Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New Waves

Science fiction first appeared in the 19th Century following the Industrial Revolution, an outgrowth of fantasy based on scientific extrapolation (which partly explains why it developed so soon after industrialization began). Like humanity, the evolution of science fiction has combined steady growth with sudden mutations of development. In an earlier era, these abrupt mutations were called “waves”, and they occurred at fairly regular intervals. It is actually fairly easy to spot most waves which took place in the 20th Century:

▸ 1895, the publication of The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells which immediately raised science fiction from its previous existence primarily in “dime novels” (a la Frank Reade, Jr.) and voyages extraordinaire (as written primarily by Jules Verne and his imitators) to literary status;

▸ 1912, the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs marked the beginning of the scientific romance era;

▸ 1926, the first publication of Amazing Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, the first pulpzine devoted exclusively to science fiction, inaugurated the pulp era of science fiction during which the genre lost the last vestiges of its once-lofty literary status in America, although it retained that status slightly longer in Great Britain;

▸ 1939, the publication of “Black Destroyer,” by A.E. van Vogt in Astounding Science-Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr., began the Golden Age in which science fiction broadened scientifically and deepened intellectually after the self-induced restrictions of the Gernsback era;

▸ 1950, the first publication of Galaxy Magazine, edited by H.L. Gold and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (first published in 1949) spearheaded the development of science fiction both intellectually and as literature. This movement received further impetus by the creation of the first paperback book lines devoted to publishing science fiction, Ballantine Books (1952), edited by Ian and Betty Ballantine, and Ace Books (1953), edited by Donald A. Wollheim;

▸ 1965 was the beginning of the New Wave, spearheaded by British science fiction magazine New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock, who attempted to infuse science fiction with mainstream literary and experimental techniques. American writers such as Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison and Thomas M. Disch were important figures in this movement;

▸ 1984, the publication of Neuromancer, by William Gibson, inaugurated the cyberpunk movement in which science fiction largely abandoned future worlds and far-future extravaganzas to concentrate on near-future extrapolations from the late 20th Century, with an emphasis on such “cutting edge” scientific developments as computers, nanotechnology, and virtual reality.

A brief examination of the number of years between the waves is interesting: 17, 14, 13, 11, 15, 19. Assuming that irregular pattern continues, the next wave should have taken place somewhere between 1995 (11 years later) and 2003 (19 years). Has it happened yet? Has there been any sudden spurt in the evolution of science fiction akin to the birth of the “New Wave” or the development of cyberpunk?

Actually, there have been several changes in the shape of science fiction in the past decade rather than just a single one, likely because science fiction has grown so large and sprawling that there are many “focal points” now rather than just a single one. So what are those important changes?

1. Fantasy has become a strong component of the genre, so much so that often it is indistinguishable from science fiction. How often do you read reviews containing statements such as “this novel reads like fantasy but is pure science fiction” or vice versa? During the height of the New Wave, fantasy probably consisted of 1-2% of all genre books being published, and they were primarily reprints from the early, pre-Gernsback era when science fiction split decisively from fantasy. It’s major impetus was a single event: the publication and consequent success of Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, but it took many years for fantasy to take hold.

2. Horror has become a strong component of the genre as well, its main impetus being the incredible popularity of Stephen King, beginning in the 1970s. While horror has had its commercial ups and downs, it too has had a strong effect on the shape of contemporary science fiction with authors such as George R.R. Martin, Dan Simmons, China Mieville and Neil Gaiman interweaving horror with fantasy and science fiction so well that the three sub-genres are almost indistinguishable now.

3. Science fiction and fantasy have both “crossed over” into the literary mainstream, although generally in such disguises as magic realism and slipstream which are rarely, if ever, acknowledged as either science fiction or fantasy. Many mainstream critics are still making claims that “This novel is too good to be science fiction,” and many “literary” writers who write decidedly science fiction novels still disavow their works falling into that disreputed genre. But people such as critic Michael Dirda and writer Michael Chabon openly embrace genre as more and more writers, whether admittedly or secretly, embrace it in their writing as well;

4. Perhaps the dominant current movement in "core" science fiction is the revival of hard science and space opera as an often-unified entity. Early in the 1990s, many “core” sf fans were upset at Gardner Dozois since the pages of both Asimov’s and The Year’s Best Science Fiction were dominated by literary science fiction and fantasy. There was almost no traditional far-future and space settings in the stories Dozois printed, and fanzines were filled with complaints that Dozois was printing the type of science fiction he preferred to the exclusion of all other types.

In an interview at that time, Dozois replied that he was printing literary sf and fantasy because that was primarily the type of stories he was receiving as submissions. He claimed to love “traditional” sf but was receiving so little of it, and so low in quality, that he could not possibly print much of it in the pages of Asimov’s.

This was an easy rebuttal for Dozois since there was no way it could be challenged by his critics who had no access to his slush piles. But a dozen years later, Dozois’ defense has been proven by a glance at the pages of either Asimov’s or The Year’s Best Science Fiction since they now print hardly any fantasy, and literary science fiction has been almost supplanted by more traditional sf types, especially hard science fiction and space opera.

This movement had its foundation in Great Britain, centered around Interzone. Writers such as Brian Stableford, Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Paul J. McAuley, Sean McMullen, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter F. Hamilton have sparked a resurgence in what Dozois calls “radical hard science fiction”. These authors have spread their tentacles from Interzone to Asimov’s to year's best volumes and even to the award ballots.

“Hard” science fiction was pronounced dead during the “New Wave” era, but was kept alive by a few diehard authors (Larry Niven, Gregory Benford). During the “Cyberpunk” era a few authors altered the Cyberpunk lead into more sfnal worlds (Greg Bear), but this time it is more than just a few authors who are carrying the torch; it is an entire movement which is sweeping science fiction like a...well, like a wave.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Recently I was thinking about some of my favorite all-time sf series. My favorite is probably Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books, but others include Jack Vance’s Galactic Cluster, Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars, Alastair Reynolds’ Galactic North, Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern and Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld.

The thought occurred to me that it might be nice to re-read one of those series from start to finish, seeing how I have not read most of them in several decades. I decided to do so with one of the older ones, thus eliminating McDevitt, Robinson, Simmons, and Reynolds, all of which I have read within the past decade or so. And Bradley, Vance and McCaffrey’s series are so long that each would be a multi-year project.

Which left Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series, and that thought pleased me since in the 70s it was one of my favorite series. While it is not future history in the pure sense, it is a possible future scenario for the human race, and while it does have an sfnal foundation, it reads like fantasy as much as sf.

It is also a series with a long, almost convoluted history. It was originally written as a novel I Owe for the Flesh which won a contest and should have been published as such, but somehow the publisher rejected it as too risqué. While the current series is not the least bit offensive, Farmer does have a tendency to write stuff which pushes the boundaries of sf in the area of sexuality. Consider his breakthrough story “The Lovers,” such novels as A Feast Unknown and Blown, and his Hugo-winning story “Riders of the Purple Wage.” All were somewhere between erotic and outright pornographic. So perhaps the original version of his Riverworld series was a lot more sensual than his published version.

The Riverworld stories were originally published as a series of novellas in Worlds of Tomorrow magazine with titles “Day of the Great Shout,” “Riverworld,” and “The Suicide Express.” The sequel to those novellas became a serial “The Felled Star in Worlds of IF, and all those stories were eventually published as two novels in 1971, To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat. The former won the Hugo Award as Best Novel–and was my own Book of the Year as well–while the latter showed very little letdown in quality, if any.

But, of course, I have not read either novel in 37 years, so there was always the chance my taste had changed and they would not hold up well at all, so I began rereading the first book with a bit of trepidation. I need not have worried, since it holds up extremely well. To Your Scattered Bodies Go sets up the foundation of the series in its examination of several aspects of human civilization and culture. The basic premise is that all people who ever lived on Earth, including Neanderthals, early humans and several alien visitors, have been resurrected on a world built around a long, virtually infinite river. People are born young, twenty-five physically, virginal, nude, hairless, and provided with only one artifact: a large grail-like object which, when placed in giant mushroom-like structures scattered every mile along the riverbank, are filled with food three times a day. Each group of people are resurrected around the mushrooms, and groups generally consist of about 60% of one type–such as Italians from the 19th century–30% from another group, and 10% random people.

The first fascinating aspect of the novel is the sociological one as Farmer examines strangers with different beliefs, backgrounds and traditions learning to form a mutually-compatible society. Some groups take to this new scenario easier than others, so we see democracies develop as well as brutal dictatorships. Farmer examines some of the higher tendencies of humans, such as cooperation, as well as the lower tendencies as slavery is almost immediately revived.

The book has its obvious theological implications since both atheists who denied any belief in an afterlife and devout believers have had their views shattered. While this aspect is not examined as much as the sociological ones, it is still a running thread through the novel.

Another aspect which I really enjoyed was the historical one. While Farmer is careful not to overload the book’s cast with too many familiar names, several historical people do show up and are examined in the light of how their real behavior and character affects their actions on the riverworld. Hermann Goring is a major character who forms a Nazi-like dictatorship complete with anti-Semitism and slavery, and the possibility of expanding his power into neighboring communities.

Farmer chooses wisely by making Richard Francis Burton–the adventurer, not the actor–his main character. Burton’s personality and leadership attract a group of followers very early in the book, and his adventurous nature is the impetus for his leading them on a sailing ship up the river, seeking the cause of the resurrection, while enabling them to explore other groups of resurrectees and their types of societies. While Farmer recognizes Burton’s strengths, he is not blind to his personality flaws which affect both his relationship with his fellows and his actions, and form a major focus of the book. A flawed hero who is still primarily heroic is often the most interesting lead character, and Farmer does a good job developing Burton and his relationship with other resurrectees.

To Your Scattered Bodies Go has its share of excitement as well, including a naval battle between Burton’s group and Goring’s followers, and there is mystery a-plenty in the quest to learn the truth behind the strange resurrection. This was a book which lived up to my prior memories of it, and upon completing it I immediately booked a ride on The Fabulous Riverboat.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Heinlein's Children

Old-time science fiction fanatics generally point to two major “entry points” into sf reading for them: the young adult novels of Andre Norton, and those of Robert A. Heinlein. Both groups of fans tend to be exceedingly loyal to their first favorite writer even into adulthood.

I did not enter sf through either author. I read L. Frank Baum’s Oz books and the Tom Swift Jr books before I discovered Worlds of IF and Galaxy. By the time I read Heinlein I had been reading fairly “sophisticated” sf for several years, so his young adult novels never had the same thrill for me as it did to his “children.”

Joseph Major was apparently one of Heinlein’s “children,” if his dedication in the book Heinlein’s Children is any indication. The last line states, “We have all become Heinlein’s children.” His book is equal parts analysis of each of the fourteen books (beginning with Rocket Ship Galileo, published in 1947, through Podkayne of Mars, published in 1963) flavored with his love for those books. I bought a copy soon after it was published, admittedly not because of my fascination with Heinlein’s ya novels, but because Joe is a friend of mine. I read the first chapter devoted to Rocket Ship Galileo and found parts of it confusing because I was totally unfamiliar with that novel. So when I finished reading Farmer in the Sky a few weeks ago, I decided to give Heinlein’s Children another chance by reading the relevant chapter.

I found the Farmer in the Sky chapter much more interesting since I was familiar with everything Joe was discussing. Basically it was a scene-by-scene analysis of Farmer in the Sky as well as comments from Heinlein’s nonfiction writings (most of which were published posthumously as Grumbles From the Grave) relevant to the scene and also comments from critical studies of Heinlein (especially Alexei Panshin’s seminal Heinlein in Dimension). Since I enjoy reading critical writing about science fiction, it was all fascinating stuff, even when I disagreed with one of Joe Major’s conclusions (which actually happened rarely).

Heinlein’s Children is written in a rambling, fanzine-style rather than a stiffer academic style, which appealed to me since fanzines and fannish websites are where I read most of my sf criticism, and it is also the writing style I use myself. Joe has a tendency towards long rambling asides, such as a paragraph on page 113 devoted to the movie version of Lord of the Rings which has only the most tenuous connection to Heinlein. But I don’t mind those asides at all; in fact, if they are interesting, as Joe’s invariably are, I actually enjoy them (although I am resisting the urge to discuss the origins of the Lutheran religion here, having moved that discussion to my other blog ☺).

I plan to read other Heinlein ya novels in the foreseeable future, and I will eagerly read the corresponding chapter in Heinlein’s Children when I do. I recommend the book to those of you who have already read some or most of the ya novels discussed, but I hesitate to do so for those of you who, in Joe’s words in the introduction “haven’t yet read Heinlein’s juveniles, and want to know more about them.” I do not feel that this book is really intended for that audience. This book about Heinlein’s children (his ya protagonists) is really intended for Heinlein’s children (those who have already read his ya books). But apparently there are quite a few million of you out there.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Farmer in the Sky

I discovered science fiction in the mid-1960s, after which I read primarily current or recent sf. Thus the first Heinlein novels I read were Starship Troopers (too pro-war preachy for me) and Stranger in a Strange Land (the first half was gripping, but the second half was pointless). This was followed by Podkayne of Mars and Farnham’s Freehold (both enjoyable but minor), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (the best of his post-60s works fiction), I Will Fear No Evil (almost unreadable) and The Number of the Beast (totally unreadable; I abandoned it halfway).

I did go back and read some of his earlier books (The Past Through Tomorrow–the “future history” stories, Double Star and Universe, both of which I enjoyed), but none of them were so awe-inspiring for me to rank Heinlein among my favorite sf writers. Eventually I read a few of his juveniles (Citizen of the Galaxy, Time For the Stars, The Star Beast), none of which changed my opinion. But, of course, I was in my 40s by the time I read the latter books.

Recently I decided to give his juveniles another chance, and purchased Four Frontiers, an SFBC volume containing Heinlein’s first four juveniles. Farmer in the Sky looked the most interesting to me, but it was still nothing special: no plot per se, little characterization, and mostly lecturing on the part of the teenaged narrator about the nuts and bolts of how to establish a space colony (he was awfully knowledgeable for a kid who whined about not having an education through the course of the book). It was easy-reading, and had a few good moments (the discovery of the crystals and the collapse of the heat trap), but to my mind Heinlein is still Heinlein. I give the book a borderline B rating.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Galactic Empires, Vol 1

In March, 2008, I reviewed Gardner Dozois’ original anthology Galactic Empires, which offered modern interpretations of far-future interplanetary federations. This book was not the first sf book with that title though. In 1976, Brian W. Aldiss–one of the better anthologizers of vintage science fiction as well as a major writer and historian of the field–edited two volumes of Galactic Empires, collecting stories from the 1940s through the 1960s on that theme. The two volumes were short enough that today they might have been published as one 600 page volume. The two books contained a lot of well-known sf writers. In volume one were novelettes by Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov (“Foundation”), Clifford D. Simak and James White (one of his Sector General stories). Volume two had John D. MacDonald (an underrated author), James Blish and Harry Harrison. There were also short stories by R.A. Lafferty, Arthur C. Clarke, Cordwainer Smith, Algis Budrys, A.E. van Vogt and Poul Anderson.

Not surprisingly, the stories in Volume 1 ran the gamut between pulpish adventures to serious, thought-provoking stories. In spite of Aldiss’ literary leanings, he is still fond of the occasional rousing adventure, including two from the early 1950s: Poul Anderson’s “The Star Plunderer” and Alfred Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr”. Anderson’s was an early story of his, more interesting for its ideas than for its execution. It tells the story of a group of human slaves being taken on a slave ship to the homeworld of a planet-sprawling Baldic League which has conquered Earth fairly easily. Except the aliens are unbelievably stupid for intergalactic conquerors, and the small group of humans are able to seize control of the ship and initiate the overthrow of the conquerors with minimal effort. Not a story to be taken seriously, a rarity for Anderson.

Coppel’s story was set during the early years of a reunited galactic empire after an interregnum when barbarism and warfare dominated. Upon the death of the beloved emperor who reunited the worlds, his despised wife and weakling son seize power away from his warrior daughter who is beloved by the other star-kings who supported her father. A rebellion is brewed by them against the new emperor, but one of the star-kings has suspicions about who is actually pulling the strings in the rebellion. Like Anderson’s story, “The Rebel of Valkyr” does not stand up to deep thought, nor does it offer much beneath the surface, but it is fun reading.

H. B. Fyfe’s “Protected Species” starts out as a typical story about humans expanding into space and establishing a colony on a world dotted with ancient remains and one non-intelligent race of aliens which the humans use for target practice. Until an inspector arrives and proposes the theory that the aliens are the degenerate descendants of the builders of the ruins, and thus deserve to be protected as an endangered species. A fairly cliche concept, but what makes the story successful is a surprise ending which is much more intriguing than I expected, and likely could have been the beginning of another story rather than just the ending of this one.

Three novelettes are the highlights of the book. The best story by far is Clifford D. Simak’s “The Immigrant,” one of his typically-low-key stories about an alien world which is so idyllic that only a few select humans are permitted to emigrate there, needing to pass a series of difficult IQ tests to do so. All humans who succeed send back tantalizing letters about the quality of life there, but the protagonist of the story migrates to the planet and quickly learns that what is hidden between the lines of the letters is sometimes more telling than what is actually stated. This story is typical of Simak at his best, a very thought-provoking story about the possible relationship between humans and the first aliens they encounter, a story whose protagonist thinks his way through the story rather than reacting to all circumstances physically. It reminded me of why Simak has always been one of my favorite sf writers and why I still enjoy reading his fiction as much as ever.

I haven’t read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy–or much else Asimov-in nearly forty years. He was a writer I enjoyed in my teens at the same time Clifford D. Simak was my favorite writer. But when I moved on to more sophisticated writers such as Roger Zelazny, Robert Silverberg, and Samuel R. Delany, Asimov faded away. I considered him simple, entry-level sf which I had passed beyond.

But included in Galactic Empires is “Foundation,” one of the earliest stories in that series, and I decided to read it to see how it held up. I was pleasantly surprised that it was still very enjoyable reading. The story was typical Asimov in that it was basically a problem to be solved interwoven with a mystery, as the scientists in charge of writing the exhaustive Encyclopedia on the planet Terminus struggled with the mayor against the inevitable invasion by breakaway worlds from the crumbling empire. The story was mostly talk, similar to the Simak story and so many sf stories I enjoy, since intelligent and provocative talk is generally more interesting than mindless action, and it all served to forward the mystery and the solution to the problem.

By the time I finished “Foundation,” I realized that Simak still appeals to me moreso than Asimov, but “Foundation” intrigued me enough that perhaps I will go back and reread the entire Foundation Trilogy when I finish this book.

Finally there was one of James White’s always-enjoyable Sector General stories about a huge hospital floating in space which serves beings of many species. This time a comatose being is brought there who is considered almost god-like by some of the hospital’s staff but a cannibal by the military. The protagonist Conway has the dual task of healing the being and learning whether it should feted for its goodness or put on trial for its crimes. These medical mysteries are always interesting reading.

Overall, Galactic Empires was a fun book, and recommended reading. Of course, I am not sure how several stories have anything to do with galactic empires, but I enjoyed most of them so why quibble about their inclusion in the book, especially since far-future off-Earth settings appeal to me too much to care whether there were any empires or not. I’m looking forward to reading Volume 2 soon.