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.

Imaginary Friends

Imaginary Friends
By Arlene F. Marks

It’s always a treat to open a debut collection of short stories from an author who has been publishing them for years. That’s the case again here with Imaginary Friends, where the contents are a mix of old and new, and range from fantasy to horror to science fiction, and from quick sketches to a novella about pioneers on another planet.

Underlying all of it is Marks’s fascination with storytelling itself. Without becoming overly meta she presents characters who feel aware in different ways of the genre they find themselves performing in, conscious of being a part of stories that they both shape and are shaped by. Examples include a vampire, a neighbourhood witch, a superhero, and even the devil himself, all transposed to new surroundings (Old Scratch is at a computer store looking to update his office networking system). The results take us on unexpected diversions into new fictional territory, but with some familiar characters as our guides.

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!!!!!!

Voices from the Radium Age

Voices from the Radium Age
Ed. by Joshua Glenn

Defining genres and literary periods can be a tricky business. As an example, in this new series from MIT Press Joshua Glenn looks to brand the science fiction written between 1900 and 1935 as the Radium Age, which he sees as an interregnum between the scientific romances of the nineteenth century and the golden age of the American SF pulps that took off in the 1930s.

Whatever you think of the Radium Age as a label, this first volume is a great launch, containing a good mix of stories from some big names (E. M. Forster, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London, W. E. B. Du Bois) and a few that should be better known (Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, William Hope Hodgson and Neil R. Jones). The nature of the Radium Age, and whether these works can or should be read as proto-SF or something else, is a matter fans can debate. But even if you’re just looking for old-school adventure mixed with still trenchant social allegory this is a line-up full of winners. The rest of the series promises to be a just as big a treat, and with cover designs by Guelph artist Seth they’re nice to look at too.

How High We Go in the Dark

How High We Go in the Dark
By Sequoia Nagamatsu

A collection of linked short stories dealing with the effects of an “Arctic plague” of alien origin released by melting Siberian permafrost might seem very timely in 2022. This makes it all the more remarkable that How High We Go in the Dark was mostly completed before 2020 and the outbreak of COVID.

The actual working of the plague — which causes organs to start copying the function of other organs, with predictably disastrous results — aren’t as important as its human impact. These are stories (calling it a novel seems more about marketing) that deal with the subject of grief and loss, especially as felt by parents and their children. Broader considerations also come in to play, however, as the pandemic impacts on both a personal and political level. The funerary industry, for example, becomes a major growth sector almost overnight. It turns out that mass die-offs are good for some parts of the economy.

In the face of so much death, science throws up various surrogates for lost loved ones and family members: talking pigs, robot dogs, and even plasticized corpses. Given the subject matter, Sequoia Nagamatsu has to occasionally walk a fine line to avoid falling into sentiment. That he does so is a tribute to his imaginative range and how finely he explores the psychological ramifications of the end of our world.

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells

Selected Stories of H. G. Wells
Ed. by Ursula K. Le Guin

A lot of successful novelists see short stories as little more than finger exercises: warm-ups for more substantial work. I think this was how H. G. Wells saw them, considering stories as too restricted in both form and effect to bother with as much in his later career. That said, he wrote a lot of great stories and they’re nicely sampled here by Ursula K. Le Guin, who also does a great job introducing them.

Some preoccupations, for example flight, would be developed at greater length in Wells’ novels. Others, like out-of-body experiences and transferals of consciousness didn’t make it out of the stories. Le Guin correctly makes the point that SF doesn’t really deal with the matter of predictions, preferring “warning, speculations, and alternatives,” but Wells may be taken as an outlier here as many of his works were remarkably prescient. For example, the pale-faced clerks working “The Land Ironclads” (forerunners of tanks) are moving the same knobs and pressing the same buttons as they operate drones today.

The final stories veer into fantasy and fable, following an arc Wells’ career also described. But while they don’t have quite the same threatening edge, they do illustrate abiding themes in Wells’s work – ones that still resonate today.

The Machine Stops

The Machine Stops
By E. M. Forster

SF authors score a lot of points for getting the future right, and E. M. Forster’s 1909 novella (or “meditation,” as he calls it) looks pretty good with a century-plus of hindsight.

Most of humanity have moved underground where they live in monastic cells, cared for by a mighty Machine and basically devolving into giant grubs (“white pap,” or a fungus) while connecting to others virtually by way of a proto-Internet. The pursuit of comfort has led to a paradoxical decadence: a “civilization” given over entirely to the life of the mind that’s helpless when faced with a mechanical crisis. The lectures and “ideas” that are its raison d’être all have to do with history and the arts, and there are no engineers.

Written as a response to The Time Machine, it’s a story that presents a similarly divided world where the Morlocks have gotten soft, and the Eloi more muscular and healthy by living close to nature. But what city would Forster have seen himself being a citizen of? This may be the real meaning of Homelessness.