Thursday, 30 July 2009

favourite SF stories

I'm posting up my 'favourite SF stories' essays. This will be a sprawling set of writings with no overall theme other than sharing my best SF experiences. It's not exhaustive, merely a few starting points.

To pin down most of what I like in SF: plausible weirdness with interesting concepts taking place in a world I can relate to at a gut level. This often takes the form of a kind of punk sensibility.

I think SF is the perfect medium for the exploration of themes of the alien Other, Utopias and Dystopias, superhumanity and the future of what we call humans and, at the more fantastic end, lyrical explorations of magical experiences.

These essays will focus almost exclusively on text SF – most mainstream TV and film SF is not to my taste (with a few notable exceptions like Dr Who, which I may get round to discussing).

In a SF film, I want vivid visual delights and engaging style. Think – for one particular style that resonates down through the years – Blade Runner and style-derivatives such as Minority Report – Philip K Dick's dystopias brought to film life. Game style visuals leave me cold – surely the reason game players (I 'fess up to having sworn off this particular intoxicant in order to spend more time on other kinds of fun) put up with such unconvincing detail in the sets and people / entities is down to constraints from the fact that the hardware is running at its limits. Why indulge in such design in films, unless the issue is budget constraints? A particularly flat-looking example of bargain basement CGI is Ultraviolet, with Milla Jovovitch.

I started my adventures in SF when my Uncle Jeff, the only science-trained member of my family (he worked as a wartime electronic engineer on radar, then on early ICL computers, and apparently built the family a TV set from war surplus, with a 9", round, green screen) gave me a copy, old even then, of Astounding Science Fiction, some time in the late 50s.

I would be delighted if someone could help me track down which one – the only story title I appear to remember (allowing for the instability of memory traces) is 'Well Done, My Good and Faithful Servant'. I've tried Googling the title and also tried to find listings of Astounding's contents, both to no avail. I can't even remember much about the story, but I do remember being taken out of myself into a world of alien intelligences, strange energies and humans framed differently to how I'd ever read before.

That led me over the next few years to reading the Spectrum anthologies, collected by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest, Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Blish's A Case Of Conscience and many other 50s novels I don't recall at the moment.

Taking some of the above themes one at a time, I'll start with the superman / ├╝bermensch theme:

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. For those enviable folk who have yet to read this masterpiece, the backstory is that the First arrive on a planet already inhabited by energy beings, take over, breed more humans, make themselves immortal by reincarnating into new bodies at will, develop extraordinary powers by growing close to some technology that represents the Attribute of the god whose identity they each take on, from the Hindu pantheon. Isolating themselves in Heaven, maintain the Hindu religion and withhold this and all but the most basic technology from the rest of the people. Years before, one of the First had sided with the banned Accelerationist tendency in Heavenly politics which taught that the technology should be spread to the people. This one teaches a form of Buddhism as the vehicle for liberation – beautiful use of Buddhist and Hindu poems interwoven with the technology.

'For six days he had offered many kilowatts of prayer, but the static kept him from being heard on high.'

That's an example of what I read SF for – maximum believable weirdness!


There's an exuberance of invention beyond what's needed to drive the plot, and an uplifting conclusion – despite human inventiveness in enslaving each other and devising excuses for it, new ideas (or old ideas in new guises) prevail and liberation comes. Also a sense of the power of ideas over repression in the long term.

Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human is another take on the ├╝bermensch theme – a Gestalt mind, but led by a psychopath! This is one of those books I read every few years, it is so perfect.

Wandering from the superman theme to alien superhumanity, one of the great classics is Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, in which the superman teaches us a better way of living, a blend of Martian and human. The morality of this book is intriguing, coming from the pen of a writer who in some of his works seemed to favour a kind of militaristic space fascism – here he writes of a sovereign individualism including, amongst other things, a loosening-up of the rigid sexual prejudices of the time (1961). Some of these ideas were no doubt influential a few years later in the freak subculture of the 60s, as well as the word 'grok'.

The Martians in Stranger in a Strange Land are depicted as alien, never human, scarcely recognizable from a human point of view, but nothing like as alien as the ultimate alien story. For pure alienness, the greatest book of all has to be Stanislaw Lem's Solaris, another book I read every time I forget enough of it to enjoy it again. The Solaris entity is a being on which the humans' most obdurate curiosity shatters on. The atmosphere is created by hinting (can any more be achieved?) at an incomprehensible alienness. The story itself has become a mysterious artefact subject to as many interpretations as the entity it is about. Lem stated that both films, the 1974 Tarkovsky and the 2003 one missed the point of the novel. Of the two films, I recommend the Tarkovsky.