Hello again, all. First, please forgive my tardiness in posting this. It’s been a busy weekend and an even busier year! I shall try to catch up over the next few days, though I can’t imagine life is going to get any less busy in the near future. Even so, I got plenty more books to talk about that have had a profound effect on me and influenced my decision to become a writer.
But first, here are the rules of this challenge again!
Thank whoever nominated you with big, bold print. If they have a blog, link to the post where you got tagged there.
Explain the rules.
Post the cover of a book that was influential on you or that you love dearly.
Explain why it was so influential to you.
Tag someone else to do the challenge, and let them know they’ve been tagged.
Again, I would like to thank RAMI UNGAR for the nomination, and you can find him at ramiungarthewriter.com. And for day two of the challenge, I would like to select the book that taught people to take science fiction seriously – Dune!
Much like Lord of the Rings, this timeless classic was one I learned about growing up, but didn’t get around to reading until my 20s. And just like with LOTR, once I did read it, I could see why its influence has been so pervasive. While Frank Herbert wrote many science fiction novels during his lifetime, none have had the same impact as the first installment in his six-book Dune series. And while I myself read all six twice, the first book is arguably the best.
For starters, the story involved one of the richest, most-inspired and most-detailed universes ever created in the history science fiction. Based on the concept of a galactic empire where politics, the economy and all social norms are essentially combination of the futuristic and medieval, the setting of Dune would go on to inspire Lucas’ Star Wars universe, not to mention countless other franchises that combine sci-fi with fantasy. What’s more, many of the planets in the novel have been formally adopted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) as place names for features on the Moon and Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
But it was the complex interweaving of real history, religion, environmentalism, resource dependency, and cultural and social commentary that blew me away and has ensured that this book is likely to be included in any top ten lists of science fiction books that you can find – not to mention one of the top ten books people pretend to have read. And to round it all out, it has a very deep plot that examines the enduring mystery of prophets and messiahs in human history, and the paradox of prescience. As Frank Herbert himself wrote, “to know the future is to become trapped by it.”
I could go on and on, but I’ve already reviewed this book more than once and don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. And if you’re one of those people who haven’t, get on it!
And now it’s time for me to nominate someone new. And so I call upon Lady Muse herself, Khaalidah Mohammed Ali!
Last month, the Swiss surrealists Hans Ruedi Giger – a painter, sculptor, set designer, and the Academy Award winning visual effects master who brought the world the Alien – died at the age of 74 in Zürich, Switzerland. After suffering injuries he sustained in a fall, the man who mined his own nightmares in creating phantasmagorical works finally passed away on Monday, May 12th, and leaves behind a robust legacy of inspiring people’s imaginations and striking fear into their hearts.
Describing his friend, American psychologist and psychedelic writer Timothy Leary was quoted as having praised the artist by saying:
Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.
And though he is well known within the artist community for his ability to turn nightmarish visions into works of art, some of which were oddly sexual, it is his contributions to the movie industry and science fiction franchise that are arguably the most well known. As the man who created the title character of the 1979 horror sci-fi classic Alien, he and the film’s visuel effects team won an Academy Award and spawned a genre that would have enduring influence.
In addition to personally designing the Alien through all stages of its life – from egg to eight-foot tall monster – he was also responsible for the design of the Derelict (aka. the Space Jockey/Engineer spaceship) and the Space Jockey/Engineer itself. While some would describe these as “surrealist” or “Lovecraftian” in design, Giger preferred to call his art “biomechanics”, with its subjects often appearing to be hybrid creatures that had bodies that melded the organic with mechanical parts.
Nowhere was this more clear than with the design of the Alien itself. Combining elements of biology, technology, skewed sexuality and nightmarish visions into its design, it was this creation itself that the entire movie was built around. In fact, screenwriter Dan O’Bannon began crafting the script for the movie with neither a story idea nor a hero protagonist in mind. All he wanted was the sense of fear that came from more and more revealing glimpses of Giger’s creation.
And after seeing Giger’s first book, “Necronomicon” – a collection that was published in 1977 and named in honor of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional grimoire of the same name – Director Ridley Scott immediately decided to hire Giger, who began producing artwork and conceptual designs that were essentially refinements of the work found in his dark collection. As Mr. Scott would later say of this fateful decision: “I’d never been so certain about anything in all my life.”
The end result was a huge and harrowing success, with the setting of the Derelict ship providing a sense of awe and wonder, not to mention foreshadowing the sense of terror and darkness that would follow. And combined with O’Bannon’s vision and Scott’s cinematography, the brief glimpses we get of this ancient and dark looking creature only help to augment the sense of terror and claustrophobia that would come from being trapped aboard a spaceship with it.
He would also collaborate on many other films of the horror and sci-fi genre. These include designs for the unproduced Alejandro Jodorowsky adaptation of Dune, which would later be made by David Lynch. Other examples include Poltergeist II: The Other Side, Killer Condom, Species, Future-Kill, and Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. Unfortunately, for all concerned, one movie he collaborated on would ultiamtely reject his design – the updated Batmobile for the Batman Forever movie (picture below).
Beyond his work on the Alien franchise – which included designs for Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus – Mr. Giger published around 20 books of art, and his works were exhibited in Paris, Prague and New York. He also created many album covers, including one for the singer Debbie Harry’s 1981 album, “Koo Koo”, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1973 album, “Brain Salad Surgery,” and a poster titled “Penis Landscape” for inclusion in an album by the punk band Dead Kennedys.
And over at deviantART, artist techgnotic has arranged a tribute to the artist that embraces the many personal tributes that this art community have made toward the late Giger. Describing Giger’s enduring legacy, techgnotic says that:
Giger was a touchstone artist for those in the 70s & 80s who sought to shake up the establishment with a walk on the wild side. Today he is thought of by many artists as being one of the exemplars of letting the mind go free—to explore either the light or the darkness—and be fearless in sharing what was found there in one’s art. His art might be considered “safe” today, but he was a real inspiration to many of today’s artists.
And as he puts it in the prologue: “He was an artist you might not know. But you’ve met his children…” Be sure to go and check it out, as it does a very good job summarizing his life’s work and influence, and contains some pretty interesting and inspired tribute pieces! And while we’re at it, I suggest we set aside some time to rewatch Alien or one of the many other movies he collaborated on to create the dark, nightmarish sets or costumes that would help establish the tone of the film.
And while were at it, perhaps we should take a page from Giger’s book and keep a nightmare journal. Not only did this man record all the dark visions he would experience in his sleep, he would use them to create artistic and cinematic gold! But if you’d rather leave that to the dark souls of this world and just enjoy letting them scare you, so much the better. RIP Giger, you will be missed!
In the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.
But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.
For starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.
Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.
But above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.
Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…
1. Near-Future/Far Future:
When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.
By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.
Other, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.
In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.
At the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.
Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.
Instead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.
For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.
Star Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.
The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.
And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…
2. Stellar or Interstellar:Here is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?
Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.
But that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.
And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.
Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.
In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…
3. High-Tech or Low-Tech: What would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.
In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.
With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism. But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.
In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s SprawlTrilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.
By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.
And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.
At the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.
At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.
In Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.
But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!
4. Aliens or Only Humans: Another very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.
For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.
As case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.
In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.
Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.
In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.
The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.
Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.
The Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and divisiveness are still very much a part of us.
But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.
In B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.
However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.
This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.
After making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.
This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!
5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous: Finally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.
Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.
Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.
And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.
In the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:
The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.
Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.
Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:
Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.
But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.
As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.
After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.
This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.
In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.
And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.
Summary: These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.
In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!
Hey folks! A lot of things have got me thinking about another old idea that I think needs to be updated and brought forward. This one comes from many years back, roughly 2007, when I was working on the series of short stories that make up my Legacies series. As one of several ideas I was working with back then, it kind of fell by the wayside as I busied myself with writing the others – Flight of the Icarus, Eyes in the Dark, Turncoats, Vega Rising.
Eventually, as with many ideas us indie writers come up with, it lost my interest after lingering so long in my Inbox. But after a few conversations with respected colleagues, I found myself thinking about it again and looking to update it, add a new spin, and just generally give it another try. The story, in its updated version, is called The Council of Muraqaba, and it concerns humanity’s efforts to create a universal religion in the future.
When I first came up with the idea for a universal faith as part of my Legacies universe, I was still in my Frank Herbert phase and borrowed many crumbs off his table. His own notes in Dune about the Orange Catholic Bible and the Commission of Ecumenical Translators that created it really inspired me, and it put me in mind of the World Religions class I took in high school, which just happened to be one of my favorite subjects.
In 2007, the short story that was to feature the attempts to create this religion was more of an original idea, at to me. I envisioned a world where the council behind the religion’s creation established a permanent seat where matters of interfaith exchanges could take place, and where research into what made them all tick could be done and universal principles uncovered.
This seemed like a timely idea to me given just how controversial, central, and daunting the issue of faith continues to be in our world today. Between people who demand that others conform to their religion to those who condemn religion of any kind, and from those who use it justify violence and persecution to those who blame it for the problems of entire regions of the world (i.e. Africa, the Middle East and Islamophobia), it’s almost inescapable.
Because of this, and because of the way humanity has a hard time outgrowing old habits, I figured a story that dealt with humanity’s continued difficulties with religion and sectarian differences should be included in my Legacies bundle. But as I said, I’ve been updating the idea a bit thanks to some conversations with friends which raised some poignant issues about the future, and thanks to some research about what the future is likely to hold…
What I am envisioning now is a world where a group of mystic settlers originally established a colony on Gliese 581 d – aka. Muraqaba – in the hopes of creating a community where traditional faiths could still be practiced, free from the fear of ongoing progress and how it was leading many to conclude that religion was obsolete. Named after the Sufi practice of meditation, they sought to live in peace and practice freely, and were on guard against what they saw as “needless augmentation”.
In time, this community expanded and became dedicated to finding a way to bring all faiths together and finding common ground not just between religions but between faith and science itself, something which still eluded people in this age. Eventually, this led to the creation of the Council of Muraqaba, a permanent institution where scholars and religious authorities could meet, discuss, and network with people in the universe at large to iron out matters of spirituality.
Ironically, the Council became a hub for some of the most advanced interstellar learning and education since people who were light years away from each other could communicate using a quantum array that allowed FTL communications to take place. The experience of this is central to the story, as it provides a sort of mystic mental sharing that is akin to a spiritual connection, emotions and thoughts shared instantaneously between people.
And of course, there will be a twist as a regular day at the Council turns into something sinister. Just because the local inhabitants have succeeded in creating a dialogue with the universe at large doesn’t mean that everyone is interesting in what they have to say. And some people are concerned that all this “common ground” stuff is eroding the things that make their faith special and want it to end.
And some… some are interested in what the Council has to say for reasons that go far beyond matters of faith! Be sure to check it out, as I think this story just might be one of my more inspired pieces of writing. And my thanks once again for Khaalidah for turning on the light in my head. There’s a reason I call you “Lady Inspiration” you know 😉
If you were to get into a discussion with a true Star Wars fan, it would only be a matter of time before the subject of the Kessel run came up. Long considered one of the biggest enigmas to come out of the franchise, Han’s boast in A New Hope about his ship’s capabilities – with the Kessel Run as a reference – still has some people scratching their noggins and scrambling for explanations today.
To refresh people’s memory, this is how the boast went down in the course of Han’s introduction to Luke and Obi-Wan at the Mos Eisley Cantina:
Han: “Fast ship? You’ve never heard of the Millennium Falcon?” Obi-Wan: “Should I have?” Han: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!”
See what I mean? A parsec is a unit of distance, not time, so from an astronomical perspective, it made no sense. How could Han have used it to explain how quickly his ship could travel? Well, as it happens, there are some possible and even oddball explanations that have been drafted as the franchise has expanded over the years.
Another important point to make here is about the Kessel Run itself. As a smuggler, Han was deeply involved in running “glimmerstim spice” during his pre-Rebel days (a clear rip off from Dune, but whatever). This took him to and from Kessel, a remote planet located in the Outer Rim that is surrounded by a black hole cluster known as the Maw. As an unnavigable mess, it provided a measure of protection for smugglers running the Imperial blockade that guarded the space lanes near the planet.
All of this comes up in the Jedi Academy Trilogy, a series of novels written by Kevin J. Anderson that are part of the expanded Star Wars universe, and is the first case of the Run being detailed. From these an other sources, we are told that the Run is an 18-parsec route that led away from Kessel, around the Maw, and into the far more navigable area of space known as The Pit. Here, smugglers had to contend with asteroids, but any smuggler worth his salt could find their way through without too much difficulty, and didn’t have to worry about Imperial patrols from this point onward.
To cut down on the distance traveled, pilots could dangerously skirt the edges of the black holes, a maneuver dangerous because it involves getting pulled in by their gravitational forces. If a ship were fast enough, it could risk cutting it closer than most, thus shaving more distance of the route while still being able to break free after it all to complete the run.
Hence we have the first possible explanation to Han’s ambiguous statement. Han’s boast was not about the time taken for him to complete the Run, but the fact that Millennium Falcon was so fast that he was able to cut a full third of the Run off and still make it out. The Falcon would have to be a pretty sweet ship to do that! And it would also fit in with all his other boasts, about how the ship could “make 0.5 past light speed”, and was the “fastest ship in the fleet”.
However, there are other explanations as well. For starters, this expanded universe explanation does not jive with what Lucas himself said, what was presented in the novelization of the original movie, and of course what astronomers and megafans have to say. In the first instance, Lucas claimed in the commentary of the Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope DVD that the “parsecs” are due to the Millennium Falcon’s advanced navigational computer rather than its engines, so the navicomputer would calculate much faster routes than other ships could.
In the A New Hope novelization, Han says “standard time units” in the course of his conversation with Luke and Ben, rather than “parsecs.” And in the revised fourth draft of A New Hope that was released in 1976, the description for “Kessel Run” is described as a bit of hapless misinformation that Obi-Wan doesn’t believe for a second. In short, Han erred when he said it and didn’t realize it.
And then there is the far more farfetched and mind-bending explanation as made by Kyle Hill in a recent article by Wired magazine. Here, he argues that the true intent of Han’s statement was that he was, in fact, a time traveler. By combining some basic laws of physics – namely that the speed of light (c) is unbreakable and 0.99 ad infinitum is as fast as anything can go – and the details of Han’s boast, a more clear picture of how this works emerges.
First, because the shortened Kessel Run spans 12 parsecs (39.6 light-years), a ship traveling nearly light-speed would take a little more than 39.6 years to get there. Factoring in time dilation, anyone watching the Kessel Run would see Solo speeding along for almost 40 years, but Solo himself would experience only a little more than half a day. So basically, in the time it takes Han to complete just one Kessel Run, the rest of the galaxy continues on its usual path for 40 years, which pushed the date of Han’s birth 40 years into the past.
Confused yet? Well, the idea is that Han would have been born long before events in A New Hope, and even The Phantom Menace took place. After completing his run, no doubt trying to avoid Republic authorities or some such equivalent, he came upon a universe that had gone through the ringer with a Sith coup d’etat, Imperial oppression, and a looming Civil War. What could he do but stick to smuggling and hope to make a living?
REALLY doesn’t make sense in terms of the storyline, does it? Ah, but what can you do? People like to find quirky explanations for things that don’t make sense. It can be fun! But of course, there’s a final and much, much simpler explanation that I haven’t even mentioned yet, and it’s one that’s far more believable given the so-called evidence.
Put simply, Lucas made a mistake. The parsecs line was a misfire, an oversight, and/or brain fart on his part. Nothing more, and all these attempts at explanation are just an obvious attempt to make something that doesn’t fit fit. It makes perfect sense when you think about it: since A New Hope was the first Star Wars movie, that meant Lucas was directing it all by himself. The assistance he sorely needed in terms of directing, writing, editing, etc. didn’t come until the movie was almost complete and he was looking bankruptcy and a nervous breakdown in the eye.
And remember, this is the same movie where a Storm Trooper walked head first into a door aboard the Death Star, Luke yells “Carrie” to Carrie Fisher while they are shooting, the cast and camera can be seen in numerous widescreen shots, and just about every technical problem that could go wrong did go wrong, some of which even made it into the final cut. As far as bloopers, outtakes and errors are concerned, the first Star Wars movie was a mess!
See? So really, is it hard to imagine a simple oversight like a typo could have made it on screen and no one caught it? Hell no! And frankly, I think fandom would be a lot happier if Lucas had remembered these early days of his career and not decided to make the prequels all by himself. Sure, there were plenty of people to catch these kinds of simple errors the second time around, but his many flaws as a movie maker found other ways to shine through – i.e. Jar Jar, lazy directing, too much special effects, wooden dialogue, confused storyline, continuity errors and plot holes galore!
Ah, but that’s another topic entirely. Point is, Star Wars had simple beginnings and plenty of mistakes were made along the way. One can’t expect something so grand and significant in terms of popular culture to be consistent or error free. And Lucas was never really good at producing a seamless product. In the end, it was a fun ride until the new ones came out, and even then he was still making money hand over fist.
And with Disney at the helm now, chances are we’re in for a real treat with some high-budgets and high-production values. And I’m sure there will be plenty of things for the meganerds and uberfans to poke fun at and make compilation videos of. And I of course will be writing about all of it 😉
Patrick Stewart has to be one of the most awesome actors around, and not just because of his Shakespearean training. No, this is a guy who is equally at home being completely irreverent as he is serious, and I love him for it. So in honor of this guy, I thought I’d fish through the vast database known as the internet for some video of this man in action. Here’s a small smattering of the more hilarious stuff he’s done over the years!
Personally, I can’t get enough of Stewart as Bullock, the borderline, cocaine addicted, and sexually masochistic director of the CIA. His antics are pure hilarity, insanity, and pure wackiness. I often wonder how Stewart feels about playing the role, and then think he must be a very silly man at heart.
Dune: This is one of Stewart’s many movie roles, where he played the grizzled swordmaster of House Atreides known as Gurney Halleck. Although the movie was an unmitigated commercial and critical disaster, Stewart brought his usual talent and class to the role and carried more than a few scenes.
Extras: I personally think this was the best case of Stewart parodying himself. That was what was so genius about the show, actors playing themselves but totally making fun of themselves in the process. And Stewart really went to town on this one, acting like a sexual deviant and spoofing on Star Trek all at once!
Family Guy: Seth MacFarlane loves this guy, as attested to by the video known as “I Love Patrick Stewart” (look it up). And here is a smattering of Stewart’s many appearances on the show, either as himself or in the persona of Captain Picard.
After reading four of the five of the books in the ongoing Song of Ice and Fire series, I’ve come to realize something. I really like the world George RR Martin has created! In fact, you might say I haven’t found myself becoming so engrossed with a fictional universe since Dune or Lord of the Rings. In those fictional universes, as with this one, one gets an incredible sense of depth, detail and characterization.
And in honor of this realization, or perhaps because I couldn’t keep track of the names, places and events alluded to in the texts, I began doing some serious research. For one, I found several lovely maps (like the one above) that speculate as to the complete geography of Martin’s world – the continents of Westeros, Essos, and Sothoryos.
And when I say complete geography, I mean just that, not the snippets that are given in the book that leave out the all important sections of Qarth, Slaver’s Bay, and the Free Cities. While these places are described in relation to the rest of the world, keeping track of them can be tricky, especially if you’re a visual learner like myself! And seeing as how much of the story involves a great deal of travel, it helps to know where characters were going, how far, and which direction they were headed.
Even before I began reading the books, I could tell that Westeros was very much inspired by the British Isles, with its tough and grizzled Northerners resembling the Scots, Picts, and Celts of old while the Southerners were more akin to the aristocratic Normans. “The Wall” was also a clear allegory for Hadrian’s Wall, with the people on the other side being portrayed much as the Roman’s would have viewed the “Northern Tribes” that threatened their domain.
King’s Landing also seemed very much inspired by London, with its pomp, opulence, and extensive moral decay. Yes, just like London of the Middle Ages, it was a fine patchwork of royal finery, castles, fortifications, religious ceremony, brothels and public executions! And it even lies upon a large river, the Blackwater, which seems every bit like the Thames.
Essos also seemed very much inspired by Asia of ancient lore. Here we had the Dothraki Sea where the Dothraki horsemen roamed free and pillaged in all directions, exacting tribute and taking slaves. Can you say Mongols and/or Huns? In addition, their capital – Vaes Dothrak – seemed in every respect to be an adaptation of Karakorum, Ghengis Khan’s one time capitol that was little more than a collection of temporary houses and tents. And Master Ilyrio, as if his name wasn’t enough, seemed to be every bit a Mediterranean at heart, living in a lavish sea-side estate and growing fat of off trade in cheese, olives and wine.
Upon cracking the books, I found that the metaphors only went deeper. In fact, they were so thick, you could cut them with a knife! In terms of Westerosi geography and character, the different regions of the continent called to mind all kind’s of archetypes and real-world examples. The Reach sounds very much like Cornwall, fertile, populous, and in the south-east relative to the capitol. Casterly Rock and the domain of the Lannister’s, though it resides in the west away from the capitol, seems every bit like Kent, the wealthiest region of old where the most lucrative trade and shipping comes in. And their colors, gold and red, are nothing if not symbolic of the House of Lancaster – of which Henry V and the VIII were descended.
And last, but certainly not least, there were the all-important cities of Qarth, Mereen, Astapor, and Yunkai. All eastern cities that inspire images of ancient Babylon, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Antioch. With their stepped pyramids, ancient history, flamboyant sense of fashion, and lucrative slave trade, they all sounded like perfect examples of the ancient and “decadent” eastern civilizations that were described by Plato, Aristotle, and medieval scholars. The conquest of Westeros by the First Men, the Children of the Forest, the Andal and Valyrian Conquest; these too call to mind real history and how waves of conquerors and settlers from the east came to populate the Old World and the New, with genocide and assimilation following in their wake and giving rise to the world that we know today.
Fans of Tolkien will no doubt be reminded of the map of Middle Earth, and for good reason. Martin’s knack for writing about space and place and how it plays a central role in the character of its inhabitants was comparable to that of Tolkien’s. And what’s more, the places have a very strong allegorical relationship to real places in real history.
In Tokien’s world, the Shire of the Hobbits seemed very much the metaphor for pre-industrial rural England. The inhabitants are these small, quirky people who are proud of their ways, lavish in their customs, and don’t care much for the affairs of the outside world. However, when challenged, they are capable of great things and can move heaven and earth.
In that respect, Gondor to the south could be seen as London in the early 20th century – the seat of a once proud empire that is now in decline. Given it’s aesthetics and location relative to the dark, hostile forces coming from the East and South, it’s also comparable to Athens and Rome of Antiquity.
And it was no mistake that the battle to decide the fate of Middle Earth happened here. In many ways it resembles the Barbarian Invasions of the late Roman Empire, the Persian Wars of Classical Greece, the Mongol Invasions or the Byzatine Empire’s war with the Turks in the High Middle Ages. In all cases, classical powers and the home of Western civilization are being threatened from Eastern Empires that are strange and exotic to them.
And let’s not forget Arrakis (aka. Dune) by Frank Herbert. Here too, we have a case where space and place are determining factors on their residents. And whereas several planets are described and even mapped out in the series, none were as detailed or as central as Arrakis itself. From its Deep Desert to its Shield Walls, from Arrakeen and Seitch Tabr; the planet was a highly detailed place, and the divide between Imperials and Fremen were played out in the ways both sides lived.
Whereas the Fremen were hardy folk who lived in the deep desert, took nothing for granted, and were a harsh folk sustained by prophecies and long-term goals, the Imperials were lavish people, pompous and arrogant, and used to doing things in accordance with the Great Convention. But far from being preachy or one-sided, Herbert showed the balance in this equation when it became clear that whereas the Imperials were governed by convention and thereby complacent, the Fremen were extremely dangerous and capable of terrible brutality when unleashed.
But as I said, other planets are also detailed and the influence their environments have on their people are made clear. Caladan was the ancestral home of the Atreides, covered in oceans, fertile continents, and a mild climate that many consider to be a paradise. As a result, according to Paul, the Atreides grew soft, and it was for this reason that they fell prey to the Emperor’s betrayal and the machinations of their Harkonnen enemies.
And speaking of the Harkonnens, the world of Geidi Prime is described on a few occasions in the series as being an industrial wasteland, a world plundered for its resources and its people reduced to a status of punitive serfdom. What better metaphor is there for a people guided by sick pleasures, exploitation, and exceptional greed? Whereas the Atreides grew soft from their pleasures, the Harkonnens grew fat, and were therefore easily slaughtered by Paul and his Fremen once their rebellion was underway.
And of course, there is Selusa Secundus, a radioactive wasteland where the Emperor’s elite Sardukar armies are trained. On this prison planet, life is hard, bleak, and those who survive do so by being ruthless, cunning and without remorse. As a result, they are perfect recruits for the Emperor’s dreaded army, which keeps the peace through shear force of terror.
* * *
There’s something to be said for imaginative people creating dense, richly detailed worlds isn’t there? Not only can it be engrossing and entertaining; but sooner or later, you find yourself looking back at all that you’ve surveyed, you do a little added research to get a greater sense of all that’s there, and you realize just how freaking expansive the world really is. And of course, you begin to see the inspiration at the heart of it all.
Yes, this is the definitely the third time I’ve experienced this feeling in relation to a series. I count myself as lucky, and really hope to do the same someday. I thought I had with the whole Legacies concept, but I’m still tinkering with that one and I consider my research into what makes for a great sci-fi universe to be incomplete. Soon enough though, I shall make my greatest and final attempt, and there will be no prisoners on that day! A universe shall be borne of my pen, or not… Either way, I plan to blab endlessly about it 😉
Since its inception as a literary genre, religion has played an important role in science fiction. Whether it took the form of informing the author’s own beliefs, or was delivered as part of their particular brand of social commentary, no work of sci-fi has ever been bereft of spirituality.Even self-professed atheists and materialists had something to say about religion, the soul and the concept of the divine, even if it was merely to deny its existence.
And so, I thought it might make for an interesting conceptual post to see exactly what some of history’s greats believed and how they worked it into their body of literature. As always, I can’t include everybody, but I sure as hell can include anyone who’s books I’ve read and beliefs I’ve come to know. And where ignorance presides, I shall attempt to illuminate myself on the subject. Okay, here goes!
Alastair Reynolds: Despite being a relative newby to the field of sci-fi authors, Reynolds has established a reputation for hard science and grand ideas with his novels. And while not much information exists on his overall beliefs, be they religious or secular, many indications found their way into his books that would suggest he carries a rather ambiguous view of spirituality.
Within the Revelation Space universe, where most of his writing takes place, there are many mentions of a biotechnological weapon known as the “Indoctrination Virus”. This is an invasive program which essentially converts an individual to any number of sectarian ideologies by permeating their consciousness with visions of God, the Cross, or other religious iconography.
In Chasm City, these viruses are shown to be quite common on the world of Sky’s Edge, where religious sects use them to convert people to the official faith of the planet that claims Sky Haussmann was a prophet who was unfairly crucified for his actions. In Absolution Gap, they also form the basis of a society that populates an alien world known as Hela. Here, a theocratic state was built around a man named Quaiche, who while near death watched the moon’s gas giant disappear for a fraction of a second.
Unsure if this was the result of a strain he carries, he created a mobile community that travels the surface of the planet and watches the gas giant at all times using mirrors and reclining beds, so that they are looking heavenward at all times. Over the years, this community grew and expanded and became a mobile city, with each “believer” taking on transfusions of his blood so they could contract the the strain that converted him and allowed him to witness all that he did.
While this would indicate that Reynolds holds a somewhat dim view of religion, he leaves plenty of room for the opposite take. All throughout his works, the idea of preserving one’s humanity in a universe permeated by post-mortal, post-human, cybernetic beings remains a constant. In addition, as things get increasingly dark and the destruction of our race seems imminent, individual gestures of humanity are seem as capable of redeeming and even saving humanity as a species.
In fact, the names of the original trilogy allude to this: Revelation Space, Redemption Ark, Absolution Gap. Like with everything else in his books, Reynold’s seems to prefer to take a sort of middling approach, showing humanity as an ambiguous species rather than an inherently noble one or foul one. Religion, since it is a decidedly human practice, can only be seen as ambiguous as well.
Arthur C. Clarke: At once a great futurist and technologist, Clarke was nevertheless a man who claimed to be endlessly fascinated with the concept of God and transcendence. When interviews on the subjects of his beliefs, he claimed that he was “fascinated by the concept of God.” During another interview, he claimed that he believed that “Any path to knowledge is a path to God—or Reality, whichever word one prefers to use.”
However, these views came to change over time, leading many to wonder what the beliefs of this famed author really were. At once disenchanted with organized religion, he often found himself subscribing to various alternative beliefs systems. At other times, he insisting he was an atheist, and nearing the end of his life, even went so far as to say that he did not want religious ceremonies of any kind at his funeral.
Nowhere were these paradoxical views made more clear than in his work. For example, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the theme of transcendence, of growing to the point of becoming god-like, is central. Early hominid’s evolution into humanity is seen as the direct result of tampering by higher forces, aliens which are so ancient and evolved that they are virtually indistinguishable from gods. Throughout the series, human beings get a taste of this as they merge with the alien intelligence, becoming masters of their own universe and godlike themselves.
In the last book of the series – 3001: Final Odyssey, which Clarke wrote shortly before his death – Clarke describes a future where the Church goes the way of Soviet Communism. Theorizing that in the 21st century a reformist Pope would emerge who would choose to follow a similar policy as Gorbachev (“Glasnost”) and open the Vatican archives, Clarke felt that Christianity would die a natural death and have to be replaced by something else altogether. Thereafter, a sort of universal faith built around an open concept of God (called Deus) was created. By 3001, when the story is taking place, people look back at Christianity as a primitive necessity, but one which became useless by the modern age.
So, in a way, Clarke was like many Futurists and thoroughgoing empiricists, in that he deplored religion for its excesses and abuses, but seemed open to the idea of a cosmic creator at times in his life. And, when pressed, he would say that his personal pursuit for truth and ultimate reality was identical to the search for a search God, even if it went by a different name.
Frank Herbert: Frank Herbert is known for being the man who taught people how to take science fiction seriously all over again. One of the reasons he was so successful in this regard was because of the way he worked the central role played by religion on human culture and consciousness into every book he ever wrote. Whether it was the Lazarus Effect, the Jesus Incident, or the seminal Dune, which addresses the danger of prophecies and messiahs, Frank clearly believed that the divine was something humanity was not destined to outgrow.
And nowhere was this made more clear than in the Dune saga. In the very first novel, it is established that humanity lives in a galaxy-spanning empire, and that the codes governing technological progress are the result of a “jihad” which took place thousands of years ago. This war was waged against thinking machines and all other forms of machinery that threatened to usurp humanity’s sense of identity and creativity, resulting in the religious proscription “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”
Several millennium later, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood, a quasi-religious matriarchal society, are conspiring to create a messianic figure in the form of the Kwisatz Haderach. The name itself derives from the Hebrew term “Kefitzat Haderech” (literally: “The Way’s Jump”), a Kabbalic term related to teleportation. However, in this case, the name refers to the individual’s absolute prescience, the ability to jump through time in their mind’s eye. In preparation for the arrival of this being, they have been using their missionaries to spread messiah legends all over the known universe, hoping that people will respond to the arrival of their superbeing as if he were a messianic figure.
When the main character, Paul Atreides – the product of Bene Gesserit’s breeding program – arrives on the planet Arrakis, where his family is betrayed and killed, he and his mother become refugees amongst the native Fremen. They are one such people who have been prepped for his arrival, and wonder if he is in fact the one who will set them free. In order to survive, Paul takes on this role and begins to lead the Fremen as a religious leader. All along, he contends with the fear that in so doing, he will be unleashing forces he cannot control, a price which seems too high just to ensure that he and his mother survive and avenge themselves on their betrayers.
However, in the end, he comes to see that this is necessary. His prescience and inner awareness reveal to him that his concepts of morality are short-sighted, failing to take into account the need for renewal through conflict and war. And in the end, this is exactly what happens.By assuming the role of the Kwisatz Haderach, and the Fremen’s Mahdi, he defeats the Emperor and the Harkonnens and becomes the Emperor of the known universe. A series of crusades followers as his followers go out into the universe to subdue all rebellion to his rule and spread their new faith. Arrakis not only becomes the seat of power, but the spiritual capital of the universe, with people coming far and wide to see their new ruler and prophet.
As the series continues, Paul chooses to sacrifice himself in order to put an end to the cult of worship that has come of his actions. He wanders off into the desert, leaving his sister Alia to rule as Regent. As his children come of age, his son, Leto II, realizes the follies of his father and must make a similar choice as he did. Granted, assuming the role of a God is fraught with peril, but in order to truly awaken humanity from its sleep and prepare it for the future, he must go all the way and become a living God. Thus, he merges with the Sandworm, achieving a sort of quasi-immortality and invincibility.
After 3500 of absolute rule, he conspires in a plot to destroy himself and dies, leaving a huge, terrible, but ultimately noble legacy that people spend the next 1500 years combing through. When they come to the point of realizing what Leto II was preparing them for, they come to see the wisdom in his three and half millennia of tyranny. By becoming a living God, by manipulating the universe through his absolute prescience, he was preparing humanity for the day when they would be able to live without Gods. Like the Bene Gesserit, who became his chosen after the fact, he was conspiring to create “mature humanity”, a race of people who could work out their fates moment by moment and not be slaved to prophecies or messiahs.
As you can see, the commentary ran very deep. At once, Herbert seemed to be saying that humanity would never outlive the need for religion, but at the same time, that our survival might someday require us to break our dependency on it. Much like his critique on rational thought, democracy and all other forms of ideology, he seemed to be suggesting that the path to true wisdom and independence lay in cultivating a holistic awareness, one which viewed the universe not through a single lens, but as a multifaceted whole, and which was really nothing more than a projection of ourselves.
For those seeking clarity, that’s about as clear as it gets. As Herbert made very clear through the collection of his works, religion was something that he was very fascinated with, especially the more esoteric and mystical sects – such as Kaballah, Sufism, Zen Buddhism and the like. This was appropriate since he was never a man who gave answers easily, preferring to reflect on the mystery rather than trying to contain it with imperfect thoughts. Leto II said something very similar to this towards the end of God Emperor of Dune; as he lay dying he cautions Duncan and Siona against attempts to dispel the mystery, since all he ever tried to do was increase it. I interpreted this to be a testament of Frank’s own beliefs, which still inspire me to this day!
Gene Roddenberry: For years, I often found myself wondering what Roddenberry’s take on organized religion, spirituality, and the divine were. Like most things pertaining to Star Trek, he seemed to prefer taking the open and inclusive approach, ruling nothing out, but not endorsing anything too strongly either. Whenever religion entered into the storyline, it seemed to take the form of an alien race who’s social structure was meant to resemble something out of Earth’s past. As always, their was a point to be made, namely how bad things used to be!
Behind the scenes, however, Roddenberry was a little more open about his stance. According to various pieces of biographical info, he considered himself a humanist and agnostic, and wanted to create a show where none of his characters had any religious beliefs. If anything, the people of the future were pure rationalists who viewed religion as something more primitive, even if they didn’t openly say so.
However, this did not prevent the subject of religion from coming up throughout the series. In the original, the crew discovers planets where religious practices are done that resemble something out of Earth’s past. In the episode “Bread and Circuses”, they arrive on a planet that resembles ancient Rome, complete with gladiatorial fights, Pro-Consuls, and a growing religion which worships the “Son”, aka. a Jesus-like figure. This last element is apparently on the rise, and is advocating peace and an end to the cultures violent ways. In “Who Mourns Adonais”, the crew are taken captive by a powerful alien that claims to be Apollo, and who was in fact the true inspiration for the Greek god. After neutralizing him and escaping from the planet, Apollo laments that the universe has outgrown the need for gods.
In the newer series, several similar stories are told. In the season one episode entitled “Justice”, they come Edenic world where the people live a seemingly free and happy existence. However, it is soon revealed that their penal code involves death for the most minor of infractions, one which was handed down by “God”. This being is essentially an alien presence that lives in orbit and watches over the people. When the Enterprise tries to rescue Wesley, who is condemned to die, the being interferes. Picard gains its acquiescence by stating “there can be no justice in absolutes”, and they leave. In a third season episode entitled “Who Watches the Watchers”, Picard becomes a deity to the people of a primitive world when the crew saves one of their inhabitants from death. In an effort to avoid tampering with their culture, he lands and convinces him of his mortality, and explains that progress, not divine power, is the basis of their advanced nature.
These are but a few examples, but they do indicate a general trend. Whereas Roddenberry assiduously avoided proselytizing his own beliefs in the series, he was sure to indicate the ill effects religion can have on culture. In just about every instance, it is seen as the source of intolerance, injustice, irrationality, and crimes against humanity and nature. But of course, the various crews of the Enterprise and Starfleet do not interfere where they can help it, for this is seen as something that all species must pass through on the road to realizing their true potential.
George Lucas: Whereas many singers of space opera and science fiction provided various commentaries on religion in their works, Lucas was somewhat unique in that he worked his directly into the plot. Much like everything else in his stories, no direct lines are established with the world of today, or its institutions. Instead, he chose to create a universe that was entirely fictional and fantastic, with its own beliefs, conflicts, institutions and political entities. But of course, the commentary on today was still evident, after a fashion.
In the Star Wars universe,religion (if it could be called that) revolves around “The Force”. As Obi-Wan described it in the original movie “It is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” In Empire, Yoda goes a step farther when he says “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”Sounds rather pantheistic, doesn’t it? The idea that all life emits an essence, and that the fate of all living things is bound together in a sort of interdependency.
What’s more, the way the Force was governed by a Light Side and a Dark Side; here Lucas appeared to be relying on some decidely Judea-Christian elements. Luke’s father, for example, is a picture perfect representation of The Fall, a Faustian man who sold his soul for power and avarice. The way he and the Emperor continually try to turn Luke by dangling its benefits under his nose is further evidence of this. And in the end, the way Darth Vader is redeemed, and how he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his son, calls to mind the crucifixion.
In the prequels, things got even more blatant. Whereas Anakin was seen as a sort of Lucifer in the originals, here he became the prodigal son. Conceived by the “Will of the Force”, i.e. an immaculate conception, he was seen by Qui Gonn as “The Chosen One” who’s arrival was foretold in prophecy. The Jedi Council feared him, which is not dissimilar to how the Pharisees and Sanhedrin reacted to the presence of Jesus (according to Scripture). And of course, the way Anakin’s potential and powers became a source of temptation for him, this too was a call-back to the Lucifer angle from the first films.
All of this was in keeping with Lucas’ fascination with cultural mythos and legends. Many times over, Lucas was rather deliberate in the way he worked cultural references – either visually or allegorically – into his stories. The lightsaber fights and Jedi ethos were derived from medieval Europe and Japan, the architecture and many of the costumes called to mind ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the setting and gun fights were regularly taken from Old Westerns, and the Imperial getup and rise to power of the Emperor were made to resemble Nazi Germany.
However, Lucas also dispelled much of the mystery and pseudo-religious and spiritual quality of his work by introducing the concept of the “midi-chlorians”. This is something I cannot skip, since it produced a hell of a lot of angst from the fan community and confounded much of what he said in the original films. Whereas the Force was seen as a mystic and ethereal thing in the originals, in the prequels, Lucas sought to explain the nature of it by ascribing it to microscopic bacteria which are present in all living things.
Perhaps he thought it would be cool to explain just how this semi-spiritual power worked, in empirical terms. In that, he failed miserably! Not only did this deprive his franchise of something truly mysterious and mystical, it also did not advance the “science” of the Force one inch. Within this explanation, the Force is still a power which resides in all living things, its just these microscopic bacteria which seem to allow people to interact with it. Like most fans, I see this as something superfluous which we were all better off without!
H.G. Wells: Prior to men like Herbert and the “Big Three” (Asimov, Clarke, and Robert A. Heinlein), Wells was the master of science fiction. Since his time, during which he published a staggering amount of novels, short-stories and essays, his influence and commentaries have had immense influence. And when it came to matters of faith and the divine, Well’s was similarly influential, being one of the first sci-fi writers to espouse a sort of “elemental Christian” belief, or a sort of non-denominational acceptance for religion.
These beliefs he outlined in his non-fiction work entitled God the Invisible King, where he professed a belief in a personal and intimate God that did not draw on any particular belief system. He defined this in more specific terms later in the work, aligning himself with a “renascent or modern religion … neither atheist nor Buddhist nor Mohammedan nor Christian … [that] he has found growing up in himself”.
When it came to traditional religions, however, Wells was clearly of the belief that they had served their purpose, but were not meant to endure. In The Shape of Things to Come, he envisioned the creation of a global state (similar to Zamyatin’s “One State” and Huxley’s “World State”), where scientific progress was emphasized and all religions suppressed. This he saw as intrinsic to mankind’s progress towards a modern utopia, based on reason and enlightenment and the end of war.
In War of the Worlds, a similar interpretation is made. In this apocalyptic novel, one of the main characters is a clergyman who interprets the invasion of the Martians as divine retribution. However, this only seems to illustrate his mentally instability, and his rantings about “the end of the world” are ultimately what lead to his death at the hands of the aliens. Seen in this light, the clergyman could be interpreted as a symbol of mankind’s primitive past, something which is necessarily culled in the wake of the invasion my a far more advanced force. And, as some are quick to point out, the Martians are ultimately defeated by biology (i.e. microscopic germs) rather than any form of intervention from on high.
Isaac Asimov: Much like his “Big Three” colleague Clarke, Asimov was a committed rationalist, atheist and humanist. Though he was born to Jewish parents who observed the faith, he did not practice Judaism and did not espouse a particular belief in God. Nevertheless, he continued to identify himself as a Jew throughout his life. In addition, as he would demonstrate throughout his writings, he was not averse to religious convictions in others, and was even willing to write on the subject of religion for the sake of philosophical and historical education.
His writings were indicative of this, particularly in the Foundation and I, Robot series. In the former, Asimov shows how the Foundation scientists use religion in order to achieve a degree of influential amongst the less-advanced kingdoms that border their world, in effect becoming a sort of technological priesthood. This works to their advantage when the regent of Anacreon attempts to invade Terminus and ends up with a full-scale coup on his hands.
In the Robot series, Asimov includes a very interesting chapter entitled “Reason”, in which a robot comes to invent its own religion. Named QT1 (aka. “Cutie”) this robot possesses high-reasoning capabilities and runs a space station that provides power to Earth. It concludes that the stars, space, and the planets don’t really exist, and that the power source of the ship is in fact God and the source of its creation.
Naturally, the humans who arrive on the station attempt to reason with Cutie, but to no avail. It has managed to convert the other robots, and maintains the place in good order as a sort of temple. However, the human engineers conclude that since its beliefs do not conflict with the smooth running of the facility, that they should not attempt to counterman it’s belief system.
What’s more, in a later story entitled “Escape!” Asimov presents readers with a view of the afterlife. After developing a spaceship that incorporates an FTL engine (known as the hyperspatial drive), a crew of humans take it into space and perform a successful jump. For a few seconds, they experience odd and disturbing visions before returning safely home. They realize that the jump causes people to cease exist, effectively dying, which is a violation of the Three Laws, hence why previous AI’s were incapable of completing the drive.
Taken together, these sources would seem to illustrate that Asimov was a man who saw the uses of religion, and was even fascinated by it at times, but did not have much of a use for it. But as long as it was not abused or impinged upon the rights or beliefs of others, he was willing to let sleeping dogs lie.
Philip K. Dick: Naturally, every crowd of great artists has its oddball, and that’s where PKD comes in! In addition to being a heavy user of drugs and a fan of altered mental states, he also had some rather weird ideas when it came to religion. These were in part the result of a series of religious experiences he underwent which began for him in 1974 while recovering from dental surgery. They were also an expresion of his gnostic beliefs, which held that God is a higher intelligence which the human mind can make contact with, given the right circumstances.
Of Dick’s hallucinations, the first incident apparently occurred when a beautiful Christian woman made a delivery to his door and he was mesmerized by the light reflecting off of her fish pendant, which he claimed imparted wisdom and clairvoyance. Thereafter, Dick began to experience numerous hallucinations, and began to rule out medication as a cause. Initially, they took the form of geometric patterns, but began to include visions of Jesus and ancient Rome as well. Dick documented and discussed these experiences and how they shaped his views on faith in a private journal, which was later published as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
As he stated in his journal, he began to feel that his hallucinations were the result of a greater mind making contact with his own, which he referred to as the “transcendentally rational mind”, “Zebra”, “God” and “VALIS” (vast active living intelligence system). Much of these experiences would provide the inspiration for his VALIS Trilogy, a series that deals with the concept of visions, our notions of God and transcendent beings.
In addition, many of Dick’s hallucinations took on a decidedly Judea-Christian character. For instance, at one point he became convinced that he was living two parallel lives; one as himself, and another as “Thomas” – a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century AD. At another point, Dick felt that he had been taken over by the spirit of the prophet Elijah. These experiences would lead him to adapt certain Biblical elements into his work, a prime example being a chapter in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which bore a striking resemblance to the a story from the Biblical Book of Acts, which Dick claimed to never have read.
All of this is a testament to the rather profound (and possibly nuts!) mind of PKD and his fascination with all things divine and spiritual. Though not a man of faith in the traditional sense, he was very much a part of the counter-culture in his day and experimented with drugs and alternative religious beliefs quite freely. And while most of his ideas were dismissed as outlandish and the result of drug abuse, there were many (Robert A Heinlein included) who saw past that to the creative and rather gifted artistic soul within. It is therefore considered a tragedy that PKD died in relative obscurity, having never witnessed how much of an impact and influence he would have on science fiction and modern literature.
Ray Bradbury: Next up, we have the late great Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer for whom all literature was of immense import. This included the Bible, the Tanakh, the Koran, and just about any other religious text ever written by man. What’s more, many of his works contain passages which would seem to indicate that Bradbury held religion in high esteem, and even believed it to be compatible (or at least not mutually exclusive) with science.
For example, in his seminal novel Fahrenheit 451, one of the most precious volumes being protected by the character of Faber, a former English professor, is the Bible itself. When Montag confronts him and begins ripping the pages out of it, Faber tells him that it is one of the last remaining copies in the world that actually contains God’s words, instead of the newer versions which contain product placements.
As the story progresses and World War III finally comes, Montag joins Faber and a community of exiles, all of whom are responsible for “becoming a book” by memorizing it. In this way, they hope to preserve whatever literature they can until such a time as civilization and the art of writing re-emerges. Montag is charged with memorizing the Book of Ecclesiastes, and joins the exiles on their journey.
In the Martian Chronicles, Bradbury is even more clear on his stance vis a vis religion. In the short story “-And the Moon Be Still as Bright”, the Fourth Expedition arrives on Mars to find that the majority of the Martians have died from chickenpox. A disillusioned character named Jeff Spender then spends much time in the alien ruins and comes to praise the Martians for how their culture combined religion and science.
Humanity’s big mistake, according to Spender, was in praising science at the expense of religion, which he seemed to suggest was responsible for modern man’s sense of displacement. Or has Spender put it: “That’s the mistake we made when Darwin showed up. We embraced him and Huxley and Freud, all smiles. And then we discovered that Darwin and our religions didn’t mix. Or at least we didn’t think they did. We were fools. We tried to budge Darwin and Huxley and Freud. They wouldn’t move very well. So, like idiots, we tried knocking down religion.”
In short, Bradbury saw humanity as lost, largely because of it deification of reason at the expense of faith. However, he did not appear to be advocating any particular religion, or even religion over science. When it came right down to it, he seemed to be of the opinion that faith was important to life, an outlet for creativity and inspiration, and needed to be preserved, along with everything else.
Robert A. Heinlein: As yet another member of the “Big Three”, Heinlein’s own religious view bear a striking resemblance to those of his contemporaries. Much like Clarke and Asimov, he was a committed rationalist and humanist, and varied from outright atheism to merely rejecting the current state of human religion. According to various sources, this began when he first encountered Darwin’s Origin of the Species at the age of 13, which convinced him to eschew his Baptist roots.
These can be summed up in a statement made by Maureen, one of his characters in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, when she said that the purpose of metaphysics was to ask the question why, but not to answer. When one passed beyond the realm of questions and got into answer, they were firmly in religious territory. Naturally, the character of Maureen preferred the former, as the latter led to intolerance, chauvinism, and persecution.
In Stranger In A Strange Land, one of the most famous science fiction novels of all time, plenty of time is dedicated to the main character’s (the Martian Smith) experiences with religion. After becoming disillusioned with humanity’s existing institutions, he decides to create a new faith known as the “Church of All Worlds”. This new faith was based on universal acceptance and blended elements of paganism, revivalism, and psychic training. In short, it was an attempt to predate major religions by reintroducing ancient rites, nature worship, and the recognition of the divine in all things.
What’s more, Stranger’s challenge to just about every contemporary more, which included monogamy, fear of death, money, and conventional morality could only be seen by religious authorities as an indictment of traditional values. In that respect, they were right. Heinlein plotted out the entire novel in the early fifties, but did begin writing it for a full decade. He would later of say of this, “I had been in no hurry to finish it, as that story could not be published commercially until the public mores changed. I could see them changing and it turned out that I had timed it right.”
But just in case his work did not suffice, Heinlein expressed his opinions quite clearly in the book entitled Notebooks of Lazarus Long (named after one of his recurring characters): “History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.” These and other quotes illustrated his issues with religion, which included their irreconcilable nature with reason, their inherent contradictions, and the ludicrous things done in their names.
And that’s what the masters had to say on the subject, at least those that I chose to include. As you can plainly see, their opinions ran the gambit from outright condemnation of religion (but not necessarily of faith) to believing that religion had it’s place alongside science as an equally worthy form of expression. And of course, there were those who fell somewhere in the middle, either seeing religion as an ambiguous thing or something that humanity would not outgrow – at least not for the foreseeable future. Strangely, none of them seemed to think that religion trumped science… I wonder why 😉
Some recent news on the Neuromancer front: In addition to Mark Wahlberg and Liam Neeson being confirmed as the leading actors, who will be filling the roles of Case and Armitage, some rather interesting concept art has been revealed. Apparently, the art is the work of Amro Attia, a designer who has worked with director Natali before, contributing to the design of the creatures in Splice.
The first is a concept of what Armitage would look like. The tatoo design, for those who have read the book, is a clear reference to Operation Screaming Fist, the mission which nearly cost him his life and left him scarred and traumatized. The perfect candidate to become Wintermute’s plaything.
The second is of Case himself, which appears to be from the opening scenes when he was down and out in Chiba City, looking for whatever work he could ever since his nervous system had been damaged, preventing him from jacking into cyberspace. Note the background, featuring dark, gritty city streets, neon displays, and plenty of Japanese language signs.
Granted, the news on this front is still speculative and no indication has been given that the project is full steam ahead, no turning back. Lord knows I’m pulling for it! Much like Dune and Lord of the Rings, Neuromancer is a classic which seems to have taken an eternity to adapt to the big screen, with several abortive attempts along the way.
Came across this article in Io9 recently, then again over at Scoop.it. You can tell something is important not only when it speaks to you, but when like-minded individuals begin referencing it! And if you own a blog, you definitely want to get on that! In any case, I found the list especially interesting for two reasons. One, many of the books I have already read. And two, I haven’t even heard of the rest.
I’d say a list like this is long overdue, but it’s still highly subjective isn’t it? The books we pretend we’ve read all comes down to what we consider important and relevant, not to mention popular. And even within the genre of sci-fi, I’d say that list is too big to boil down to a simple top ten. Even so, it’s interesting to read and compare, and find out just how many you’ve read yourself. So please, check this out and tell me which of these you have read and which you think you’ll want to check out:
1. Cryptonomicon: Read it! This book is Neal Stephenson’s groundbreaking piece of historical fiction, combining narratives involving World War II cryptographers with modern day IT geeks who are looking to establish a data haven in the South Pacific. The story tells the tale of a massive shipment of Nazi gold that got lost on its way to Japan, ran aground in the Philippines, and remained hidden until the late 90’s.
Personally, I loved this book because of the way it weaves history, both recent and distant, into a seamless narrative and draws all the characters into the same overarching plot. One would think that Stephenson was making a point about how we are all subjects of our shared history, but it could just be he’s that good a writer!
2. Dune: Read it thrice! In Dune, Frank Herbert draws upon an immense store of classical sci-fi themes, a grand awareness of human nature and history, and a keen grasp of ecology and the influence environment has on shaping its inhabitants to create the classic that forever established him as one of the greatest sci-fi minds of all time.
Sci-fi geeks everywhere know this one and it saddens to me to think that it’s even on this list. Anyone who’s willing to pretend that they read this book clearly considers it important, which is why they should have read it, dammit! Not only is it a classic, it’s from the guy who literally wrote the book on science fiction that was meant to be taken seriously.
3. Gravity Rainbow: Never heard of it! Apparently, the story came out in 1974 and deals with the German V2 rocket program near the end of World War II. Pat Murphy, author of The City, Not Long After and The Wild Girls, went so far as to compare this book to James Joyce, a the great Irish modernist writer who was also renowned for being brilliant and inaccessible.
In addition to be classified as enriching, it is known for being odd and hard to get through, with many authors themselves claiming to have started it several times but never being able to finish it. The plot is also rather unique, combining transgressive sexuality with the idea of total war and technological races. But one look at the dust jacket will tell you all of that, right? Crazy Germans!
4. Foundation: Read it myself, and also am somewhat sad that it made the list. Sure, the fact that it’s a classic means that just about everyone who’s eve shown the slightest interest in sci-fi would want to read it. But I can’t for the life of me understand why people would claim to have read it. Jesus, it’s not a hard read, people. And Amazon sells used copies for cheap and handles shipping. No excuses!
And having just reviewed it, I shall say nothing of the plot, except that it in many ways inspired fellow great Frank Herbert in his creation of Dune. Like Frank, Asimov combined the idea of a Galactic Empire with a keen awareness of human history, eternal recurrence, and prescient awareness.
5. Johnathon Strange & Mr. Norrell: Now this one I have heard of, but never felt compelled to pick up and read. Apparently, its size and bulk are the reason many people react the same. This 2004 book is the first novel by British writer Susanna Clarke which deals with the nature of the English character and the boundary between reason and irrationality.
Set in 19th-century England during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, the story is an alternative history that is based on the idea that at one time, magic existed in England and has thanks to the help of two men – the namesakes of the story, Jonathan Strange and Gilbert Norrell. At once interesting and speculative, it also presents the rather romantic vision of romance returning to a world increasingly characterized by modernity and cold reason.
6. 1984: Yep, read this one thrice as well! And given it’s reputation and place in the annals of literary history, I can totally see why people pretend to have read it. Oh, and let’s not forget the way people love to reference and abuse it’s message for the sake of making a quick and easy political point! But none of that excuses not reading it.
Set in an alternate history where WWIII and revolution have led to totalitarian governments in every corner of the world, the story tells the tale of one man’s quest to find answers and facts in a world permeated by lies and absolute repression. Of course, this meager description doesn’t do it justice. In the end, so much comes into play that it would take pages and pages just to provide an adequate synopsis. Suffice it to say, it’s a book that will change your life. READ IT!
7. First and Last Men and Star Maker: Another one which I’m not too sure about. Much of what is described within are concepts I have heard of in other places, and some of the content sounds familiar. Still, can’t say I’ve ever heard of Stapledon or these two works by name. But after reading about his work, I’m thinking I ought to check him out now. Tell me if you’d agree…
Published in 1930 and 1937, these two books tackled some rather broad ground. The first deals with the history of humanity, covering 18 species of humanity from the present to two billion years into the future. Based on Hegelian concept of history, humanity goes through several different types of civilizations and passes between stability and chaos over the course of it all. However, undeniable progress is made, as each civilization reaches further the last, culminating in leaps in evolution along the way.
In Star Maker, the plot revolves around a man who is able to leave his body and venture throughout the universe. He is able to merge with more minds along the way, a snowballing effect which allows him and his companions to explore more and worlds through time and space. This leads to a climax where a cosmological mind is created and makes contact with the “Star Maker” – the creator of the universe.
Sounds cool huh? And they appear to have no shortages of accolades. For example, Arthur C. Clarke called Star Maker one of the finest works of science fiction ever written, and the concept explored therein had a profound influence on many subsequent sci-fi minds, not the least of which were Gene Roddenberry and J.M. Straczynski.
8. The Long Tomorrow: This one, I have heard of, mainly because it’s on my list as an example of post-apocalyptic fiction. I have yet to read it, but after reading about it, I think I would like to. Set in a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, the story takes place within a society that is controlled by religious groups preaching a technophobic message.
Inevitably, the story comes to a head when young people, intrigued by stories of a neighboring community, go out in search of it, braving punishment and even exile. Sounds familiar? Well, it should. This book, which was published in 1955, has gone on to inspire countless variations and pop culture renditions. It also attempts to illustrate the connection between natural disasters and regression, traditionalism and repression.
9. Dhalgren: Yet another book that’s compared to James Joyce, largely by people that haven’t read it. I’m one of them! Apparently, this 1975 story by Samuel R. Delany takes place in a fictitious Midwestern town that has become cut off from the outside world by an event horizon. All communications are cut off, and the population become frightened by the night sky reveals two moons, and the morning sun is many times larger than our own.
More strange is the fact that street signs and landmarks shift constantly, while buildings that have been burning for days are either never consumed or show signs of damage. Gangs also begin to roam the nighttime streets, their members hidden within holographic projections of gigantic insects or mythological creatures. Against this backdrop, a group of people come together and try to make sense of what has happened as they struggle to survive.
Told from the point of view of a partial amnesiac, dysmetric, schizophrenic, as well as a bunch of other people who find themselves stranded in the city, the story is an exercise is confusion, dissociation, and a really just a big mystery. In the end, what is truly going on is never revealed, thus leaving the reader with their own interpretations. This is one of the selling points of the book, with William Gibson himself saying that it was “A riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Yeah, I definitely need to read this one!
10. Infinite Jest: This last novel is more recent, having been released in 1996. Once again, haven’t heard of it, but given its content, praise, and the fact that the author’s low life was cut tragically short, it doesn’t surprise me that its one of those books that everyone feels they must read. But given the length, complexity and the fact that story contains 388 numbered end notes, I can see why they’ve also held back!
The story focuses on the lives of a celebrity family known as the Incandezas, a clear pun on their, shall we say… luminous fame? The family is deeply involved in tennis, struggles with substance abuse, and in a state of disrepair since the father – a famous film director – committed suicide with a microwave. His last work was apparently a film (entitled “Infinite Jest”, but known throughout the story as “The Entertainment”) which is so entertaining, it causes viewer to lose all interest in everything besides watching the movie.
Clearly meant as a satire on North American culture, particularly celebrity families, entertainment, substance abuse and the sideshow that is celebrity rehab, the story is all about various people’s search for the missing tape of “The Entertainment” and what they plan to do with it. The novel received wide recognition and praise after its publication and became a testament to Wallace’s talent after he committed suicide in 2008.
Okay, that’s four out of ten for me. How did you do? And even if you could say that you’ve read most of the books on this list, or at least the one’s you’ve heard of, I’d say we’ve all come away with a more additions to our reading lists, hmmm? Yeah, I guess its back to Amazon for me!