"No less a critic than C. S. Lewis has described the ravenous addiction that these magazines inspired; the same phenomenon has led me to call science fiction the only genuine consciousness-expanding drug." Arthur C. Clarke


Zamyatin’s WE

I have just finished reading Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We, one of the forerunners of the satirical dystopian genre best known for novels such as Brave New World or 1984.  It was written in 1921 in response to Zamyatin’s experiences with the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917 as well as working at the Tyne shipyards where he witnessed the collectivization of labor.

Having read Orwell and Huxley, I certainly saw the influence We had, admitted or otherwise.  Zamyatin’s secret police simply see everything because all walls are made of glass and sex is state-controlled along with every other part of life, including labor along the lines of the ideas of F.W. Taylor.  Emotion and imagination are considered the enemies of happiness and are considered illegal.  The novel is one of the first examples of a post-apocalyptic landscape with the cause implied as weapons of mass destruction; clearly atomic weapons did not exist in 1921, but having experienced the Great War, Zamyatin couldn’t fail to see the growth in size of bombs and other weapons.


WE (Photo credit: Père Ubu)

Zamyatin’s primary judgment regarding the State of the novel (and the early Soviet Union of Lenin) is that state-controlled, emotionless, beauty-less life works against human nature.  His viewpoint character, named D-503, believes himself mad because he has night dreams, feels attracted to a very rebellious woman (I-330), and can’t bring himself to report her and her revolutionary organization (Mephi).  Even as he smuggles his lover and her unborn child out of the city illegally, his mind shifts irrationally between his basic human instincts and his “love” for the United State.  One of the most impressive ways in which the author illustrates this is through the use of numbers: D-503, as a scientist/mathematician, thinks of everything in terms of numbers.  The spaceship he is building is called the Integral and thinks of unknowns as variables and love and death as functions.  What sets off his paranoia regarding his mental health is the concept of “imaginary numbers,” i.e. the square root of -1.  He knows such a number must exist, because all integers have square roots, but it is entirely unknown.  This is the first inkling he gets of “imagination.”  While these mathematical concepts aren’t exactly kosher to mathematicians, when thought of abstractly they are very artistic, and help to visualize Zamyatin’s idea that life cannot be made entirely rational, by any higher power.

I won’t give away the ending (though it is remarkably similar to 1984), but seeing it as a precursor to it’s more famous genre comrades gave a much more impressive light.  It certainly has it’s shortcomings (it breaks nearly all the writing rules I was taught in my PW classes), but as a pure work of art it is still one of the most important pieces of fiction of the twentieth century.

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JOHN CARTER and Edgar Rice Burroughs

Walt Disney Pictures‘ film John Carter, due out March 9, marks the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of the character in a story by famed author Edgar Rice Burroughs.

The film is based on Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1917) and stars Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe and Thomas Haden Church, and directed by Andrew Stanton.

Burroughs, especially known for his character Tarzan, wrote 11 novels of the Barsoom series, the name for Mars in the novels.  His vision of Mars was based on incorrect scientific notions of the time, mostly that of Percival Lowell.  Lowell and Rice’s Mars is a dying planet, formerly like Earth but in a rapid state of decline.  The scarce water is distributed by canals, the existence of which is based on astronomical visions of canals running across the red planet’s surface.

Burroughs’ technology, especially for a traditionally non-science fiction writer, is fairly extraordinary.  He described technology similar to televisions, radios, fax machines, radiation-based weapons, genetic manipulation, and terraforming.  He also described aerial battles between fleets of aircraft not 30 years after the Wright brothers‘ famous flight, as well as a plant which manufactures new atmosphere to replace that which is being lost on the planet.

It is only the best science fiction which can be read throughout time and even when many of it’s ideas are outdated.  It takes even better science fiction to make movies out of, even one hundred years later.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing the new film of one of the classics of science fiction.

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Finished Time Enough For Love (1973) a while ago, so I’ve owed you my review.  Warning: I have not held back much as far as spoilers go, so if you haven’t read the book and don’t want to hear the ending, don’t read past the marked point.

Time Enough For Love is Heinlein‘s longest work, and probably his most epic.  It is essentially written as part of the biography of Lazarus Long, a recurring character throughout Heinlein’s Future History novels (Methuselah’s Children and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, as well as a series of short stories).  Long is the oldest living human being at over two thousand years old, the product of both genetic engineering in the 20th century and rejuvenation technology thereafter.  The story is based around Long’s lying on his deathbed and one of his important descendants wishes that his entire life story be recorded (or at least the important parts).  They wish to record it because he is “the Senior” and as the oldest living human being is considered the wisest.  So Long begins, telling of his life, in no particular chronological order.


Cover art of Time Enough for Love by Robert A....

Image via Wikipedia

Now when we get into the themes and details is where it gets interesting.  Free love, nudism, etc, are common themes for Heinlein, but in Time Enough For Love he takes it to another level, making today’s nudists look like Republicans and Oedipus Rex look like the average suburban husband.  The summary on the back of my copy states that “it is the story of a man so in love with Life that he refused to stop living it; and so in love with Time that he became his own ancestor.”  However, this statement is not backed up by anything in the book, sadly.  The final part of the novel involves his going back in time to his childhood to meet his family, and in the process falls in love with his mother, but at this period he is already a child and meets himself, making it impossible that he should have become his own ancestor as the summary says.

Not that Heinlein should have needed to make the book more strange and slightly awkward by today’s moral standards.  At one point he explains scientifically how twin brother and sister born of the same father and mother could be genetically unrelated, and then proceeds to have them marry, have children, and live long happy lives as if nothing were the matter with that.  To Heinlein, of course, there isn’t.  As well, the last section of the book, which is set around the time-travel sequence, features Lazarus helping to start a colony and joining a family of all the primary characters, three each of men and women and an unknown number of children, practicing free love.  Also included in this family are a pair of female twins who just happen to be female clones of Lazarus himself, who eventually he makes love to as well, writing it off as a form of masturbation.

This may have come off much harsher than it is meant to be.  Heinlein is one of the best, and most of his ideas are awesome.  But this, even to a much larger extent than The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange Land, some of his social themes are strange and not particularly acceptable even by today’s loose standards, much less that of the Seventies.

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Author Bio: Olaf Stapledon

Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), one of the least well-known early authors of science fiction, was a British philosopher and occasional science-fiction author.  His greatest works are considered to be his novels Last and First Men and Star Maker, two classics of the genre.

Stapledon earned a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Liverpool in 1925, but lectured there and abroad on a variety of subjects such as psychology, English literature, and industrial history, and was very influential in British politics.

His novel Last and First Men and it’s sequel Star Maker have been extremely influential in the genre of hard science fiction since their publication in 1930 and 1937 respectively.  Most notable about the two novels are their scale: Last and First Men outlines 18 successive future evolutionary species of humanity, obviously spanning millenia into the distant future, and Star Maker outlines a history of the life of the universe, making the scale of it’s prequel seem minuscule.

Like all great hard science fiction authors, Stapledon has been credited with first describing various scientific ideas, including the Dyson Spheres (which Dyson himself said should be called Stapledon Spheres), genetic engineering, terraforming, and the “supermind.”

Authors who have professed to have been influenced by Stapledon include Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, C.S. Lewis, and John Maynard Smith.

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Chinese in Space

English: China Xichang Satellite Center; The l...

Image via Wikipedia

It has been announced recently that China, who traditionally has not been particularly active in the space race, will make a strong push in the next five years to become a power in space.  It seems, as did the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960’s and 70’s, that economic domination fuels space exploration, more than a bit obviously.  As both of the two Cold War powers scale back their space exploration due to budgeting, the Chinese are beginning to use their newfound worldwide wealth to build up their space industry.  By the end of 2016 it plans to launch space laboratories, manned spaceships, and be technologically prepared to build space stations.

Conventionally (and especially in my favorite era), science fiction writers have extrapolated one of three scenarios for the exploration/colonization of space: either a two-country, Cold-War era race between the successor states to the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. or a worldwide effort, by a cooperative effort by many states (as inspired by the International Space Station) or by a future one-state world.

Now, with the rise of this Chinese effort (along with the addition of space efforts by other countries such as Japan, the European Union, and India, as well as efforts by private companies) we must examine the possibility that space could be explored by many separate entities, with different technologies, goals, and ideals.  It could change much about the way diplomacy works: dealing with states occupying different planets, the distances between them, and the way war would work in space (which has certainly been thought about in many different ways).

This Chinese effort has certainly made me think about the changes to the way state-building and diplomacy in space would happen.  This, along with future development, should mark a shift in reaction for science-fiction as a whole.

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What I’m Reading: Robert Heinlein’s TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE

The Grand Master’s “longest and most ambitious work,” Time Enough for Love was published in 1973 and nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards.  The book follows the extraordinarily long life of Lazarus Long over two thousand years, taking the form of several novellas with Long’s voice intruding as a sort of memoir.

Cover art of Time Enough for Love by Robert A....

I’ll leave you with the very-first note in the novel, setting up Long’s unique perspective:

“The lives of the Senior Member of the Howard Families (Woodrow Wilson Smith; Ernest Gibbons; Captain Aaron Sheffield; Lazarus Long; “Happy” Daze, His Serenity Seraphin the Younger, Supreme High Priest of the One God in All His Aspects and Arbiter Below and Above; Proscribed Prisoner No. 83M2742; Mr Justice Lenox; Corporal Ted Bronson; Dr. Lafe Hubert; and others), Oldest Member of the Human Race.  This account is based principally based on the Senior’s own words as recorded many times and places and especially at the Howard Rejuvenation Clinic and at the Executive Palace in New Rome on Secundus in Year 2053 After the Great Diaspora (Gregorian Year 4272 of Old Home Terra)- and supplemented by letters and by eyewitness accounts, (where possible) reconciled by official records and contemporary histories, as directed by the Howard Foundation Trustees and executed by the Howard Archivist Emeritus.  The result is of unique historical importance despite the Archivist’s decision to leave in blatant falsehoods, self-serving allegations, and many amoral anecdotes not suitable for young persons.”

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John W. Campbell, Jr.

One of the most important people in the history of science fiction was John W. Campbell, Jr. (1910-1971).  Campbell was the editor of Astounding Science Fiction from 1937 to 1971, and through this editorship influenced many of the most famous writers in what is considered the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Campbell published Lester del Rey‘s first story in 1938 and, in 1939 alone, published an early story of Isaac Asimov‘s (“Trends”), A.E. van Vogt‘s first story (“Black Destroyer”), Robert Heinlein‘s first story (“Life-Line,” famously published on his first attempt), and Theodore Sturgeon‘s first story (“Ether Breather”).

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction wrote, of Campbell, “More than any other individual, he helped to shape modern sci-fi.”  Asimov said that Campbell was “the most powerful force in science fiction ever, and for the first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.”

Campbell has two awards named in his honor: “The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel” and the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.”  He was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 1996.

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