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.
By Mary Shelley
Frankenstein is, I think by broad consensus, the first science fiction novel. Yes, the science is only glanced at, and in the 1831 edition is actually played down to the point where it’s unclear even in the most general terms how Victor Frankenstein gives life to his creation. But it’s clear that Victor isn’t using black magic to raise the dead, and as a type of the mad scientist he would go on to have a long life within the genre. Such figures aren’t punished by God or the gods (indeed we can’t even be sure if either Victor or his creation has read the Bible) but instead must be judged by the results of their experiments. After all, Victor can’t really help himself when it comes to pursuing his passions. Elizabeth is such a cold figure — more sister than lover — and he’s so lonely. The Creature is his true love, albeit of the type one regrets in the morning.
By J. G. Ballard
Is it science fiction? Well, it’s prophetic. It describes itself, paradoxically, as a vision of “a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.” Shouldn’t that mean that its particular dystopic vision is now passé?
Not quite. This is a novel that juxtaposes the shallow surface of modern life with its lower depths, inviting all kinds of obvious Freudian and Marxist interpretations. The abyss, however, abides, which is why we continue to see so much of ourselves in the residents of the high-rise. Their need for comfort and security, for example, and their selfishness and narcissism are drives no less important than their unleashed libidos. Wilder’s camera would be a cellphone now, but otherwise it seems very familiar.
As a vision of the end of the world High-Rise is as resonant now as ever. This may well be the way the world ends: locked inside our dirty apartments, drowning in our own filth, and each of us (even, or especially, those of us with families) entirely alone. If not happy, at least content.
Make Room! Make Room!
By Harry Harrison
No, soylent isn’t people in this 1966 novel, which was the basis for the 1973 film Soylent Green. In fact, the movie didn’t have much to do with Harry Harrison’s book at all, aside from the general message about overpopulation.
Reading it today, I find that message to be the least pressing part. We’re no longer so hung up on contraception, and the big scary numbers don’t impress. In the novel, on the eve of the millennium the population of the U.S. is 344 million and the global population 7 billion. It took a bit longer, but both numbers have been surpassed. The population of NYC is high at 35 million (it’s only 8.5 million today), but it’s not out of the ballpark for the global champs.
Instead, what still seems most relevant is the vision of a future running out of resources (fresh water, oil, food, living space), and the enormous gap between a very small elite and the miserable masses. Both the material and moral collapse of society are nicely realized in a naturalistic tale of crime and punishment that still has teeth.
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.