Anthem

Anthem
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

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.

Projections

Projections
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

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

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.

The Invincible

The Invincible
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

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

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.

We

We
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.