Science fiction has always been close to my heart. To me, it represents what is best about humanity — the sense of wonder, of questing, of opportunities and unexplored futures.
But I really struggle to turn people on to the genre. I don’t think I always ‘sell’ it very well. When I suggested Philip K Dick and Alfred Bester to my book club eyebrows were raised!
Sci-fi gets a bad rap for being overly focused on technical plots and a lack of character depth. However, at its more literary end, away from the big franchises, it can be enlightening, moving, and challenging. It has the ability to make you think anew about aspects of your life and relationships by taking the perspective of an entirely different reality — one in which your taken-for-granted norms are turned upside-down.
As a psychology post-grad, my sci-fi habit has been of immense help in understanding ‘the human condition’. Here are my take-aways from five of my favourite classics. Warning: spoilers lurking pretty much everywhere.
‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson — On loneliness and human morality
‘I Am Legend’ (1954) is built on a premise so familiar (now) you’ll want to groan. The world has succumbed to a global virus that has turned the population into vampires. One man remains, Robert Neville. Surviving on scavenged food, he barricades himself in at night as the undead attack his boarded-up house.
But what follows is a wholly original, relentless fever-dream of a book. During Neville’s days he loots empty supermarkets, murders the sleeping vampires, and attempts to discover how the virus operates. One day he meets and falls for another survivor — but she is not what she seems…
The book is written from Neville’s point of view, yet gradually the reader begins to appreciate the vampires’ perspective. Only towards the end do we appreciate who is legend — who the real monster of the story is (the title is only fully explained in the final paragraph). When this twist comes it’s a heart-stopping about-turn. It makes us feel the shame of a dominant species, the way humankind should.
‘I Am Legend’ has been adapted into a feature film no less than three times, all of which either completely ignore this twist, or gloss over it. They portray Neville as a hero and the vampires as pure savages (‘The Last Man on Earth’ with Vincent Price in 1964, ‘Omega Man’ with Charlton Heston in 1971 and ‘I Am Legend’ with Will Smith in 2007). The dreadful Will Smith version even retains Matheson’s title whilst entirely ignoring this crucial plot point. Back to the book.
“He will wring you dry..and when you close this volume he will leave you with the greatest gift a writer can give: he’ll leave you wanting more” Stephen King, foreword to 2006 Gollancz Edition
‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro — On institutionalised prejudice
Science fiction often gets dismissed by the ‘literati’ who complain about the lack of character development and relatability. Well, this book is the perfect riposte.
‘Never Let Me Go’, set in an alternate present, tells the story of a group of young people at a run-down institution who, we slowly learn, are clones being raised for body parts to be harvested when they are adults. Three clones — who form a kind of love triangle — slowly discover their intended fate, and try to find a way to avoid it.
It is an extraordinary story, not for its intricacy of plot, but for the casual way in which the clones are treated as sub-human by their carers and society. It’s written in the first person from the point of view of ‘Cathy’ whose childlike wonder and passion seems more human than the ‘real’ humans.
It is a brilliant study of racism — of prejudice against a whole people. Most striking is the clones’ lack of real fight. Whilst Cathy and Tommy make a sort-of bid for freedom, it feels half-hearted. They simply accept their fate and (excrutiatingly for us) eventually offer themselves up for operation after operation to harvest their organs. This tired, lifeless acceptance is the most chilling aspect of the novel. “Run away” you want to scream as you read it.
This is the terrible power of institutionalised racism — the conditioning of the victims to make them compliant, to think they deserve their fate. The clones’ pathetic thankfulness for small kindnesses, such as the broken toys delivered to the institution, is truly heart-breaking.
It reminds me of Philip K Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’. When his clones (‘replicants’) are caught and know they are to be executed (‘retired’), they simply slump into resigned inaction. You’ll note that this did not make it into the film version — ‘Bladerunner’ — Ridley Scott needed some fight sequences!
The film adaptation of ‘Never Let Me Go’ is a bit ‘meh’ and fails to achieve the emotional weight of the book. But that’s Ishiguro — he’s so good, he’s a bit un-filmable (perhaps with the exception of ‘The Remains of the Day’). But I’m so pleased to see this is now a school set text, because it is such a natural bedfellow of curriculum stalwart ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’.
‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster — On humanity’s need for humanity
Boy this novella’s time has come. ‘The Machine Stops’ is set in a time when humanity has long since left the planet’s surface. They dwell in luxurious underground rooms filled with technology to meet all their needs. Moving rarely from automated bed to vid screen, our future fleshy selves never meet in person, and consider phyiscal contact abhorent. One son rails against this isolation, and asks his mother to visit him physically. But something is wrong with the machine…
E.M. Forster wrote ‘The Machine Stops’ in 1908/9 and for years people have marvelled at its clairvoyant predictive ability — of the internet and global communications. But few thought we would be soon living, like Kuno and his mother Vashti, a life of complete self-isolation. Its remarkable relevance to our age is actually quite unsettling when you think of Forster’s Edwardian London.
I feel Forster goes one better than contemporary HG Wells with the realism and humanity of the story. Forster commented that ‘The Machine Stops’ was a reaction to Well’s ‘The Time Machine’. Where Wells’ commentary is political (the Elois’ exploitations of the Moorlocks) Forster saw technology, not a ruling class, being our eventual oppressor. It is a salutary warning as we emerge from a year spent in Zoom meetings.
Mercifully, ‘The Machine Stops’ hasn’t been adapted into a dreadful Hollywood film (yet) but you’ll be pleased to know the bands Hawkwind and Level 42 have both adapted it into a concept album/song. No, really.
‘The Thing Itself’ by Adam Roberts — On the nature of reality
Written only 5 years ago by the precociously talented Adam Roberts, ‘The Thing Itself’ is a bizarre offering — a treatise on philosophy and a techno thriller rolled into one. ‘The Thing Itself’ is based on Kant’s work on reality, in which he defines Ding an sich — the thing as it really is. (Thankfully, Roberts explains Kant in a simple and accessible way).
Two arctic astonomy researchers are holed up together in a portacabin looking for signs of extra terrestrial life. One of them, is a Kant-wielding genius, the other, a more phlegmatic everyday lab rat. During their lonely evenings they discuss the Fermi Paradox — the observation that there should be some signs of extra terrestiral life. Fermi’s argument was that, given the billions of stars and the many millenia they have existed, aliens should be visible or at least detectable. After all homo Sapien went from cave-dwelling to space-faring in a mere 40,000 years.
One explanation comes from Kant — what if we cannot see reality because human consciousness only allows us to see the world as constrained by our experience of linear space, time and causality.
What if these three things are constructs of human consciousness, not of reality itself. Then aliens could be swarming all around us and we wouldn't even know it because we wouldn't have the tools to perceive them.
This is the mind-melting premise of ‘The Thing Itself’ and Roberts takes us on a thrilling ride as a secretive institution builds AI that will have a consciousness unbounded by the restrictive nature of human perception.
It’s such a delight to have someone smarter than you explain such a complex concept — and it’s another reminder of how myopic we humans can be. There are echoes here of the brilliant Ted Chiang’s ‘The Story of Your Life’ (made into ‘Arrival’ — that rare thing — a great film adaptation of a great story!)
‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams — On the irrelevance of your own problems when compared to the vastness of the universe
‘The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is legendary for being one of the first science fiction comedies to gain significant success. But buried in the hilarity of Beeblebrox’s Alpha-male boasts and Dent’s endless quest for a good cup of tea are some remarkably authentic sci-fi concepts. Quantum physics (the infinite improbability drive), the true nature of power (the secret leader of the universe who lives in a shack) the unknowability of the meaning of life (42), and the sense of travelling but never getting away (‘jeenandtonyx’) — it’s all there.
One of my favourite concepts is that of the Total Perspective Vortex — an instrument of torture that Zaphod is punished with. The Vortex works by wiring your brain to a device that is capable of showing you how infinitesimally unremarkable you are in the universe as a whole. It’s a wonderful wake-up call to the self-obsessed and self-important. In a brilliant twist, Zaphod survives the Vortex unharmed, boasting he is the most important being in the universe, only to find he has been living inside a simulated universe designed to trap him. Such elegance Adams had, which is hidden sometimes in the Red Dwarf-ish bawdy jokes and banter.
I’m not even going to begin to try to cover the adaptations of ‘H2G2’, (TV version — not great, film version, way off). However, in the radio series, which was Adams’ original version, the Vortex is beautifully explained by the late great Peter Jones (who voices the Guide). It’s the juxtaposition of Jones’ ‘kindly-minor-English-public-school-history-teacher’ voice with the horrors and mind-blowing revelations of galactic life that really resonates.
So sci-fi’s reputation as being nothing more than cowboys and indians in space is ill-deserved. It is such a profound and life affirming genre, that it makes me weep to see folk scoffing at it as if it’s all ‘Dan Dare’ and ‘Flash Gordon’. I hope you agree.
(Actually — I also like ‘Dan Dare’ and ‘Flash Gordon’)