Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Guardian Science Fiction List - part two

Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), the choice of Ken Macleod in the Guardian science fiction writers’ list of favourite novels or writers, brings us into the 1960s, although in a slightly misleading way, since it is in fact a product of the 1950s, both in terms of original publication and in its outlook and concerns. Its three constituent parts first saw the light of day in short story form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which was generally thought, under the editorship of Horace Gold, to favour fiction from the more literary or soft science end of the speculative spectrum) in that decade, and the whole is certainly haunted by the fears of nuclear destruction which underlay the era. It is significant in its explicit use of religious themes and language; the novel’s three sections are entitled Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux and Fiat Voluntas Tua – let there be man, let there be light and let thy will be done. The monastic order of St Leibowitz (he is canonised during the course of the book) acts as a repository and protector of what remains of human knowledge during the periods in which the cycle of history takes a decadent turn towards chaos and collapse. The eternal verities of religion provide a stable sense of continuity within the violent flux of historical progress and decline, Miller suggests. Science fiction has often approached the condition of a religious literature for the post-Enlightenment, rationalist age, usually in a less direct and unreconstructed fashion than A Canticle for Leibowitz. It shares many of the same concerns as religions, exploring the question of what it is to be human (the nature of the soul, in theological terms), attempting to describe transcendent states (communion), depicting moments of conceptual breakthrough (revelation), encompassing vast swathes of time and cosmological perspectives, displaying an apocalyptic turn of mind which looks ahead to the end of all things, and evincing a strong sense of mysticism in its testing of the boundaries of perception. It has to be said that JG Ballard, during the New Worlds period, took violent opposition to this viewpoint, as he made perfectly clear in a review in a 1971 edition of Books and Bookmen (included in the collection A User’s Guide to the Millenium under the title Fictions of Every Kind). ‘Science fiction is totally atheistic’, he asserts. ‘Those critics in the past who have found any mystical strains at work have been blinded by the camouflage. Science fiction is much more concerned with the significance of the gleam on an automobile instrument panel than on the deity’s posterior’. I suspect that this was more of a provocation, a broadside in his ongoing manifesto for his own personal variant of the genre, than a genuine attempt to reduce it to such narrow material concerns. Otherwise we may as well jettison pretty much the entirety of Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre.

Thomas M Disch tells it like it is
Science fiction has, indeed, shown a regrettable tendency to engender its own cults and crank beliefs, stemming from a combination of need (exhibiting varying degrees of desperation), a shared sense of group identity (with common symbology and ‘secret’ knowledge), and a collapse or folding in of the distinction between invented and actual reality. UFOs, visitors from the stars and enhanced sensory perceptions form the latterday matter of religious iconography, with alien abduction experiences the modern martyrs way. SF now has its own religions (craven cowardice prevents me from mentioning the most obvious, and successful) which develop their own pseudo-scientific ontology. Thomas M Disch has commented upon this tendency in his 1975 essay The Embarrassments of SF, identifying the comforts of cult beliefs and the sense of being special which they infer, making a virtue of apartness. ‘Deny outright the wisdom of the world and be initiated to a secret wisdom’, he writes of the cultist’s choice. ‘Become a true believer – it matters not the faith, so long as it is at variance with theirs. All millennialist religions have their origins in this need for creating a counter-culture. As religion loses its unique authority, almost any bizarre set of beliefs can become the focus of a sense of Election. Whatever the belief, the rationale for it is the same: The so-called authorities are a pack of fools and frauds with minds closed to any but their own ideas. Just because they’ve published books doesn’t mean a thing. There are other books that are in complete opposition. Beginning with such arguments, and armed with the right book, one may find one’s way to almost any conclusion one might take a fancy to: hollow earths, Dean drives, the descent of mankind from interstellar visitors’.

Walter Miller was a Catholic, a highly organised and deterministic belief system which would seem to be incompatible with the speculative nature of science fiction, and indeed of science, particularly given the Church’s historical antipathy towards the furtherance of human knowledge through empirical means. But the novel manages to reconcile the two worlds in salutary fashion. The appearance of the wandering Jew introduces an interesting intersection of storytelling modes – the character from biblical fable intruding into the science fictional future. The ambiguous frisson which this incongruous clash sparks is left unresolved. Thankfully, Miller doesn’t offer any shaggy dog explanations for his seeming immortality: he is a time traveller/mutant/alien/clone descendent etc. There is nothing here analogous to the old chestnut in which the sole survivors of a nuclear war discover each other and introduce themselves as Adam and Eve.

A Canticle For Leibowitz is overt in its religiosity in a way that few SF novels are, CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet trilogy being one (or three) other example(s). A later sequence, The Book of the New Sun, written by another Catholic writer, Gene Wolfe, is filled with religious imagery and symbolism, but it is left implicit, embedded within the nature of the world depicted and in the narrative stations arrived during the anti-hero’s picaresque progress. It is up to the reader to unearth these signs and make of them what they will. The world of The Book of the New Sun bears some resemblance to the opening of A Canticle for Leibowitz in that it is set in a period long after the decline and fall of our civilisation, the technological relics and ephemera from which are present in transfigured form, unrecognised and absorbed into the landscape and incorporated into everyday furnishings. Gene Wolfe is acclaimed as a literary hero elsewhere in the Guardian by Neil Gaiman, for whom he wrote an introduction to a volume of the Sandman collections (as did several of Neil’s other literary heroes, such as Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny). A Canticle for Leibowitz is an interestingly idiosyncratic choice for Ken Macleod to make, given that he is known for he left-leaning SF, which draws on an entirely different stream, wholly disconnected from the genre’s spiritual aspect; the utopian/dystopian mode, which is more explicitly concerned with the material world and the alternate social and political models which can be cast from its component parts.

JG Ballard’s The Voices of Time (1960) and Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse (1961), the choices of Christopher Priest and Stephen Baxter respectively, are more appropriate entry points into the 60s, a decade during which SF changed in decisive ways, subjected to one of the transforming waves which swept through many aspects of culture in this time. Ballard and Aldiss would go on to become centrally involved in Michael Moorcock’s reconfiguration of New Worlds magazine into a laboratory for formal and stylistic expereiment. Both The Voices of Time and Hothouse are, in their own individual ways, genre elegies. The Voices of Time is an early short story (he had begun publishing in 1956 with the stories Escapement and Prima Belladonna) which lent its title to Ballard’s first collection. It is like a template for his future fictions, containing many of the elements to which he would obsessively return throughout the 60s and 70s: the drained and cracked swimming pools; the medical reports from neurological wards, and x-ray photos of spinal sections; the mentally unstable astronauts who refuse to fulfil their official mission, devising their own private one instead; the depersonalised characters, known only by their surname (a very English upper middle class touch); the invocations of Pacific H-bomb sites, as if they are sacred names, and the use of the phrase ‘goodbye Eniwetok’; the intuitively driven pursuit of ‘mad’ artistic creations (sculptures, collage and bricolage) and the idea of psychopathology as a breakthrough to a different order of perception, or of being in an evolving world; the identification, collusion and collaboration of the main character with the ongoing disaster; the flat, dessicated planes upon which objects of suggestive power and psychological resonance are placed – radio telescopes, concrete military bunkers, targets and blast shields, modern architecture, and road systems (all of which is an expression of Ballard’s love of the surrealist landscape, with its idiosyncratic juxtaposition of forms); the merging of consciousness with geological time; and above all, the deliberate disconnection from the outer world in favour of the exploration of inner space. The final lines of The Voices of Time seem like an eulogy for the kind of outwardly directed SF which Ballard was turning his back on, a farewell to the grandiose dreams of conquering the universe. Kaldren, the one character who is not (thanks to radical surgery) succumbing to increased periods of sleep leading to an eventual state of permanent narcoma, ends up ‘thinking to himself, as he would do through the coming months, of Powers and his strange mandala (the mad art), and of the seven and their journey to the white gardens of the moon (the astronauts), and the blue people who had come from Orion and spoken in poetry to them of ancient beautiful worlds beneath the golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos’.

Alien Landscapes - in French
Brian Aldiss’ Houthouse (1961) is also an endpoint book, a decadent scientific romance which takes the form to the point of lush, overripe stasis. I first encountered its vision of a far future world via the illustrations in Alien Landscapes, a book written and edited by Robert Holdstock and Malcolm Edwards which featured artists interpreting various worlds from science fiction literature. The Time Machine and Dune were also included, but the scenes from Hothouse were by far the strangest. Whereas many scientific romances, from Wells’ The Time Machine, through David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and Sydney Fowler Wright’s The World Below, to CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet feature contemporary characters who bring a modern perspective to bear upon the worlds of situations into which they journey or are cast, Hothouse is set in a far future world in which Aldiss’ protagonists are part of a devolved human species, which is now much diminished and bereft of civilisation or any great, distinguishing intelligence to differentiate them from their engulfing environment. Aldiss’ book, unlike the typical scientific romance, is characterised by much humour and playful inventiveness, a joy in the exercise of the imagination for its own sake. The aftershocks of Darwin’s theories had died away by this point in the twentieth century, and man’s relative insignificance in the mysterious and largely opaque cosmic schema was widely taken as a given. As such, it could be the source of amused contemplation and philosophical reflection rather than overwhelming anxiety. Aldiss’ characters live in the canopy of a planet-spanning tree, and have slipped significantly down the branches of the great chain of being. Now part of the flora and fauna, they are pre-occupied, in common with all creatures subject to predation, with the arduous daily business of staying alive. Such instinctive and unvarying purpose would perhaps become rather dull for the reader after a short while, but the main character, Gren, is possessed for a significant portion of the book by a symbiotic fungus, the Morel, which directs him with a controlling intelligence. This creature is like a sort of external extension of the brain – consciousness and higher mental processes as parasitic infection. Aldiss would explore ideas about the development of consciousness and the human in speculative but non-fictional fashion in his 1973 book of reflections, The Shape of Further Things.

The earth and moon in Hothouse have ceased their revolutions, and hang static in the sky, which is filled with a bloated sun well on its way to going nova. It is a permanently sunlit evening of the world, akin to that witnessed by the time traveller at the end of Wells’ short novel. But here, instead of crab like creatures inhabiting a terminal beach, humanity persists in a recognisable form. Aldiss has absorbed the humbling perspectives of the British scientific romance tradition, but he retains a sense of optimism in the stubborn continuity of life. Ballard would go on to be the central figurehead for the New Worlds writers, setting a stylistic and thematic example which others followed. Whilst Aldiss also participated fully in the magazine’s programme of genre de- and reconstruction, producing works which were as uncompromisingly experimental as any (Barefoot in the Head and Report on Probability A), he remained at a certain remove from its more fervent core of young turks. His role was as much as an enabler, an ambassadorial middleman who could forge links with the literary establishment, as it was an iconoclast, and he always maintained an affection for and connection with the tradition. Hothouse in some ways anticipated the concerns of the new wave in its lush decadance, its interest in human consciousness and psychology, its undermining of the triumphalist tone of some American magazine SF, and its openness about sex. But Aldiss eschews the defining metaphor of New Worlds, that of entropy. The world of Hothouse may be a terminal one, but it is anti-entropic, ripe and crawling with fecund and devouring life.

The other two novels from the 60s, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (chosen by Adam Roberts and Kim Stanley Robinson, who are both SF critics as well as authors), offer the pleasures of planet building: the creation of new landscapes with their own flora and fauna, climate and geology, with culture, religions and social structures overlaid. The planet Arrakis in Dune is a desert world, whereas The Left Hand of Darkness’ Gethen is a wintry place, locked in the middle of an ice age. Landscape has always played a central role in SF, connecting it with the nineteenth century tradition of the romantic sublime. SF magazine cover art, when not depicting spaceships, futuristic cityscapes or bizarre aliens would often depict planetary landscapes with details that made their unearthly aspect apparent: green oceans washing upon vermillion sands beneath violet skies, with a spiral galaxy setting below the horizon. Such landscapes, in common with those of the nineteenth century Romantics, might or might not feature small figures or distant cities, which function as indicators of scale, highlighting the awesome nature of the spectacle. Ursula le Guin, in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown, talks about how the original imaginative kernel of her books often forms as an image of a character in a particular landscape. Of The Left Hand of Darkness, she writes ‘once…I saw two of them. As my vision is not ironic, but romantic, they were small figures, remote, in a tremendous waste landscape of ice and snow. They were pulling a sledge or something over the ice, hauling together. That is all I saw…but that is how the novel The Left Hand of Darkness began, and when I think of the book, it is still that vision I see’. Imaginary landscapes and strange geographies can sound a particular emotional or psychological resonance themselves, as well as reflecting the inner state of the characters who pass across or though them. The lack of depth in characterisation is one criticism frequently levelled at SF, but that character can reside just as much in ‘emotional landscapes’, as Bjork once put it.

The nature of the arid world of Arrakis in Dune, and the way in which the lives and culture and religion (and religion is very important here) of its inhabitants are affected by the harsh environment are certainly what remains with me from my early teen reading of the book. I remember virtually nothing of the plot, and seem to recall that it rather washed over me at the time. The books were ubiquitous at the time, with their distinctive and relatively text free covers by Bruce Pennington proving attractively eye-catching on the shelves or revolving wire racks. His painting for the cover of Children of Dune, with its large moon hanging pendulant in a green sky, was particularly memorable. On all three of the original books, he avoided the temptation of depicting the novels’ memorable alien creatures, the giant sandworms, which would have been the obvious visual choice. I refer to novels here because Dune also illustrates SF’s tendency to mine its richest planets or imagined futures, sequel following sequel, until they are completely stripped of their last resources. At this point some great transforming event might be introduced (a terraforming, say), which allows things to proceed, the plot contrivances tending to become evermore strained. I was never tempted to venture beyond the original novel, even though the following two sat upon my shelves for some time (those covers, you see), but Herbert continued to produce until his death, at which point his son Brian took over. So now you can follow the machinations of the various warring factions through Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapter House Dune and if you still want more, some 12 further novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson.

It’s in many ways an odd choice by Adam Roberts (and one which is again accompanied by reminiscences of a childhood reading) – a bestseller which has failed to find a permanent place in the hearts of many SF readers. David Pringle begrudgingly included it in his 1985 survey of Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels; it’s impact was such that it could hardly be left out. But he does nothing to disguise his personal dislike for it, highlighting its stylistic awkwardness and observing how ‘blood-and-thunder clichés jostle with ingenious speculations’. Of the narrative, driven by factional plotting and hierarchical struggles, he writes ‘personally, I detest all the courtly-intrigue stuff – it is as though Herbert wants his readers to live in an eternal Middle Ages of the mind’. It’s true to say that if the genre trappings were subtly altered – sandworms turned into dragons, say, and technologies replaced by a system of sorcery – then this would become a standard epic fantasy, with all the particular concerns of that genre. Sometimes the devices of SF are just props, with no intrinsic importance to the narrative, which could proceed quite happily without them, and are therefore interchangeable. Spaceships for horses, aliens for orcs.

Dune was a cult book for the 60s counter-culture, which is no doubt in large part because of Herbert’s depiction of drug use leading to transcendent states and higher knowledge. Similarly, Robert A Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land was a big hippie favourite due to its advocacy of free love and its invention of a new fictional religion (inevitably, a real version now exists in California). The fact that they also swallowed its libertarian aspects throws an interesting light on the contradictory nature of hippiedom, demonstrating its disconnection from liberal and left wing traditions. Both Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land centre on the rise of strong characters who become cult leaders, attracting a large and fanatically loyal following through the espousal of libertarian views. As David Pringle points out in his overview of Dune, ‘with its emphasis on hierarchy, messianic leadership and militaristic virtues it gives off a faint musk of fascism – an aroma which, I regret to say, does make for popularity’. Cultishness, with its shared language of difference (and SF is very good at neologising), can focus feelings of disillusionment – of not belonging – and create a new view of the world which becomes all encompassing, fanatically adhered to. As Thomas M Disch elaborates in his essay The Embarassments of SF, ‘resentment may be universal, but it is also universally dangerous, for the political programmes of the resentful inevitably savours of totalitarianism and a spirit of revenge. Once they attain to political power the know-nothings can have a sweet triumph over the tell-it-alls by declaring that the Earth is flat or Einstein is a heretic. The books of one’s enemies can be burned or re-edited’. The world can be continually remodelled, rewritten.

The Left Hand of Darkness looks forward to the countercultural preoccupations of the 70s, with its focus on the nature of gender, and how it is culturally as well as biologically determined. Le Guin’s sexually indeterminate Gethenians, who can become either male or female during rare periods of fertility, are a fine example of the way in which the invention of alien species can be used to delineate difference, and in doing so reflect back upon the givens of human behaviour and custom from a conceptual remove (something akin to the ‘cognitive estrangement’ famously posited by Darko Suvin, the SF critic with a SF name). Le Guin’s Taoist outlook is evident in the very title of the novel – the left hand of darkness being light Her idea of the constantly shifting balance of the universe and the way in which small human gestures can play their part in affecting its course evinces a far less forceful and violent notion of change and evolution than that envisioned by Frank Herbert in Dune. Le Guin’s novel looks forward to the more humanist strands of SF written from the 70s onwards by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Bishop (which could certainly be seen as living up to the hopes for a more character based SF expressed in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown) rather than the radically engaged feminist SF of the 70s, although her fiction has never lacked a political side. Her lengthy short story The Word for World is Forest, published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, was unmistakeably a parable of America’s engagement in the Vietnam war. Her coolly balanced philosophical outlook militates against angry didacticism or salutary satire. Even when she wrote an utopia/dystopia (The Dispossessed), it admitted of ambiguity on both sides of the divide, the light containing seeds of darkness, and the dark of light.

Entering the 1970s, Audrey Niffenegger chooses Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a novel which uses its borderline SF narrative machinery to turn its gaze backwards with nostalgic longing to the New York of 1882. Already the future was looking less like an exciting location of gleaming possibility. Finney was best known for his 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, the direct basis for three direct film adaptations (which, Abel Ferrara’s 90s model aside, added the prefaratory ‘Invasion of’) and the inspiration for many more indirect variants on the theme. Time and Again is almost completely forgotten, and this is obviously a very personal choice on Niffenegger’s part, perhaps influencing her own illustrated fantasies (one of which, The Night Bookmobile, was serialised in The Guardian a few years back, and is one of the best things she's done).

Roadside Picnic (1972), by the Russian brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, is the only non-English language selection included in this selection, and is chosen by Hari Kunzru, who has already revealed his early love of SF in The Guardian in the introduction to his recent interview with Michael Moorcock. It is an illustrative example of the popularity of SF within totalitarian societies. The genre offers a means by which forbidden subjects can be tangentially touched upon, using SF’s apparatus of dissociation, distancing and indirection – its material embodiment of metaphor and simile. The novel is a story of alien visitation in which the miraculous event goes unwitnessed (or at least unreported) and is now little more than a fable, a story heard at second-hand, its truthfulness never more than a matter of vague conjecture. The echoes of this visitation, the vibrations from arcane technologies which are sealed off within a forbidden ‘zone’, become the objects of latterday grail quests. This despite the fact that whatever the visitors deposited is likened to the rubbish left behind by careless people who had stopped by for a brief picnic. These echoes are like the fallout from historical events, their real nature distorted and made obscure by official obfuscation, and the recurrent editing and retelling of the past. The book was used as the source material for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, as previously mentioned.Tarkovsky de-emphasised the science fictional elements in favour of a meditative spiritual quality, chipping away at the chrome gilding of the spaceship to find an altarpiece beneath. It’s interesting to not that elsewhere in The Guardian Review’s SF special mention is made of Han Song, the most popular author of SF in China, and of the increasing popularity of the genre in the country. Naturally, this has led to a government crackdown. Most of Song’s books have been banned at one time or another, and SF has been subject to the increasingly hardline controls being exerted by the government over the arts in general. SF allows for the positing of alternatives to the current dominant ideology and social hierarchy, for the possibility of change, and the totalitarian mindset polices such imaginative freedom ruthlessly, insisting upon one monolithic reality which they own, control and dream. All of which has been outlined with pitiless clarity in a science fiction novel, of course – George Orwell’s 1984 (and yes, it is SF).

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), the choice of Scarlett Thomas, is another work essential to the history of the genre, although not one I have any great personal fondness for. It’s always seemed a little too self-consciously cool for its own good, constantly checking itself in the mirrored windows of corporate high-rises, something which could be said for the cyberpunk movement as a whole, for which it stands as the exemplary work. A fiction of gleaming surfaces consumer sheen, and filled with a violent, unreflective energy, it marked a point in time when the divide between science fiction and the increasingly technologised present from which its futures were extrapolated looked to grow ever narrower. The movement echoed Ballard and the new wave’s call to turn from outer towards inner space, but diverted the locus of that space from the human mind to digitally fashioned virtual worlds. The reliance of such fiction on an imagination defined by current and ever-changing technologies and the corporations which control and produce them, extended into a future magnifies them so that they are even more dominant and powerful, makes it both hugely influential and swiftly dated, in need of constant re-invention. Cyberpunk’s sub-generic branch was in some ways a victim of its own success, or more specifically that of Neuromancer. It defined and encompassed the different elements of the cyberpunk worldview so thoroughly and comprehensively that it left you with a sense that you didn’t need to read anymore. The point had been made. Samuel Delany described cyberpunk in a roughly contemporaneous interview from 1986 (reprinted under the title Toto, We’re Back in the collection Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction and Some Comics, in which he talks about…well, that) using terms which retrospectively highlights this dated quality: ‘To the extent that the cyberpunks can be characterised at all’, he prefaces his characterisation, ‘they seem to be very interested in the appurtenances of contemporary technology, that technology that combines computers, walkmen, and compact discs with artificial hearts, solar energy, designer drugs, and social control. Cyberpunk is the fiction of the microtechnologies that fall out of high-tech pockets to get swept up into life on the street. Their motto might be a line taken from Gibson…”The street finds its own use for things.”’

Octavia E Butler, the choice of Tricia Sullivan, was a protégé of Delany and Harlan Ellison, and her fiction continues the post modern trajectory of cyberpunk in its confident use of varying generic elements. I’ve not read any of her work (it seems to be rather difficult to get hold of in this country) so can’t really add much to what Sullivan writes. The fact that she is an African American woman is perhaps inevitably one which is deemed worthy of prominent mention. Issues of race do indeed occur in her work, in particular in the time travel novel Kindred, which finds a modern day African American woman travelling into the past and directly experiencing the suffering of her ancestors. But she seems to use the genre in a fairly straightforward way, and her explorations of power, generation and determinism don’t have the direct and occasionally simplistic thrust of the feminist writers of the 70s – a simplicity in the service of clarity and forthright partisanship. Writers such as Joanna Russ, who sadly passed away earlier this month, and whose The Female Man was the absolute peak of such uncompromisingly engaged fiction. Michael Moorcock, in his introduction to David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, observes that ‘Brian Aldiss once said that SF could never claim to be a mature form until as many women as men read it. I would agree, and add that the form overall (as opposed to many individual exceptions) will have come into its own when as many good women writers find it suitable for their needs. It would be a good sign, I think, if the next list of 100 Best SF Novels (from 1985) contained a predominance of books by women, and by black people…as the present list contains (for understandable reasons) a majority by white middle-class men. The potential is there. I continue to believe that it has a good chance of being realized’. Perhaps Butler’s example, and the fact that she wrote as a genre author (and someone who had always loved the genre herself) rather than someone identified (at least, not exclusively) as a black female writer holds out some hope. She was, in the end, simply a good science fiction writer.

The final two choices bring us more nearly up to date, although it is noticeable that the list essentially peters out in the early 80s with Neuromancer. SF has continued to be all-pervasive in popular culture, but there are fewer distinctly identifiable literary strands. Steampunk, which has spread beyond the world of fiction into those of fashion and design (not that these aren’t in themselves fictions) has produced some wonderful books, including novels by two of my favourite authors, James Blaylock and Tim Powers – Homonculus and The Anubis Gates. But is really just an example of the genre beginning to swallow its own tail (or tale). SF was prescient in its retromaniacal cannibalising of its futures past. Many have commented that we now live in a SF world, the birth of which (as modelled in Tokyo) was reflected in the cyberpunk fiction of Gibson and others. Neal Stephenson came out of the movement, producing late but imaginatively expansive and witty versions of the form with his novels Snowcrash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995). Quicksilver (2003) is the first part of his Baroque Cycle of three huge novels, which eventually amount to a work amassing some 3,000 pages, making War and Peace seem like a brief pamphlet. Its vast, sprawling narrative is an expression of SF’s all-encompassing, encyclopaedic ambitions. As the title of the concluding volume would have it, this is an attempt to map the system of the world in all its combinatory aspects – political, military, cultural, spiritual and above all economic. And driving it all, the human motivations of love, hate, desire, revenge, greed and idealism, which are all the elements which make for a great story, of course. The whole sequence also indicates the diverse and hybrid nature of the forms which SF now adopts. Ostensibly, there is nothing science fictional about these books. They are historical fiction, set in a richly detailed (and we’re sometimes talking about the real minutiae of period detail here) and colourfully imagined late 17th century world. But you will always find them on the science fiction shelves in the bookshop. Anyway, Quicksilver won the 2004 Arthur C Clarke Award, so it must be SF. Perhaps its genre nature is as much to do with style as content. There are arch or anachronistic references scattered throughout which make it clear that we are reading this from a modern perspective, and which deliberately pull us back from total immersion in the period. Stephenson is describing the coalescence of the modern scientific worldview and the development of the nascent forms of the global technologised systems which contemporary SF reflects upon. He finds a mirror of our own world not in an imagined future or parallel reality, but in the matter of our own history. By the way, if you are studying this fascinating period at school or university, then read these books. They are incredibly well researched and detailed, and there can be no more enjoyable or more comprehensive a way of learning about late 17th century world history. They are simply great tales, full of heroism and humanity, and illuminate both past, present and future.

The final author is Diana Wynne Jones, chosen by Kelly Link. I’ve written about her recently, as occasioned by the sad news of her passing. Again, her books are not readily identifiable as science fiction. A Tale of Time City and Archer’s Goon were probably the closest she came to singularly generic SF works. But there are SF elements interwoven into many of her novels, co-existing with components from fantasy, supernatural and naturalistic forms. She is a further representative of the hybrid nature of modern genre fiction. The elements of SF are now so familiar that they can be by and large taken as read, and cheerfully used in a knowing fashion, blended with other ingredients to produce interesting and enjoyable new fusions. So she blended space operatic galactic empires with the Arthurian mythos in Hexwood, parallel worlds with feudal fantasy in The Merlin Conspiracy, and the bureaucratisation of a rationalised systerm of magic in the Chrestomanci series. Of course, familiarity can breed contempt, and the casual and dismissive use of SF devices for which no real feeling or understanding is apparent results in stale and clichéd fiction (some recent Doctor Who episodes have suffered in this respect). But Jones knew her generic material (as she demonstrated in her wickedly spot-on dissection of heroic fantasy clichés The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and was able to use to create worlds which were both familiar and strange – the new arising from judicious combinations of the old. Which seems like a good place to conclude.
So, here’s an overview of that timeline, drawn from the Guardian contributor’s choices, which casts an arbitrary but not unilluminating light on science fiction’s wayward history.
1870 – The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale
1896 – The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells
1920s – Virginia Woolf
1920s-30s – HP Lovecraft
1937 – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
1951 – The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
1952 – City by Clifford D Simak
1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
1956/7 – The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger!Tiger!)
1956 – The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke
1960 – A Canticle for Leibowitz
1960 – The Voices of Time by JG Ballard
1961 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
1965 – Dune by Frank Herbert
1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
1970 – Time and Again: An Illustrated Novel by Jack Finney
1972 – Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
1984 – Neuromancer by William Gibson
1980s-2000s – Octavia E Butler
1970s-2000s – Diana Wynne Jones
2003 – Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

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