Paris in the Twentieth Century
By Jules Verne
It’s a commonplace that science fiction shouldn’t be judged on how accurately it predicts the future, which is something it only occasionally attempts anyway. Reading Paris in the Twentieth Century we can gasp at the ubiquitous horseless carriages in the streets and elevated trains running on magnets, the use of “photographic telegraphy” to send faxes worldwide instantly and the execution of criminals by electricity, all of which was prophetic in 1863, but then wince at the way global capitalism has made war obsolete. But this ledger of hits and misses is mostly window dressing.
What lasts is the evocation of the spirit of an age still recognizably our own, beginning with an account of the decline of the Humanities and the more general transformation of education into an industry serving market demands. In 1860 sixteen-year-old Michel Dufrénoy has graduated from the state school system with a proficiency in Latin and a Romantic yearning for the “ultimate limits of ethereal poetry,” all of which makes him totally unsuited for the modern workplace. He wants “to be an artist in an age when art is dead!” Good luck with that.
Verne’s editor hated it, and it’s not hard to see why. There’s not much of a story and the mood is a lot bleaker than that of the Extraordinary Voyages. The manuscript was only discovered in 1989 by Verne’s great-grandson, locked in a safe and all but forgotten. This seems apt. A civilization dedicated to progress is one without a past: its great books abandoned (“everyone was getting rid of them!”) and their authors’ names all but erased from their graves. The nineteenth century had plenty of doubts about where it was going. Our own fears take the form of a more immediate and systemic collapse. Is that progress?
By Thomas More
I think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deserves its status as the first science fiction novel. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t a lot of precursors.
The utopian theme is a big one in SF, with its journey to another world or society that turns into a commentary on our own. Indeed, this is something fundamental to the vision of most speculative/futuristic works. When writing about the future (or the past, in a historical novel), we’re always writing about today, projecting our present concerns and anxieties.
And so Thomas More’s fanciful tale of an island republic is an essay on the “state of England,” the only question being how ironically it’s meant to be read. I think the gold chamber pots and communal dining halls are just window dressing on a passionate critique of the moral and political failures of the English ruling class. A critique that resonates just as much today as it did five hundred years ago.
By Arthur C. Clarke
Arthur C. Clarke was a man of science, but at the time of writing Childhood’s End he’d been much taken with various paranormal investigations. The result is this curious blend of science and speculative mysticism that has humankind achieving its destiny by developing into something strange and new.
You can’t call it evolution since there is no adaptation through natural selection to a changing environment. Instead, the New Man is born of the Last Man like a butterfly bursting forth spontaneously from its cocoon, an event that has apparently been our fate since the dawn of time. And what an ambiguous destiny it is! Gone are all those ingenious, lovely things like creativity, imagination, and emotion, adventure, science, art, and religion. Gone is the individual. All hail group consciousness and absorption into the collective Overmind! If this is the way the world ends, count me as disappointed.
Erich von Däniken must have been taking notes, as the demonic appearance of the Overlords is credited specifically to our species’ memory “not of the past, but of the future” (the original German title of Chariots of the Gods was Erinnerungen an die Zukunft, or Memories of the Future). In a 2000 Foreword Clarke takes responsibility for contributing to the subsequent fin-de-siècle flood of “mind-rotting bilge about UFOs, psychic powers, astrology, pyramid energies, channeling – you name it.” But does that mean he disowned Childhood’s End? Not a bit. It remained one of his favourite books, and was “a work of fiction, for heaven’s sake!”
By Ayn Rand
I first read Anthem in high school, which is when I think most people initially get exposed to Ayn Rand. I remember picking it off a rack of paperbacks in the library and only reading it because it was short. I don’t think I liked it very much.
Today it strikes me as even less interesting, being only a strident warning about the horrors of a post-collapse collectivist dystopia somewhat akin to Yevgeny’s Zamyatin’s We (though Rand never acknowledged any debt). As in Zamyatin (and Orwell’s 1984) dissident thoughts are triggered by the appearance of an Eve in the worker’s paradise. Rest assured no amount of central planning is going to be able to frustrate evolution, or stop Rand’s new gods, ensconced on their Nietzschean mountaintop, from repopulating the world with their divine seed.
A parable, but one that at least has the virtue of being quick about its business. This time around it made me think of Rand as de Sade. Not for the cruelty in her vision of man as a selfish and intensely anti-social animal, or even for the torture scene with the men naked but for their leather aprons and hoods, but for the way this book holds a place in the author’s oeuvre much like Justine does in de Sade’s. What I mean is that it’s a condensed expression of her philosophy that makes reading later bricks like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged unnecessary. Also like de Sade is Rand’s willingness to push a particular point of view to an extreme. You can tell why, like de Sade, Rand became a cult figure. If you sign on to this kind of angry, no-prisoners libertarianism then she’s your go-to guide and guru. And nearly a hundred years later she still is.
A Maze of Death
By Philip K. Dick
Existential/absurdist drama meets And Then There Were None and/or Lord of the Flies. Or were such sources all that different in the first place?
Philip K. Dick seems to have been a pretty horrible person, but I do love his books. They’re provocative and playful at the same time. The philosophical point being entertained here has to do with reality being a shared dream, though at least in this case one that involves some human agency. Technology helps make the dream real, and we’re not far removed from the kind of thing we’d be fed on the big screen a quarter-century later in what I’ve called elsewhere the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998 and The Matrix, Dark City, and The Truman Show). Being ahead of the curve this far is what gets an author a reputation for being a prophet.
That agency I mentioned is of little comfort to the dreamers, who wake from their collective nightmare to a reality even worse than that of being hunted like rats in a maze, a maze from which death is the only escape. Put another way: hell is other people, but what else gives life meaning? Share a nightmare then, or go sadly forth to meet the Truth by oneself in “emptiness, meaninglessness, and solitude”? What a choice to have to make! Better to have never been born.
Ed. by Rebecca Romney
In her introduction to this neat anthology of classic SF tales Rebecca Romney informs us that “it isn’t a science-fiction writer’s job to predict the future.” What they’re more inclined toward is projecting contemporary anxieties. If some present trends were to continue, what would the world look like? And what does that tell us about the way we live now?
That said, if we were giving out prize crystal balls the winners here would probably be Murray Leinster’s 1946 story about what happens when an AI loses its guardrails and James Blish’s early take on global warming. But stories less about technology and more into exploring the changing ways we relate to one another, like Doris Pitkin Buck’s “Birth of a Gardener” and J. G. Ballard’s “The Intensive Care Unit” also hit us with a shock of recognition.
The neatest thing about Projections, though, is its design, by the Albertan publishing team of Hingston & Olsen. The twelve stories, plus Romney’s introduction, are in separate booklets attractively packed into a custom-made box that make it a terrific keepsake and gift idea as well as full of lots of great reading.
The Puppet Masters
By Robert A. Heinlein
A rollicking anti-communist screed from the height of the Red Scare has the titular slugs or “titans” infiltrating America from one of Saturn’s moons, or more directly and proximately from “behind the Curtain.” It’s a wild, nude roller-coaster ride of a novel, and perhaps the first to feature aliens as body-snatchers. With or without the politics that enemy within would become a major theme in ’50s SF.
A right-winger of the libertarian school, Heinlein was an exact contemporary and political soulmate of Ayn Rand. Meaning he wasn’t just against commies, but against weak, ineffective, “bureaucratic” government at home as well. The price of freedom isn’t just eternal vigilance but eternal violence, ferocity, and hate in the biological war of all against all. Sam and Mary won’t just beat the slugs on the battlefield but in the bedroom as well because they are breeders. Long live the race!
Lending support to the maxim that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, even in regions where the slugs have taken over the economy still functions the same way, with the same division of labour and even bankers (as “silly” as it seems) staying on to provide the essential function of maintaining liquidity in the financial system. Suggesting that the slugs, if they aren’t stopped, may be on their way to the same ironic fate as our mechanical inheritors in Čapek’s R.U.R. They’re about to get really bored, to the point where they can only despair at the pointlessness of it all.
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.