would sweep unopposed throughout the world if even the smallest biological trace remains. As a reader, you feel like an unnamed member of the ice station, traveling with them on this doomed voyage.
In the same way, I Am Legend, takes an absurd, mythological notion and says, what of it were true? How could vampires exist in a modern world? The protagonist, Neville, talks us through the logic of vampires fearing the cross, but not because of any inherent supernatural power in that shape, it turns out that the shape is a vivid reminder for vampires, causing a physiological revulsion of what they’ve become. In the same way, mirrors allow them to see themselves for what they really are, and they are repulsed by the realization that they are monsters. Neville even notes that vampires of Jewish origin would suffer the same aversion to the Star of David as former Christians would of the cross. Garlic, rather than an old wives’ fable, becomes a biological agent that causes anaphylactic shock. Sunlight, it seems, breaks down the vampiric bacteria, just as UV is known to destroy other types of bacteria. In the course of the story, the question is raised, why do stakes kill vampires and not bullets? Neville, our rational hero, applying science over superstition, learns that the hemorrhaging caused by a stake cannot be contained as easily as the smaller holes caused by a bullet. And the reader finds themselves inhabiting a world where the absurd has suddenly become plausible and rational, at least in a fictitious sense in which disbelief can be suspended for the enjoyment of the adventure.
The Hunger Games is another recent example. The movie is breathtaking, but action and adventure win out over the awe of reason. In the movie, we see Katness attack the supplies of the upper crust contestants, but without the audience really understanding why. In the book, however, we get a sense of the hunger and desperation Katness suffers in the wilderness. Rather than a mindless attack on the stores of the wealthy tributes, we see Katness attack the stores to level the playing field, to square up the fight and ensure that the rich kids also need to scavenge and forage for basic necessities. In this way, they can no longer ruthlessly hunt down the other tributes with such ease. And so the book allows us to explore this fictional world with Katness, and to understand its means and motives in a way that is glossed over in the movie.
As a science fiction author, I appreciate what these authors have done, they’ve started with a simple premise and explored the possibilities latent therein, seeking to build fictional worlds for our enjoyment. It is said that the plot is the character in action. When it comes to science fiction, the plot is the character interacting with science in a way that influences both their actions and the actions of their opponents.