The Midwich Cuckoos
By John Wyndham
The Midwich Cuckoos spends a lot of time locating Midwich in relation to the roads that lead in and out of it and its proximity to neighbouring communities, but I was at first confused as to when it was set. It was first published in 1957 but for some reason I thought it had been written earlier. The town itself is described as existing in a “thousand-year doze,” and it has the same cozy air of 1930s golden age detective fiction that triggered Brian Aldiss’s “cosy catastrophe” critique of The Day of the Triffids. There’s no reference to any war, past or present, or much in the way of technology. In short, it could be taking place at any time, though certainly not anywhere.
You then notice odd things you wouldn’t see in a cozy novel, though they are still only suggested. The minister’s wife has had an abortion. The town has a lesbian couple. And as for the aliens, they’re either sex tourists or practical jokers looking to punk homo sapiens.
It’s an odd mix of what are familiar elements, used again by Wyndham to dramatize his favourite theme of the incompatibility between evolving species. Humanity is something that needs to be surpassed, but only over our dead bodies: a stark message that seems to have become more relevant in our own time.
Kurt Vonnegut: The Complete Novels
By Kurt Vonnegut
Kilgore Trout, a prolific author of paperback SF, is a reccurring character in Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Though not commercially successful, Trout’s books endure hard use, turning into bundles of paper resembling “lopsided old softball[s], swaddled in different sorts of tape.”
If that describes the condition of the Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks on your bookshelf, and it probably does, you might want to treat yourself to this deluxe edition of all fourteen of his novels published by the Library of America. Every title from Player Piano (1952) to Timequake (1997) is included, along with a nice selection of stories, essays, introductions, and other material wrapped up in a four-volume box set.
Vonnegut’s attitude toward SF was ambivalent. On the one hand he was aware of how it could become a dangerous drawer for an author to be placed in, “since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.” He was, however, always drawn to SF as a form of satire, and often used it to explore aspects of our relation to consumer culture and technology that remain relevant today.
R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
By Karel Čapek
It’s ironic that what R. U. R. is best known for today is its introduction of the word “robot” into the English language, when the meaning of that word has changed so completely in the years since. Čapek’s robots aren’t machines but vat-brewed organic constructions. Politically, they are Marx’s proles, Wells’s Morlocks, or plantation zombies: human facsimiles who function as a servile underclass so that a new global aristocracy can be liberated from labour.
Of course things don’t work out. R. U. R. is a comedy of unintended consequences: as humans are freed from labour they find themselves redundant, to the point where they even (voluntarily!) give up breeding. Evolution has been directed to a dead end, and humankind, which Nietzsche thought something to be surpassed, has finally suffered that fate, having engineered itself into a position of superfluity. Meanwhile, our inheritors are left with nothing to do but to continue mass-producing crap for which there is no longer any market. The new Adam and Eve have inherited a sterile wasteland. This is the real singularity we are working toward, and, in retrospect, the best our civilization could do.
The Man in the High Castle
By Philip K. Dick
First published in 1962, Philip K. Dick’s Hugo-winning alternate-history novel (a relatively new genre at the time) has been re-released to coincide with the miniseries being produced under the same name.
The series, however, only borrows the novel’s basic premise: that the Axis powers won WW2 and now the U.S. is occupied by the Nazis in the East and the Imperial Japanese in the West, with a neutral zone in-between. The plot of the novel is a loose, hard to summarize affair, following the adventures of a number of tangentially connected characters as they struggle to adapt and survive in this threatening new political environment.
Uncanny and unsettling, The Man in the High Castle is also one of Dick’s most accessible books, moving beyond politics into the sort of speculations he is famous for about the nature of reality and who the ultimate author of the script of our lives might be.
The Invention of Morel
By Adolfo Bioy Casares (translated by Ruth L. C. Simms)
I don’t know to what extent La invención de Morel would have been considered SF in 1940, the year it was first published, but if we can think of a book as becoming science fiction then it certainly qualifies.
The scientist Morel is more our contemporary than Dr. Moreau, that other island visionary-despot Casares apparently named him after. Technology has gone a long way toward realizing the novel’s imagining of the fantastic, and I think any twenty-first century reader will quickly recognize the holograms and the island as a paradise that foreshadows the rapture of the nerds, with consciousness uploaded to the cloud (or tides). It’s taken a while, but at last we’ve come within sight of the realization of our spiritual yearning to shuffle off our mortal coil and consummate our virtual destiny. We aren’t there yet, but we’ve almost managed to invent Morel.
The Shrinking Man
By Richard Matheson
We don’t often think of the mid-1950s as marking the beginning of the decline of the American male, but if writers are the antennae of the race then maybe Richard Matheson was ahead of the game.
Clearly Scott Carey represents a man who is shrinking in more ways than one: unable to provide for his family, the fallout from an unfortunate accident involving a radioactive mist only makes his diminishment more obvious. Becoming another of literature’s underground men, his humiliation and suffering (he is infantilized, feminized, and effectively emasculated despite feeling abiding, if not amplified, sexual desire) is exquisitely, almost sadistically rendered in not just one of the best SF novels of the golden age but one of the masterworks of American storytelling.
It’s also one of the more depressing novels I’ve read, being a kind of allegorical essay on the ultimate loneliness and alienation of the human condition. Nevertheless, Matheson can’t resist giving Carey a kind of (mock) epic heroism, and the final note is one of American optimism as the tiny hero looks out upon a new, sub-atomic frontier to conquer. Paradoxically, being a shrinking man has enlarged his horizons. A solitary Adam can still be master of his domain.
The Sirens of Titan
By Kurt Vonnegut
Douglas Adams was a big admirer of this book, and in its explanation (or justification) of all of Earth’s history as the fulfilment of some banal and mechanical alien purpose he probably also took some inspiration.
Of course Vonnegut and Adams were both comic authors, but comic in a deeper sense than the word is often used. The Sirens of Titan makes peace with an absurd universe. Characters are dust, mere playthings in the hands of an indifferent God, aliens, or the author. Human agency is little more than the ability to press the big red ON button that starts one’s spaceship. People experience love and death, aging, loss, and loneliness, but it’s all part of the cosmic joke. We take such matters seriously because we have to, but we know they’re accidental.
The peripatetic plot, with Malachi Constant wandering about our solar system, underlines this sense of randomness, while at the same time insisting on the importance of the connections we make. The sirens that draw Malachi to Titan are fake, even tacky, pool ornaments, but like everything else in the junkyard of the universe they are not without meaning and consequence.