Friction, by Will McIntosh

June 2, 2008

Listen to it at Escape Pod.

Sometimes, people get into discussions on what ‘science fiction’ really is, or what ‘horror’ really is. This is the problem with genres that aren’t studied as much as ‘real’ literature. I like the Escape Artists definition, which is that science fiction is whatever Steve Eley thinks is science fiction.

The main problem people seem to have, is that with some sci fi stories, you can remove a single element and it would no longer be a genre story. This, to me, seems a little silly. After all, that element is in the story, so wondering what genre it would be if that element wasn’t there is pointless.

One thing I liked about Friction, is that there’s no way to make it into a non-sci fi story. Sure, you could take away the aliens, but then you’d have to come up with a reason for human beings to slowly erode in the most literal sense of the word as time goes by. That would involve coming up with some kind of disease, and that would make the story sci fi again. Hah. Take that, genre-obsessives.

I’ll readily admit that I’m not a big science fiction reader, so saying that this is the most alien story I’ve ever read probably doesn’t say that much. I’ll say it anyway, though. I just did, even.

I’m generally quiet skeptical when I come across a story that is truly alien. What I tend to enjoy most about science fiction, is seeing a world that is very familiar to me, even though it has a slight twist to it. It gives me a readily-available context (and I’m big on context), it makes it easier for me to understand the story. I can focus on the plot and the message, rather than the setting. If a set-up is too alien, I’ll spend too much time trying to keep track of all the strange goings-on, rather than what’s actually happening in the narrative.

This wasn’t the case in Friction. The world we’re presented with is very different to our own, but it nevertheless managed to make itself feel familiar. The fact that it was so alien was fascinating and engaging, rather than challenging.

Also, as an aspiring academic, I found myself able to identify with the protagonist, who struggles to read the wisdom of all the masters before his life is scratched away.

The imagery in this piece is powerful. A single alien being, who is slowly eroding, struggles to complete a seemingly pointless task in the middle of a vast desert. At a certain point he is distracted from his toil by a lesser being, who asks for his help. Risking his own life (not to mention his life’s goal) in order to help this being, he eventually gains a friend, an an aide.

The interaction between the two friends is touching. It did remind me of buddy movies, but in a good way. It was familiar, and that familiarity, despite the strange setting, was both comforting and interesting. It was also quite uplifting.

The revelation at the end of the story is one I saw coming. I was surprised that it was, in fact, a ‘revelation’ to the alien race. However, given the race’s nature (either obsessed with one thing, or completely carefree and oblivious) it’s not that strange. Once I figured that out, I was left extremely satisfied by the ending.

This, to me, is what science fiction should be. It has an interesting premise, it is completely different to what I know, it has aliens (!), and it has an excellent plot. I felt a little melancholy after listening to it, and it takes a fair bit to get me that emotionally invested in a story that I can’t identify with.

If you like science fiction, listen to this. If you hate science fiction with a fiery hate, listen to this. If you still hate it afterwards, just give up on the genre. There’s no hope for you.

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