The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Dying Earth by Jack Vance (1950)

Dying EarthDescribed primarily as a fantasy, I wondered if Jack Vance’s 1950 curio The Dying Earth might find a place in this history of science fiction. After all, it is set way into Earth’s future as the planet is dying. It also occurred to me that it might be resonant to the third of Arthur C Clarke’s ‘law’: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That first appeared in 1973, so I wondered if this was, perhaps, an inspiration.

I read The Dying Earth as part of the Fantasy Masterworks collection Tales of the Dying Earth published by Gollancz in 2002.

I say curio because I was more than surprised to realise that The Dying Earth isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of loosely interconnected short stories all set in the far future where magic is real and humanity has fractured. Everyone knows that earth is on its last legs, and there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of technology. Indeed, wizards and demons are the primary focus of life. Earth has moved on beyond anything recognisable, with a collection of weird and exotic creatures, and varieties of humanoid species.

There are 6 stories in the book. Some mention characters or locations from other stories, but other than that, they don’t really link in theme (maybe the search for lost knowledge at a push) or purpose; only setting. There is a vastly reduced population. Wizards are the predominant power, and are the only ones who understand magic (although maybe not its origins). Women appear mostly subservient to men. There are ruins of long lost civilisations. Magic is carried out in a very traditional method; practitioners memorise and recant long and complex spells, and use objects or relics for protection. There is a suggestion that magic originated in maths and sciences long forgotten.

Each story is mostly a disappointing adventure romp. Mizirian is a greedy wizard seeking more power. He desires to create artificial life in a vat, but lacks the skills or smarts to do so. Turjan also wants to create life and ventures to another realm to learn how. He is also the guardian of the books which contain the 100 spells which remain in human knowledge. Guyal is seeking a ‘Museum of Man’. He hopes to find all is answers from someone known as the Curator, an apparent font of all knowledge. Ulan is a young trainee wizard who wants to find ancient tablets containing lost knowledge. Liane is vain adventurer, seeking out women, who embarks on a mission to steal a tapestry from a witch. T’sais is an artificial woman created by Pandelume, but she can only see evil and ugliness in everything. She has a sister who is the perfect woman.

In each story, stuff happens for no apparent reason. For example, in Guyal’s tale, he meets a woman and an old man, and there is some weird interaction with music – the woman tries to get him to play the man’s instrument. But then the story swiftly moves on with almost no comment or effect on Guyal. There is some mention of technology of former times, but again, this is more about lost knowledge. Ulan comes across a ‘magic car’ but no-one knows how it works.

While in this future, women appear to be subservient to men, there are some female characters with agency. Other than T’sais (although of course she was created by a man), there is Lith in Liane’s story. She refuses to serve Liane when he demands it. So maybe Vance is showing some progressive political thought for the time?

There is no indication of the history of Earth; how we get to Vance’s future from our present. It makes me wonder why he set it on Earth at all. The fact that the planet is dying only gets a few passing mentions (and maybe an indication that the majority of humans left for other worlds eons ago). It certainly isn’t a primary concern of the inhabitants of these stories. If Vance had written these stories without referring to Earth at all, but on an unnamed dying planet, this would never have come under the science fiction radar for me.

There are hints and nods that magic and technology are linked but these ideas aren’t explored in full. Magic is magic, I think, not advanced technology. The lack of through-narrative and no real depth of meaning in the collection as a whole meant that I found it difficult to engage. However, Vance’s writing is full of interesting and imaginative diversions. Which seems to be the best thing to say about The Dying Earth. His use of fantasy language is full on, and the world he has built is complex and seems to have an internal logic. But I just don’t think it hits any science fiction notes. Hints and allusions are not sufficient for me, and I’m just not a fan of empty fantasy stories of wizards and thieves.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton (1930)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg
“Lastandfirstmen firstedition”

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapleton builds on the work of past authors and leads to the ideas found throughout science fiction literature since. That sounds like a statement that could be made of an academic journal article. Deliberately so. This is a novel unlike anything else in the sense that it is presented as an academic’s popular history book. Only the author is from millions of years in the future.

Last and First Men: A Story of the Near and Far Future, to give it its full title, was written and published in 1930. My edition is the 2009 Gollancz Space Opera Collection. Which is a tad mis-leading. This is no space opera. Space opera requires characters, journeys, cultures and such like. In fact, in this there are barely any characters at all, and those that are written about are architypes, examples or occasional unique individuals.

What distinguishes, if anything, a book from a novel? A story from a narrative? These questions jostled around as I read First and Last Men. This book begins with the fictional introduction from one of the ‘last men’, setting context for what is about to come. Beginning then with the First Men, not long after what is known to us a World War I, with nods to the likes of Jesus and Socrates, the book describes various rivalries in Europe and between America and China. Interesting foresight or extrapolation and logic? The latter, if the rest of the book is taken as the whole. Humans eventually use up all the natural resources, leaving only a Patagonian Civilization, some 100,000 years in the future. A huge natural disaster leaves only 35 humans alive, on a science ship at the north pole. And so begins the cyclic future of humanity, where phoenix-like, a new species rises out of the ashes of an old, only to fall into the fire once more.

The scope of Stapleton’s work is extraordinary. It literally gives historical detail for most of the future races of man, plus some sub-species, lasting to the Eighteenth Man 2 billion years hence. Frustratingly, he uses ‘man’ throughout the work, suggesting that blinkered view of Homo sapiens being a maternal species is one thing that is fixed in stone. There is no suggestion of a paternal or non-binary gendered future for ‘mankind’! Thus ‘man’ has adventures along the way of course. There is the seemingly obligatory invasion from Mars (from much of the SF of this time), although an original take on the alien threat. Also, the only time there is any levity in the book, as the Martians misunderstand the nature of Earthly intelligence. As humanity moves forward through its history, there are obsessions with youth, with flying, with war, genetic engineering, music and more. Man changes appearance and size, and in the case of the Fourth Men, becomes giant brains that use the Third Men as lab rats. Oddly, something happens to the moon’s orbit and the surviving members of humanity venture to Venus for more alien encounters. The Seventh Men of Venus can fly. The Ninth Men relocate to Neptune where they eventually develop the ability to move the planet, as astronomical events threaten and then bring about eventual doom for all of mankind(s).

As mentioned, there are no characters in this book, with a few minor exceptions. It is written as a history book with academic analysis and some speculation. However, although dense with concepts and future facts, it reads like a novel. Life of humanity is the main character, and it undergoes a narrative journey, as a fictional character might in another story. It develops, grows, make mistakes, sometimes learns from them and moves on. Each time Stapleton dwells on a period, it is a different type of humanity. Which brings me to the past works mentioned earlier.

Last and First Men features utopic visions, reminiscent of More and Swift, dystopias of Shelley and Jefferies, Wells’ alien invasion, and the blatant generic manipulation as mentioned. There is so much depth to Stapleton’s ideas that as times they are both overwhelming and somewhat repetitive. He dwells on some areas and skips others, which is interesting. He often suggests that the reader can’t understand some aspects of future science and philosophy. And disappointingly, despite the huge time span of some of the species, and the development of ‘ether-ships’ which transported the species to Venus and Neptune, extra-solar flight is never achieved.

First and Last MenA key theme throughout the book is evolution, and genetic manipulation. I suspect that this is the first science fiction work since Frankenstein to address these concepts to blatantly. There is a great page towards the end of the book, when man is recently moved to Neptune. Stapleton describes the evolutionary progress of a sub-human rabbit-like species, and how natural selection works in its simplest form so this species would eventually give rise to the Tenth Men. Of course, for this to work, Stapleton had to give the book the immense time-scale required for the evolutionary process to work. He clearly knew the subject well.

There appears to be a couple of deux ex machina moments, when survival miraculously occurs, such as the 35 humans on the boat at the north pole. This might suggest that mankind is not destined to survive by its own agency alone. I can’t decide if this is (and also perhaps the ‘reader can’t understand the future’ sections) is lazy storytelling or a deliberate comment on man as an animal species. Stapleton does write at one point that ‘by accident, almost one might say by miracle, a spark of human life was once more preserved’. Maybe Stapleton thought man’s agency impotent? The mind-reading dénouement and the cultural effects on the moon are the weakest ideas in the narrative, meaning this book can’t be considered to complete success.

Last and First Men is a hard book to enjoy, reading as it does as an academic history book. Fascinating, yes. A novel with a narrative, yes. A story, maybe. Despite having no real characters to empathise with, for the most part I was engaged. A remarkable work of science fiction, definitely.

 

Image credit:

“Lastandfirstmen firstedition” by Derived from a digital capture (photo/scan) of the book cover (creator of this digital version is irrelevant as the copyright in all equivalent images is still held by the same party). Copyright held by the publisher or the artist. Claimed as fair use regardless.. Via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg#/media/File:Lastandfirstmen_firstedition.jpg

What’s the point of Sci-Fi Book awards? Or, some great books I’ve read thanks to the Clarke Award.

Station Eleven proof.inddThe Hugo Award fiasco really upset me. Of course, the whole right wing bully-boy tactics is offensively stupid, but I’m not part of that world (thankfully) so I had little vested interest. Most people who were involved wrote about it far better than I even could. Seek out their words. What upset me more was everyone seemed to be arguing about what books were on the short-lists and which ones weren’t. No-one seemed to be taking about reading. The quality of the fiction. The passion of the stories (please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I didn’t read anything about great genre fiction in relation to the Hugo nominations. Even though I’ve read Jim Butcher in the past (great first few novels then…bored now) I’ve no desire to read any of the shortlisted novels this year.

Does anyone care about reading anymore?

I like the Kitchies. They seem to me to highlight innovation. They are progressive and diverse. From this year’s shortlist, I’ve read and enjoyed Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor although I didn’t think it was amazing. No emotional resonance for me. Grasshopper Jungle, by Andrew Smith, The Peripheral, by William Gibson and The Race, by Nina Allan are all on my to read list for this year. As for the debut category, I’ve read Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta (see below), while Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and The Girl in the Road from Byrne are on my pile. While intriguing, Viper Wine (Hermione Eyre) doesn’t really appeal to me. Good lists and plenty of good stuff on there, but to my sensibilities (and like an indie music or film festival) there does seem to be an agenda of sorts. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that notion, just to be clear, and if so, it is a good agenda (inclusive, diverse, innovative as I mentioned).

To me however, the Clarke Award appears to be just about the books. This year’s short list is:

  • The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. CareyThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
  • Europe In Autumn – Dave Hutchinson
  • Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North
  • Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
  • The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’ve not read the first two and probably won’t. Carey’s is possible but it just isn’t grabbing my attention. I’ve read that Europe In Autumn is more of a sci-fi spy-fi techno-thriller type which isn’t really my bag. So, thoughts on the rest:

 

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August – Claire North

To me, this reflects the genre-defying fiction that I love. It is really a time travel story without traditional science fiction time travel elements and reminded me a little of Lauren Beukes The Shining Girls. However, it is character study. A lesson in choices. We all regret this choice or that one and in North’s story, Harry August gets to make different choices and also pre-empt the actions of choices to come. North’s prose is so very readable and the world she creates is so detailed and believable. One of those books that you never want to end because you enjoy being in it so much.

Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel

The same can be said of Station Eleven. It is a traditional science fiction trope – the end of the world caused by something as ordinary as flu, but told in a complex and gripping narrative style from varying points of view – including that of someone who wasn’t even around when the end comes. The idea of focusing on actors and musicians is unique – certainly in what I’ve read previously. Friendships, survival and religion are key themes. Again, the world Mandel’s creates with brilliant prose and intriguing characters is one (despite its horrors) where I just wanted to stay in. The way she combines the various threads of the narrative so they make sense without being over-blown is admirable. The ingredients are familiar, the recipe common, but the final meal is deliciously new.

Memory Of Water – Emmi Itäranta

Itäranta’s debut appealed to me, although I hadn’t heard much about it. In a weird way, this could be set in the same world as Station Eleven although much further into the future, when the post-apocalyptic recovery is further along. Although in this case the cause was apparently environmental. Itäranta writes beautifully, especially considering it isn’t in her first language. Some of the sentences are pure poetry. “But water doesn’t care for human sorrows. It flows without slowing or quickening its pace in the darkness of the earth, where only stones will hear.” Sadly, the story is somewhat lacking. The characters (who have complex and secretive relationships) and world building (I like the plastic graveyard motif) are fine but there was lots of set up which promised so much but never really delivered. I was more interested in the words than the story.

The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber

I’m about 2/3s through this excellent book. Almost directly opposed to the Memory of Water it is written in a straight forward manor but the story is so very engaging. I can’t wait to find out what happens. Essentially about the power of religion (so far) and trying to understand a new intelligent species on an alien planet, the corporation who has sent the pastor is represented by engineers and pharmacists who would be home on the Nostromo in Alien. It is intensely interesting and readable. I hope the ending is the one the reader deserves after 300+ pages.

Congratulations to the 2014 winner: Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – which I think is awesome! A triumph of story-telling.

 

What I love about all four of these is that I’ve really enjoyed reading them. Not thinking about them for what they are or what they represent in the wider sense (short-listed literature). I’d read North’s book before the list was announced and Faber’s was on my pile to read. I probably would have stumbled across Station Eleven but I probably wouldn’t have known about Memory of Water. I was lost in all of these books. Proper joy of reading stuff. I read Mandel’s 330 pages in 4 days because I didn’t want to stop reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the conclusion but I wanted to keep reading forever. This is the power of great fiction and it is something that I believe gets lost in award season with all the perceived in-fighting and back-stabbing. Of course, the contradiction is that I wouldn’t have read the latter three on the above list quite so soon (if at all) had they not been short-listed.

So I have a love/hate relationship with science fiction and speculative fiction awards. They often point me in the direction of terrific stories and characters and introduce writers I might not have come across. But to me, they are missing the point of what good books are for and not celebrating the story as a thing itself enough.

 

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

War of the WorldsReading an old favourite that you’ve not read for years and believe you’re familiar with is potentially problematic. I hadn’t read The War of the Worlds for more than 20 years. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it. Wells originally published the novel in serialised form in 1897, and the book made its appearance the following year. My copy is my old and dog-eared 1975 Pan edition which I’ve had since I was a child. There are no notes, introductions or comments in this edition.

The plot to The War of the Worlds is a familiar one to most: Martians land in Victorian England and slowly take over London, while our narrator fights to survive. You must acknowledge the classic status of such as novel. Throughout the book, sentences and descriptions fire the memory and bring a smile to my face. I had a shiver of excitement when I read the first few paragraphs. Later, when I read It was the beginning of rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind, I thought it might be the greatest sentence I’ve ever read. Probably not, but you take my meaning.

Of course, when you open the book and see the chapters listed, you know the eventual outcome of the so-called war. You read the book understanding that the narrator survives – this is no unreliable narration.

The narrator is unnamed and appears to be an expert in philosophy. After explosions are witnessed on Mars, an object lands at Horsell Common, close to the narrator’ house. At first, it is thought to be a meteorite, but when the lid screws off and aliens emerge, all hell breaks loose. Soon, death and destruction are reigned upon the watchers thanks to the famous heat-ray. Now, the narrator’s wife is sent away and the adventures ensue, while more alien craft from Mars land in the Home Counties. The descriptions of the devastating attack on London, and the intervention of the iron-clad warship Thunderchild are told through the reportage of the narrator’s brother. I’d completely forgotten about the brother’s perspective – probably tainted by other versions of the story. Again, the fact that the narrative is told in this way, and includes descriptions of Martian anatomy, gives the reader no-doubt about the eventual victor. History is always written by the victors: especially the history of war. Wells was clearly aware of this fact. He has plenty to say about real war and he uses this novel and others to highlight both its horrors and its impact. He believes it to be horrific. The Martians destroy everyone and everything. There is no room for negotiation or surrender. War is awful.

Wells also attacks religion in The War of the Worlds. One character, a curate, is shown to be weak under god. He questions the plans of the divine, which mirror the concerns of the time. How can a just creator inflict the pain of war? Even the curate questions his maker? His evangelical mania leads to his death.

The over-riding theme, however, is the Imperialism of England; shown in reflection to some extent. This invasion isn’t really about England but London. The Martians only land around London and move inward. Slowly. It amuses the reader in modern times that the initial landing and destruction takes place on a Friday and it isn’t until Sunday evening when most folks in London realise the implications. No instant communication channels at the end of the 19th century. So the island is invaded and the rest of the world continues as normal in a time after the real island had invaded huge chunks of the planet. And when the hordes panic through the streets of London, it is described as the end of civilisation. Book 2 is even called The Earth Under the Martians when in reality it was London and the Home Counties under the Martians, and nothing more. It is curious to know that while this horror falls down on London, most of the rest of the planet was oblivious. Maybe Wells thought London was the centre of the world or maybe he was satirising those others who did.

In the opening pages Wells acknowledges the story concerns the vanity of man. The topics are evolution and technological progress. This is a warning text. Wells suggests several times that the science of the age might be beyond man at the time. The recovered artefacts from the invasion are not able to be reverse engineered. And yet man is described as a curious beast. Of course, the topic of evolution was hotly debated through Victorian times and Wells had plenty to say on matter too (having been taught by Huxley); suggesting that human evolution might eventually lead to creatures similar in intellect but emotionless as the invaders. Is evolution a good thing? It is undeniable, but we must take care. The narrator only survives through several moments of luck and chance, and he acknowledges as much throughout. Does fortune favour the brave or is luck indiscriminate? Despite his education, he is an everyman, a decent ordinary citizen. How are we to read this juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary in context with scientific advancement?

Public Domain

There a lots of lovely nuances in the text, reflecting Wells’ time. It is important to mention the fact that a man’s appearance was significant, even though his unkempt appearance was because a hat had fallen in the Martian’s initial pit. But Wells also uses poetic description (I had the sunset in my eyes) for its own sake. The horrors he describes are imaginative and not like anything written before. The way the Martians feed is brilliantly simply. As usual in novels from this time, the female characters receive short-shrift. Indeed, other than a few brief appearances of the narrator’s wife and some women his brother must save, there are none. Wells wasn’t telling a story about people however, perhaps highlighted by the fact none of the main characters has a name in the story.

As the book concludes, all the narrative and thematic strands are tied up as the Martians are defeated not by man’s ingenuity or guile, but by micro-organisms and disease. Man isn’t the victor despite regaining his home.

The War of the Worlds is the first mainstream science fiction book to feature an alien invasion, allowing the author to comment on the social topics of the time: religion, scientific advancement, imperialism and war. Wells does an exceptional job in such as short text. Not only does it address political and social concerns of the times in a proper science fiction setting, it is simply a great read. No wonder it is one of the most significant science fiction novels of all time.

On reading without reading: The Dark Tower series

The Dark Tower 7 - Listening not readingI’ve spent most of 2014 in the company of Roland Deschain of Gilead, his quest and his loves and his enemies. Eddie Dean. Susannah Dean. Jake Chambers. Oy. Cuthbert, Alain, Jamie, Susan. Sheemie. Poor Sheemie. Pere, Ted, Dinkie, Patrick. Flagg, Rhea, Mia, Mordred. Blaine. Dandelo. The Crimson King. And Stephen King.

Seven books. Thousands of pages. Almost 4,000 (edition dependent of course). But I spent the time with George Guidall and Frank Muller. Hours and hours and hours. I started in January 2014 with 1982’s The Gunslinger. I listened most days on my way to and from work (about 30 minutes each way). In the summer I listened at my allotment and in the park. I didn’t listen every day and I went about a week in between each book. I finished 2004’s The Dark Tower in late October. I’d only ever read the first two in the series previously, so had no idea how the story progressed.

  • The Gunslinger (1982)
  • The Drawing of the Three (1987)
  • The Waste Lands (1991)
  • Wizard and Glass (1997)
  • Wolves of the Calla (2003)
  • Song of Susannah (2004)
  • The Dark Tower (2004)

This is not a review and this does contain spoilers.

I’d never really listened to audio books properly before. I’d listened to cast dramatisations and radio adaptations (Hitchhikers…, Neverwhere, Midwich Cuckoos and others). I didn’t know if it was a worthwhile pursuit. When Jake, Eddie and even Oy died, I felt like weeping. When Susan was murdered, I was horrified. When Benny died, I knew it was a proper story. There was good and evil, success and failure. Anyone (with the probable exception of Roland) could die.

When you’re listening to audio books whilst driving and walking to and from work, you cannot take in every word. There are times when you’re necessarily distracted. I don’t think that matters. You don’t need to hear everything to understand the story in an audio-book. I appreciate that I spent many hours getting to know the characters in the series but if listening to the books was all surface, why did I get emotional when Oy sacrificed first his love of Susannah and then his life for Roland’s? Why when I got to the end did I feel empty? Oddly, I don’t want to listen to (or read) The Wind Through the Keyhole (2012) just yet. I want to leave Jake and Eddie and Oy dead (although not in the world Susannah found herself in) and I don’t want to revisit Roland knowing as I do now that Ka’s wheel has turned again.

The Dark Tower series is without doubt a wonderful story with plenty to say about love and death and friendship. About what is good and what is destiny and what is choice. I also enjoyed the whole meta-ness of it. One of the most explicit examples I’ve come across recently (see my post on Hodderscape for more on metafiction) I don’t think I would have every given it the time if I had to read it. The process of listening, even when doing other things (driving, sitting in a park, being distracted by binmen, crossing roads), is beyond rewarding. It isn’t subliminal, but you get the bits Gunslinger - Well, listening to it, anywayyou need to get. Story isn’t about individual words and clever complex sentences. Story shouldn’t need a thesaurus or attention to every single mark on a page. With no disrespect to the author who crafted and laboured over each word, a story is not about reading sentences on a page. A story is about the ride with characters who grow and change and learn and get to where they need to go to. If I didn’t care about Roland and his ka-tet I wouldn’t have enjoyed The Dark Tower and more importantly, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the audiobooks.

However, that all being said, if not for George Guidall and Frank Muller, who narrated the stories with passion and depth, again I might not have cared. An audiobook is about a story, characters and the choice of narrator. Not about the sentences or the words or the grammar. I don’t remember every detail about the story from Roland appearing in the desert in pursuit of Marten to his ascent of the tower, but I know how I felt when he loved and lost. And if that’s not the point of a story, someone tell me what is.

Apocalyptic or post?

Post-apocalyptic is a term that gets thrown about casually in science fiction, especially in films. Anything that sees a disaster or an invasion, or a war or disease is usually called post-apocalyptic. Films from The Day After Tomorrow (2004) to I am Legend (2007), from War of the Worlds (2005) to World War Z (2013) all come with the p-a tag.800px-IvyMike2

apocalypse, n.

1. The ‘revelation’ of the future granted to St. John in the isle of Patmos. The book of the New Testament in which this is recorded.

Draft additions March 2008

b. More generally: a disaster resulting in drastic, irreversible damage to human society or the environment, esp. on a global scale; a cataclysm.

OED, 2014

So what this suggests to me at least is that apocalyptic fiction (and films) should deal with the disaster – the one that changes everything for humans – as it is occurring. Post means ‘after’ and therefore post-apocalyptic means after the event. Only fiction that deals with the aftermath of the disaster can be described as post-apocalyptic.

And let’s not even talk about where dystopia fits in! A dystopia might result from an apocalyptic event but equally, it might not. So, for example, 2013’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is set in the dystopian nation of Panem. This is described as being established in North America after the destruction of the continent’s civilization by some unknown apocalyptic event. However, the events in the film are concerned with the dystopia and not the apocalypse. Margaret Atwood’s 2013 MaddAddam is about the bio-engineered species which were a direct result from the man-made apocalypse described in Atwood’s trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood 2003, 2009). MaddAddam might be described as dystopian, but in my eyes, it is a p-a novel.

With that all in mind, I present my top 10 apocalyptic and top 10 post-apocalyptic novels.

Apocalyptic: each of these describes a disastrous event, either on a local or a global scale.

  1. The Midwich Cuckoos by John WyndhamTheMidwichCuckoos
  2. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
  3. The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
  4. Blood Music by Greg Bear
  5. The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  6. Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear
  7. The Death of Grass by John Christopher
  8. On the Beach by Nevil Shute
  9. Blindness by José Saramago
  10. Feed by Mira Grant

What is interesting about all of these is that they are contemporaneous. They are all set in the time (roughly) that they were written in, and thus reflecting the fears of the authors at the time.

Post-apocalyptic: each of these describes life in some way after a disastrous event.

  1. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
  2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  3. Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
  4. The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  5. Far North by Marcel Theroux
  6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  7. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  8. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
  9. Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
  10. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

By default, these are all set at some point in the future from when they were written. Even I Am Legend is set a little ways ahead of 1954.

Go on then. Prove me wrong.

Oh, an honourable mention goes to Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, which might be described as a ‘nice apocalypse’ novel.

Parasite, by Mira Grant

ParasiteIn Mira’ Grant’s Parasite science fiction meets horror in a potentially terrifying future, where science and medicine can give people perfect health and even bring them back from the (almost) dead. Sally Mitchell was in a coma after a car crash, but a seemingly miracle technology from SymboGen had brought her back. However, Sal cannot recall anything about her past life. Her saviour is a parasitic tapeworm, designed by a team of scientists including Dr Shanti Cale and Dr Steven Banks.

SymboGen have created a parasitic implant which means that people never get sick and never need to take medicine. The tapeworm is genetically engineered to benefit the host, and to not follow the normal evolutionally requirements of a natural animal. Sal is still looked after by SymboGen, 6 years after her accident, although she is trying to build a new lie with her boyfriend, Nathan (who refuses to have a parasite), and her job at the local animal shelter. However, people all over the world are suddenly getting sick, even though they have the parasite. They are known as sleepwalkers, as they have the symptoms of a somnambulist.

A trip for a regular check-up at SymboGen ends in tragedy and suddenly Sal is thrown into a world of secrets and lies, as she tries to make sense of what is happening to her friends, family and those who control her life. She learns about how the tapeworms came into existence, and that those she trusted are not necessarily who she thought they were.

Mira Grant, who is the alter-ego of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, is the author of the zombie horror series known as Newsflesh. This novel, Parasite is called Parasitology 1. The novel structure highlights an issue with realistic near-future science-based science fiction. There is an awful lot of exposition required so that the reader can follow the plot. This is achieved in Parasite by beginning each chapter with the fictional extracts from biographies and interviews from the scientists who developed the tapeworm, as well as extracts from other books and articles. This is a particular effective concept as it allows the actual plot to develop unhindered by too many scientific explanations.

Grant has a very interesting knack of talking about mundane detail just before something unsettling, or even horrific, happens. Two early scenes in particular are key: Sal is the mall with her sister before they witness a sleepwalker outbreak. Not long after, she is buying a king sundew plant (a carnivorous plant) for Nathan just before they come across a sleepwalker in the park. At this point they come into ownership of a new dog, who becomes integral to the narrative. There are clever subtleties within these passages and clues to the eventual plot outcomes too. This is an apocalyptic science fiction story, and also a warning (as all good science fiction is) about the arrogance of scientists.

The subtext in this novel is about medical ethics generally and possibly vivisection. Is it ok to experiment on a few to save millions? Are people subjects, or people? The fact that the animal shelter and dogs appear to be vital to the plot hint at the wider meaning. The characterisation is the strongest point of Parasite. You feel like you get to know Sal and understand her. You feel for her when she runs into problems with her family. Tansy – who we meet late in the novel – is a great creation, while unfortunately, another character Adam seems to have been forgotten about by the end. There is a good mix of ethnicity and sexuality amongst the characters without them being issue-driven. Although Sherman’s use of the English affectation ‘pet’ feels forced, as if it is the only English-ism Grant knows (maybe she watched a lot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) – no-one says pet as much!

However, I’m not convinced at Grant’s vision of the future. It is a less effective version of human potential that her previous outings. For example, although it is only set in 2027 people are still emailing each other and using thumb-drives. Think back to 2003 and see how far tech and communications have come, and I don’t think they’ve progressed enough in Grant’s 2027. It’s all too similar to today. It doesn’t feel like the future at all.

The biggest problem with Parasite is its external context. It feels like an introduction. It feels like the beginning with no middle or end. Because it is already a number 1 in a series, we know there is more to come, and although I was constantly expecting a bigger apocalypse to occur, I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t.

Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed Parasite. It put me in mind of Blood Music by Greg Bear and John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes. The narrative is great, being both a popcorn apocalyptic adventure and a parable about science and medical ethics simultaneously. The characters are great and reservations, the ambition is admirable. Bring on the next book in the series.

– See more at: http://www.nudgemenow.com/article/parasite-by-mira-grant-2/#sthash.A6s8tM9s.dpuf

My kinda science fiction…or is it?

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

There are many styles and types of science fiction out there. While I’m not too interested in specific genre and false boundaries, I was looking over what I’ve read this year and it does appear my tastes have changed within various areas of science fiction. When I was young, I would read Arthur C Clarke and John Wyndham. The latter being one of my all time favourite authors. Something about The Chrysalids in particular really pushed my buttons. When I got a little older, I moved onto William Gibson and Tricia Sullivan, Greg Bear and Philip K Dick. Of course, I read all the classics such as Orwell, Huxley, Shelley and others. This is a list of science fiction I’ve read and enjoyed (although not all of them are great – I’d only put 5 of this list in a category labelled classic) in the last 18 months or so (not including fantasy, horror, etc):

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • The Adjacent by Christopher Priest
  • Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux
  • Intrusion by Ken MacLeod
  • Dark Eden by Chris Beckett
  • Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
  • Vurt by Jeff Noon
  • The Rapture of the Nerds by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross
  • The Method by Juli Zeh
  • Trust by David Moody
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Rule 34 by Charles Stross

What’s generally missing? Space opera. Space ships, time travel, aliens, other planets, optimism. Only Trust and Dark Eden have traditional science fiction tropes; an alien invasion and living on another planet respectively. Maybe The Dog Stars could be called classic apocalyptic. (And by the way, I have a problem with much so-called post-apocalyptic fiction and movies. Most of them aren’t post- at all, just apocalyptic. The clue is the word post, or ‘after’. The aforementioned The Chrysalids is post, whereas The Day of the Triffids is apocalyptic.) Anyway. Back to the issue at hand. What we have instead is near future, odd science, mystery, dystopian society, drugs, technological singularity and computer games.

Let’s pick 12 of my favourite books from my twenties and early thirties:

  • The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
  • Blood Music by Greg Bear
  • The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
  • Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
  • Jem by Frederik Pohl
  • Spares by Michael Marshall Smith
  • Timescape by Gregory Benford
  • This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • Someone to Watch Over Me by Tricia Sullivan
  • Kiln People by David Brin
  • The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg

What we have here is aliens, distant planets, spaceships time travel, post-humans and far future.

What I am interested in, when I read science fiction, is what the problems and challenges are in modern society and how humanity might evolve, both physically, emotionally and intellectually. Although after reading Twitter for half an hour, I wonder if it even can evolve. I want to read about characters I can relate to and be interested in. I want to find new ways of telling stories that I’ve not come across before.

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0

It would appear that mind kind of science fiction had shifted from classic to more left-field. From far-future to near-future. From generally more optimistic where space exploration was the hope for humanity to more pessimistic where we’re all going to upload our consciousness into the cloud. Maybe its symptomatic of our times. Maybe in the 1990s there was hope in the future, while there’s not so much these days. Maybe I’m becoming a grumpy old man?

The question is this. Are there stories out there featuring aliens and space ships, time travel and far future that I’m missing? Or is it that my tastes have changed and I don’t find inspiration in this type of science fiction any more. Who is writing Blood Music today? Where is this year’s Alfred Bester or Mary Doria Russell. Ok, I know Greg Bear wrote City at the End of Time which was dreadful and Hull Zero Three which was just dull. I know people like Eric Brown and Paul McAuley are getting good reviews (I started reading The Quiet War but I found it tedious and uninspiring). I’m guessing that someone out there is writing good old-fashioned yet modern and relevant science fiction but I’ve not come across them. People talk about Adam Christopher and Lauren Beukes, Adam Roberts and Madeline Ashby, but they’re the kind of people I’m inclined to read anyway. So, my challenge to myself is to find a few new authors that rekindle the old magic I felt when reading Jem and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and even Neuromancer and Frankenstein.

…I think I’ll add Proxima by Stephen Baxter to my Goodreads ‘to read’ list…

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Imagine the scenario. Today: debut science fiction novel causes sensation and the author widely regarded as a visionary. Tomorrow: same author sets the follow up story 200 years in the future, but nothing has changed. There has been no progress in science or culture. All there is to be found is a sense of arrogance that the society of today has reached its peak and there is nowhere else to go. Welcome to The Last Man.

849585I picked up (and downloaded) my copy of the Wordsworth Classic edition of Shelley’s The Last Man – originally published in 1826 – with eager anticipation. After all, Frankenstein is one of my favourites and I’ve only recently re-read it. I also love a good apocalyptic tale. Imagine my crushing disappointment and prolonged struggle to read these 375 pages. As usual, no attention was paid to notes and the introduction (other than the author’s introduction – she says that in 1818 she discovered some prophetic writings in Sibyl’s caves, near Naples, and this book is her version of those writings) as the idea is to read each story in this challenge as it was intended to be read at the time of publication.

The cover blurb speaks of an ‘apocalyptic fantasy’ and the ‘end of human civilisation’. What we actually get is a rather dull character piece about Adrian, Raymond and Lionel (the narrator) who the cover suggests are ‘idealised portraits of Shelley and Byron’ (with Lionel therefore being Mary). However, I know little about the lives of these men, so can’t comment on their portrayal. The book is laid out in 3 volumes. The first mostly concerns itself with the comings and goings of the upper classes as the monarchy crumbles and England becomes a republic. Nothing but political and familial machinations. Bearing in mind this is set sometime after 2073…there is a war between Greece and Turkey, which is the main background to volume 2, as Lionel and Raymond head to Constantinople to fight. There is talk of reports of a plague within the city, which is around about the half way mark of the book, and the first hints of any apocalyptic writing. The characters all return to England as news reaches them that the plague has began its spread around Europe. It is now 2092. Volume 3 has only a few survivors left in England, and a decision is made to leave, in order to find a piece of land with a better climate and protection from the plague. They visit France where a fanatical religious sect believes in a messiah who will protect them from disease. This journey takes the band, which was more than 1500 on leaving England and is now just 4, to Switzerland. Soon, events lead to Lionel being the last man alive, in 2100, where the story ends. Throughout the tale, lines of poetry are thrown in for reasons unknown, which are nice on their own, but only serve to irritate within the context of the plot. Shelley showing off…

Mary Shelley’s arrogance is astounding. Despite having demonstrable knowledge in science and progress, she believes the time she lives in is the pinnacle of culture and evolution. Horse is the main form of transport and people communicate with letters. The class system puts the intellectual and moneyed elite above everyone else (a shepherd is described as ‘an unlettered savage’ early on). Nepotism and favour are rife. The British Empire still rules. Women are subservient. The richest and therefore most powerful are the last to survive. These would all be acceptable features in an alternative history novel, or a satire, when the foibles and folly of these ideologies were explored. However, what Shelley does instead is write paragraph after paragraph, page after page of descriptions; both of emotion and environment. It took more than a volume before personal procrastination ended, and the alleged point of the story (the annihilation of mankind) even begins. Which is a shame, because individual sentences were often beautifully written. There were just far too many of them, slowing the narrative to a snail’s pace.

There is no allusion to science fiction anywhere through the prose. In fact, it often feels like a biblical fantasy. War is a dominant them, alongside the plague (or pestilence). One character in particular, Evadne, suffers from starvation. And of course there is death everywhere. Four horseman anyone? Or course, plague means disease which means nature versus science. In this case, obviously, science looses out, but for me, these elements are not looked at with any depth or rigour. These elements are nothing but a bi-product of the meandering musings of someone talking about characters and the time they live in, rather than any true speculation on where the future lies. The only scientist mentioned, astronomer Merrival, is a bit-player at best. The Last Man is not science fiction, despite being the first apocalyptic novel set in the future. There is nothing that happens in the novel that could have prevented it from being set in 1826.

One thing in particular rankled me. Ok, it is the future and Shelley has not advanced technology at all. Populations across Europe are known to die. But here’s the thing. There is – because there can’t be (letters, remember) – any communication on a global scale. There is no indication throughout that the plague is affecting anywhere except Europe. At best, Lionel is The Last Man in Europe, but even that is not clear. There is no word from Spain, or Scandinavia for example. If Shelley had advanced communications technology so global communication was possible, and Lionel knew he was the last man, that would have been a far more chilling climax.

I would have also preferred more of the story to focus on the plague and the survival (or not) of the human species. It almost reads like Shelley decided to write about her friends and then half way through realised she was just rambling and decided to throw in a deux ex machina in order to find a conclusion in the narrative. There is too much coincidence and happenstance in the plot to make the story either enjoyable or engaging. In one passage, Shelley even suggests the reader would tire of the description of the journey from Paris to Geneva (p319). No! It would be more interesting than anything that came before it. That is why I was interested in reading an apocalyptic story in the first place. The story of the how the 1,500 ‘souls’ became just 4 would have been a better book. It is only in the last 20 pages, Lionel (Shelley herself?) is the last man. Which is not what I expected at all. Shame.

Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy enjoyed by non-Geeks

We all know what science fiction is right? Aliens, spaceships, laser guns? Something about the future where the science is a bit hokey, but consistent within the specified universe. Okay, so warp drive is impossible, but in Star Trek, they can’t cross the universe in a by just thinking about it.

We all know what fantasy is, right? Right? Wizards and elves and magic. Or maybe ghosts and demons. Although most fantasy follows its own internal logic, there’s no limits to what might happen. After all, in Supernatural, they are arguing with God!

Wrong.  Dead wrong. So, here is a list of fiction that might be described as literary fiction? Contemporary fiction? American fiction? Science fiction and fantasy fiction, every one of them. So, in no particular order, as all the best TV competitions say:

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy – post apocalyptic

A father and son journey in a post-apocalyptic America, trying to survive the winter.

Why it’s SF – it follows that if it is post apocalyptic, something must have happened to cause the apocalypse. Not hint is given of anything magical or supernatural. No demons or zombies are walking the earth. The theme is of survival in an altered environment, common in many SF novels.

Awards – Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Believer Book Award

Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart – dystopian

A middle class man and a young woman pursue love while America falls apart around them.

Why it’s SF – the technology used in this near-future speculation is just beyond our current capacities, while the political and cultural situation is a dystopian vision of what might be around the corner. It is a warning regarding the path we are currently on.

Awards – Salon Book Award; New York Times Notable Book of the Year

A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) by Haruki Murakami – supernatural surrealism

A man begins an adventure hunting for a particular sheep that hasn’t been seen in years.

Why it’s fantasy – there are elements of this fiction that cannot be described with regards to any given reality. A woman appears to have magical ears that seduce the protagonist. It is a tale superbly told in which the absurd is believable.

Award – Noma Literary Newcomers Prize

Blindness (1995) by Jose Saramago – apocalyptic dystopia

An unexplained mass epidemic of blindness affects an unnamed city and society crumbles.

Why it’s SF – while there is no explanation of the cause of the blindness, it is described as if it were a pathogen, rather than something fantastic such as a curse, although it could well be…Unusually, this describes the apocalypse and ensuing dystopia as the rules of society rapidly disintegrate. It is showing us how fragile our values are.

Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro – dystopian

Three friends grow up in a boarding school with a dark secret. As they grow older, complex relationships develop and they are introduced to the chilling outside word.

Why it’s SF – the children are products of a technology that doesn’t quite exist yet. They are supposed to make the world a better place, but in truth it is a bleak and soulless place. Our hopes and dreams have not made a utopia, but the opposite

Award – ALA Alex Award

The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro – surreal fantasy

A famous pianist arrives in an unnamed European city to perform the concert of his life, but fate continually intervenes

Why it’s fantasy – Ryder, the protagonist, is prevented from his purpose by characters that appear to have the power to manipulate reality. The result is a dreamscape where you can turn the corner of a street and be somewhere else or a person becomes someone else in the blink of an eye.

 

Far North (2009) by Marcel Theroux – post-apocalyptic

Civilisation has returned to a more primitive way of life, but when Makepeace sees a plane above the Siberian sky she sets out looking for something more, finding something horrific on the way

Why it’s SF – Similar to The Road, as in it’s a post-apocalyptic road novel, it is the story of the after events of society’s decline. In this case, global warming is the global villain, while man is still the monster. The fragility of morality is again they key.

Shortlisted – Clarke Award

Oryx and Crake (2003) by Margaret Atwood – post-apocalyptic

Once again, human folly has brought about an unspecified event resulting in the collapse of civilisation. A hermit wanders among hybrid creatures while flashbacks tell of his pre-apocalypse life.

Why it’s SF – Despite Atwood’s protestations, this is as much SF as any alien adventure. Genetic engineering beyond what is currently possible is the main plot driver, while in flashbacks, multi-nationals have separated society into privileged and not-so-much. It even has a mad scientist cf. Victor Frankenstein. It is a tale of potential moral bankruptcy, as most post-apocalyptic novels are.

Shortlisted – Man Booker

On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute – apocalyptic

Shute describes the end of the world following World War III from the perspective of the last survivors in Australia, as the deadly radiation drifts their way.

Why it’s SF – Well, WWIII never happened and there was no nuclear war. It was set in the future from the point of the date of writing. The Australian government provides its citizens with a suicide solution. All good end-of-the-world science fiction.

In the Country of Last Things (1987) by Paul Auster – dystopian

Anna searches a chaotic city for her lost brother, hoping to discover her family heritage, while making a living as an object hunter; a scavenger

Why it’s SF – Government and industry have collapsed and people survive as best they can in a disordered society. Morals have been forgotten and cannibalism is common. This is a world we can recognise if we remove authority and self-worth.

So, my friends. 10 examples of fiction that is really science fiction, but is enjoyed by the non-geek literati. There are other examples such as Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet In Heaven, Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, and Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr Y which are clearly fantasy or science fiction, and yet have been embraced by literary snobs and reading groups as genre fiction it is okay to like. Maybe they should be forced to read fiction with space ships just so they realise it’s no different to the above examples.

Free your inner geek!