May is sci-fi month and we're excited to explore the Patrick Ness short story, 'The New World'! Download a free Kindle edition here! Discover our resources below and join us for a live discussion! Plus, here's an activity sheet to help you create your own story.
Welcome to the Oxplore Book Club!
Science-fiction: where did it begin and what does the future hold?
'The New World’ follows a girl called Viola as she undertakes a thrilling journey to a new planet. To help us understand more of the context surrounding science fiction stories, we spoke to Chelsea Haith (University of Oxford) whose research focuses on sci-fi and speculative fiction.
When did science fiction begin?
According to Chelsea, this is a complex question, and the answer depends on how we define science fiction. If we include utopian fiction (stories which imagine ideal worlds) within the genre, then you could argue that science fiction began centuries ago. Thomas More’s 'Utopia' – the first utopian novel – was written way back in 1516.
But science fiction as we think of it today (advanced technology! space exploration! aliens!) is a more recent occurrence. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single example of the first traditional science fiction story, but Chelsea points to 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley (1818) and the 'Time Machine' by H. G. Wells (1895) as important early works.
The popularisation of science fiction
Chelsea explains that many people believe science fiction was first popularised by a man called Hugo Gernsback, who ran the magazines, ‘Amazing Stories’ and 'Wonder Stories', in the 1920s and 30s.
Image credit: Frank R. Paul / Experimenter Publishing via Wikipedia. Public Domain.
‘Gernsback considered the work that he was published ‘science fictional’, and the idea was that his stories contained an element of science taken to the extreme.’
The genre grew in popularity in the decades that followed with John W Campbell (editor of the magazine 'Astounding Stories') seen as another influential figure in this movement.
In the 1960s and 70s, a noticeable difference emerged between American and British science fiction. ‘In the States, there was quite a lot of positive science fiction, which saw future technological developments in a very positive light. There was the idea that they would bring peace and prosperity whereas British science fiction was quite pessimistic (believing the worst will happen)!’
Is science fiction always political?
Science fiction allows us to imagine amazing (utopian) futures. But it also gives us a chance to explore alternative systems of government and consider the dangers of authoritarianism (very controlling systems of power). Stories describing imagined communities or societies which are dehumanizing, undesirable and frightening form part of what's known as dystopian fiction.
Some science fiction theorists, such as Darko Suvin, believe that all science fiction is part of a broader political project. Others, such as Samuel R. Delany, believe in ‘art for art’s sake’, and think that science fiction is valuable in its own right.
Do you think all science fiction is political?
When learning about science fiction, you may have also come across the term ‘speculative fiction’. What is it, and where does it come from?
‘Speculative worlds are worlds that we recognise but are different in one or two particular ways. The term works quite nicely as it also includes fantasy.’
Chelsea explains that the term is relatively new, and it became popularised after a public disagreement between two science fiction writers. In 2003, Margaret Atwood (pictured below) distanced herself from sci-fi, explaining that she preferred to describe her work as ‘speculative fiction'.
Image credit: Mark Hill Photography via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0
‘This statement caused an uproar in fan and writing communities. Author, Ursula Le Guin then reviewed one of Atwood’s books and said that she was trying to avoid being ‘shoved into the literary ghetto by the literary bigots.’ Le Guin’s position was that Atwood was trying to make her work stay viable (successful) in the literary marketplace.’
In other words, some people believe that ‘speculative fiction’ is a term used by writers who want to make their work appear more serious. As Chelsea says, ‘the term speculative fiction tries to rehabilitate the genre.’ Meanwhile, some think it is a useful term because it is more inclusive of fantasy works.
The decline in serialised science fiction
Towards the turn of the century, magazines and serialised science fiction declined in popularity.
‘We don’t tend to read magazines for fiction anymore, but for the longest time, that was how you got stories. Nowadays, there are some magazines which do relatively well, but they are largely read by fans and contributors. They’re less considered popular reading. And so science fiction has suffered quite badly, I think, from that origin story of being popular rather than highbrow.’
Do science fiction writers use real science in their work?
In order to build believable worlds and plots, science fiction writers often make use of existing real-world science. Chelsea explains that award-winning sci-fi writer Ken Liu often explores alternative energy in his stories.
‘He actually built the machines to see if they would work. He also developed some of the code which he then writes about in his books.’
Sometimes though, science fiction deals with topics so fantastical that we cannot say whether or not they are possible.
‘And that’s one of those moments when you start thinking what is genre and why does it matter and why are we pigeon-holing texts?’ says Chelsea. ‘Which is where speculative fiction becomes a useful term.’
Have imaginary inventions or predictions from science fiction ever come true?
The short answer is yes!
‘A great example is The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Published in 1895, the main character has a dinner party and presents this mad idea to his guests. He’s like, ‘we work on the three-dimensional plane, and there’s a fourth dimension: time.’ That was ten years before Albert Einstein comes up with his theory of relativity. That’s a clear example of literature preceding science. More recently, if you watch Star Trek, you can see they’ve got big tablets, so that’s like the forerunner to the iPad!’
Science fiction in the future
Recently, there have been lots of advancements in technology and space exploration. In March 2021, NASA’s Perseverance Rover landed on Mars. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX hopes to take humans to the planet by 2026.
It will be interesting to see how these developments in real-world science influence science fiction. Will they lead to more dystopian or more utopian stories?
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS. Public Domain.
‘There is a lot of pessimism in science fiction about future slave communities. Almost all science fiction imagines that we’re going to enslave someone. Ourselves, aliens, AI robots… someone’s going to have a bad time. But the way the upper classes will live is also always imagined as being utopian.’
Why does science fiction continue to be a popular genre?
Science fiction stories allow us to think about how our lives might change, and what potential threats we might face.
‘What it all comes down to, is science fiction stories are often fun, they appeal to a sense of adventure, and they allow for an exploration of socio-political problems. What a genre, to be able to deal with all of those things at once and package them in a way that really engages your imagination!’
Science fiction inspires the future of science
From Mary Shelley’s 'Frankenstein' to Star Wars, find out how sci-fi creations have inspired real-world inventions in this video by The National Geographic.
Patrick Ness wrote 'The New World' (2009) as a prequel to the three novels of his 'Chaos Walking' series (2008-10). Although designed to introduce the main setting of the trilogy, 'The New World” is a perfect standalone tale. Patrick Ness uses icons and motifs characteristic of science fiction to frame a coming-of-age story, exploring themes such as separation, family, responsibility, and growing up.
The story traces a moment of radical change in the life of a young girl called Viola. Viola has lived her whole life on a spaceship. She and her family are chosen to lead the first scouting mission to the supposedly deserted planet where her community hopes to settle. The narrative moves continuously between past and present, alternating between snippets from Viola’s life on the spaceship and the tale of her five-months-long voyage to New World. This and the use of the first person ('I') helps make the story both exciting and personal -- encouraging readers to identify with Viola and empathise with her feelings.
Fear and other emotions
Viola’s relationship with her parents is one of the main focal points of the text. In particular, Viola feels bitter about having to leave her home and her friends behind to follow her parents on their mission. She also shows resentment towards them for having being chosen:
“Why do I have to pay for what they’re good at?”
During their long trip to the New World, Viola struggles to communicate with her parents. Her mother’s practical nature and her father’s optimism only seem to worsen her unhappiness. Although it's difficult for her to admit it (even to herself), Viola feels frightened and disheartened, and she doesn’t know how to manage these feelings. It's remarkable that in such a short story, Viola is asked the same question twice, once by her teacher Bradley, and once by her father:
“What are you really frightened of, Viola?”
We get the feeling that the mission forces Viola to face an emotion she had never known during her sheltered and comfortable life on the spaceship, namely, the fear of the future and unfamiliar. Is it possible, then, that Viola’s anger and resentment come from this anxiety? Does the experience of being uprooted from everything she has ever known cause Viola to lose sight of her identity and control over her emotions? But then again, isn’t this feeling all part of the usual experience of growing up?
A light to see in the dark
Building on the above, one of the possible interpretations for 'The New World' is that Viola’s journey into the unknown signifies the end of her childhood. This is also symbolised by the fact that Viola celebrates a birthday (her thirteenth) while en route to the New World. But the story extends this metaphor further in its thought-provoking commentary about the roles played by personal choice, and the legacy we receive from family and community i.e. the beliefs, values, and attitudes that are passed on from generation to generation.
Before her departure, Viola receives a birthday gift from Bradley, a gift which she promises to open only once she has reached the New World. The gift turns out to be a firebox, a device that can instantly start a fire in any situation. It will prove crucial to ensure Viola’s survival after her traumatic landing on the planet. But the meaning that this simple tool takes on in the climactic ending of the story goes beyond its practical value. This is because the moment when Viola finally opens her gift is framed as the culmination of a deep reflection, carried out throughout the story, about the concept of hope. Hope and the legacy that Viola eventually chooses to accept from her parents becomes clear in the image of the fire that keeps her warm through her first night on the New World (and which she didn’t know she had been carrying with her all along). Maybe growing up is a matter of negotiating between the lessons we are taught by our elders and the choices we make as we go along? And maybe it’s the freedom involved in these choices that makes the future both exciting and intimidating? This is captured by Viola's father in:
'He smiled, full of love. "Hope is terrifying, Viola," he said. "No one wants to admit it, but it is."
The language of a genre
This review has highlighted some of the ways in which Patrick Ness uses the language of science fiction to tell Viola’s personal and deeply tragic story.
The so-called ‘generation ship’ (akin to Viola's mission with her parents) is an age-old icon especially dear to classic American science fiction. This is where a space mission lasts for many decades resulting in there being multiple generations of crew living on the spacecraft and directing its travel. The most famous example is probably Robert Heinlein’s 'Orphans of the Sky', which brings the idea of the generation starship as a micro-world to the extreme. The novel also presents the theme of discovery of a much vaster world beyond the confines of the ship as part of the passage into adulthood.
Space exploration and colonisation (the process of settling among and taking control of indigenous peoples living in an area) are also key features of the sci-fi genre. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (especially in light of the strange environment Viola will find on the New World in the novels) is one of the most profound tales of alien encounters ever produced. For the same reason, and because of its surprisingly unsentimental treatment of childhood, Orson Scott Card’s classic of military science fiction 'Ender’s Game', seems to have had a powerful influence of Ness’ Chaos Walking series.
What do you think? Does Patrick Ness' 'The New World' remind you of any other texts or films you have read/watched?
Leave a review...
Tell us what you think about 'The New World' and you could win the complete ‘Chaos Walking' trilogy! You have until the end of May to submit a review via this page and a selection of your comments will be posted below.
"The New World by Patrick Ness is an encaptivating, short, sci-fi story that describes the pessimism and emotions of an adolescent, Viola Eade, as she and her parents set out to be the first of their kind to set foot on a new planet.
A few of Viola's kind who had lived three generations before her had left the Old World on space convoys as their planet had become toxic, polluted and chaotic due to the actions of its own people. Everyone on the convoys including Viola had never seen life outside the convoys and she was skeptical to land on an unknown planet - rightly so!!
The story conveys hidden morals and meanings in a concise manner, which I quite fancy. The first conspicuous lesson is to save our planet. Our Earth is heading the same way as the Old World and if we don't nurture it and give back to nature, our future generations will be travelling in space convoys for hundreds of years, in search of a new planet. The second lesson is to learn from history and to always be prepared. The people on the convoy knew that a few others had disembarked on the same expedition and were thereafter never seen or heard of again. However, they turned a blind eye to this and brushed it off by saying that the previous group was not as technologically adept as them. They didn't prepare Viola's family for all sorts of technical difficulties which did not end well. Viola's parents teach us how to be optimistic and have hope in all situations.
Bradley, Viola's teacher is a nonchalant and composed character who gives her a present in the form of a firebox. The light from the firebox is Viola's backbone has when she crash-lands into the New World. The firebox symbolises that even at times when we are insecure, lonely, and have hit rock bottom, there will always be a light to spark off hope. Steff Taylor represents envious friends who will always be around us. We must simply be indifferent towards them. Viola's parents' love for her is unconditional which signifies that even though our parents can cause great vexation within us, they always mean well.
Patrick Ness has described only parts of an event in one go which increases the suspense and compels us to read further and see what's next. On the whole, The New World played on my emotions really well as it included tragic, humorous and sentimental aspects. It has made me more of an environmentalist, taught me new values, and has left me restless to begin the Chaos Walking Trilogy." - Tanisha, Hiranandani Foundation School
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