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.
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.