Science Fiction Has Saved My Life – At Least Once
I was born in 1954 but didn’t start reading seriously until the early 1960s. Science Fiction in the 60’s was largely ruled by space stories. One of the biggest influences in shaping this new Golden Age of Science Fiction, was John W. Campbell. As Editor of Astounding Stories (which he changed to Astounding Science-Fiction), from late 1937 until his death in 1971, he helped shape the genre and inspired a generation of writers to create more speculatively plausible stories.
One of the first Sci-Fi authors I fell in love with was H.G. Wells. Active from the 1890’s through to the 1940’s he was a key individual in the very early development of the genre. Many of his books are still remembered today, including War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and one of my favourites, The Food of the Gods. It turns them into 50 plus foot tall giants and sets up a serious challenge to the height-challenged rest of humanity. His influence is so strongly felt that his books are still seeing modern day cinematic adaptations, which I will review in a later blog.
One of the best science fiction trilogies of all time was the Foundation Series: Foundation; Foundation and Empire; and Second Foundation, which was written by Isaac Asimov (who credits his friend John W. Campbell as a major influence). The series actually started as a series of eight short stories published by Campbell in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1950.
The premise of the series is that mathematician Hari Seldon developed a branch of mathematics known as psychohistory which could predict the future. Hari Seldon predicts the imminent fall of the Galactic Empire and a resulting dark age that will last 30,000 years. Seldon creates a foundation of artisans and engineers to preserve and expand on humanity’s collective knowledge. If you haven’t read this series, it is a must-read for any Sci-Fi fan.
Another great classic Asimov story is his short story Nightfall which is about a civilization that has multiple suns, but once in a millennium there is a point at which all the suns are eclipsed and at that point the civilization burns itself to the ground (as the people go into a panic in the dark) and must continually re-create itself from the ashes (a perpetual phoenix). Asimov was also a professor of Biochemistry at Boston University and was an important part of my wanting to follow a similar career path, although as it turns out I was a terrible writer.
Other great writers from this Golden Age include Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles, Arthur C. Clarke – Space Odyssey series and Childhoods End, Phillip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (which was made into the movie Blade Runner), The Man In The High Castle and Minority Report, and Robert A. Heinlein – Stranger In A Strange Land. Unfortunately, I hated almost all of Heinlein’s writing.
The late 1960s were a time of tremendous social upheaval and unrest brought about by the fight for civil rights and the opposition to the Vietnam War. This culminated in the summer of love in 1967 and the birth of both the hippie culture and experimentation with drugs, particularly LSD. Science Fiction also went through a change during this time period and become much more experimental and psychedelic. Frank Herbert created his Dune universe which is an epic space opera about a galactic empire that spanned such great distances that they could only be connected by navigators that were stoned out of their gourds on spice which could only be obtained on a single planet, Arrakis. The navigators could fold space and transport immense ships from one point to another, hence connecting the disparately separated planets. Herbert followed Dune with several other novels continuing the story of Paul Atreides, but as far as I was concerned most of those books disappointed. However, after Frank Herbert’s death, his son and collaborators started writing pre-Dune books to describe how things evolved to Dune and those were incredibly enjoyable!
One of the authors from the 1960s who totally blew my mind was Harlan Ellison. If you have not read “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman, about a future world where if you are late for anything that time is docked from your life, you should. Also, as mentioned in my first blog in this series, Harlan also wrote the screenplay for The City at the Edge of Forever for Star Trek and the concept for the Terminator series. Harlan Ellison also edited perhaps the greatest anthology of the 1960s (some say it’s the best anthology of all time) called Dangerous Visions (1967). It contains some of the best stories that I have ever read from such authors as Philip José Farmer, Philip K. Dick, Poul Anderson, Damon Knight, J.G. Ballard, Frederik Pohl, Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delaney. If you haven’t read it, please do!
A great place to look for fantastic science fiction novels today, is to search the lists of the winners of either the Hugo or the Nebula Awards which are given out each year for different science fiction categories (short stories, novellas, and novels). There is a wealth of fantastic stories to choose from those lists (and also don’t ignore all the other books that were nominated, but didn’t win the respective awards in that year).
Much of the great science fiction novels first started out as short stories and then were later fleshed out and expanded into full novels. Hence, keeping track of short fiction is a great place to find the origins of some of the best stories/novels to come). There a number of the Best of the Year Anthologies that are published each year, but the best, by far, is the one published every year for the past 30 plus years by today’s best editor, Gardner Dozois. This 600 plus page soft cover anthology comes out every year in July and I anxiously await it every year for the best short stories and novellas from the previous year.
A number of my current favourite science fiction novels got their start in Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction. Starting in 1984, each one of these Anthologies offers hours of great stories. They also include a wonderful review of the state of science fiction (movies inclusive) from the previous year.
One particular story that was expanded was Beggars in Spain, which is by one of my favourite authors of all time, Nancy Kress. Two other incredible short stories that I first read in the Years Best Science Fiction that particularly stand out are Rachel In Love, by Pat Murphy – it’s about a little girl who dies and has her brain patterns imprinted into a chimpanzee only to wake up one morning and find out that her father has passed away and she’s on her own; and Ken Liu’s incredible classic The Paper Menagerie, which is the first work of fiction to win all three of Sci Fi’s major awards. Both are must-reads.
Science Fiction has been such an important part of my life. It has made me what I am and I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to it. Everything I do in science comes from ideas and motivations that I got first from some great Sci-Fi. Science Fiction has also saved my life, at least once. I was at a very low point in my early 20’s. One night when I was feeling totally lost, I just happened to pick up the novella by Eric Frank Russell, Dear Devil. It’s about a lone multi-tentacled martian, who happens to be an artist rather than your typical explorer, who to earthlings looks like a big blue devil, who is left abandoned on a post-apocalyptic earth and how he single-handedly brings human civilization back from the brink of disaster. I read that story that cold lonely night and cried and it gave me the strength to go on when I didn’t think it was possible.
There are thousands of science fiction stories that I have read, far too many to go into here. In this blog, I’ve given you a brief history of my love affair with the genre. In future posts, I will go into greater detail on some of the most memorable stories I’ve come across and the authors behind them. But for next time, I’ll be turning my attention to Sci-Fi come to life on the silver screen!