The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World
By Claire Tomalin
Herbert George Wells may not have been the father of science fiction, but he was probably its single most influential practitioner, inventing types of stories that have gone on to become standards of the genre, from time travel to alien invasion. It’s also noteworthy that he did this in just a decade’s flurry of activity, from 1895 to 1905, before gradually moving on to other interests like politics and writing a history of the world.
A creative run that lasts for about ten years is typical of most authors, and veteran biographer Claire Tomalin has wisely written a short book focusing on this hyper-productive period in Wells’s life, which was fueled by his passion for sex, socialism and science (in that order). It’s better to give us Wells at his most vital and just skim over the long decline that followed.
Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy
By Desirina Boskovich
The mission statement for this colourful casebook is to provide a “secret history” of science fiction and fantasy by cataloguing some lost, overlooked, or uncompleted works. That second adjective, however, is made to do a lot of work. What counts as overlooked? What makes a book or film obscure or underappreciated? I think it’s great to want to “uncover the work of artists who, for whatever reason, did not receive their due.” But what is any creator due? How much recognition or reward? It’s hard to quantify these things, but I wouldn’t have thought Angela Carter or Mervyn Peake overlooked.
What we have here then is more in the way of a grab-bag, with brief articles mixed in with introductions, interviews, and essays on subjects ranging from books and films to architecture, fashion, and video games. It doesn’t add up to a coherent account of anything in particular – lost, secret or otherwise – but there are some interesting stops along the way and even fans will likely be alerted to some items in the great SF&F tradition that they’ve missed.
Chariots of the Gods
By Erich von Däniken
Non-fiction? Well, I had to stick it in some category.
The great ur-text of the “ancient aliens” thesis hasn’t aged a bit since its first publication in 1968. Meaning it doesn’t make any more sense now than it did then, while maintaining its infectiously optimistic vision of new frontiers. “Once the improbable things that we cannot even conceive of today are shown to be true, as they will be, barriers will fall, allowing free access to the impossibilities the cosmos still conceals.” Who wouldn’t want to sign on to that?
Being picky, what I find most puzzling is the chronology. When, exactly, were our alien forefathers visiting Earth? Von Däniken can’t say. “Thousands of years ago.” Or maybe tens, or hundreds of thousands of years ago. And they kept coming back, at different times, to check on our progress, at various locations all over the world; seeding technologies, and our women. The sons of God or Ancient Ones being predominantly male.
“Certainly the Ark [of the Covenant] was electrically charged!” That exclamatory assuredness is the book’s signature style. What keeps it all going is Von Däniken’s enthusiasm, which has him leaping from scattered evidence to wild conclusions with the energy and nimbleness of a mountain goat. Because references to giants “haunt the pages of almost all ancient books,” for example, that means “they must have existed.” “So let us enter the new world of the improbable with an open mind and bursting with curiosity!” After all, can you prove that ancient aliens didn’t visit Earth?
By Sheryl Vint
This is the second pocket overview of science fiction I’ve looked at recently, the other being David Sneed’s Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction. Sheryl Vint’s book is part of the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series (basically the same sort of thing as the Very Short Introductions) and goes in a slightly different direction while covering many of the same basic tropes and themes.
As one would expect, definitions are front and center. For Vint SF is a genre driven by “engagement with how science and technology change the world, and imagining different worlds in response to social and political issues.” From here things get mushier, as she sees SF as “a way of thinking and perceiving, a toolbox of methods for conceptualizing, intervening in, and living through rapid and widespread sociotechnical change.” She’s less concerned with compiling a catalogue of important authors and titles (though there’s some of that) and more with looking at SF as a “tool for thinking about and intervening in the world” and trying to see “what science fiction can do.”
That’s a big ask for any genre, but Vint took me along with many of her arguments. Her focus is on contemporary SF and its relations to various current anxieties over things like genetic modification, AI, economic change, and even post-colonial theory. Less an introduction and history than an appreciation of the state of science fiction today, including the growing amount of critical writing on it, I found this to be a nice complement to Sneed’s book and one that does a good job covering the essentials.
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.
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: 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
Ed. by David Streitfeld
Philip 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: A History
By James Gleick
A 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.