Friday, 10 February 2012

A Survey of Early Science Fiction : What's Going on Here?

I’ve been working my way more-or-less chronologically through the NPR Books list of “Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalists” which they posted in early August of 2011 (  It has been an enjoyable endeavour and six months into my self-appointed project, I have read about 60 books, or about 10% of the total.  I’m certainly no expert, but I have noticed several themes in the literature so far that interest me.
            The authors have a sense of impending disaster of tremendous proportion.  They anticipate global pandemics or nuclear wars that will almost (but not quite) wipe out the human race.  I am Legend by Richard Matheson postulates a virus that turns humanity into vampires.  The Earth Abides by George Rippey Stewart simply expects a global pandemic with few survivors and a gradual return to the hunter/gatherer lifestyle.  The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham features large, predatory plants which severely restrict human movements.  And then there is always nuclear apocalypse, as in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The survivors, stuck on Earth, are already so genetically damaged that they aren’t allowed to leave the planet with the healthy folk.  [BTW, I loved his pejorative for these folk: chickenheads. Doesn’t that really say it all?]  The feeling I got:  we’re not smart enough to prevent big disasters, but a few will always survive and will have to be resourceful enough to start over.
            It seems that the only enemies imaginable in the 60s and 70s were the Soviets.  A notable exception (proving the rule) was Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle—an alternate history in which Nazi Germany and Japan had won WWII.  But the implication was that only in alternate histories could you rule out the Russians.  There are strong references to the Soviets in George Orwell’s novels (both 1984 and Animal Farm) and in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Looking back, you can discern the level of paranoia about the Iron Curtain in the late 20th century, especially in conjunction with the prospect of nuclear war.  Personally, I remember emphasis on Russia and China as “the other” in social studies classes in junior high and can’t help but be amazed at how different things are in the 21st century: Russia is almost side-lined and China is becoming a major trading partner and is seen as the economic engine of the world economy.
            There is a strong distrust of computers and other technologies prevalent in the fiction of this time period.  An ironic concern in this genre!  A recurrent situation is a computer developing a mind and an agenda of its own (see Arthur Clarke’s 2001 or Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress).  A CBC radio program that I listened to recently linked today’s tendency to use female voices for GPS devices, airport announcements, etc. to the voice of the computer HAL in the movie version of 2001, announcing in a menacingly neutral masculine voice that “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.”  HAL has to be unplugged by a human, but Mike, the computer on the Moon that gains consciousness in Heinlein’s work, has the decency to disengage himself.  This is fortunate, as Mike was starting to enjoy the thrill of lobbing missiles at the Earth.  In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, some of the androids in question return to earth to prey remorselessly on the remaining dregs of humanity.  It is their complete lack of remorse and empathy that reveals them to the android-hunters who seek them.
            Distrust of technology starts right at the beginning of the genre, in Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.  The monster is loosed on society without thought to the consequences by Frankenstein, who creates the creature and is then repulsed by it.  The implications are clear:  just because a creature can be created, that doesn’t mean it should be.  At least Frankenstein comes to his senses before animating a monstrous mate for his creation.  I found this attitude strange at first, as most science fiction authors are personally proponents of scientific progress.  Clarke, for example, is credited with the idea of using geo-stationary satellites for telecommunications.  I came to realize that the authors were very aware that technology could be used for evil as well as for good, and as a result, they felt the need to explore the moral and ethical aspects of such progress.
            Another question of morality in these tales was the role of telepathy and other psi abilities.  I was surprised by the number of novels which included phenomena which are considered fringe subjects today.  Alfred Bester’s works The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination are marvellous examples, featuring teleportation and telepathy as everyday occurrences.  Philip K. Dick also explores the topic in Ubik, where contact with the dead is a given and companies are built around psi-abilities.  Even Isaac Asimov has a telepathic shadow society in his Foundation series, derived from a vigorous branch of mathematical psychology and called the Second Foundation.  Arguably, even the mental link between dragon and rider in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books could be included in this category.  I’ll be interested to see if this interest in the paranormal continues in modern science fiction, or whether it gets banished to the junk heap.
            Apparently the future is not going to be a pleasant place to live.  We will have to be tough, smart and determined and we won’t have much fun.  We’ll have to worry about nuclear fall out, mutant viruses, totalitarian governments (see Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and 1984 by George Orwell), controlling telepaths, predatory plants, out-of-control crime (A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess) and many other hazards.  I would expect current science fiction to have different undercurrents—perhaps environmental catastrophe and terrorism substituting for nuclear disaster and totalitarian government.  It will be fascinating to continue to read forward in time, seeing when certain fears subside and which come to prominence.
            Not really a theme, but a general observation:  early science fiction and fantasy is very much a white male endeavour.  Women are given insignificant or token roles and racism is blatant.  I expect to see that shifting as I continue forward on the timeline and as more women and minorities become authors in the genre.  Additionally, cigarettes and smoking are ubiquitous:  the authors manage to portray big technological changes quite well, but miss on the small details, like cell phones, online newspapers and changes in health-consciousness.   I wonder what features of our current fiction will seem anachronistic to future readers?
            As Mr. Spok would say, “Fascinating.”


  1. Interesting - especially your comment about white males. Growing up, my favourite sci-fi author was Andre Norton. SHE didn't come out publicly as a male until the early 1960's. A female sci-fi writer was just not acceptable.

    1. Amazing, isn't it, that she had to hide behind male names to sell her material? I've enjoyed re-reading Ursula K LeGuin and I'm looking forward to Tanith Lee.