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Christmas Among the Stars (Speculative Christmases Part II)

“This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn't make sense. Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery? If the guy exists why doesn't he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn't exist what's the meaning of all this?”

Calvin and Hobbs

Bill Watterson

Christmas stories, as we looked at yesterday, tend to lean heavily to the fantasy side of speculative fiction. That isn’t to say, by any means, there is no place for science fiction stories dealing with Christmas. The holiday, while not the primary aspect of a film, movie, or story, has shown up in several.

For starters, the holiday was the theme of most of the December covers of Galaxy Science Fiction magazine from 1951 to 1960. These covers, painted by Edmund Alexander “Emsh” Emshwiller (1925-1990), portrayed Santa in a very science-fiction way. Though the man had a white beard, smoked a pipe, and dressed in his classic red and white outfit, he also had four arms. The covers had him flying with space-suited reindeer, trying to determine the best course to deliver gifts to the known galaxy, meeting with a tentacled alien Santa, and observing a robot Santa. However, the covers were the only bit of Christmas in the issues. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction January 1960 was also produced by Emsh, though this time the scene did not include a four-armed Santa. Instead, it was a family scene of a child, a robot, and a cyborg decorating their Christmas tree.

Marvel and DC comics both have had a long history of adding the Christmas holiday to their comics. In the story “A Miracle a Few Blocks Down From 34th Street” (Marvel Holiday Special 1991), the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants learn that not only is Santa Claus one the first, if not the first, of the mutants but also the most powerful one in existence. The spirit of Christmas is found in the 1990 story “Rhino Plastered” (Incredible Hulk #378), where the Grey Hulk finds the Rhino working as a mall Santa and attacks him. Hulk comes to realize the error of his ways when a young girl asks, confused by his attack on the mall Santa Claus, if he is fighting the real Santa. The girl, who just happens to be named Virginia, is relieved to find out there is a Santa Claus. The Rhino and Hulk end the story working together peacefully in the spirit of the season.

“The Man Who Hated Christmas” (Action Comics #105) revolves around a plot to use chemically altered chocolates to force Santa Claus to gain so much weight that he can’t fit in the sleigh. It also involves Superman helping Santa lose the weight from the poisoned chocolates by (and I am not making this up) dangling him from a bridge, making him dance with costumed women while Superman watches, and terrifying him with stories about outer space. It is an off-beat and odd Christmas story, to say the least.

Speaking of off-beat, we come to one of the most (in)famous Christmas science fiction movies of all time — Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) The public domain film revolves around the King and Queen of the Martians kidnapping Santa Claus to ensure their species doesn’t become too robotic. The film’s special effects aren’t any better than the plot, though the film has gained a cult following in the vein of the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ methodology.

A Cosmic Christmas (1977) is a Canadian American animated movie. The plot involves three aliens, who bear a striking resemblance to the three wise men of old, who travel to Earth to unravel the true meaning of Christmas. When they are discovered by a human boy and his pet goose, things begin to unravel. Needless to say, by the end of the film, everyone involved in the story has discovered or rediscovered what the time of year means as well as the spirits of forgiveness and charity.

A few science fiction television series have aired Christmas-themed episodes, but Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-present) has aired 18 special episodes since 2005. These are all episodes that have historically aired between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The first time Christmas was portrayed in the show was in the episode “The Feast of Steven” (BBC, 1965). The episode takes place in 1925 on Christmas day. Famously, the first Doctor, played by William Hartnell, during the toast in the final scene turns to the camera and exclaims “Incidentally, a happy Christmas to all of you at home.”

Unlike the fantasy stories we discussed in yesterday’s post, only a few science fiction stories have used the time of year as a setting. “The Grimnoir Chronicles: Detroit Christmas” (Larry Correia, Baen Books, 2011) is focused on investigating a crime on December 25th, and does involve a spirit, though not one of the ones discussed by Dickens. On the other hand, “Away in a Manger” (Wen Spencer, Baen Books, 2012) examines the situation of the last human child on Earth and a group of intelligent animals who find it on Christmas. The story takes an interesting look at the meaning of unconditional love and what the real meaning of peace on Earth is. “The Star” (Arthur C. Clarke) is a look at how a Christmas miracle for one can be less than wonderful for others. It's an unusually dark tale for the time of year.

“Winterfair Gifts” (Lois McMaster Bujold, 2004) which originally appeared in the collection Irresistible Forces (Catherine Asaro ed., New American Library, 2004) isn’t a story about Christmas as we know it, but a similar holiday practiced by Miles Vorkosigan and his people on Barrayar. On the other side of the galaxy, Ender Wiggin and the other children at Battle School engage in A War of Gifts (Orson Scott Card, Tor Books, 2013) due to the schools’ regulations on celebrating religious holidays. This novella focuses heavily on the divide between those who wish to celebrate and those who feel the celebrations can detract and distance people from the needs of the school.

Several collections of science fiction holiday tales have been published over the years. The earliest of these is Christmas on Ganymede and Other Stories (Martin Greenberg ed., 1991). It includes Christmas tales from noted authors like Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Michael Swanwick, Frederik Pohl, Gordon R. Dickson, and Connie Willis. Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (Gardner Dozois ed., 1997) features short stories collected from the pages of Isaac Asimov Magazine. Baen Books released a pair of Christmas-themed science fiction collections, A Cosmic Christmas (Hank Davis ed., 2012) and A Cosmic Christmas 2 You (Hank Davis ed., 2013).

Science fiction and Christmas are found together, even though it is rarer than in fantasy. Those stories that do embrace the holiday are there to delight us all. Regardless of genre or medium, may you find wonderful books and stories beneath your tree, and may your Christmas be magical and wondrous.

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