Walkaway by Cory Doctorow

WalkawayThere’s a saying that he who dies with the most toys, still dies. In Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Walkaway, he/she/they who dies with no toys, gets to live forever. What is a walkaway? In this story, someone who abandons normal, or default, society and literally walks away. With nothing. And subsists not in a sharing economy, but within a gifting economy – everything freely given and nothing required in return. A communist utopia where you expect nothing in return for your efforts.

We’re in a climate-change ravaged near future and the rich are richer and more powerful than ever. Hubert, Etc and his friend Seth meet Natalie at a Communist party – where the disaffected young party all night and pour scorn on society’s sheep they see on the morning commute. Except Natalie is the daughter of the very powerful ultra-rich and over-protective Jacob. They decide to walk away, and they meet Limpopo; a natural leader but one who rejects hierarchy. In this extrapolated future, everything (food, clothes, tools, even medicine) can be 3D printed and society is tolerating these walkaway communities. Just about. Life can exist because everyone acts altruistically. Which is anathema to the ultra-rich elite. And Jacob wants his daughter back. Meanwhile, at a walkaway university, researchers and mathematicians have been able to download the consciousness of a dead colleague into a computer. Is this immortality in a utopian society?

Cory Doctorow knows what his subject is and who is readership are. The writing is excellent, if occasionally incomprehensible. This is because he writes in techno-hacker counter-culture lingo. Which is fine if you’re aware of the rules of the game. You need to understand who infowar researchers are and what it means when an infotech goon pwns everything! I imagine that someone less aware wouldn’t have much inkling of what he is talking about. There is plenty of wit and comic satire if you can dig beneath the jargon. It is pretty much on the button too, with even the term ‘snowflake’ included. There is plenty of darkness explored, especially in the relationship between Natalie and her father, but there is always hope that everything will work out, despite the repetition of attacks on our heroes, especially once the post-humans have been stabilised.

The story itself is fine, although is a tad repetitive: sitting around talking about political and ethical philosophy (from what is ownership and property to the intricacies of neurobiology and what life is) followed by a violent attack, someone dies and is put in the computer, move on; and repeat. About half a dozen times. The characters are all interesting with multiple motivations. The good guys are all about love and tenderness and equality – there is gender and sexuality fluidity and every leftist and liberal ideology discussed. And there is an awful lot of discussion. Pages and pages; sometimes in the storytelling, sometimes in character discussions. There is so much detail it almost blows the mind. Doctorow demonstrates what appears to be an immense intellect. Meanwhile, the bad guys are shades of grey. Jacob is motivated by both greed for his power and some misguided emotion for his daughter. Another non-walkaway turns out to be not all she seems. And now those with nothing have created immortality, and the rich aren’t happy.

Proper science fiction this, from Doctorow. A warning of our times. An investigation of what it means to be a human today and where the future might take us. What immortality might look like and how it affects the psyche. A look at the science of today and of tomorrow. And in the vein of many a classic science fiction novel, can a utopia ever work? A few tweaks with the plot would have made me happier. Slightly less discussion and more of the tender human moments such as when Tam listens to Seth putting his slippers on. Those who follow Doctorow’s sharing/hacking/fluid cultural ideologies will get a great deal from this book. Those not familiar, I imagine, will struggle. Not for everyone, but spot on for the few.

I received an ARC from the publisher. Quotation was not allowed.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse (1943)

glass-bead-gameHaving taken more than a decade to write, The Glass Bead Game, also known under the title of Magister Ludi (which is Latin for Master of the Game) was Herman Hesse’s final novel, and his only one that might be considered science fiction; it’s set in the twenty third century.

The full title of the edition I read – Vintage 2000, translated by Richard and Clara Winston – is The Glass Bead Game: A tentative sketch of the life of Magister Ludi Joseph Knecht together with Kencht’s posthumous writings edited by Hermann Hesse. Therefore, the conceit of this novel is that this is a fictional biography of said Knecht, which includes a few different sources, all brought together by Hesse.

The plot is fairly perfunctory. A talented but by no means exceptional boy studies the art of the Glass Bead Game in some bizarrely static future (I’ll come to that shortly), eventually becoming the top man in the hierarchy that oversees the game. The game itself is all about philosophy and music, although we never actually learn how the game is played or what the outcomes of the tournaments are. But the game itself is not really the point. The point is that Hesse was addressing a fundamental issue of the twentieth century: the end of national hierarchies and the rise of individualism. It even covers the rise of neo-libraralism (mentioned on page 303), as mentioned by the father of Plinio Designori who dominates his son’s life and belief system.

The Glass Bead Game is an odd one. On one hand, it is an imaginative thought piece on the changing nature of humanity. On the other, it is a deeply troubling projection of the author’s perception of the world, which somehow gained much critical acclaim.

So, the plot takes place in the future, but in truth it is a reflection on the past and not an actual comment on what Hesse thought the future might look like. Major themes are classic music, German philosophers, Chinese mysticism (I Ching), and religion. Nothing has progressed from the 1930s that Hesse must have experienced. It almost beggars belief that authors cannot look at the progress shown by history and not think the future will be filled with further progress. In Hesse’s future there are no technological or cultural advancements at all. Worse, his attitude towards women in particular and non-while males in general is shocking. It saddens me that this book is held in such high regard when it features not a single named female character in the biography of Knecht. It seems only men, and European men at that, have any place in the running of the future. The first mention of any woman is Plinio Designori’s mother on page 278 of this edition (more than half way through the book). The first female character with any agency is Plinio’s un-named wife (page 310), although her primary function is mother to their son. While Hesse extols the virtues of teachers, he suggests that they should be men. Interestingly, however, in the first line of Knecht’s so-called writings, it is stated that women ruled many thousands of years ago.

The Glass Bead Game becomes a black and white debate throughout its prose. There are several strands, but to Hesse it is always this versus that: the religious orders v the Game orders; the creation v the study of art; art v philosophy; art v science and the main event of course: the individualism of careerism, wealth and fame versus the old fashioned hierarchy where every brick in the wall counts, holding up the head of the ‘thing’ and its ideals. This is exemplified by Knecht’s stay with the Music Master while still at school, and (the voice of religion) Father Jacobus’s angry rant when Knecht was staying at the monastery (the Pythagorean brotherhood or the Christian church). Later, this examination of hierarchy is confirmed when Knecht is given the title of Magister and therefore he was to be a “jewel in the crown, a pillar in the structure” and he had to think of the Whole and serve the elite. At the conclusion, it is noted that “what would become of our Hierarchy . . .” if each man did not live in his assigned place.

Whether it is this particular translation, or the original writing, but parts of Knecht’s story are engaging enough The writing is skilled, and even though some paragraphs are longer than a page, rarely boring. Knecht’s relationship with the Music Master, his investigation of the I Ching and the changing relationship with Plinio Designori – the character who represents individualism – as they age, are charming and interesting. Knecht eventually rejecting the old ways and embracing the future. The biography style works well, and the author(s) discuss the truth of the tale versus the legend, describing where the information about Knecht’s life comes from, which gives the writing added authority.

A final criticism, and again one that seems to have gone un-noticed in the praise for this novel, is that there are meant to be at least three authors of this book. The ‘biographers’ who are talking to the reader for most of the story; the anonymous author of the final chapter ‘Legend’, and Knecht himself with his poetry and within the section entitled Three Lives. Yet, there is no difference in style or voice of the author; clearly Hesse himself. Surely he should have presented these writers as having their own unique styles, or did everyone in the future write like a 19th Century German?

A complex novel with a lot to enjoy but so much more to be concerned about. I’m undecided whether Hesse was looking back at affection at the old hierarchies of the past and warning about individualism, especially concerning Knecht’s fate. Either philosophy is problematic anyway, and Hesse doesn’t really consider shades of grey. If this book is some vision of Hesse’s future utopia, it has no place for anyone other than white European men. Shameful. Science fiction, of course, examines humanity and what it means to be a human either in the future or an alternative history. The Glass Bead Game does not do this but rather reflects on the past with rose-tinted glasses. Despite being set in the future, it is not a science fiction story by any stretch of the imagination.

Arcadia and The Book of Phoenix: Critical thinking about science fiction and enjoying the fluff

Book of PhoenixThinking critically is an important life skill. Having your own opinions and being able to back your arguments shows you’ve understood your subject. I always think that you can’t describe one side of an argument without at least acknowledging other options. I can argue that this is green without understanding the rest of the colour spectrum. Fandom is full of opinions, and many are informed and interesting. Many less so. I’ve decided to apply these concepts to the last two science fiction books that I’ve read: both Clarke Award shortlisted Arcadia by Iain Pears and The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor.

Critical thinking (2015) can be defined as “disciplined thinking, by a rational agent who is able to evaluate the information available to them and the relationships among pieces of that information, and analyze and synthesize the results in the process of developing their views. Key to critical thinking is the awareness of the process, of one’s own biases and the biases of others, and the ability to see multiple sides of a scenario, rather than responding from emotion or “going by the gut.””

Everyone lives within a personal bubble. People rarely think consider viewpoints beyond those that immediately affect them. A farmer might be pro-EU, for example, because she gets a good subsidy. She might, however, have ideological reasons opposing a non-elected European institution deciding on that subsidy. I’m reminded of the Asian story of the bug in the rug, as found on Harmonic by Hex. I love science and logical and pragmatism. I love storytelling and imaginary worlds. I love fairy tales and heroes. I know my bias, both emotionally and politically.

ArcadiaI sometimes think about critical thinking before I start reading a book, especially if I’m planning to review it. Sometimes, however, I want to enjoy the book without thinking too much about its contents. Sometimes I want just the gut pleasure. At times, I start thinking critically about books only after I’ve started reading them. Arcadia is a complex tale of time travel and alternative, fictional realities, and how a variety of characters interact with either other through these periods and realities. It is also very much as story about storytelling and the production of fiction. Henry Lytten used to be a spy but now he’s an academic who scribbles away trying to create the perfect fictional world: Anterwold. Lytten’s fiction begins with the character of Jay, a young boy who one day thinks he meets a fairy. This fairy is Rosie, Lytten’s friend, who has stumbled into a portal made by another of his friends, Angela. Lytten doesn’t know that she is from the future and has created this fictional universe based on his writings. It gets even more complex that, and Pears writing is sublime. It is one of my favourite novels that I’ve read for a long time, although didn’t pack the emotional punch I’d hope it would, as it built towards the climax.

Arcadia is generally known as a kind of pastoral utopia, which has a connection to the ancient Greek region of the same name. I’m not sure which came first and I don’t want to look it up. This is key. I don’t want to think too much about Pears novel. I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, much like one might imagine the enjoyment of a pastoral utopia might feel like.

I’m not for a second suggesting Arcadia is fluff. Far from it, but I enjoyed it as something light, not something I had to think too deeply about; it was something I could get swept up in and enjoy the lives of the characters. I suspect it is Pears writing, rather than the story itself, that made me feel like this. It wasn’t overly analytical and the science fiction bits weren’t too sciencey. The issue with time travel and alternative worlds and physics in fiction, is that unless you are an expert in the fields discussed, it is hard to known if they make sense. Without giving the plot away, the cause and effect created by Angela’s machine and Henry’s fiction world are so wrapped up in knots, it is impossible to say if they made sense. For me, anyway.

But of course there’s nothing wrong with some fluff every now and then. My favourite fluff are the early books of Robert Rankin for example. After all, you need a little bubble-gum to with the broccoli sometimes.

The Book of Phoenix has almost the opposite issue. While half the size of Arcadia, it appears to be more densely packed with meaning but with not a whole lot of plot. It is a delicate Persian rug, one which I can see but not necessarily understand. The story is about an accelerated human; a woman called Phoenix, who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. As she discovers herself and her past, she also awakens her powers, including the truth of her creation. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. She escapes, finding an usual seed en route. She ends up in Africa where she learns some truths before deciding to take out the company that created her and her kind. Her revenge is total. There are some interesting characters and ideas, and especially when writing about the relationships between characters, Okorafor’s writing is charming. It feels almost like a superhero – or supervillain – origin story, without being so explicit.

The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression. Americans and their corporations taking Africans and their lives as if they mean nothing. An American life is worth more than an African life. A white person is worth more than a black person. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments. I can’t really think critically about it, textually. I have no frame of reference. I’m not oppressed and I’m fairly certain I’ve never been directly culpable of oppressing anyone else, although I do benefit from being a white, middle-aged, middle-class male, whether I like it or not. Plot-wise, not a lot happens. Phoenix travels about, learning bit and bobs and makes a few decisions, before moving to the next place. As a piece of fiction, I can say it’s far from the greatest I’ve read, but I did enjoy reading it, and spending time with Phoenix.


When I read about so-called fans arguing about the relevant merits or lack-thereof of this book or that author, I suspect that they’ve either missed their critical thinking training, or missed the point. A book can entertain without any depth of meaning. A book can oppose your worldview and be a valid work or art. Some books are all about the characters or a situation. Others are about story or plot. Others still are about the process of writing or reading. People, fans, forget this. They argue vehemently that their opinion has validity and none other does. A recent thread on Reddit tore apart The Sparrow. I should have countered, but I couldn’t face the argument, to be honest.

Many people who read The Book of Phoenix won’t think about it critically, I suspect. Which is fine, of course. I wanted to, but couldn’t. I have no personal understanding of racial oppression. I don’t know if Okorafor’s perspective is fair or valid. Of course slavery is heinous and corporations do take at the expense of people. All this is true, but I don’t think I can appreciate her writing critically.

I didn’t want to read Arcadia critically; in case it didn’t make sense. I wanted the story regardless of accuracy and the opinions of Pears.

I enjoyed both books but for very different reasons. The Book of Phoenix won’t be making by best of books of the year by some distance, although Arcadia might.


Critical thinking (2015) In: J. Mcray (Ed.) Leadership glossary: Essential terms for the 21st century. Mission Bell Media, Credo [online]. Available at:http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/mbmlg/critical_thinking/0 [Accessed: 3 June 2016].

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Brave New WorldI write this on St Valentine’s Day (2016). I’ve been witness to conditioning and conformity as one of the many annual rituals comes and goes; for society, consumerism, capitalism and normalcy. Aldous Huxley first published Brave New World in 1932, a year after it was written. I listened to the BBC unabridged audiobook version, narrated by Michael York. It is a book I’ve read at least 6 times but the first time I’ve listened. I’ve spoken about it before here: My Book of My Lifetime so this won’t be as deep a description as usual in this series.

Briefly, the plot focuses on a few characters in London, in AD2540, which is known then as 632 A.F.—”After Ford”. Bernard Marx is a psychologist in the Directorate of Hatcheries and Conditioning. He’s very smart, but he’s not happy with life. He’s not normal in terms of physical stature, for his caste. Lenina Crowne works in a hatchery, and loves live. She is perfectly conditioned and perfect in every way. Bernard knows and understands how society works, and why it doesn’t work for him. However, he is infatuated by Lenina.

The world that they exist in is governed by the World State. Following on from Henry Ford’s ideas of consumption of disposable consumer goods, mass production, homogeneity and predictability (and he is now a messiah figure), society is stable, resulting from social conditioning and hypnopaedia, or sleep-teaching. There are five castes who are conditioned to know their place in society. At first glance, this appears to be a utopia. Everyone gets what everyone wants. But can anyone think for themselves?

The cracks in the society are shown when Lenina agrees to go with Bernard to a savage reservation – a place where the old values of family and religion persist. There they meet Linda and her son John. Their true identity is revealed and they return with the couple back to civilisation. Lenina falls for John, and John for Lenina, but he cannot abide her ways. When Linda dies, everything falls apart for John and Bernard.

The conditioning process that opens Brave New World and that continue to be explored are genuinely shocking today. Imagine reading this story in 1932! Social conditioning wasn’t as obvious in 1931 as it is today, and yet we are led to believe that we have more freedoms now than ever before. And yet, for those that behave in any outsider manner – not celebrating Valentine’s Day, not looking forward to Christmas as so as the summer sun sets, standing up for public libraries, creating art – life isn’t easy. The normal folks can’t understand the choices made. In Brave New World, of course, there is no choice. Citizens are sleep programmed to behave in their consumer fashion. Bernard, and his friend Helmholtz, are so intelligent that they can only be different, however. Which brings about the only real problematic area of the plot. Someone of Bernard’s intellect shouldn’t really find Lenina as attractive as he does. Although I suppose there may be some conditioning left in him. He is, however, a deeply flawed character, as exemplified with his relationship with Helmholtz. This is one of Huxley’s themes: beauty trumps intellect. Again, John falls for Lenina when he really should know better. Emotion is uncontrollable.

Another slight gripe, but maybe a result of the times Huxley lived in, is the lack of diversity within the story, which is a shame. Not so much in race, but in gender and sexuality. If everyone belongs to everyone else, why are gender and relationships so binary?

In Chapter 5 when Bernard talks to Lenina about being alone, this is what makes Brave New World so important. It fired my own individualism and lack of conformity when I was younger. Being the outsider alone! The main theme of the book is that it’s better to be me and unhappy than conform and be happy. Huxley hit upon the very definition of ignorance is bliss.

Huxley examines a lot of humanity throughout the book. The worship of Ford and the rapturous delirium of the ‘orgy’ in the solidarity meetings within this rational and technologically advanced word indicates that Huxley thought that humans need that religiosity in their lives, for example. Even the World Controller admitted as much later in the book when discussing religion with John. Another, again from that same passage, is that science and art (truth and beauty) are the twin crutches of freedom. And how! Much could be written – and has been – about the intricacies of this wonderful book, and how it is still relevant today. In Brave New World the citizens are not free to choose, but they are happy. In our real world, we are free to choose, and yet we choose to conform. And we are not happy.

The only other flaw in this book is one that crops up in so much early science fiction. Despite it set so far in the future and Huxley extrapolating and dreaming up so much of the horrors of our future, there is no evolution of communications technology. Bernard still needs to go to the post office to use a telephone and look people up in a phone book. I wonder why, amongst all things, science fiction authors fail to consider communications tech?

Brave New World is such a leap forward in the science fiction novel, even from the likes of Stapleton and Wells. It is a properly told story with fully rounded characters and a plot that makes sense. Huxley took the art of writing a science fiction story in a brilliant new direction. The seamless shift between the world building introduction to the book and the main narrative in the early chapters is masterful storytelling, quite unlike anything before it. And as for the brilliantly shocking ending…

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

“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

The History Of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)

HerlandCharlotte Perkins Gilman was best known for as a lecturer, feminist and sociologist, but she also wrote novels, in particular the utopian trilogy of which Herland (1915)  is the middle and probably best known book. The first, Moving the Mountain (1911), is set in the future (the year 2000). Herland, however, is set in contemporary times, and of course, explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of 3 American male archetypes.

Herland – as with many pivotal novels of the time – was originally published in serial form. In this case, it was in a magazine she edited herself, called The Forerunner. The chapters were published from 1909 to 1916 but not collected in a book until 1979. I read the free University of Oxford Text Archive addition, available freely on e-readers.

We meet our protagonists including the narrator – Van Jennings, who is a student of sociology – and his friends Terry and Jeff. The opening chapter is called ‘A Not Unnatural Enterprise’ which is subtly different to a natural one, I suppose. They know of a rumour. There is an unchartered, unexplored land where only women live – is this the race of Amazons? As privileged explorer-types with a declared interested in science, they decide to find out if it this land is even possible, without males to assist with the reproduction process. Each of the friends has a different perspective on how women should be – Jeff with a romantic notion, seeing them as fragile and Terry as items to conquer and own (women like to be run after, he thinks); Van is perhaps the balanced midpoint.

They fly to the mysterious nation and hide their plane. However, they are unknowingly observed. Before long, they believe they are chasing the women but end up in a town where the women out-smart them. They are surrounded by women and eventually captured. They are made comfortable, and the women they first encountered – Ellador, Cellis and Alima – become tutors, friends and eventually wives of the explorers. They are educated in the ways of the female nation – that men died 2,000 years ago and motherhood is their main religion. Reproduction is via parthenogenesis, in a particularly ordered fashion. It all seems to be going well until the antagonistic Terry commits what he thinks is a husband’s right, but is in fact a heinous crime.

Herland is another utopian treatise, rather than a narrative novel. Not a whole lot happens in terms of plot, other that relationships grow while our men learn about the history and society of the women they now live in. Van narrates but it is mostly Terry’s interpersonal relationships, viewpoints and actions which move any semblance of story forward. Unlike most previous utopian fiction (from More, Wells, Morris, etc.) there is some character growth and story development, even if contained in a relative static plot – chapters of exposition rather than story development. The main points are the attempted escape of the men early on and the events that bring about the conclusion.

Gilman is of course examining male perceptions of women and gender politics at the turn of the twentieth century. Previous utopias satirised governments and political systems; she satirises the patriarchy. Gilman’s Van expresses the view that these ‘men’ are mere intellectual boys at best. They can’t believe women can have a civilised society without MEN (my capitals). Women are ‘very limited beings’. The men of the time, and by reflected extension, (the patriarchal) society have a range of views and experiences, all of which are derogatory at best. Jeff complains about a lack of femininity because the women of Herland don’t have long hair, although he defends them when Terry questions their seemingly masculine physicality and pursuits. Personality traits are called into question – they are jealous, can’t organise, catfight, and such like. But they have no wars, no religious leaders or kings (or queens) and are united as a nation.

This is the first and only utopian novel I know to explicitly mention the physical intimacy of sex and address reproduction, but the over-ridding view point of the time (as described by Gilman) appears to be that women can be powerful in society, if only they are more like men.

Back to the plot. As the story comes to a finale, the three couples are in love and plan to marry. I struggle to believe that Terry could genuinely love any of these women that he seems so disgusted by, and even harder to believe any of them could fall in love with such a misogynistic oaf. Aside from that, Gilman’s expressions of love are terrifically written – heartfelt and honest. The women have made a better fist of society than men ever had, and yet three of them fall in love with the first men they meet. Gilman shows that gender is socially constructed, but perhaps that emotions are much deeper than 2,000 years of social conditioning.

There is a lot to take from Herland and the feminism was probably radical for its time. It’s a shame that not a lot has changed 100 years since Gilman wrote it. It’s well written and enjoyable, despite the lack of plot and the fact the couples fell for each other, which I just didn’t buy. I liked the philosophy that education is the ‘highest art’! However, there’s nothing at all that would count as science fiction. The parthenogenesis might well be a biological process, or just as well be magic. Indeed, if everyone is descended from a single mother, supernatural or religious analogies seem more appropriate. If you remove the need for men in the reproductive cycle by whatever means, there’s nothing women can’t do; and kinder, smarter and better!

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback (1911)

ModernElectrics1912-02According to some people, for example, Gary Westfahl[1], Ralph 124C41+ (henceforth Ralph) is one of the most significant science fiction books of all time. Given its context – the year it was written, what had come before – I can understand why it’s thought of in that way. Is it one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time? Far from it!

Gernsback originally wrote and published Ralph as a 12-part serial adventure in Modern Electronics magazine beginning in April 1911. It was first published as a complete text in 1925. My copy is a reprint of the 1958 2nd edition as published by Wildside Press. I didn’t read any of the introductory elements, and this was my first reading of the story.

With the exception of Shelley’s Frankenstein and much of Wells’ output to this point (A Modern Utopia excepted), most full science fiction novels had been attempts at nailing down utopian visions. At the start of Ralph the over-riding impression that this is to be a futurist adventure. It almost has a pulpish-ness to it. Ralph saves the life of beautiful woman, even though she is in another continent. She flies to New York to find him and they fall in love. However, Alice, for it is she, has unwanted attentions from 2 suitors (an Earthling and a Martian), and she is kidnapped and taken into space. Ralph must save her!

Let’s rewind a bit. Ralph 124C 41+ is one of the ten most brilliant ‘men’ onRalph the planet. Hence the + designation. We are in a technological future where he invents almost everything (so it seems) that drives human civilisation. Those who invent or create other elements of society are mostly only referred to by their numerical name. It is 2660. Humans have inhabited the inner planets and encountered Martians too. One day, while working in his lab, Ralph rescues Alice by remotely directing energy from the top of his building in New York. He manages to melt an avalanche in Switzerland. Alice and her father fly to New York to thank him in person. He then spends much of the middle section of the novel showing her the sights and marvels of the modern world, explaining in detail how each thing works and how it benefits society. Of course, many of the inventions are his, including a new one, which features a dog. He also uses the phrase “as you know” quite a bit. So, despite Alice being a smart woman who knows stuff, and despite living for 20-odd years in this world that Gernsback has created, she needs everything explaining to her. Ah, so this is a thinly veiled utopian rant after all. She is the theatre for the reader. Shame. Even the final section, when Ralph chases his enemies across the solar system, Gernsback is more concerned with describing his ideas for the future rather than telling a story.

A concession: Ralph has some minor character development – from focused scientist to heartbroken, vengeance-seeking lover – but everyone else in the book is a one-dimensional foil for Gernsback’s imagination. But to be fair, what an imagination, considering the early 20th century. To be sure, technology and scientific development were snowballing during this period, but the list of Gernsback’s/Ralph’s inventions and modifications is impressive in anybody’s book. Which is the key to Ralph’s perceived significance.

Some of the ideas are disappointing. Especially the reliance on the ‘fact’ of ether which is used to explain much of the world Ralph lives in during the early chapters. Quite early after Ralph starts showing Alice and her father around, the prose takes on a tedious tone. At one point, it seems that even her Dad is explaining electromagnetic travel to Ralph, who is one of the 10 greatest minds on the planet, remember. When Ralph explained to Alice how restaurants of the future worked, my faith in Ralph as a story disappeared.

Unsurprisingly for its time, Gernsback shows his misogyny throughout. Ralph smiles patronisingly at Alice’s “feminine” remark. Alice shows little agency. She is shown around, captured and rescued. It is hard to accept such characterisation, especially in a significant text. Women, as demonstrated by Alice’s suitors and even Ralph, are still little more than possessions. Another trait made it to Ralph (and Gernsback’s) utopian future: violence. Ralph resorts to threats of punching Alice’s other suitors. Not much of a utopia if all this great technology hasn’t evolved the human mind-set or ideas of equality and social justice. At least discrimination against Martians isn’t there. They and their technologies are looked up to; or at least Alice’s suitor’s mind is.

Gernsback spends a lot of time describing in great detail how some of his ideas work, and this is the novel’s only saving grace (although the writing itself is competently enjoyable). Even electronic packing machines have a page and a half of description. I enjoyed the idea of the “gravitational circus”. Nice for a society to make science an entertainment. But chapters such as “The End of Money” which is pretty much all Ralph explaining to Alice, drive the final nail in the coffin of Ralph as an adventure novel and nothing more than another dull utopia. Shelley would be spinning in her grave, realising that no-one except Wells seems to have grasped the idea of telling an actual story is the point of a novel, a work of fiction to be enjoyed, in 100 years of the evolution of science fiction. And this despite a flourishing literary world. There are brief diversions into story, interrupting the tract more than anything. Distractions rather than interests. The use of Ralph’s own invention against him (the Magnelium ship) is about as good as the plot gets. Which is more than a disservice to the idea of a story.

Ralph becomes the first human to create a “heavenly body” towards the conclusion of the story and then uses what can only be described as Gernsback’s version of Chechov’s gun to save the day – see the earlier mention of the dog (although I suppose any one of the unnecessarily described inventions could have been used). Is this all about Gernsback’s ego? I know nothing else about him, other than the shambles awards named after him. So credit him with his ideas. Don’t talk of predications and failures of scientific description (unless that was his original intention, to predict the future) – that’s not what science fiction is about. Don’t talk about utopias that treat women as objects and possessions with no agency. Don’t call Ralph a great work of science fiction when it is a failed utopian rant. Science fiction, yes. Significant, to a point. Any good, not really.

Image credit: “ModernElectrics1912-02” by Published by Modern Publishing Company, New York, NY. Hugo Gernsback Publisher. – Magazine Art Website http://www.magazineart.org/main.php/v/technical/modernelectrics/?g2_page=3. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ModernElectrics1912-02.jpg#/media/File:ModernElectrics1912-02.jpg

  1. [1] The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl, Liverpool University Press, 1999, page 135.


The History of Science Fiction Literature – A Modern Utopia by HG Wells (1905)

A Modern UtopiaDeclaration of interest: I really wasn’t looking forward to reading this and debated not bothering at all. However, it has merits in the history of science fiction so is worth my time.

Originally published (as so many novels of the time were) in serialised form from October 1904 to April 1905, A Modern Utopia came to be a book later in 1905. I use the term book deliberately. This is no novel. I read a free Gutenberg edition published of the first edition.

What is a novel? Fiction. Certainly. A narrative journey. Correct. A description of events and characters which change over the duration of the story. Hopefully. For me, a story is all of the above and something more. Something almost intangible. A novel encompasses the story. Embraces it. A Modern Utopia is no novel, despite describing fictitious events and characters. There is little plot to describe. The Owner of the Voice, the narrator, and his companion, the Botanist, find themselves on a planet exactly like the Earth in terms of biology and geography, but on the far away in space ‘out beyond Sirius’. All the individuals who exist are duplicated on both planets. The companions are in alternative Switzerland and meet some people. They go to London and meet some people, including the Owner’s duplicate. The Botanist pines after a woman back home, and meets her double. Nothing else happens. There are no events, no character development – both the Owner and the Botanist remain at the conclusion as they were at the beginning of their journey. The Botanist is there to provide a counterpoint to the Owner of the Voice but he is passionate, irrational and driven by unreason. Hardly the definition of the personality of a scientist. All that remains is discussion and description of the utopian society and comparisons with Earth.

This is a long essay, not a novel and the best way to have read it would have probably been the in its original serialised format as published. In the light of history, and specifically the history of science fiction literature, A Modern Utopia is not a good read. Indeed, the opening line of one of the chapters is “were this a story”. Wells himself knew this was no novel or tale. The occasional dips into the narrative of the companies feels like an afterthought. It would have made more sense if Wells had scrapped the narrative conceit and the elements of fiction.

Wells opens the debate with descriptions of other written utopias, some of which I’ve written about, including those by More and Morris, as well as the science of Darwin and the histories and philosophies of Plato for example. He certainly knows his stuff. It is competently researched. This is a self-aware and I think, self-serving piece, which ultimately fails by its own rules. Via the Owner, we learn, as previous utopic novels have done before, about the culture, economics, politics and such like of this planet. Wells says a utopia must be planet-wide to succeed. Maybe he is correct about that, if little else. There is little talk about how the companions arrived, by the way. They just did. Why should the reader accept such a thing? There is little talk of technological advancement anywhere. A train travels 200mph. That’s about it…This becomes more fantasy than science fiction.

The protagonists understand the language of this planet because the whole world has a common language they know. But while everything else is the same as Earth, the culture, traditions, ideas being different, have led to a different destiny. Which is odd, because history dictates destiny. If Greece hadn’t risen as it did in the times of Plato, I would not be sat here in Kent, typing on a laptop, no matter what my personality and philosophy.

So Wells talks about free will, personal freedoms and a migratory nature of people of this place. There are no positive compulsions. The society is split amongst broadly unrealistic lines, with people falling in odd categories. While writing, this is presented as speculation of what the planet should be, rather than fact. The writing itself is very dull and plodding with very long sentences and paragraphs the length of pages. I found myself bored for much of the book. I don’t know if there are a lot of great ideas in his utopia, because I stopped caring. The comment about drinking on Earth to “lighten up dull days and hopelessly sordid and disagreeable lives” did bring a wry smile to my face, however. Some things never change. It was only when the bad ideas came up I woke from my slumbers.

Wells plays a dangerous game, criticising past written utopias but making the same mistakes he points out, reflecting the views of the era. He says Plato failed to mention machines because he knew nothing of them. Yet Wells cannot name technology from his future either. Surely a utopia would have better technology than he describes. He is a prejudiced as those who went before. This is best exemplified by the general misogyny of the book. Women cannot be equal to men, he writes, but must be paid for motherhood as they cannot do the important work men do. It is Wells attempt at saying women should be free. He fails. His views on marriage are equally archaic. No mention at all of LGBT issues for example. A utopia would embrace and respect all. And as for race: “an adult white woman differs far from a white man than a negress or pigmy woman from her equivalent male”. Where to begin! Thus he talks about religion and race, ill-informed as the times were. He even suggests that the only “sane and logical” thing to do with inferior races is to exterminate it. I don’t think he was satirising the ideologies of the time, merely reflecting them. If he was true to his utopic beliefs, he should be more aggressive in his dismissal of such notions, not providing the reader with a cure for insomnia.

A Modern Utopia is no novel, no story. It is a dull essay that falls into the same traps as it accuses its forebears of. It takes a very naïve view of people and society and answers no questions. As for science fiction, barely! Although it might be the first novel-length prose fiction that takes place almost entirely on another planet.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.

Player PianoKurt Vonnegut had his debut novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. Much of western civilisation was still in a period of recovery following the devastation of World War II. Vonnegut was an active serviceman and was captured in Europe. Post war, he became a technical writer and worked in PR for General Electric before becoming a journalist. The post-war period directly informs what is a brilliantly written if flawed novel.

Upmost in Vonnegut’s mind could have been the result of the war. Was the life of the average American worth the fighting? Where do we go from here? And the classic staple of science fiction, where is man’s place now surrounded by machines that can do a job better than him? I say man, because Player Piano is set very much in the man’s world of the time. Men are managers and engineers – the ones who run America – and women are wives and secretaries. Our hero is high-flying Dr. Paul Proteus who is head of industry in New York. His wife, Anita, is a social climber who detests her roots. His secretary is Dr. Katharine Finch. Yep, the females need a doctorate to serve their masters.

The novel is set after a third world war with most Americans fighting abroad. In order to keep the country running, the managers and engineers made machines to replace the men in the factories. Unlike the reality of the WWII, in this fiction, women cannot even do the work of the missing men. Now, with the war over, most men have no work and those live in segregation away from the managers and engineers. As well as following Paul’s story – the main thread of the text – Vonnegut also presents the perspective of the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. Via his translator, he struggles to understand the American life-style, even to the point of believing that a super-computer might be a deity, as it can answer any and all questions (although it cannot talk).

Paul begins the novel understanding his place in the world but soon, thanks to a few unrelated events, finds himself dissatisfied, despite his lofty position. He comes across an old friend, Ed Finnerty who has quit his own lofty position. Ed and Paul visit the Homestead, where the disenfranchised live. They go to a bar where some truths are spelled out to Paul. The Homesteaders have meaningless lives and a minister, Lasher, helps solidify Paul’s doubts in the system he manages. There is a rebellion on the cards and Ed joins up. Paul wants to but doesn’t have the courage. Initially. Paul’s superiors ask him to betray his old friend which spurs on his discontent. He buys a run-down farm hoping to persuade Anita into a simpler life but she rejects him.

As Paul has been groomed for a superior position it becomes clear that he wants to reject it, but he is still wary of the competition for it, and for his wife’s affections. It comes to a head in a corporate away-day scenario where Paul must chose the comfortable life or battle against the system where men are rendered pointless by machinery.

In the denouement, Vonnegut shows the reader that even after given a choice and a chance at a simpler life-style, mankind will condemn itself in the name of technological progress.

Remember that this was written and published pretty much before the computer age and you might think that Player Piano is remarkably prescient. The gadget of the title being a piano that plays itself it perhaps symptomatic of reliance we now have with technology. All our stuff no-longer relies on us users – other to change the occasional battery. I remember growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when car engines were tinkered with every Sunday morning, garages and sheds were a hive of activity with repairs and improvements, garments were sowed and jumpers knitted. Today, everything works or is replaced if it doesn’t. We throw things away rather than repairing. We have the society (albeit not as divided) that Vonnegut feared.

The fiction itself is almost excellent, let down only by a slightly weakened ending to the middle third that could have been a bit tighter in execution – my mind wandered a bit during the Meadows section as points were hammered home repeatedly. However the final act and coda more than made up for it. The last few pages are genius. I found the fluidity of narrative and writing style remarkable for a debut novel; but in reality of course, Vonnegut was a seasoned writer confident in his subject matter. The characterisation was interesting, watching Paul make choices that would seem to turn his world upside down – and not for the better in the world he lived in. His motivations were realistic and sympathetic. The plot never felt forced or unbelievable. The placement of both the female characters and the machines mean that the novel is a sharp satire even today. Women might do better in education but are still paid less and are massively under-represented in senior management (although I personally suspect this is because they aren’t as psychopathically egotistical as most high-achieving men – and probably through choice). Anita’s character is sadly a one-dimensional caricature but makes a valid point about position of the trophy wife, while Katharine shows to have some depth. Meanwhile, the Shah appears to have some black comic purpose, basically shouting at America that ‘you’re all stupid, can’t you see what you’re doing!’ Which I like.

As with all the best dystopian science fiction, Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia – a one that western nations are even now apparently striving for; the worship of technology – and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction. I’m surprised Player Piano isn’t regarded higher than it is, and should be spoken about in the same context as Brave New World and the like.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

The Time MachineThere is deserved regard for H.G. Wells, and it is he more than anyone else who turned scientific romances or fantastic voyages of the 19th Century into what is called science fiction today. Incredibly, The Time Machine was Wells’ debut novel, built upon his earlier short story The Chronic Argonauts (1888). The Time Machine was written at the request of the publisher of the Pall Mall Gazette and published in serial form in The New Review. It was first published in book form in May 1895.[i]

I’ve read The Time Machine at least three times before this reading, but probably not for at least 15 years. The edition I read was the gorgeous yellow hardback Gollancz 50 edition, published in 2011. There is an introduction by Stephen Baxter, which I didn’t read, and there are no notes or explanations in this edition.

Time travel is a concept that’d been around for some time before Wells tackled the subject. Of course, we all travel forward in time (one second at a time, etc.). Others before him had written about going back into the past (Paris avant les homes by Pierre Boitard) or waking in the future (News from Nowhere by William Morris and of course, Rip Van Winkle). However, none had tackled the mechanics of time travel, and like Morris and others before him, this concept allowed Wells to explore his political views in a non-controversial, non-threatening forum.

The story begins with The Traveller explaining to the narrator and others, the concept of time. It has a similar tonal feel to Flatland – explaining time in terms of geometry. Very factual. Lures the reader in to what must be a serious treatise on the topic. Interestingly, this is not a tale narrated by its main protagonist, but is told in its (almost) entirety as a second-hand re-telling; a reportage, if you will. The other significant thing in the first couple of chapters is the naming of the characters. We have the Provincial Mayor, Medical Man, Psychologist, Editor, even the Silent Man. All except Filby. Which is odd.

It is difficult to read a classic and a novel that you’ve read and enjoyed previously without prejudice, but after only a dozen or so pages (in a relatively short book – this edition has 125 pages) Wells storytelling and imagination is already giant leaps ahead of his genre predecessors.

The Traveller arranges to meet with the narrator and others, but returns ‘late’ with them waiting for his news. Most of the bulk of the rest of the book is our narrator quoting The Traveller’s strange story. This is when Wells turns the previous genres of the utopian fantastic voyages and makes them science fiction. He takes the classic trope but adds elements of science. While the actual workings and mechanics of the time machine itself aren’t explained, the concepts of time travel are; while there is experimentation, observation and hypotheses (imaging that he may stop in something solid for example). The Traveller describes his journey into the future until he slows and is literally thrown into the future. It is 802,701 AD. Blimey. Take that William Morris (2003 indeed)! That leap of imagination is extraordinary for the time Wells wrote in.

Thus he meets the child-like Eloi and in particular Weena. He learns a little of their life-style and their language. It appears, on face value, to be a wonderful utopia in which they live, with no pain and an easy life. It is a communist life with no ownership. There is a dig, perhaps at specific works such as those by Morris, Swift, More, or a more general note to previous fictions, which in my eyes highlights the genius of Wells. He knows this is a fiction, so when The Traveller lands in utopia, he doesn’t find out everything. He only knows what he sees and experiences. “In some of these visions of Utopias and coming times which I have read, there is a vast amount of detail about buildings and social arrangements and so forth. But while such details are easy enough to obtain when the whole world is contained in one’s imagination, they are altogether inaccessible to a real traveller amid such realities as I found here”. Very clever writing.

File:The Time Machine (1st edition).djvu
Full scan of the 1st (1895) edition of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (public domain)

What is different here to previous fictions, however, is that everyone is weak. There is no need for strength. No-one works. No-one fights. There is no illness. So in a society where everyone is weak, but the same, strength isn’t required. However, as The Traveller soon discovers, paradise is far from perfect. We meet the Morlocks and here I think Wells rushed everything. It is a short (albeit serial in first production) story, but the speed of intuition from the protagonist based on little evidence is hard to relate to. Fine, so he’s a genius inventor who has made a working time machine, but the leaps of reasoning concerning the Morlocks’ origins could have done with a little more fleshing out. There is the proper social commentary which is Wells’ satire on the class divide of England at that time. But too quickly it’s over and narrative obstacles are soon overcome.

The coda, however, is completely unexpected and something no other writer had dared to consider. The end of the solar system, if not the universe (not just England, or Europe or the world). The Traveller goes so far into the future, what he sees is almost beyond the realms of imagination.

Of course, females (well, the one female character– Weena – which says everything) gets very short thrift. Without spoiling the plot, Weena’s fate is shockingly sad. Of the times for sure, but Wells was a meant to be a political socialist and generally inclusive. He could have done better.

It’s not just the ideas and styles which make The Time Machine a revolutionary story. The writing itself is brilliant, almost poetic (“You know that great pause that comes to things just before dusk?”). It’s very readable with interesting narrative and proper character development based on events, rather than storyline contrivances, and features the understanding of one’s place in the cosmos. This isn’t a narrow-minded viewpoint of one man’s vision of life at the time, but a holistic viewpoint of the universe we live in. It has an almost nihilistic quality that this is all going downward towards nothingness. I suspect Wells understood the second law of thermodynamics.

In the end, The Traveller informs our narrator that he is going back into time but three years later, he hasn’t returned. Perhaps, half a century before the Many Worlds theory of quantum physics, Wells understood what time travel could mean.

A brilliant piece of genuine science fiction with a couple of caveats, which would have taken it to the very top of the literature tree. Better treatment of Weena (and more women generally), and more observation, evidence and experimentation when The Traveller works out how the Eloi and Morlocks came to be. Still, so much more a proper science fiction story than almost anything that came between it and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


[i] Hammond, John R. (2004) H. G. Wells’s The time machine: a reference guide. Greenwood Publishing Group.