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Science fiction: Livi Michael

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Comic book adventure stories in which the unpronounceable meets the incomprehensible and battle ensues? Or a visionary blend of science and philosophy?

Both descriptions apply. Science fiction (sf) is a vast and accommodating genre; flexible enough to include the thriller, the romance, the adventure story, horror, and even the historical novel. The differences between the popular television series Star Trek and The X-Files should give you an idea of the scope, also of the effect time has had on both the style and the concerns of sf. To quote from a recent documentary: ‘The future ain't what it used to be.’

This century the genre has been dominated by film. Star Wars, Alien, ET, have reached parts of the public who would never read sf. But the links between sf, comic books, and popular film have helped to undermine its respectability as a literary genre, though its roots are respectable enough. Think of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); a novel now considered a literary classic but which contains key elements of science fiction—a fascination with the possibilities of science and a concern for their social or moral implications. Echoes of the Frankenstein theme recur throughout sf; most notably in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) the novel from which the film Blade Runner was taken.

Many of the predictions of sf have come true this century, from moonlandings to satellites and black holes. Many sf writers come from a scientific background. Some are more famous for their literary output (Asimov, Clarke), others for their scientific status (Carl Sagan, Buzz Aldrin). Readers have found this kind of cross-fertilization a problem, citing narratives overloaded with technological information and unbelievable dialogue. But in the hands of the best writers, sf is a tool for reflecting contemporary society in much the same way that Swift's satires reflect to us all that is comic, grotesque, appalling about his world, and indeed our own.

H. G. Wells is one of the great originators of sf. His novels have inspired writers from Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, to, most recently, Ronald Wright, who in A Scientific Romance (1999) imagines the return of the time machine to London. Joseph Conrad called Wells a ‘realist of the fantastic’. He is meticulous about the scientific background and this, together with his pithy, understated narration, makes his fantastic tales entirely convincing. Wells's mechanics may have dated since he wrote The Time Machine (1895), but the issue of time travel remains a central one for sf writers. And Wells's social analysis has been at least as influential as his scientific concepts. In The Time Machine his future world is divided into two classes, the subterranean workers, called Morlocks, and the decadent Eloi. Here, as elsewhere, his critique of sexual relationships is also highly provocative.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) George Orwell extends this social analysis into a devastating critique of the principles and processes of political rule. The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is divided into the Inner Party, or ‘Brain of the State’, the Outer Party, ‘its hands’, and the Proles, who survive in a kind of squalid freedom. The plot centres around the attempts of one Outer Party Member, Winston Smith, to escape the totalitarian society in which he exists. His failure results not in execution, but, more chillingly, conversion, the surrender of his will. Nineteen Eighty-Four contains the famous sentence, ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.’ Not to be read as a pick-me-up, therefore, but for its searing analysis of the psychology of power, and its inexorable, unerring prose.

Isaac Asimov applies Wells's pragmatic, erudite style to the dazzling scope and surreal possibilities of twentieth-century science. His Foundation series (1951–93) has been called ‘the most honoured epic in science fiction’. Two Foundations are set up at opposite ends of the galaxy. Between them they control both physical science and ‘psychohistory’—the science of predicting human behaviour by mathematics. Inevitably conflict arises.

Contemporary social analysis combines with exploration of the possible in works that are both entertaining and profound; such as Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (1953), in which Clarke convincingly portrays an alien invasion of earth. Disconcertingly, the aliens are not hostile but supply us with everything we need. The great ‘what if’ of the novel is—what if the need for human effort and curiosity were removed? Clarke tells his tale with consummate skill, and the moment when the alien finally reveals himself to waiting humanity is classic sf.

Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) is the first of six novels set on the eponymous desert planet. The desert is inhabited by enormous sandworms that produce a mind-altering substance called melange. This and water are the most precious commodities. In the course of learning to control their environment and their own fateful vulnerability, the inhabitants develop not only technology but mysticism.

The first sf novel I ever read was Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974). I was impressed enough by it to subsequently read all her others. Two worlds are contrasted—Anarres, on which an anarchist system prevails and resources are shared, and Urras, a violent, hierarchical world. Le Guin is a subtle writer and her story consists of far more than a contrast between utopia and dystopia. Her landscapes are compelling and her spare prose memorable and haunting.

Between 1979 and 1983 Doris Lessing produced five sf novels collectively titled Canopus in Argos. Each is self-contained, and my favourite is the first. Shikasta (1979) has its starting point in the Old Testament. Johor (Jehovah) is an emissary of the Canopeans. From his standpoint Lessing explores the religious and political heritage of humanity in a narrative which itself attains the status of myth.

The prospect of nuclear holocaust has loomed large in the imaginations of sf writers, but rarely has it been so powerfully or movingly portrayed as in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (1980). Do not be put off by the non-standard narration! Many sf writers touch on the problem of language—if your narrator speaks from some future world what will he/she sound like? As multiple stories are unfolded the whole fits together like a gigantic puzzle centred on language itself but reflecting the timelessness of man's predicament.

A significant number of sf classics have been produced by writers famous for non-genre fiction. In The Handmaid's Tale (1985) Margaret Atwood portrays a society dominated by religious fundamentalism, in which women are valued solely for their reproductive function. A major theme in this novel is censorship (cf. Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953) and, like Suzette Elgin in Native Tongue (1984), Atwood explores the idea of women subverting a language that is controlled by men. If you enjoy futuristic portrayals of gender bias in society, try Joanna Russ, The Female Man (1975), or Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).

Iain M. Banks is one of the few authors who regularly produces both literary and generic works. Consider Phlebas (1987) was his first sf novel. It combines the galactic scope of Asimov's Foundation series with the pace and suspense of a thriller. Both the Culture and the Idirans are searching for Mind, an intelligence hidden on the Planet of the Dead, but it is Horza the Changer's quest to find it first. Presented with historical appendices, Banks's narration is clever, ironic, and unsettling.

Science fiction often takes itself very seriously but the lighter side should not be ignored. No other genre contains such potential for farce and satire, and no other writer has combined these quite so skilfully as Terry Pratchett. In the Discworld series Pratchett creates a carnivalesque planet pointedly reminiscent of our own and uses it as a device for poking fun at the conventions of sf itself. One of the best novels is Reaperman (1991), in which Death takes early retirement and chaos ensues. If this appeals to you, you should try Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker (1979–92) series, or Michael Moorcock, whose prodigious output contains a similar blend of the ingenious and surreal.

Credited with having coined the term ‘cyberspace’, William Gibson is the acknowledged leader of a new branch of sf commonly known as ‘cyberpunk’—an off-putting term for his elegant, immaculately structured work. Gibson has said that he doesn't see himself as a futurist; he uses the tools of sf in order to reflect the weirdness of contemporary reality. In 1984 his first novel, Neuromancer, won most of the major awards of sf and gained a cult status. Idoru (1996) is structured as a thriller; a quest through worlds virtual and real, both dominated by the concept of celebrity. A rock star announces his intention to marry an idoru, or virtual reality star. The machinery that constructs and feeds off celebrity is activated, and a mysteriously gifted ‘netrunner’ and a 14-year-old fan both attempt to find out more, but the quest takes a dangerous turn.

Finally, for those of you who view my list with a healthy scepticism, the Hugo, Nebula, and Tiptree award-winners are always worth reading (many of the writers on my list have won one or more of these). Enjoy exploring the field, it is well worth exploring. Sf can only gain in literary status in the coming century. That is my prediction.

See also LIVI MICHAEL

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