Storytelling Engines: The Atom
(or “‘Fate of the Flattened-Out Atom’?”)
I’ve previously discussed in these pages how the popularity of science-fiction in the 1950s brought about the comics renaissance of the Silver Age, as DC revamped many of its popular characters as science-fiction heroes. The Atom, for example, changed from a diminuitive super-hero who punched people to a scientist with a belt that gave him the ability to shrink, complete with a costume that was made out of dwarf-star matter and shrunk with him. He uses his powers to fight Jason Woodrue, a man from a parallel universe inhabited by “wood nymphs, dryads, nereids, air sprites and flower-spirits”…um, and travel into a sub-atomic world inhabited by ancient Atlanteans…er, and fight Doctor Light, who trapped him in a giant light-bulb that slowly turned him to gas…and then, there was the time where a super-villain ironed him into a two-dimensional shape with a specially-designed iron…
Obviously, “science-fiction” is something that has different meanings depending on who’s using it, which is what today’s column is all about. We’ve discussed tone as being an essential element of the storytelling engine from time to time, and it bears repeating; it’s just as important to know what kinds of stories you’ll be telling as it is to know who, what, and where they’ll be about. To say that the Silver Age emphasized “science-fiction” is to merely mark off a piece of the territory; science-fiction can mean anything from “action-adventure, demarcated from fantasy purely by its terminology” to “an extrapolation of current scientific achievements, using concepts believed to be true even if not yet proven by modern science in order to model potential changes in human civilization.” (Obviously, ‘The Atom’ falls pretty firmly onto the former of the two options.)
Different writers make different uses of this spectrum of “science-fiction”, and indeed many consider the different elements of the spectrum to be different genres entirely. (Certainly, one suspects Warren Ellis would have a stroke if he saw ‘The Fate of the Flattened-Out Atom’.) In addition, “science” is by definition not fixed or dogmatic in its opinion. One generation’s “hard science fiction” is the next generation’s “science fantasy” (witness Isaac Asimov’s classic ‘Lucky Starr’ series, which features novels set in the oceans of Venus and on Mercury, one side of which always faces the sun and the other side of which always faces away.) As the public grows more educated, the fictional science needs to grow more sophisticated simply to convince the layman–Ray Palmer frequently uses explanations which no doubt sounded convincing to a 1950s audience, but which modern readers (even those in the target age group for the comic) would find hard to swallow today.
Still, the Atom is not trying to give kids a science lesson. (Or a history lesson, in the time-travel stories that were a frequent feature in his Silver Age adventures.) The series is predominantly an adventure comic, with the trappings of science-fiction appropriated to move the adventure along. This is a marked difference in tone from a series like ‘Transmetropolitan’ or a novel like ‘Ringworld’, but the adventures of the Atom show that there’s a place for all sorts of “science-fiction”, even science-fiction with wood nymphs and Atlantis.
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