Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Oh boy, a list
Coturnix has a repeat of one of his best posts. It's his essential Science Fiction list. This is a list that most nerds can go nuts over. As with any good list, this one allows you to go in any of a number of possible directions. Here's Coturnix's criteria:
In some ways, this is a "Best of" list, in others it is a "My favourites" list.

The way I made it was to think what books I would buy for a young person (let's say a niece or nephew going off to college) as an introduction to SF - in other words: where to start when entering this genre. Another way I thought was to think of a long list of SF works that can be used (once pared down to a manageable size) in teaching a course "Science Fiction for Biologists."

I think the mixture of best-of and my-favorites is what most people would come up with. Science Fiction-for-Biologists, on the other hand is pure Coturnix. Myself, I would go for a history of Science Fiction list. Back in the seventies I put together a syllabus for such a course. I was never allowed to teach it, not having any teaching credentials, but I did give a one hour guest-lecture version of the course to English classes a couple of times. A lot of Science Fiction has been written since then and I've only done a partial job of keeping up with it.

As to the start of Science fiction, I fall in between the two possible extremes. The early origins school practices a sort of literary imperialism, working their way backwards through time, planting their flag on anything that even vaguely resembles a Science Fiction theme, eventually claiming many mythologies because they feature people flying and fantastic beasts. The late origins theory refuses to consider anything that isn't fully recognizable as Science Fiction and usually begin with Jules Verne.

I taught that you had to consider what Science Fiction developed from. I reached back into the eighteenth century and pointed to Enlightenment social satires. Books like "Gulliver's Travels," "Candide," and "Baron Munchausen" exaggerated trends in contemporary life to a fantastic degree, often placing them in fictional locales, to make telling social points and avoid the hand of the censor. The original impulse to Science Fiction was the question, "What if this trend continues?" In "Frankenstein," Mary Shelly wondered about the Faustian implications of pursuing scientific knowledge too far. By the nineteenth century, one of the dominant trends in society was technological change.

The transition to recognizable Science Fiction in the 1860s as Verne and others began to speculate about military technology. The arms races in Europe before World War One led many to speculate about what the next war would bring. At the same time others looked at the closing frontier around the world, the advance of archaeology, and wondered about lost civilizations that lay waiting to be discovered. Finally, mass literacy and cheap publishing had created a seemingly insatiable market for breathlessly told, light stories of the fantastic.

Science Fiction really came together as Science Fiction in the last few years before World War One. The literature that finally took the name, was pulp magazine literature written for pure entertainment. Verne and Wells still had some socially redeeming value. H. Rider Haggard didn't really have any science. I call Edgar Rice Burroughs the first great writer of real Science Fiction. Burroughs gave his readers lost civilizations, space travel, fantastic beasts, and eccentric inventors. His stories were read by millions and he inspired an entire generation of imitators.

Science Fiction was dominated by flashy, meaningless pulp stories from just before World War One till soon after World War Two. The decline of magazine fiction and the rise of the paperback book at the beginning of the Cold War changed things a bit. Although many of the themes looked the same--lost civilizations, space travel, fantastic beasts, and eccentric inventors--the tone began to change. A generation of authors had grown up reading Science Fiction who wrote books that used the themes, but began to sneak some socially significant content back in. Decades of psychology, genocide, and the modern totalitarian state had changed both writers and readers, and it showed. Voltaire would have been right at home with a book like "1984."

The second post-war generation of writers, the New Wave of the sixties and seventies, wasn't nearly as big a break with their predecessors as was believed at the time. They continued to absorb the social issues and anxieties of their day. They were more outspoken about expressing these things in their writing and more concerned about gaining literary respect for their work.

At the time I wrote my syllabus in the seventies, the war in Vietnam had ended, Watergate was over, and the short national nightmare of Disco was upon us. It was clear the New Wave had just about run its course. While better writing and social consciousness were here to stay, Science Fiction was hit with the same "oh, lighten up" mood that had hit popular music. While real science fiction groped for the next thing (Cyberpunk, which wouldn't quite bloom for a few years), really bad Fantasy came forward to fill the gap. Really bad Fantasy was a leap back into the pulp era. Every character was no more than his or her race or occupation. The plots were rarely more than a game of Dungeons and Dragons written out.

Aside from the fact that a generation had changed, there was really very little in the goals that made Cyberpunk different from New Wave. The writers were concerned about a different set of social issues, but they still cared about their literary legacy. A major change in the eighties came on the publishing end. As baby boomers aged, many of those who had read science fiction as teens continued to read as adults. In reacting to this, the publishing industry began to release more Science Fiction books in hardback, began to allow more sex, and, encouraged by the sales of giant fantasy epics, let books get longer. All of these gave the writers a bigger palate to work with.

We’re moving into the post-Cyberpunk era now; I’m not sure what it will entail. In my seventies syllabus, the only predictions I ventured were that the fantasy explosion would continue and that there would be more women writers and readers. I was right on both of those, but not bold enough to predict any further. Today I expect to see the border between Science Fiction and mainstream fiction continue to blur, while at the same time Science Fiction continues to fragment into sub-genres, again following the example of the music industry.

There, I hardly made a list at all, but told you what my criteria would be for making one. Why don’t you tell me what some of the best exemplars are for the periods I just out-lined. If you could get a class to read a book a week for nine weeks, could you create a list of nine books that would get them through that history?

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