I am a fan of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous. I think it is very well written, well paced, and well though out. It is a great update for gender(ed) discussions in science fiction and pretty amusing throughout. However, I want to address a couple typical prose-level aspects of the writing itself: a comic book trope and telling vs showing. Also, by “trope” I mean theme or device common to a genre.
Comic Book Trope
I know there are a few of you out there who’ve read (or still read) comic books. I’m no comic book scholar, but I have read my fair share. Here’s the cover of my oldest comic book: X-Men #34 (1963). (By the way, I stopped collecting comic books when Bush was president…the 1st President Bush–not W. I was also in the computer club in middle school). Anyway, there’s an interesting scene in Autonomous that reminds me of comic book trope I don’t see in other genres (except maybe in film). Comic book characters often have discussions or extended thoughts–appearing in thought bubbles–while they fight. This is probably unrealistic because we know how bad it is to attempt to multitask, but, I guess that’s why they’re superheroes. Below are a few links to a comic book I found online:
- Black Panther in Solo Avengers #19 (June 1989, p. 24)
- Black Panther in Solo Avengers #19 (June 1989, p. 25)
- Black Panther in Solo Avengers #19 (June 1989, p. 29)
Notice how Black Panther conveys his “sixth sense” to the audience through thought bubbles. When he starts fighting, he gives reasons, a play-by-play, why he successfully lands blows or gets beaten. Here’s another instance where Black Panther talks to a rival (only a few panels are shown in this article).
There’s a similar and quite funny scene in Autonomous when Paladin researchers a homophobic slur while fighting the pirates (pp. 99-103). In fact, Palladin “partitioned his mind: 80 percent for combat, 20 percent for searches on” the slur (p. 99). By the way, “partitioning” is a hard drive action that separates different spaces of a physical drive into multiple drives. I’m not sure how much it’s use these days.
My point is that throughout the fight sequence, Paladin provides search results on the homophobic slur, including speculation on why Eliasz used the term. His search finds it “is generally a pejorative term for a homosexual man” (p. 101).
Showing vs Telling
In other classes I teach, especially when we have to write resumes and cover letters, I go into great detail on showing you’re the ideal candidate instead of just telling, which usually happens through trite phrases, such as, “I’m punctual,” “I’m a self starter, ” “I’m hard working,” etc.
Literature is often judged based on how “heavy handed” an author is, meaning how much explanation they give about a character’s motivation. Great works don’t just spell it out; they leave a lot up to the audience to infer. Genre fiction (science fiction, romance, detective, Westerns, etc.) often has heavy handed explanations of character motivation: the author tells why the character did what they did instead of letting readers infer the motivation from a character’s complex development.
There are a few (too many) places in Autonomous where Newitz unnecessarily explains character motivations, but there subtle. An early instance is when Threezed breaks into politesse after meeting Mali. Newitz writes, “It was the first time Jack had seen him interact with other people. His manners were so good it was as if they’d been ironed into him” (p. 87). Again, it’s subtle, but, knowing where Threezed comes from, we can assume he had politeness drilled into. He probably even knows the proper way to set a table with two forks.
In another instance, Newitz tells the audience exactly what Jack feels about Krish’s academic career:
- “She started to tell him everything had changed. To retort that she wasn’t just sitting in some fancy lab with tenure and grants, because she’d spent her life actually doing things” (p. 119).
Perhaps Newitz’s editor pushed her to do more telling in certain places instead of leaving it up to the readers. If we have time, I’ll mention something I did in my Video Games and American Culture book (forthcoming). So far, it’s gotten past the editor!