The Man in the High Castle

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

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

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

The Sirens of Titan
By Kurt Vonnegut

sirens-of-titanDouglas 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.

American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s

American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s
Ed. by Gary K. Wolfe

americansciencefictionFans of vintage SF will rejoice at this deluxe edition of nine classic novels from SF’s Golden Age. Picking a favourite is impossible: time travel, space opera, dystopic visions, science fantasy, and post-apocalyptic adventures are all on tap, and in some cases they’ve never been handled better. Of course there’s a 1950s flavour to the proceedings — this is the future that was — but at the same time it’s remarkable how lightly these novels wear their age. In large part that’s because their influence has been so great. It was the science fiction of the ’50s that defined the genre as it’s still practiced today, and we’re still exploring worlds that these authors first imagined.

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic
By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (translated by Olena Bormashenko)

roadsidepicnicIn her review of the first English translation of Roadside Picnic (in 1977), Ursula K. Le Guin thought the setting was “perhaps Canada.” The location is actually unspecified, aside from the fact that it is not Russia (because “in Russia they’ve never even heard of stalkers”). What this means is that Harmont is, in fact, somewhere in Russia. Or at least the Soviet Union. The locals are police, bureaucrats, or underworld figures, while the Zone is a blighted rust belt, a polluted wasteland filled with post-industrial wreckage.

SF comes in different cultural flavours. The alien visitors here are unknowable gods, their ways mysterious beyond human understanding. An unbridgeable gap divides them from us. Red Schuhart, meanwhile, carries the revolutionary banner for humanity, charging the barricade while roaring about liberty, fraternity, and equality. No, we’re not in Canada.