Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Guardian Science Fiction List - part one

The Guardian Review section on Saturday 14th May was a special science fiction edition, designed to mark the opening of the British Library exhibition Out of this World, presumptuously subheaded SF But Not As You Know It. The lead article was a selection by ‘leading SF writers’ of their favourite novel or author in the genre. It may be news to Margaret Atwood, Hari Kunzru, Andrew Crumey or Liz Jensen that they are SF writers, but so be it. Genre boundaries are increasingly permeable these days. And the definition ‘writers who have written SF or have at some time used certain of its familiar devices’ would be more accurate but a little unwieldy. The temporal span of the selection is interesting, and rearranging it chronologically says something about the origins, development and future direction of the form. There are two nineteenth century novels, one American and one British, and already the philosophical between the perspectives of the two nations is evident. American author Edward Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon (1870), the choice of Andrew Crumey, foreshadows the technocratic spacefaring futures of the American magazines in the first half of the twentieth century, which would give SF its lasting popular iconography. Here, though, the purposeful working out of man’s manifest destiny through scientific progress and innate ingenuity which is characteristic of some (but by no means all) of that particular genre stream is humorously undermined by allowing for the possibility of embarrassing cock-up, the marvellous jerry-built spacecraft being accidentally launched too soon.

HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), on the other hand, is a twisted creation fable in which science is a tool of power and oppression rather than a producer of miracles. You can see why China Mieville has chosen it. It is a novel from the genre’s infancy which blends elements of outright horror with harsh political and religious satire, and uses scientific extrapolation and speculation as a metaphoric means to examine human and social concerns. The generic hybridity of the story, natural for a time in which the elements of the SF form had yet to be codified and made familiar through repeated use and variation, reflects the kind of late period SF hybrids more deliberately created by Mieville and his contemporaries. Moreau’s beast-men, the animals which he has experimented on to raise them to a level of semi-human sentience, are echoed in the ‘remade’ men and women of Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels (beginning with Perdido Street Station), who are genetically and surgically reshaped in accordance with their crimes or dissident activities, or simply to make their form better fit their function. The scientific romances of Wells and his successors were haunted by the spectres of Darwin and the expanded horizons of geological time which became increasingly clear in the Victorian and Edwardian eras thanks to the work of the likes of Charles Lyell and Ernest Rutherford, and were bathed in the baleful gloaming of imperial twilight. They tended, as a result, to feature essentially powerless protagonists whose insignificance in the face of cosmic grandeur was made all too apparent.

Moving into the twentieth century, and the decades of the 20s and 30s, Russell Hoban’s choice of HP Lovecraft can be seen as a continuation of this tradition, his New England sensibility directing its attention back to the Old World, indeed to worlds older than Europe. He eschewed the optimism of the New World, and wallowed in the same decadent outlook that Poe had adopted. His Cthulhu stories take the worldview of scientific romance a few steps further towards the abyss, positing a universe which is not merely indifferent to an enfeebled mankind, but actively hostile. The clammy sense of revulsion which permeates his fiction places it in the dank depths of the horror genre, and indicates the strong connections between the two forms. Brian Aldiss’ definition of SF, advanced in his history of the genre Billion (later Trillion) Year Spree takes this into account: ‘Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode’. The expansion of horizons and the exposure to newness which SF offers can lead to, or express, a state of shock and inculcate feelings of fear and dread – a sense of terror at the very nature of the universe ably embodied by monstrous alien forms.

Ursula le Guin provocatively chooses Virginia Woolf as her favourite SF writer, citing her 1928 novel Orlando, a time travel story of sorts. Le Guin’s well-known essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown, delivered as a lecture at the ICA in London I 1975 and later included in the critical anthology Explorations of the Marvellous (edited by Peter Nicholls) is based around Woolf’s essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. In this essay, she describes a train journey during which she sat opposite an old lady of orderly and perfectly ordinary appearance, who suddenly asked an extraordinary question of her travelling companion, and responded to the answer with mysterious display of deep emotion. Woolf declares that the complex character, the rich inner worlds of the likes of the unknown woman whom she names Mrs Brown should be at the heart of any novel, and le Guin questions why such people shouldn’t be allowed in SF as well. She identifies the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, who only has a number and code for a name, and Mr Tagomi from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle as being two such characters. ‘It’s funny, the idea of Mrs Brown in a spaceship’, she goes on to muse. ‘She’s much too small to visit a Galactic empire or to orbit a neutron star…or is that quite it? Could it be that Mrs Brown is actually, in some way, too large for the spaceship?’ This notion, of the vast complexity and variety of human nature, was beautifully expressed in Neil Gaiman’s recent Dr Who episode, in which the spaceship itself becomes human. The soul of the Tardis, of the machine, finds itself contained within a woman’s body and comments ‘it’s so much bigger on the inside’. The inner space of the most unremarkable-seeming person encompasses planets, galaxies, universes.

As Kim Stanley Robinson pointed out in the 16th September 2009 SF issue of New Scientist which he edited, Virginia Woolf appreciated the speculative fiction of her time, writing a letter to Olaf Stapledon to express her admiration for his novel Star Maker, a copy of which he had sent her following encouraging comments about his previous work. ‘I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part’, she wrote. ‘All the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at’. Stapledon’s novel about a dog with enhanced intelligence, Sirius, also connects with Woolf, whose short story Flush, which tries to get inside the mind of a dog, is cited by le Guin. Star Maker (1937) is the choice of Brian Aldiss, and a work which he has always claimed as a formative influence (although, as Mark Wilson amusingly points out in the comments section below the post over yonder, he has tended to waver over his definitive Stapledon favourite). Immense in scale, it is the culminating moment of the British scientific romance tradition. The creator of worlds is ultimately revealed (for this is SF which shows a profound concern for the spiritual dimension) but, in keeping with the pessimistic (or realistic, if you will) tenor of scientific romance’s post-Darwinian perspective, it is utterly indifferent to the community of sentient beings which has approached. This reflected mind of the cosmos barely manages to impinge on its consciousness, and there is no ecstatic communion or culminating moment of blinding revelation. Stapledon himself is charmingly modest about his life and achievements in the self-penned author biography on the back flap of the 1938 Pelican Books paperback edition of his earlier novel Last and First Men (which merely covered the few thousand million years of mankind’s future history, up until its eventual extinction). He describes himself as ‘a born muddler, protected (or ruined?) by the capitalistic system’ who has ‘barely, after half a century, begun to find my feet’. He goes on to explain how, ‘as a married adolescent of thirty-five, I woke. My mind painfully emerged from a larval into a kind of retarded and deformed imago state. Two experiences now dominated me: philosophy, and the tragic disorder of our whole terrestrial hive. After a belated attack on academic philosophy, I wrote this mad book, then others. And now, having at last set one foot near the threshold of mental maturity, I perceive with humour that the other is already advancing over the brink of the grave’. A wryly mordant and very scientific romantic outlook on life.

The 40s is seemingly excluded from this selection, bypassing the dubiously garlanded ‘golden age’ of American magazine SF, for which John W Campbell’s Astounding SF was the standard bearer. Short stories were still the dominant form at this time, and so stand out novels are difficult to identify. The flowering of SF novels in the 50s which ran in parallel with the development of the mass market paperback is plentifully represented, however. Liz Jensen chooses John Wyndham’s perennial favourite The Day of the Triffids (1951), which is still recognisably in the British scientific romance tradition, and which falls into the sub-category christened (rather unfairly, in some cases) the ‘cosy catastrophe’ by Brian Aldiss. Its imaginative charting of depopulated cities and adventures through rural home counties landscapes remained popular in the UK well into the 70s (where it chimed with the post 60s ‘back to the garden’ mood), during which decade some pointedly more brutal examples were produced by the likes of M.John Harrison (The Committed Men) and Christopher Priest (Fugue for a Darkening Island). The first novel in the list which might be described as ‘classic’ SF arising from the American magazines is Clifford Simak’s City (1952), chosen by the pre-eminent genre critic John Clute, no doubt with a conscious eye on the novel’s locus at the point on the generic timeline at which the form began to find a definite identity, and to connect with the wider popular imagination. He also probably had a shrewd idea that few others were likely to choose works from this particular period and area of the genre. Like many of the American SF novels of the time, it is actually a ‘fix-up’ of short stories which had originally appeared in the magazines. Simak’s stories had been published in Campbell’s Astounding over the previous decade, so the 40s ‘golden age’ is represented after all. Clute recalls the impact that the novel had on him as a youngster, and this memory of the intensity of imaginative discovery and exploration experienced in adolescence informs the choices of several of the writers in The Guardian.

The sense of excitement, identification and revelation is never as powerfully felt as it is in the teenage years, when your worldview is being formed, and the fact that many people start reading SF at this age has led to it being seen as an inherently juvenile literature by many observers, even amongst writers within the genre. Thomas Disch, in his 1975 essay The Embarassments of Science Fiction, writes, with deliberately provocative intent, that SF is a species of children’s literature. ‘In my own case’, he says, ‘and in that of almost all my contemporaries who admit to a taste for it, that taste was acquired at around the age of thirteen. Often earlier; seldom much later that fifteen…the taste may persist throughout life, but it seldom again exercises the addictive force it possesses in early adolescence, except among science fiction fans’. It is a criticism which comes from someone who himself showed a lifelong adherence to the form, and who, towards the end of his life, published his own ascerbically insightful history of the genre, whose title characteristically played with ambiguous meaning. It suggested both his contentment to be finally identified with the genre, and its expression of the ideals of a technocratic, consumer society - ‘The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World’. Perhaps the key here is that this is a literature which young people discover for themselves and read avidly and willingly. It’s not something that they ‘do’ at school, college and later, maybe, university. Reading tastes acquired when young will, like the genre itself, mature and blossom, branching off along many fascinating and eccentric byways (areas sometimes defined in SF bookshops as ‘slipstream’). JG Ballard, in part of an interview published elsewhere in the paper, says ‘I think of science fiction as being part of the great river of imaginative fiction that has flowed through English literature, probably for 400 or 500 years, well pre-dating modern science’. An early taste for SF can later guide the reader towards those riches, as well as continuing to offer plenty of its own. It’s literature for the autodidact, who likes to chart her or his own eccentric literary path. This has certainly been my experience, and that of many other readers whose love of the genre began in childhood, if this list is anything to go by.

The Stalker's guardian - more dogs in SF
City is another SF story, like Stapledon’s Sirius and (if you allow for its inclusion within the genre walls) Woolf’s Flush, which features intelligent dogs. The close companion of Prendick, the protagonist of HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, in the latter part of the story is a creature ‘risen’ from the form of a dog. Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog is a novella featuring a telepathic canine sidekick, with a ready line in coarse wisecracks. Ellison also includes a heartbreaking autobiographical aside about the death of his faithful hound Abhu in his fabulous short story The Deathbird. An alsation mysteriously becomes manifest in the alien ‘zone’ in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, an adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatski’s novel Roadside Picnic (which features as a later choice), acting as a kind of guardian avatar of divine watchfulness. SF is often accused of lacking humanity, but such qualities are often to be found in transfigured forms, in a literalistic representation of the way in which people project human characteristics and features onto other creatures and even onto objects and places (a revival of early animist beliefs for the modern technological age). Perhaps dogs are the favoured animals of SF writers, just as cats tend to be more associated with fantasy and supernatural fiction (they’ve always been the familiars of witches, after all). You could even, at a stretch, extend this train of thought to characterise these related but distinct genres as being particularly male and female divisions of the broader stream of imaginative literature, if this didn’t tend to reduce gender to oversimplified and rigidly traditional patterns.

Margaret Atwood chooses Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which again is an isolated novel from this period when he was producing some of his finest short stories. The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are both fix-up collections of stories linked together by a loosely connected sense of continuity. Bradbury’s schematic and somewhat contrived single-issue dystopia is designed to illustrate just one point, and thus fails to convince as an authentically realised society. Bradbury was always a bit awkward when trying to delineate a more traditional generic SF scenario. He was more comfortable with the small town setting in which Weird Tales unfolded. Urban locales didn’t suit him, and tended to bring out his reactionary side. His slight remove from the technocratic end of the field in the 40s and 50s is amusingly acknowledged in The Simpsons: school swot Martin intends to set up a science fiction club, where the likes of Asimov and Heinlein will be read. Someone asks ‘what about Bradbury?’, and he airily dismisses him with a disdainful ‘I’m aware of his work’. His dystopia is in keeping with Attwood’s own efforts in the genre. It would seem to fall outside of her shifting definitions of what constitutes ‘proper’ SF, which tend to come off the top of her head at any given moment that she’s asked. But she allows it to fall within generic boundaries here. The novel’s wholesale rejection of mass tv culture in favour of the more reflective pleasures of the book could be seen as a lofty brand of snobbery, the likes of which the literary world has frequently directed towards science fiction. This is one reason, perhaps, why it has always been seen as one of the more ‘acceptable’ examples of the genre in such circles. David Pringle, in his 1985 critical selection of Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, describes its dislikes as being ‘the litany of an old-fashioned, puritanical moralist’, and goes on to observe that it is ‘small wonder that the message of this novel has fallen sweetly on the ears of schoolteachers and other Guardians of Culture the world over. Wrapped up as it is in an exciting story with poetic overtones, that message has proved to be a very popular one’.

Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956) , the choice of Alastair Reynolds, a contemporary proponent of the traditional pleasures of space opera, is one of the classic sense of wonder tales; a story of conceptual breakthrough in which the protagonist escapes from artificially confining boundaries to discover the true immensity of the universe beyond. Clarke’s storytelling evinces definite echoes of the scientific romance tradition, mixed in with the optimism and pragmatic positivity of the American magazine SF. There is also an elegiac, rather melancholy undertow (also to be found in his other classic novel from this period, Childhood’s End) which it holds in common with Clifford Simak’s City. The widened perspectives, the huge expanses of time and space, lend a heightened awareness of mortality, of the passing of individual lives and civilisations.

Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956/7), from the same year is a very different beast (a Blakean tiger), a novel which revels in the sensations of the moment, and whose savage protagonist has no grandiose vision or yearning beyond his own self-gratification. It’s a book which is chosen here both by Michael Moorcock and William Gibson, which demonstrates the range and persistence of its appeal and influence. Its impact was felt both by the New Wave writers published in New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship in the 1960s, and by the cyberpunk writers of the 80s, for whom Gibson was the figurehead after the success of his first sub-genre defining novel Neuromancer. Its synaesthetic play with the graphic layout of the text anticipated similar experiments in New Worlds, and the pop cultural landscape and definitively anti-heroic protagonist are also characteristic of the stories which were printed in its pages. Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to the SF Masterworks edition of the novel, comments on its similarities to the archetypal works of cyberpunk which would arrive some thirty years later: ‘It contains such cheerfully protocyber elements as multinational corporate intrigue; a dangerous, mysterious, hyperscientific McGuffin (PyrE); an amoral hero; a supercool thief-woman…’ The differing publication dates aren’t a Guardian misprint, by the way. The 1956 edition was published in England under the Blakean title Tiger!Tiger!, emphasising the wild, protean nature of its main character. The slightly revised US edition of 1957 was given the misleadingly optimistic and romantically resolute title The Stars My Destination, which is the name by which it is published to this day. Reductive though it would certainly be, it is tempting to see in this variance an encapsulation of the differing attitudes to SF observed on the opposite shores of the Atlantic at this time.

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