Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (translated by Olena Bormashenko)

The great dividing line between the modern and medieval world is the Enlightenment and the twin revolutions of the end of the eighteenth century. In Marx’s terms this was also the transformation from a feudal to a thoroughly capitalist economy. The dramatic nature of this shift is why medieval times are so often invoked in SF time travel stories, from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court to Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book.

That watershed moment is clearly what’s in play here, as communard historians from a future Soviet Earth visit a planet stuck in the Dark Ages in order to record (but not interfere with) its transition through the historical dialectic of Marxist theory. Along the way, however, a direct comparison is made to the Nazi state, with grays and blacks taking the place of Brownshirts and the Gestapo.

The Strugatskys originally wanted to tell a straight-up adventure story along the lines of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, but there’s something in the idea that necessarily draws us into deeper waters. Dangerous waters too for the Strugatskys, who managed to slip in some criticism of Stalin’s war on the intelligentsia and the corruption of the communist dream. The creeping shadow of darkness that Don Rumata sees overtaking Araknar camouflages the colour of many different shirts and flags.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
By Robert Louis Stevenson

Does this tale of psychological horror count as science fiction? Well, Dr. Jekyll’s experiments in “transcendental medicine” are at least as scientific as those of Dr. Frankenstein and his search for the electrical elixir of life. Both novels also present interesting types of the mad scientist figure who would go on to become such a staple and then a cliché of the genre. They aren’t noble researchers daring to go where no one has gone before in order to benefit mankind and accidentally unleashing demons along the way, but rather obsessive loners who know what they’re doing is wrong. Dr. Jekyll may be a decent fellow in some ways, but he has a double nature and wants to unleash his dark side. His conclusion is justifiably pessimistic: “Other will follow, others will outstrip me on the same lines.”

Store of the Worlds

Store of the Worlds
By Robert Sheckley

The introduction to this collection of pieces by Robert Sheckley calls them “perfect stories of their type.” The type in this case being SF, mainly published in Galaxy Magazine in the 1950s. In other words, pure pulp. But they are indeed perfect examples of that type. They’re great pulp fiction.

What this means is that they showcase clever ideas, often playing with odd points of view or tricks of narrative perspective, along with tidy dramatic plots resolved by way of artful, not-quite-surprising twists. A satiric note is sounded throughout, which only gets darker and more prophetic in the later efforts (with Galaxy left behind for Playboy), a pessimistic turn that says a lot about where faith in American culture was heading).

The 1950s can be seen as a transition period in SF, moving from the Golden Age to the New Wave, and Sheckley has a foot in both worlds. He turns seamlessly from stories about first contact to imagining the perversities of the entertainment-industrial complex and the trippiness of Philip K. Dick. And as with the best speculative fiction of any age, the results still speak directly to us today.

The Clockwork Man

The Clockwork Man
By E. V. Odle

This is an odd, sometimes awkward book, with most of that attributable to it being ahead of its time.

It’s being republished now as part of MIT Press’s Radium Age series, which covers a period that general editor Joshua Glenn sees as being a proto-SF stage of experimentation and flux. So perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised that parts of it don’t come into focus. The Clockwork Man himself, for example, is usually touted as the first cyborg in literature (oddly enough, Karl Čapek’s R.U.R. came out the same year, inventing the robot). But while I think the cyborg label fits, it’s really not clear how the clock mechanism functions, or who the “makers” are and what their purpose was in creating them. Are clockwork people being punished? Has the Clockwork Man escaped, consciously or not, from the multiform world of many dimensions where he is free from the constraints of time and space but is otherwise a slave? Or is his sudden appearance just an accident? These are points I don’t think Odle was much concerned with, but they seem important.

Of course, the book is really about life in England in 1923, and the Clockwork Man is only window-dressing. After opening on the cricket pitch (a game more confusing to me than the Man himself when he appears) we settle into life in Great Wymering, which isn’t quite as cozy as it sounds. Doctor Allingham is all used up at the age of 40, settling into life as a bitter grouch. But then, as the cricket captain Gregg explains, the human organism is showing signs of breaking down everywhere “under the strain of an increasingly complex civilization.” Directed and expedited evolution – that is, having a clock installed – is one way of coping. Unfortunately, even with upgrades we still break down.

The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
By Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles was published in 1950, the same year as that other great “fix-up” of short stories “pretending to be a novel,” Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. I don’t think it’s as coherent as Asimov’s book, but that may have just as much to do with how odd a talent Bradbury was.

Is it even science fiction? Bradbury thought the label a “misfit,” but I would say yes, if only for the picturesque “old Mars” setting (inspired by Burroughs) and the presence of rocket ships. But it has many other genre influences, in particular horror (one story has a Martian colonist a little too taken with the works of Poe) and the Western. With regard to the latter, the populating of Mars is an accelerated version of the mythic settling of the West, as the stories describe the displacement of the indigenous Martians by freedom-loving capitalists (one wants to set up a hotdog stand, and all are passionately against government red-tape). Finally, the last immigrants/refugees from an exploded Earth take on the role of the next generation of American Adams, ready to (re)build a classic mid-Western small-town on a hill.

It’s a book still much beloved of young people today, despite having dated quite badly. But even in 1950 I think it was more nostalgic than speculative. One wonders how much of the myth is left. Of course we haven’t been able to believe in this vision of Mars since Mariner 4 took the first close-up pictures of the red planet in 1964. But perhaps more to the point, can we still believe in this vision of America?

I, Robot

I, Robot
By Isaac Asimov

While acknowledging the contributions of Karel Čapek, whose R.U.R. introduced us to the word “robot,” and Earl and Otto (Eando) Binder whose 1939 short story “I, Robot” provided inspiration as well as a title (chosen by Asimov’s publisher, much to Asimov’s chagrin), I, Robot is the seminal work on robotics in science fiction.

A collection of linked short stories (or “fix-up”) first published throughout the 1940s, I, Robot spins a remarkably rich and coherent story of the evolution of robots from speechless domestic pets to world-governing AIs all out of the now famous Three Laws of Robotics. With the recurring characters of robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin and the Charters and Caldicott team of troubleshooters Powell and Donovan to provide a human baseline, we can chart the progression of the positronic brain from infancy to adulthood, just as humans regress into self-important helplessness.

The Machines of the final story are best able to understand the various psychohistorical forces (to use the language of Hari Seldon) that shape the rise and fall of civilizations. This isn’t the same as saying they’re in the driver’s seat, but humankind has clearly been surpassed. While early stories play with the notion of individual robots becoming aware of their manifest superiority, it isn’t until the finale that they achieve class consciousness.

I, Robot is one of the four or five most influential works of science fiction ever, and it’s still a great read. But, a bit sadly, it leaves one feeling nostalgia for a time when we could still believe in AI being so benign, and before the window for the Machines saving us had closed.

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man

The Dream of a Ridiculous Man
By Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by David Magarshack)

Calling this 1877 story science fiction is admittedly a stretch, but its trip to the stars and visit to an alternate Earth taps into a rich and very long tradition of works we can think of as proto-SF. The dream vision wherein a narrator is whisked away by an angelic figure to a new world that gives him some signal insights into his own goes back to Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, and the allegorical strain in such speculative work is still with us in a lot of SF today.

The parable that’s presented is simple enough. The narrator, a man who has given up on life and is contemplating blowing his brains out, is transported to a new Earth and specifically a Greek isle of Eden that he proceeds to corrupt inadvertently through his mere presence. The dwellers in the garden seem happy, but they are unaware yet that one cannot really know love, truth, or beauty without suffering. This is the narrator’s gift to them, and though they make little use of it, throwing their lot in with reason and science, he is determined to bring the same message to us when he wakes from his dream and adopts the mantle of Holy Fool, the ridiculous man.

So proto-SF of a sort, anti-SF as well, and Russian SF in the spiritual and humanistic way that Tarkovsky’s Solaris would set out to answer Kubrick’s 2001. And still relevant, because a century and a half later we’re still not sure to what extent knowledge and truth are opposed values.

Moderan

Moderan
By David R. Bunch

This collection of stories, published over a 30-year period and set in the post-apocalyptic, pounded-plastic landscape of Moderan, can be a hard slog to read from cover-to-cover because there’s little through narrative and a lot of repetition. It makes up for this though in stylistic exuberance and the narrator’s enthusiasm for turning the volume up to 11. His percussive shouting and long trails of violent exclamation marks mimic the explosive nature of Moderan life: “WOOOO WOOOO WOW WOW WOW WOWEEE!!!!!!” The upshot is that you keep thinking something important is happening or being said, even when it’s all the same.

Life in Moderan is a paradox. On the one hand, its machine-men – organs replaced by a system of mechanical parts decorated with flesh strips – are eternal. On the other, they are stuck in an endless round of battle that doesn’t progress but only struggles toward annihilation. Existence is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and long.

Though ostensibly Nietzschean (“power is joy; strength is pleasure”) the real presiding spirit is Hobbes. Stronghold 10 isn’t one of the Übermensch but a Last Man: bunkered down behind eleven steel walls, isolated in his man cave’s hip-snuggie chair, eyes glued to his security monitors, and cowering in a hate-filled fear that has him launching doll bombs, White Witch missiles, man-blammers, and even Grandy Wumps at everyone and everything in range.

A philosophical satire then, on militarism and masculinity and everything mechanical and hard and fast. Progress as a dead end, with man’s final evolution into a state of solipsistic techno-Nirvana. Then waking up to do it all over again. WOWEEE!!!!!!

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said
By Philip K. Dick

A messy, dog’s breakfast of a novel, but one that gives us Philip K. Dick at perhaps his most mind-bendingly Dickish. There’s the skeleton of a decent pulp-thriller plot, with a groovy ‘70s vibe, given a mystical overlay that finally resolves into a techno-apocalypse revealing man to be, once again, the plaything of fate.

Celebrity crooner Jason Taverner wakes up one day to find his fame, and indeed everything else about his life, has been erased. This is something that’s hard to imagine happening in post-Second Civil War America, where Black citizens are sterilized, university students wage a guerilla war from underground campuses, and police surveillance is everywhere in what has become a paranoid “betrayal state.” But it seems someone — not Jason — has been experimenting with the multiple-space-inclusion drug KR-3, which has the effect of bending reality.

The fact that the book is about Jason but it’s not his trip is what I find to be the most intriguing thing going on. Jason and his Javert, Felix Buckman, are the two main characters, but they don’t drive the plot. Instead they are flotsam caught up in the druggy fantasy of Buckman’s sister/wife Alys.

Flow My Tears is a novel of tricky depths that I keep getting pulled back into. Dick thought it was about the return of Christ, or about love, but neither explanation clicks for me. Both Taverner and Buckman remain dislikeable and unredeemed: the former a sleazy member of a genetic overclass and the latter a corrupt, self-absorbed official arrogant with bureaucratic power. They are two characters in search of an author, while God lies dead from an overdose on the bathroom floor.