Fairy tale retellings


Little Red Riding Hood, as depicted by Gustave Doré (1883)

A few years ago, I blogged about fairy tales. “About once every hundred years some wiseacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale,” C.S. Lewis wrote in 1952, and Richard Dawkins had done exactly that.

Fairy tales are stories that have stood the test of time, and that means they have power. That power can be harnessed to teach science to children, but I don’t want to talk about that today; I want to talk about fairy tale retellings, which have become popular again in recent years.

It seems that Einstein did not say “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales” – but fairy tales do develop the imagination and speak to the human heart. And retellings keep fairy tales fresh.

Fairy tales are generally classified as fantasy, and most retold fairy tales fall within that genre too. Among my favourites are the dream-like novels of Patricia A. McKillip, including In the Forests of Serre (2003), which incorporates Slavic tales of Baba Yaga and the Firebird. In fact, pretty much everything that Patricia A. McKillip has written is superb.


“This Mortal Mountain” (1967), a novelette by Roger_Zelazny, collected in The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth (1971) and This Mortal Mountain (2009)

Fairy tales can be retold as science fiction too. After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In “This Mortal Mountain” (1967), Roger Zelazny mashes together Sleeping Beauty (or “Doornroosje” as I first learned to call it) with Dante’s Purgatorio, in a story of mountain-climbing on a distant planet: “‘A forty-mile-high mountain,’ I finally said, ‘is not a mountain. It is a world all by itself, which some dumb deity forgot to throw into orbit.’ … I looked back at the gray and lavender slopes and followed them upward once more again, until all color drained away, until the silhouette was black and jagged and the top still nowhere in sight, until my eyes stung and burned behind their protective glasses; and I saw clouds bumping up against that invincible outline, like icebergs in the sky, and I heard the howling of the retreating winds which had essayed to measure its grandeur with swiftness and, of course, had failed.”

The spell described in this novelette is purely technological, but yet the story reduces me to tears every time I read it: “The planes of her pale, high cheeks, wide forehead, small chin corresponded in an unsettling fashion with certain simple theorems which comprise the geometry of my heart.”

The Lunar Chronicles, which I have not read, are a series of young adult science fiction fairy tale retellings, so the science fiction spin still exists.

Many fairy tales were originally intended to be scary. The terror of walking through a wolf-infested forest armed with, at most, a knife for protection is something that is difficult to imagine today, when Canis lupus is so much less common in the wild than it used to be. Deliberately swimming in shark-infested waters is perhaps the closest modern equivalent. Added to the wolves, bears, trolls, and giants, fairy tales also frequently have supernatural threats. In Faerie Tale (1988), Raymond E. Feist retells some Irish mythology as the straight horror it was perhaps once meant to be.

Fairy tales can also be retold with great success as Westerns. As with science fiction retellings, the frontier elements of danger and of the unknown help to set the scene. A particularly good example is The Mountain of the Wolf (2016), in which Elisabeth Grace Foley retells Little Red Riding Hood (or “Roodkapje” as I first learned to call it), but with a believable motivation for Red Riding Hood’s presence in the danger zone (I grew up with a Dutch children’s game that acted out the story; Red Riding Hood’s motivation in the original tale always struck me as confused).

Finally, fairy tales can be twisted. The outcome may be altered; the hero may become the villain; the beautiful dragon may be rescued from a ravening princess. This can become very dark, bordering on horror, or it may be light comic fantasy. And amusing recent example of the latter is The Reluctant Godfather (2017), a retelling of Cinderella by Allison Tebo in which the fairy godmother is (a) male and (b) totally uninterested in helping Cinderella out. In the movie world, Hoodwinked! is a well-known example of the twisted fairy tale in its comic form.

So there you have it. How do you take your fairy tales: black, or with cream and sugar?


Crosstalk: a book review


Crosstalk by Connie Willis (2016)

I recently read, with great enjoyment, the science-fiction romantic comedy Crosstalk by Connie Willis. This novel is reminiscent of her previous books Bellwether and Passage. Like Bellwether, it is set in a high-tech company (this time, a mobile-phone company), and has the fast-paced craziness of Howard Hawks movies such as Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday. Like Passage, it has a hospital staircase scene, and explores themes relating to neuroscience and parapsychology.

The social commentary in Crosstalk focuses mainly on social media and the dangers of too much communication. The novel begins: “By the time Briddey pulled into the parking garage at Commspan, there were forty-two text messages on her phone. The first one was from Suki Parker—of course—and the next four were from Jill Quincy, all saying some variant of ‘Dying to hear what happened.’ Suki’s said, ‘Heard rumor Trent Worth took you to Iridium!???’ Of course you did, Briddey thought. Suki was Commspan’s very own Gossip Girl. And that meant by now the whole company knew it. …

To say too much more than that would involve spoilers. The Guardian also liked the novel, but the LA Times did not. I’m giving it four stars.

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Crosstalk by Connie Willis: 4 stars


What your professor never told you about science: a review of Bellwether


Bellwether by Connie Willis

I recently re-read the classic science-fiction comedy Bellwether by Connie Willis. Bellwether, which is set in a fictional research company called “Hi-Tek,” is one of those books that reminds us how science really works:

People like to think of science as rational and reasonable, following step by step from hypothesis to experiment to conclusion. Dr. Chin, last year’s winner of the Niebnitz Grant, wrote, ‘The process of scientific discovery is the logical extension of observation by experimentation.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. The process is exactly like any other human endeavor—messy, haphazard, misdirected, and heavily influenced by chance. Look at Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin when a spore drifted in the window of his lab and contaminated one of his cultures. Or Roentgen

Connie Willis keeps us laughing as she describes the ups and down of grant applications, staff interaction, chaos, confusion, recalcitrant laboratory animals, and management fads (I will always remember the ridiculous “1. Optimize potential. 2. Facilitate empowerment. 3. Implement visioning. 4. Strategize priorities. 5. Augment core structures.”).

The lead character’s own research project concerns the sociology of fads:

Coffeehouse (1450–1554) – Middle Eastern fad that originated in Aden, then spread to Mecca and throughout Persia and Turkey. Men sat cross-legged on rugs and sipped thick, black, bitter coffee from tiny cups while listening to poets. The coffeehouses eventually became more popular than mosques and were banned by the religious authorities, who claimed they were frequented by people ‘of low costume and very little industry.’ Spread to London (1652), Paris (1669), Boston (1675), Seattle (1985).

Bellwether contains some inaccuracies both in the discussion of chaos theory and the history of coffee. However, it is such a great comic novel that it was nominated for the Nebula Award in 1997, even though it is only science fiction in the sense that it is fiction about science, written by a science-fiction author. On the whole, a highly recommended book – one that is both funny and insightful.

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Bellwether by Connie Willis: 4 stars