My Top 10 Science Fiction Novels for 2012-2013: Part One
"The dream of robotics is, first, that intelligent machines can do our work for us, allowing us lives of leisure, restoring us to Eden. Yet in his history of such ideas, Darwin Among the Machines, George Dyson warns, 'In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines'." -- Bill Joy, "Why The Future Doesn't Need Us" (Wired, April 2000)
"A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of the commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not produce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?" -- Konstantin Andreiovich, failed science fiction writer, part-time translator for the Russian Office of Liaison and Overseas Exchange
I've spent the past two years reading science-fiction, nearly exclusively in fact. From Edgar Rice Burroughs to Vladimir Voinovich, from Tiptree to Chiang, it has been a wild but thoroughly satisfying ride.
A few first impressions. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Philip K. Dick's short stories, because I've never quite loved his novels. I would happily take Mary Doria Russell's anthropological instincts over Ursula K. Le Guin's. I tolerated Frank Herbert's Dune, I choked down Vernor Vinge, and I read three screenplays in Spanish, including E.T. and Encuentros Cercanos Del Tercer Tipo. I belly-ache laughed with Yellow, Blue, Tibia. I seemed to enjoy myself the most with trilogies--Atwood's, Collins', Lewis', Asimov's. And as with any other genre of literature, you have your good writers (Huxley and Vonnegut) and you have your barely digestible writers (Niven and Hubbard).
As with horror movies, three basic fears in one form or another drive most sci-fi narratives: the fear of the dark, the fear of the future, and the fear of the unknown. Unlike horror movies, however, the über-fear is not demonic or divine but rather human power. The promethean temptation to create techne that might enable us to vanquish human mortality is an ancient one. It is with the advent of the Industrial Age that science and technology become wedded in frightfully inhuman ways, in order to achieve unimaginably superhuman deeds, and it is the science fiction novelist who issues the moral warning by envisaging the terrible ends to which our inventions may take us, if we are not more careful, that is.
Because the amount of time I have for extracurricular reading these days is nearly nill (my dissertation is a jealous mistress), I have tried to put in 30 minutes of reading before bedtime. At the end of two years, seventy novels and a couple hundred of short stories, I have discovered a few favorites (with still so much more to read). I list here my top ten, doubling up to account for 2012 and 2013 respectively. If this were my all-time top ten, I'd need to include Bradbury, Card, Wells, Adams and Orwell, Clarke and Haldeman. If it included other artistic media, such as movies, we would need a different list altogether (see here for the impressive list of sci-fi movies coming out in 2014).
While I've tried to avoid giving too many spoilers to the plots, it is almost impossible to do so in every case. So if you trust my judgment and are looking for a stimulating literary and philosophical experience, then buy the book and see for yourself how it all turns out.
1. Daniel Keyes, Flowers For Algernon paired with Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go.
These are the sweet-sad novels. It actually took me a couple of days to get over the heart ache Keyes' 1958 story caused. I wrote a bit about Flowers for Algernon in a previous post, titled "Science Fiction in Aisle Nine." Charlie Gordon, the story's protagonist, is a gentle thirty-two year old man, with an IQ of 68, who works a menial job in a bakery--an amiable dimwit, as it were. Charlie gets the "opportunity" to undergo an experimental surgery that would triple his IQ, as it has been done already for a mouse named Algernon. After his surgery, Charlie astonishes everyone around him, in some cases overwhelms and even intimidates them, and he falls in love with a woman who had once been his "special education" teacher. At the same time, his emotional IQ cannot keep pace and he eventually damages all his relationships. In time, Charlie experiences the same regression that Algernon encounters, after achieving peak intelligence, and reverts to his old self. And so the story goes on....
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel by the Japanese-born British author, Kazuo Ishiguro (who also happens to be the author of the The Remains of the Day, winner of the Man Booker Prize for fiction in 1989). In his 2005 sci-fi story, Ishiguro tells the story of three characters who turn out to be clones, whose legal and "natural" purpose in life is to offer their organs and, when needed, their life to "worthy" recipients. (It is no coincidence perhaps that the first sheep clone, Dolly, was generated in England in 1996 and died a few years later.) Because the narrator tells her story in hindsight, in a matter-of-fact fashion, you do not figure out what is going on till the very end, and it is at that point that you get a terrible case of the chills, shivering with the knowledge that, left to our own devices, humans might very well want to make this story a reality, provided they had access to all the right resources.
2. Octavia Butler, Lilith's Brood (1987-89) paired with Charles Stross, Glasshouse (2006).
These are what I would call the "alternate humanity" novels. Here the boundaries of anthropology are stretched until they break and yield to an utterly different notion of human life. How many changes can a human undergo in its physical make-up, as the characters in Lilith's Brood do, and still be regarded as human? Is there a set of non-negotiables faculties without which we could not or should not regarded someone as human? Is humanity constitutionally plastic, or, as we Americans like to put, whatever you want it to be, as Glasshouse seems to suggest, in rather creepy manner at times? And on what terms would we ground that decision? With Butler, the question is explored at the level of genetic engineering. With Stross, the question is imagined through a transhumanist lens, with a dash of Orwellian/PKD-ian paranoia, where (cyberpunk) technology serves to morph humans into different shapes and states of being.
If you are a Christian, like me, then you are thinking about the physical condition of humanity at six levels: pre-fall physicality, our present fallen physicality, Jesus' resurrected physicality, genetically altered physicality, technologically "enhanced" physicality, and disembodied physicality via avatars of one sort or another. Political, socio-economic, biological and ethical questions are at play in each of these "versions." For me, it is the theological question that remains paramount. What is the theological purpose of human physicality? Is there something fundamentally significant about male and female bodies, apart from which we would cease to be the sort of humans God in Christ intended us to be? Or are our human bodies fundamentally exchangeable, infinitely modifiable, essentially plastic servants to other needs, intellectual or emotional or otherwise? And will "transhumanist" persons be eventually granted the same sort of constitutional rights that any person under the mantra "Love = Love" is granted, regardless of, or rather despite, their physical nature (or lack thereof)?
3. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake paired with Robert Charles Wilson, Spin (2005).
There is a sub-genre of science fiction that is devoted to concerns surrounding the environment. Kim Stanley Robinson is usually identified with this kind of writing, and if you like hard science fiction, then you may like Robinson, though I tend to find his scientific detail-work wearying. However, if you like your science to be serious and you like your writing skills to be top notch, then you're better off with Atwood's trilogy, beginning with Oryx and Crake (2003), followed by The Year of the Flood (2009), and ending with MaddAddam (2013). In an interview Atwood once remarked, "Several of my close relatives are scientists, and the main topic at the annual family Christmas dinner is likely to be intestinal parasites or sex hormones in mice, or, when that makes the non-scientists too queasy, the nature of the Universe." With Atwood's trilogy you get a tale that both disturbs and delights, especially if you're into genetic engineering gone awry, along with a fair dose of philosophical savvy. A top-ten all-time for sure.
What if the stars suddenly disappeared? What if they blinked back on but you discovered that the earth was covered by an opaque membrane, installed by an alien species? What if for every year that now passes on earth, 100 million years pass in the rest of the universe and the sun will expire in 40 years earth time? What if you send crafts into space in order to terraform Mars? What if the terraform process is completed in a few months subjective time, a few million years Mars time, and a manned spaceship is sent to the red planet in order to establish a human presence? What if earth soon received a Martian ambassador who represents a civilization hundreds of thousands of years old and the possibility of an answer to earth's plight? "Spin is many things," said one reviewer, "psychological novel, technological thriller, apocalyptic picaresque, cosmological meditation." But mainly it is a profoundly human story, rivetingly told, revolving around three primary characters who react differently to this destabilizing reality.
4. Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon paired with John Wyndham, El Dia de los Trifidos.
As the post-apocalyptic novels of the lot, you can imagine they're full of melancholy, mourning a world that was lost and re-imagining a world bereft of resources that we once took for granted (and of course still do). Until I found Atwood and Russell's work, Pat Frank's 1959 novel had been the most satisfying read. As a professional journalist, his skill with words was evident and his ability to capture a global disaster in a story surrounding a small group of neighbors in a little Florida town is just the sort of thing you would expect from someone who served as a correspondent in Italy, Austria, Germany and Turkey. Where Alas, Babylon especially succeeds is by telling only so much, by showing enough to engender empathy, and by leaving enough to the imagination to keep the reader aching for more, and possibly imagining the worst but hopefully also the best.
As with most post-apocalyptic novels, The Day of the Triffids (which I read in Spanish) is a goldmine for preppers, or survivalists, as they are more commonly called. Alongside the human drama, stories like Wyndham's 1951 novel explore questions of human survival. How will people organize themselves politically? Will it be communism or dictatorship? Will they revert to a feudal arrangement? On what terms will they barter for "goods" with the loss of a common currency? How will they compensate for a massive "brain drain"--no more mechanical engineers, no more chemists or historians or doctors or farmers? Will they preserve existing social mores (regarding marriage or gender roles, for example) or will they institute new ones (which naturally turn out to be rather old ones)? In its evocation of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, Wyndham's story is a primal story, wondering yet again how humans will respond to powers that threaten to overwhelm everything we have known and loved.
5. The Philip K. Dick Reader paired with The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction
If you want a basic introduction to the genre of science fiction, ready the Wesleyan Anthology. You'll get everything from Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844), a proto-sci-fi short story, to Avram Davidson's "The Golem" (1955), a short story produced during the "golden age" of sci-fi. The anthology will also introduce you to a range of styles, voices and themes, of the kind that you will find outlined in David Seed's Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction. And, as I mentioned at the top, while I have never been a big fan of Philip Dick's novels, I was very entertained by the far more accessible collection of short stories in the Reader, several of which have been turned into a movie near you ("The Minority Report," "Paycheck," "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," aka Total Recall).
And now coming to a theater near you....