Category Archives: cross-genre

Jane Eyre Goes Sci Fi: Jenna Starborn

How does author Sharon Shinn translate Bronte’s Jane Eyre into a sci fi setting? Here are some examples from her novel Jenna Starborn:

The Helen Burns character is not killed by consumption, but by radiation exposure from a machine she is working on. So in both cases, there is the implication that this girl’s life could have been saved if the people in charge took better care of their students.

The Mr. Rochester character does not dress up as a gypsy, but uses an electronic fortunetelling program to manipulate his guests.

The wife in the attic is not a madwoman, she is a malfunctioning cyborg. And the question in the sci fi setting, as in Bronte’s day, is how human is she? If you are insane, are you a full person? This was a hot topic of the 1800s. And of course sci fi has long debated what defines personhood. Is Data, my favorite android from Star Trek the Next Generation, a person? What about all those machines in the blockbuster Matrix films? Are members of an alien race people? Jane Eyre is primarily about identity, and sci fi loves debating identity.

Endemic to this debate is Jenna herself. She is a test tube creation, ordered by a childless woman to her preferred genetic retail specifications. A bit of this DNA, a bit of that DNA. Whatever the buyer wants. However, when the woman is able to give birth to her own biological child, she loses all affection for Jenna. She is unable to love her, this artificially cobbled-together specimen of chromosomes. So Jenna, like the cyborg wife, must face questions of true personhood. Jenna must discover she is equal to everyone else on a cosmic level, just as Bronte’s Jane Eyre tells Rochester, “I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, or even of mortal flesh. It is my spirit that addresses your spirit, just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood equal at God’s feet, equal—as we are!”

Sharon Shinn carries out the Jane Eyre parallels convincingly in her created sci fi space world. Check out Jenna Starborn:

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Jane Does the Time Warp: Translating Classics into Future Settings

Bride and Prejudice

Bride and Prejudice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Modern takes on period novels, especially British ones, are always difficult. This is because the values and class system of 18th and 19th century England are not those of today.

Case in point: Lydia Bennet elopes with Mr. Wickham 200 years ago. The risks: Lydia could be abandoned at any moment without means to survive, the Bennet family’s reputation is ruined, the potential marriages of Jane and Elizabeth are over. Certainly Elizabeth assumes she has lost any chance she had with Darcy (even as she is confused as to whether she wants another chance).

Now we rewrite it: Lydia Bennet elopes with George Wickham in modern society. The risks: Uh… Unwed couples moving in together is so common this doesn’t add much tension to the modern audience. For the Christian audience, we understand Lydia and George Wickham probably ought to get married first, but society at large doesn’t have an issue with it. So modern rewrites have to add another dimension of threat. Lydia not only runs away with Wickham, he’s encouraging her to use drugs and get an abortion at an unapproved medical facility. He’s taking her to Vegas under the promise to marry her but he’s really going to gamble away her money for college at a casino. I’ve seen all these suggestions, and they don’t raise the stakes quite the way the original book did.

Another complication of replanting period novels like P&P into modern settings is the biggest barrier to marrying Elizabeth in Darcy’s mind is that of class. Bollywood’s Bride and Prejudice has the best solution to this, by making it not merely a financial issue but a racial and cultural one. Not to mention India still operates on the caste system. But still, I found myself disliking this Darcy for being so slow to see beyond the cultural barriers. I don’t want a modern Darcy to be a cultural snob, even for half a movie.

This is one reason why period novels can live in sci fi more comfortably than they can in the early 21st century. Sci fi already innately demands the author build a new world (or universe) with rules about mores, religion, and class. Class conflict can become the conflict between alien species. So much sci fi is already a commentary on the times in which it was written. Hello, Star Trek. Hello, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Hello, Brave New World. Sci fi is half speculation on what could be, and half speculation on what is.

Jenna Starborn, a sci fi version of Jane Eyre, works because Sharon Shinn has reimagined the constrictions of 19th century English society, but with genetic manipulation, cyborgs, and holograms. And you know what? It works.

Analysis of the techniques in Jenna Starborn next blog.

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Austen Horror or Horrified?

There have been few times in my life I committed a Daffy-Duck-style double-take. One was in the movie theater last week when the preview for Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter rolled. I blanched, giggled, hid my face in my hands, and groaned, “Make it stop.”  Another of these time times occurred in Barnes and Noble, as I passed a display by the front door: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Seth Grahame-Smith.

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Eh?

And this is not the only attempt to blend Austen with other genres. There are Jane Austen mysteries. Even a whole slew of Austen vampires:

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In all fairness, I will admit I have not read these books. I cannot rightfully praise or disparage the writing style or ability of these authors. What I mean to do today is address the surprising notion of bringing out the darkness in Austen. Crossing Jane with murder and monsters.

I tend to think of Austen’s works as a soufflé. It is not that her works lack substance, not by any means. Like a soufflé, they are full of rich, filling ingredients. But they are mixed, whipped, and baked with such careful precision that one early peek into the oven will cause the whole structure to collapse. Only a master chef like Austen, the Julia Child of early novelists, can cook up such a plot, where the heaviness feels light. Jane has a great deal to say on weighty matters, but she never feels heavy or preachy. The deception of meringue, after all, is that the texture is light and sweet, but in reality, it’s made of egg –meat—without a drop of yolk, not beaten a second too little or too much.

Is this an unfair assessment? How much darkness is really in Austen? We can’t overlook the elopements, adultery, broken promises, life-threatening illnesses, swindling, familial favoritism and neglect, and implied murder that form key hingepoints in her plots. I invite discussion.

I would call Austen’s observation of human foibles biting, at times. Is that a form of vampirism?

Maybe the problem is I just don’t care for horror. Horror movies either gross me out or make me laugh. I have read Twilight, in an attempt to understand why the many teenagers I work with love it. But when I step out of realism in literature, I tend to seek out Vulcans, fairies, the denizens of sci fi and fantasy. I don’t hang out with vampires, werewolves, and the undead. Would Austen? I don’t know. Maybe. Clearly she read gothic novels. Otherwise, how could she parody them in Northanger Abbey? But I get the sense this was a tongue-in-cheek guilty pleasure for her. She was able to read, and enjoy, and laugh at herself for enjoying the extremes of such novels.

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

―    Jane Austen,    Northanger Abbey

Still, I ask, what’s next? The Persuasion of Yeti? The Creature from the Black Lagoon Comes to Hertsfordshire? Mr. Bingley is the Boogeyman?

Who am I to judge cross-genre rewrites of classics? After all, I enjoyed Sharon Shinn’s sci fi take on Jane Eyre, entitled Jenna Starborn.

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More on that next time.

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Filed under cross-genre, Pride and Prejudice