A Place So Foreign

Cory Doctorow and Personal Narrative as a Vehicle

This post is part of CSI’s Thoughtful Optimism and Science Fiction project. To learn more about the project, visit https://csi.asu.edu/category/optimism/.

Time-traveling, a fantasy carnival and superhero fiction. We read a trio of Cory Doctorow’s short stories from the collection A Place So Foreign and Eight More (2003) – “A Place So Foreign,” “Return to Pleasure Island,” and “The Super Man and the Bugout” – and noticed a common trend among these radically different stories.

A quick summary: “A Place So Foreign” details the adventures of an adolescent boy in 1898 when his father is chosen as the time-traveling ambassador to a futuristic 1975; “Return to Pleasure Island” describes the familial troubles of a trio of ogre brothers who turn young boys into donkeys, a la Pinocchio; and “The Super Man and the Bugout” examines an “alternate history” where Superman landed in Canada instead of Smallville and was adopted by Jewish-Canadian parents.

All three of these stories are, in premise, radically different from each other and extremely outlandish. However, there is an important common thread throughout all of them – the personal narrative of the main characters is eventually drowned out by the scope and ambition of the worlds they inhabit. Each protagonist faces a personal, intimate, and relatable conflict – one is struggling with the loss of his father, another is torn between familial obligation and personal desire, and another must choose between his morals and his need to survive in a world that increasingly disregards him. Each of these conflicts is subtly interwoven throughout the narratives of these vast and interesting worlds; each builds towards a climax, a breaking point; and each, unfailingly, has its momentum reversed at the last second, with no resolution for the personal narrative, or with the conflict being forgotten altogether.

Why is this? In these stories, does Doctorow fail to find the balance between detailed, personal stories and the vast, grandiose richness of fictional worlds?

Doctorow uses these characters and their relatable personal stories to delve into the complex fictional worlds that he creates and structures for us – but it’s as if, halfway down the road, he gets so fascinated by the scenery that he leaves the car idling by the highway. Or, perhaps, maybe his point is that the stories of these characters are ultimately insignificant in the face of the larger mechanics of their universes. Either way, Doctorow’s stories only serve to highlight the growing divide in science fiction: the separation between intimate personal narrative and grandiose speculative world.