How To Invent Everything

How To Invent Everything: A Survival Guide for the Stranded Time Traveler
By Ryan North

Given the popularity of apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenarios in today’s SF and speculative fiction, it’s not too surprising that there has been a corresponding interest in how to survive such catastrophes as environmental collapse, alien invasion, and zombie plagues.

Ryan North’s How To Invent Everything is a work that takes a similar staring point to Sam Sheridan’s The Disaster Diaries, this time imagining the reader as a time traveler whose FC3000 personal time travel device has malfunctioned, stranding them in the past. Since the FC3000 cannot be repaired, this user’s guide suggests ways for the chrononaut to nudge scientific progress along, or even “build a civilization from the ground up.”

What this is then is an entertaining and informative survey of Big History, taking us through the essential highlights of human invention from agriculture and writing to buttons and baby forceps. And as a guidebook it may be worth holding on to even if we never do figure out time travel. There may be another dark age ahead, requiring us to build our civilization from scratch all over again.

Sci-Fi Chronicles

Sci-Fi Chronicles
Ed. by Guy Haley

Reference books are a tough market in the days of Google and Wikipedia, but Sci-Fi Chronicles is one worth checking out. A combination timeline and encyclopedia of the genre, it’s a terrific compilation of information that’s lavishly illustrated and surprisingly well written. Covering fiction, film, television, and videogames, it’s the kind of guide that invites a browsing frenzy. One can quibble over some of the selections (I would have left out the superheroes), and biases (Asian SF isn’t well represented), but overall the coverage is excellent, ranging from the giant franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars to entries on leading authors of the golden age.

Last Futures

Last Futures: Nature, Technology and the End of Architecture
By Douglas Murphy

It may seem odd to include a book on architecture in the second half of the twentieth century as part of a science fiction column, but how we imagined the future in the past, and how we thought we might live in different ways on Earth (as well as in space and on other planets), is very much part of the same speculative enterprise.

Douglas Murphy discusses many of the essential elements and iconic buildings from the age of modularity, glass envelopes, and the mega-structure, but it’s his interpretation of the meaning of it all that make this such a fascinating book. The cover photograph of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome from Montreal’s Expo ’67 engulfed in flames sets the tone: a blazing Gotterdammerung marking the end not just of architecture but of optimism and history.

From space exploration our dreams of a final frontier of freedom retreated to cyberspace, and from an attempt to enclose the natural world inside giant glass structures came a rejection of nature entirely, as something alien to human reality. Instead, the future, the world we now live in, would be a more conservative place, one made in the image of capitalism triumphant. Technology wouldn’t liberate us but divide and keep watch over us, and homes would become an asset class.

Just look around.

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Ed. by David Streitfeld

lastinterviewpkdPhilip K. Dick died in 1982 on the cusp of superstardom: just before the release of Blade Runner, the seminal SF film based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and only days after his final interview, which concludes this collection of “conversations.”

Dick had been an important and highly regarded SF writer for years, but it was really only after the success of Blade Runner that he was adopted wholesale by Hollywood and gained a broader reputation as a prophet and guru of the digital age. These interviews reconnect us with the man and shed light on many of his most important themes, such as paranoia and parapsychology. Through it all one senses a personal playfulness and charm, albeit not without some noticeable fraying at the edges of mental health.

Time Travel

Time Travel: A History
By James Gleick

time-travelA lot of the staples of science fiction are impossibilities, finessed by bending the rules of physics or inventing magical technologies. Expeditions outside our own galaxy, for example, are hard to imagine given the immense distances involved. So enter the wormhole and hyperspace drives. And time travel will never be anything more than a thought experiment. Unless you could build a time machine.

Time travel has a long history, going back to the publication of H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine in 1895. James Gleick describes this history in Time Travel, providing a fascinating cultural history of the idea as it has been explored both in science and in fiction. The style is much like that of the literary critic Hugh Kenner, handling a wide and deep swathe of twentieth-century art and thought in a way that teases us into further contemplation of all the cultural crossways being mapped.

Finally, however, it all remains a tease. Time is a vague concept whose meaning (and even reality) is hard to pin down. We can only say a lot about what’s been said about it, which is a history still being written.

What Makes This Book So Great

What Makes This Book So Great
By Jo Walton

whatmakesIn 2012 Montreal resident Jo Walton won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Among Others, a novel about a young girl’s love for classic SF. It was obviously a book close to Walton’s heart, as she is both an indefatigable reader and someone who really enjoys talking about what she reads. Since 2008 she has been writing a reader’s blog for the SF publisher Tor, from which this collection of over 130 short essays is drawn.

As befits their origin, these aren’t so much in-depth critical reviews or even sketches of classics revisited as they are brief, informal appreciations of sometimes obscure favourites that Walton has found herself re-reading. A pair of authors who aren’t household names — Lois McMaster Bujold and Steven Brust — are particularly well represented, while in thematic essays interesting topics such as genre fiction’s use of blue language and what to do when a promising multi-volume series goes to the dogs are addressed. A well-informed and thoroughly engaging companion, especially for fans of contemporary SF.

The Disaster Diaries

The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse
By Sam Sheridan

thedisasterdiariesThe British novelist E. M. Forster thought the characteristic tragedy facing Englishmen of his day was to prepare for a test that never came. One wonders what he would have thought of The Disaster Diaries, a survivalist handbook instructing anxious readers on how to best prepare for earthquakes, tsunamis, global pandemics, asteroid strikes, nuclear war, alien invasion, a zombie apocalypse, and just about every other variety of TEOTWAWKI you can think of (the acronym stands for The End Of The World As We Know It).

In chapters framed by fictional end-of-the-world vignettes, Sheridan discusses his training in important post-apocalyptic survivalist skills like fitness, emergency medical treatment, weapons handling, the martial arts, and the ability to hunt and forage for food. It’s not meant as satire, but it isn’t all paranoia either. Sheridan believes that cultivating self-reliance is healthy come what may, and he provides a number of tips that might come in handy even before the end of the world.

Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction

Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction
By David Seed

very short introductionDavid Seed knows the field of science fiction well, and is fully qualified to helm this volume in the Oxford Very Short Introduction series. It does read, however, a bit more like a course outline than an introduction, providing a sort of annotated reading list organized around various themes in SF: space voyages, aliens, utopias and dystopias, technology, and time travel.

The book covers this ground nicely, though it has some limitations. In the first place, it deals almost exclusively with British and American SF. In the second, it remains vague when it comes to the difficult but necessary business of defining terms, beginning by describing “science fiction” itself as not a genre but a “mode” of writing constituting “an embodied thought experiment whereby aspects of our familiar reality are transformed or suspended.” Such conceptual broadness occasionally leads into deeper waters, as when Seed concludes that “because social estrangement is central to African American writing, and because those narratives tend to articulate a utopian desire for freedom, it is scarcely an exaggeration to argue that all African American writing is science fiction.”

Well, we could argue about that one. Leaving such topics for debate aside, however, this is an excellent brief guide to a complex subject and one that will be easy to fit on every SF lover’s shelf.