Ali graduated with high honors from Columbia College in 2014 with a BA in English. Her focus has been in literature and literary criticism.
There was a song that hit the airwaves during the epic 1990’s by the rock band Collective Soul. Although this era was not nearly as tumultuous as some of those that preceded it, it surely had its moments in entertainment, politics and the international arena. Collective Soul released the song from which this essay is titled to emphasize the many changing facets of a person’s perception of the world around him or her. The 1990’s were in fact a wake-up call to many unfortunate aspects of American society to include drugs, crime and homelessness. This particular song reflects how a person experiences that world as well as how it affects him. Collective Soul not only wrote about this phenomenon but is a living example of it themselves. All parts of society and the people in them are affected by what happens around them. Their behavior and attitudes are a result of this situation. This is especially true in how the phenomenon is regenerated in literature and other forms of entertainment, such as songwriting. An author is merely limited by his imagination, which really can be quite boundless. However, he will always be most comfortable in the world he knows. His characters, plot and writing style will very well be an imitation of the world around him. As is human nature, a person will have preconceived notions about anything that is new to him (another societal phenomenon). For a person who has never experienced the literary genre of science fiction and fantasy, a number of doors will open, spewing preconceived notions that do not hold up under the weight of literary analysis. These preconceived notions will be elaborated upon through literary examples and scientific research so that even a genre as imaginative as science fiction still has a comfort zone.
Twain, Shakespeare and.....Aliens?
Even a person who never develops the enjoyment or academic pursuit of literature will recognize characteristics about authors, genres and writing styles. Unfortunately for this group of people, the forced study during childhood and early adulthood doesn’t provide any other option. This being said, recognizing traits of authors and genres, especially those that are well known and often read such as those from the Canon, is established early. Many fourth grade lesson plans reveal Mark Twain and high school sophomores read Shakespearean sonnets. As these writing styles and authors become clichéd and culturally iconized, preconceived notions about genres and authors develop. Mark Twain is known for his rustic backwoods characters and dialogue, whereas Shakespeare is associated with unrequited love. Science fiction has developed a stigma of imaginative, other-wordly technologies and life forms. It brings to the table creative syntax and scientific thought. Authors of this genre are thoroughly enjoyed because they create an alternate universe to where a person can quite literally escape for a few hundred pages. One may not expect to read about a love triangle that imitates his own or a war based on religious faction all too similar to the one he heard about on the news that morning. Many of the science fiction preconceptions are often found to be true and elemental to the genre itself. However, an analytical mind will begin to see the incorporation of an author’s current societal norms and cultural experiences in his writing.
Human communication researchers Hee Sun Park and Sandi W. Smith state in their article, “The TPB (Theory of Planned Behavior) stipulates that attitudes (about a certain behavior), subjective norms and perceived behavioral control (PBC) influence behavioral intention, which then leads to behavior” (196). This article was primarily written for research regarding how societal norms and influence play a factor in a person’s decision to become an organ donor. However, societal norms are a key factor in prejudices, cultural assumptions and any behavioral influence. The novel Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank is a wonderful illustration of how societal norms and influences affect the behavior of another person. Frank is highly impacted by the unfortunate international situation of his time, which happens to be the Cold War. The interesting aspect of this novel is that not only are its characters, plot and setting experiencing the Cold War but its author is, too. The attitudes intertwined in this novel by Frank are exactly, in reality, what American society was expressing. His character Randy says, “I guess that’s one of the dangerous things about it. We get shockproof. We’ve been conditioned. Standing on the brink of war has become our normal posture” (59). In realistic 1959, America had become so conditioned that nuclear drills were part of the daily curriculum and it seemed everyone had a bomb shelter dug in the backyard of their home. Frank had successfully, if not unconsciously, written in the societal norms and prejudices of his own culture, and this went far beyond the disdain for the Russians. Frank utilized the racial stigmas that existed toward black people and even the sexist ones toward women. He writes, “It was strange that a Negro could be an officer and a gentleman and an equal below Parallel Thirty-eight, but not below the Mason-Dixon line” (48). These two very different examples illustrate the diversity of behavior society was undergoing during Frank’s time. Although he brought creativity with the experience and aftermath of nuclear war, he remained within the world he knew when developing the behavior and attitudes of his characters.
Hanging Gardens of Babylon
Another distinctive science fiction novel, this one reacting somewhat differently to societal norms, is Trouble on Triton by Samuel R. Delany. This particular novel, written in 1976, is a complicated drama that follows the personal development of Bron as he roller-coasters through emotions and interpersonal relationships. The time period in which this novel was written was in fact the era of expression, personal liberty and cultural diversity. Society still had in existence remnants of attitudes and norms that many were exploiting and rebelling against to include war, cookie-cutter fashion and entertainment. Delany creates worlds that exemplify and quite possibly over-exaggerate what realistic society was in fact attempting. Barbara Masser and Lisa Phillips, social researchers from the University of Queensland, Australia, state, “In a series of studies considering littering behavior, Cialdini and colleagues have consistently found that the actions of a single individual can affect the behavior of others to the extent that the individual’s actions makes salient a descriptive or injunctive norm for appropriate behavior” (185). These researchers go on to expound on that statement, indicating that society can create normative behavior based upon the actions of a mere few. Delany utilizes this concept within his writing when developing his characters and their personalities. His character Sam explains, “What could you do with it? Run shrieking through the streets of Tethys, rending your flesh and rubbing ashes in the wounds? I’m sure there’s a sect that’s into that already. We simply live in what the sociologists call a politically low-volatile society” (126). Delany was highly influenced by the behavior of the portion of American society that consistently lived according to the normative behavior of a small few. He created characters and settings that existed successfully with the attitudes and behaviors that couldn’t quite permeate his own reality entirely. What Americans may not have been able to handle in real life, Delany gave to them on Triton.
Twilight Zone or Comfort Zone?
When analyzing literary pieces as well as the person(s) who created them, one can find himself exhausted by failure. Other times, the influences that remain hidden in generalized clichés appear quite distinctive. Science fiction has successfully walked the line of both when the preconceived imaginations become blurry by the realistic societal influences. A reader can successfully become immersed in a world that, to him, doesn’t and will never exist. Yet, another can experience the same, and still be comforted by seeing facets of the world he knows. It seems imagination is limitless so long as it remains within the comfort zone.