Invasion of the Body Snatchers
By Jack Finney
The idea that the moral community of decent American folk is actually a façade, with all kinds of evil and corruption bubbling beneath, goes back at least as far as Hawthorne. In the twentieth century it would really take off, however, from Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt down to present day tales of the suburban “serial killer next door.”
Jack Finney’s 1955 novel is certainly part of this tradition, and its parable of the enemy within has stayed with us. In itself it’s a thrilling page-turner — as you might expect given its initial serial publication (in Collier’s Magazine as The Body Snatchers). There are some memorable dramatic scenes (I like the trip to the library best) and effective moments of social commentary. The ending is no good, but much the same could be said of the one they tacked onto Don Siegel’s film version. A blemish in both cases, but they’re still classics.
By Stanislaw Lem (translated by Bill Johnston)
The Polish author Stanislaw Lem was one of the true giants of SF, but his works have often been hard to track down in good English-language versions. It was a signal event then when MIT Press recently acquired the English rights to six Lem titles, which they have now brought out in a series with some fresh translations, great cover art, and new introductions. I hope we’ll soon see more!
The Invincible, which is one of the initial six, is characteristic of Lem’s SF, telling the story of a spaceship sent to investigate the disappearance of a previous ship on Regis III. Exploring the planet, they discover an advanced case of “inanimate evolution”: a vast swarm of tiny mechanical “flies” that appears inimical to all forms of life.
But is the hive a form of life itself? Is it intelligent, or only following instinctual programming? One of Lem’s great themes is the impossibility of communicating with creatures that are incomprehensibly other, giving many of his books a profound and abiding sense of mystery that teases us well past the final page.
The Invisible Man
By H. G. Wells
Because he’s a popular author and one who worked in the field of genre fiction it’s easy to overlook just how good a writer H. G. Wells was.
The premise of an invisible man wasn’t new to Wells, or the destabilizing effect such a power would have on one’s psychology. That goes back to Plato’s telling of the myth of the Ring of Gyges. But the story is told vigorously here, in tight journalistic style (sticking to eyewitness reports, for example), and is given a perfect structure, from beginning mysteriously in the middle of things and expanding from the tavern at Iping until all of England is in a state of national alert: “Griffin contra mundum — with a vengeance!” Wells was an author of ideas, but it’s his narrative chops that make The Invisible Man a classic.
American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s
Ed. by Gary K. Wolfe
This boxed-set two-volume collection of classic American SF novels from the 1960s, part of the distinguished Library of America series, is a must for fans of the period.
Editor Gary K. Wolfe’s previous collection of classic SF novels from the 1950s provided a window into the early days of the genre, when particular tropes were just becoming established. In the ‘60s we see variations and experiments beginning to be played on many of these same themes.
What makes a classic? The eight titles included aren’t the most famous SF novels of the ’60s. Flowers for Algernon is probably the best known after being made into the movie Charly. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that they also made a (very bad) movie out of The High Crusade. Space was a consideration for not including some longer titles, as was whether the author has been published by the Library of America in other volumes (hence no Vonnegut, Dick, or Le Guin here).
It works out for the best though, as these are all great novels that many readers, especially younger ones, may not be familiar with.
By Yevgeny Zamyatin (translated by Natasha Randall)
This is a strange book. Strange primarily in terms of Zamyatin’s style, his deliberately alienating “language of thought” that traps us uncomfortably in the head of the fragmenting and indeed insane mind of D-503 to the point where trying to make any sense out of his impressions becomes futile. A “multicolored noise that stifles the logical process of thought,” we might call it. And no, I’m not even sure what those words might be referring to when read in context.
Also strange, however, is the political angle. A satire on the Russian Revolution, sure, but wasn’t Western industrial society more into the sort of mechanization that’s being sent up here, with Taylor playing the role of Huxley’s Ford in the dystopic vision? It’s curious how all the classic dystopias of this period took as their subject different political routes (socialism, fascism, capitalism) ending up at the same point. That We would influence subsequent works as diverse as 1984 and Anthem is telling. The technology of power is non-denominational.
By. L. P. Hartley
Postwar England was, by most accounts, a grim place. L. P. Hartley, someone who even snobs thought of as a snob, renders it as a bleak land stuck in a “perpetual March” of what may be nuclear winter. The colourless landscape mirrors a social order even more gray, with the keynote being a fetishization of equality that levels every hill and fills up every valley.
The effect of this has been to depoliticize the citizens of the New Nanny State, with the populace (known as delinquents and patients) being like children: mostly asexual and expressing themselves by way of rote alliterative baby-talk.
It’s an odd vision of dystopia, headed by the mysterious figure of the Dear Dictator, a sort of reluctant, even depressed Big Brother. This is less a police state than an adult day care, and one with all sorts of paradoxes that don’t sort out, like the sexism of the signature plastic surgery to alter women’s faces.
A real oddity, more a personal grouse than any kind of coherent vision of either the ’50s or the future. Still, that’s why I think it lasts.
The High Crusade
By Poul Anderson
There’s a certain kind of time-travel story where the hero goes back in history and kicks ass among our primitive ancestors. Primitive, at least, in the art and technology of kicking ass. It runs from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to the movie The Final Countdown. The High Crusade is an early comic inversion of this, with medieval warriors from Earth hopping on a spaceship and proceeding to colonize more technically advanced civilizations. This is seen as nothing remarkable by their leader. As he puts it, with terrific irony, “Just because we use a different sort of weapons, we aren’t savages.”
And let’s add another SF trope that Poul Anderson was mining in The High Crusade. This is the very strange, at least to my eye, connection between our future and the Middle Ages. Why is it that so many epic visions of things to come are made to look like our medieval past, complete with kings and dukes in castles, and sword-wielding warriors wearing armour? From Asimov’s Imperial Foundation to the deserts of Herbert’s Dune we see the same trappings and tropes being recycled. There’s even a monastic future imagined in works as far removed as Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.
I’m not sure why this is, but Anderson has a lot of fun with it in a story that stands alongside Twain in its playful presentation of a more serious point about the social development — so much faster than biological evolution — of our species. Can we call it progress?
His Master’s Voice
By Stanislaw Lem (translated by Michael Kandel)
It’s a testament to the infectious enthusiasm of his philosophical inquiries that Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice, a book with little plot or even story, wherein nothing much happens but intellectual speculation abounds, is so fascinating even fifty years after its original publication. Indeed one could argue that the ideas it engages with are even more relevant and provocative today.
As an example, near the end of the book there’s a mini-conference where speakers debate the future directed evolution of our species and human society. It doesn’t really connect to much else in the book, and yet it’s the kind of discussion that makes us want to put the book down and think. Not to mention the way that these questions are headline news in the twenty-first century.
The rest of the book is a further exploration of Lem’s favourite theme, that of the fundamental incommunicability, whether through language or any other medium, of individual experience. I think this is his greatest, though not the most dramatic, development of that theme, and one of the most essential works in the history of science fiction.
The Time Machine
By H. G. Wells
While I think Frankenstein deserves its ranking as the first science fiction novel, I give H. G. Wells pride of place as the father of the genre. Not because Wells was always the first (though he often was), but because he established the great archetypes of so many stories. Every alien invasion harkens back to The War of the Worlds, and in The Time Machine he invented time travel, whose long history James Gleick recently explored so well.
It was always part political allegory, and it’s interesting how much of that has stayed with us. The ambiguous myth of the Morlocks still crops up everywhere in popular culture, which is perhaps not so surprising given rising rates of social and economic inequality in our own time. At the end of the nineteenth century progress was being called into question, and degeneration being posited as just as likely an evolutionary outcome. A similar sense of decline seemed to set in at the end of the twentieth century, and has carried over into our own “automatic civilization.” The Time Traveler brought a warning from a future we’re waking up to.