Sci-Fi is Just Ludicrous (…. or is it?)

Picture Credit: Bertrand Benoit

A few weeks ago I became involved in a few comment exchanges after Phil Kirby’s post ‘There’s more to life than books you know (but not much more)’ on the fabulous Culture Vulture blog . Phil had described (with tongue sort of in cheek I think) his dislike for many forms of literature including graphic novels and sci-fi. The graphic novel was quickly put to bed with the mention of Maus (Art Spiegleman), a book for me that uniquely showcases what can be achieved through the graphic medium and, I’d argue, deals with the subject matter in a way so powerful it surpasses the traditional written format. If you’ve not read it then I would urge you to get hold of a copy and prepare to be amazed.

We then of course moved on to the thorny issue of sci-fi where I knocked up a hasty list of crackers that would hopefully persuade Phil, and any other naysayers, that there is some merit in the genre of spaceships, aliens and robots. Phil kindly (I think) invited me to expand upon my comments in this post which first appeared on the Culture Vulture blog:

I think I’ll tackle the three headed demon of spaceships, aliens and robots first up as, is this not what you think of when the term sci-fi comes up? It’s definitely what happened when the Boys Book Club first got together as there was a vocal minority that stated quite early on “I’m not reading sci-fi”, I think primarily because it was the three headed demon that they had in mind whereas in my mind some of the greatest books ever written would fall under the sci-fi banner. Those of us in the club who are not averse to sci-fi have of course attempted over the years to ensure that some sci-fi gets read and we have even come up with our own genre, sly-fi, a book that is not necessarily acknowledged as sci-fi but actually is and I suspect many of the books on my list are in fact sly-fi.

But I digress there is still the three headed demon in the room so here are 3 books to read to slay it, all of which have had a significant influence the world around us today.

  • Spaceships – Try Rendevouz with Rama by Arthur C Clarke. Spaceguard (which looks at the possibility of asteroid strikes on earth) was set up in 1992 and is named after Clarke’s fictional project in Rama to detect near Earth objects.
  • Aliens – Try Contact by Carl Sagan. Sagan, amongst many other things was instrumental in establishing SETI (search for extra terrestrial intelligence) which is what happens in Contact but which also brings in to sharp focus our concepts of belief and faith
  • Robots – Try I Robot by Isaac Asimov. Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics and thinking around artificial intelligence are more relevant and influential today that they were when he published. I’d also argue that Frankenstein’s monster was the precursor to all robot stories and that Frankenstein was the first ever sci-fi book.

But for me sci-fi is not about those topics, although of course it can be, rather it’s uniqueness lies in the ability to explore ‘what if …’ scenarios that other genres of fiction are less suited to. In this way you can take a premise based on a reality, stretch it, play with it and take it to the extremes which acts as a catalyst for your exploration on how you think about it and where your true feelings may be.

In this way you can explore ideas such as eugenics (Brave New World), genetic modification (Day of the Triffids), impact of technology on literature (Fahrenheit 451), our relationship with the concepts of creation and science (Frankenstein), state responses to anti social behaviour (Clockwork Orange) and of course my favs which are dystopian epics (We, 1984, High Rise and The Road).

The list that I originally scribbled down of great sci-fi books were those that a) I’ve read and b) that I think would expand any reader’s literary world if you have not already read them. I tried to come up with 10 but failed so the futuristic 14 (in no particular order) are:

  • We – Zvgeny Zamyatin (1921) – The first dystopian novel ? that forms the basis of 1984 – if you read it make sure you get as late a translation as possible
  • Brave New World – Aldus Huxley (1932) – needs no introduction ?
  • 1984 – George Orwell (1948) – again no introduction needed but worth noting that cheeky George nicked about 80% of the plot from Zamyatin’s We
  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (1818) – yep it’s sci-fi – playing with the concept of how advances in science would affect society and alter perceptions of what/who is the creator and what is mankind’s responsibility for what it creates
  • High Rise – JG Ballard (1975) – post apocalyptic landscape where society is left living in social divisions within high rise flats (many cities seem to have had a good go at bringing this nightmare to reality)
  • The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick (1962) – what if the allies had lost WW2
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy (2006) – more post apocalyptic nightmares in this astonishingly bleak but beautiful portrayal of one mans hope to keep decency alive and pass on the flame to his son
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson (1984) – invented the term cyberspace, a head warping novel on the ultimate hack
  • Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (1979) –babel fish, Marvin the paranoid android, DON’T PANIC and the answer to the the ultimate question of life the universe and everything
  • Handmaids Tale – Margaret Atwood (1985) – more dystopia as the book explores themes of women in subjugation
  • Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham (1951) – be careful with that bioengineering
  • War of the Worlds – HG Wells (1898) – look out the martians are coming, one of the earliest books exploring contact between humans and a superior intelligent life form
  • Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C Clarke (1972) – looks at mankind’s response to contact with ‘a spaceship’
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (1951) – is literature at threat from new technology ?

What I didn’t realise until I went back to review the list is that it almost covers the entire 20th Century with just the 1900’s and 1990’s missing out but War of the Worlds (1898) and The Road (2006) are pretty close to making it a full house across the decades and I would happily argue that all of these books could lay down a convincing claim to be among the best books written in the last 100 years or so of any genre. Like any list it is of course totally subjective and I suspect that if you asked me again tomorrow my list would be different and there are plenty of sci/sly-fi I’ve not included such as A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) or Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro) for example.

Like many things much comes down to definitions and how people would characterise a sci-fi book. When discussing sci-fi I’ve often found that a prejudice against the genre can quickly appear with people seeming to have a problem with it not being ‘real’ when it could be argued that no fiction is real, there is a clue in the title – it’s fiction. What is fiction if it is not a ‘story’ that deals with characters and/ or events that are not factual, but rather, imaginary. Sci-fi follows the same path but simply places the story and/or characters in places that do not exist, and that doesn’t have to be distant planets, parallel universes or include robots and aliens although I have no problem with that if the premise is good. That for me is the nub, what is the book trying to say, how relevant is it, what does it make me think, how well is it written etc etc. I carried out a totally unscientific test at lunchtime and went down to Waterstones to see what they had put in sci-fi and what was in the classic or ‘proper’ fiction section. So from my list Philip K Dick, William Gibson, John Wyndham, HG Wells, Arthur C Clarke and Ray Bradbury were not surprisingly in the sci-fi section and none of the others were. Is this cultural or genre snobbery? Is there a fear or presumption that Margaret Atwood’s readers would not wish to be found up in the sci-fi section? I hope not as you never know they might find some surprises. Perhaps book shops need a new section – Sly-Fi !

So whatever your view of sci-fi, and I hope that I have persuaded some to look at the genre afresh, I’m sure that we can all agree that we don’t want to end up in a Fahrenheit 451 society where reading is outlawed.