Sci-Fi Masterworks Inspired Rambling – Genre, Imagination, and Penises – In Space!

The Sci Fi Masterworks series is amazing. I have them as ebooks, which means I don’t often get to appreciate their amazing cover art. I only realised how good the cover art is when I looked at it all in one place just there.

In the last year, actually, the last Summer,

  • Arslan – MJ Engh
  • The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
  • The Female Man – Joanna Russ
  • Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
  • Odd John – Olaf Stapleton
  • The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith
  • Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
  • Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
  • The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delaney
  • The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman

Science Fiction. It still gets a bit of scorn for being nerdy and ‘not real Literature’, just like all ‘genre fiction’ suffers (at least from people who think that Literary Fiction is the lone pinnacle of artistic human expression). But sci-fi has always encompassed some of the most daring writing. Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar was written in 1969, but when I picked up a battered copy in a secondhand bookshop, I was blown away by the overwhelming style. Like nothing I’ve read before, John Brunner captured the ever-shifting, ever-truncated maelstrom of impressions and information that form subjective awareness in a multimedia society. This is the true novel of the Television Age.

I was bought up with plenty of oldschool sci-fi – my dad collects Jack Vance books, and generally abjures modernity when it comes to literature, even when it’s literature about the amazing space-future. At uni we did a module on science and fiction, which included sci-fi from H.G. Wells to Cyberpunk and whatever comes after that. Post-modern post-apocalyptism?

I have credentials and knowledge thousands of hours of reading time. So you should trust me when I say that good sci-fi is an intellectually rewarding way to explore human nature. How good sci-fi works is as a thought experiment, a prediction extrapolated with a healthy dose of imagination. How would human beings react psychologically, socially, spiritually, technologically, to alien life? To cybernetic dystopia? To time travel? If we invented super-fast interdimensional travel, what would we do with it? What would it do to us? These are the most obvious cliche scenarios, but even with these, the depths and breadth of creativity are astounding. There is all the world-building and imaginary anthropology, the science and ‘science so advanced it is indistiguishable from magic’, as well as the standard storytelling essentials of character and plot. Good sci-fi feels like it’s expanding your mind, opening your eyes to something profound.

That list up there explores, among other things, warfare, lightspeed travel, overpopulation, artificial intelligence, multidimensionality, gender, religion, race, linguistics, genetics, authority, media, environment, ecology, psychotropics, discrimination, martyrdom, love, sexuality, and a bunch of deep philosophical questions about the nature of reality.

Of course, there is bad sci-fi. (This is distinct from pulp sci-fi, which wouldn’t be any good at all if it wasn’t slightly bad.) All genres have a lot of dross. Every time an amazing innovative book comes out, hundreds of other writers jump onto its coat-tails. Some take the new ideas and run with them to create something uniquely their own; some just rehash whatever seem to be the most commercially successful elements, adding in a whole lot of cliches and generally driving what was once new and exciting to seem dull and overdone. Such is the lifecycle of ideas.

There is also the problem, especially in older books, of embarrassing sexism. Buck McManly and his SpacePenis Rocket head to the planet of Hotbabesia to save the buxom women from the evil aliens! (Which look weirdly similar to Earth insects, just really fuckin huge. Must be intergalactic convergent evolution or something.) Add a million points if Buck’s second in command is a beautiful but badass woman, who starts out all no-nonsense competence, but is so overcome by inexplicable lust for Buck McManly that she falls apart and has to be rescued. Of course, she’s so greatful for being rescued that she immediately rips off her practical utility space-coveralls and throws herself on his throbbing Space- (OK enough of that, you get the idea.) But that isn’t really the worst. It’s when you read a book, or even a series, with a civilization spanning planets or even galaxies, and somehow, pretty much everyone important is still a man. It’s the year 4035, and Spacewomen are making great progress as Space Secretaries and Space Nurses! They marry Spacemen and have Spacekids, the raising of which is entirely their responsibility! Wooo look how much the future has moved on!

I accept that books will reflect the time and culture of their authors. That is pretty obvious and inescapable. But, especially in a genre that is all about stretching the imagination, the fact that some people couldn’t even imagine a world of even basic equality is fucking depressing as fuck.

However, as an antidote, there are also writers who have thrown their minds at the issue of gender, and come up with some radically different ideas. Joanna Russ in The Female Man explores the idea of parallel dimensions and the effect of gender roles on personality, by bringing together three women, who are actually the same woman from different dimensions. In one dimension, gender roles never developed beyond about 1880. In another, a continent populated only by women has become an environmental and intellectual semi-utopia. And the third dimension is our own. The women meet and visit each others’ homelands, and as the woman from this dimension is also the author, we get personal reflection as well as sci-fi world-shifting action. Because there is another woman from another dimension, one which is worse than any of the first three…

And enough has been said by others about Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I’m not going to needlessly extend this already overlong blog post by adding my own unoriginal opinions. Suffice to say that it is one of the most original explorations of gender in any novel.

This post ignores pretty much everthing written after the year 2000, because it was sparked by my reading mainly older books. I haven’t cited anything and haven’t backed up my argument with critical theory. It’s nice that this isn’t an essay. Possibly in future I’ll write more specific book reviews, or more in-depth posts about literary topics. We’ll see. Thanks for reading, and read more books now.

Sci-Fi Masterworks Inspired Rambling – Genre, Imagination, and Penises – In Space!