"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

Works of Science Fiction

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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What I’m Watching: FRINGE Season One

I have just become acquainted with the science-fiction television show Fringe, which is currently in its fifth and final season on Fox.  After watching the pilot episode, it seems to be exactly the type of science-fiction storytelling that I am interested in, so I want to share what I think of it.

Fringe deals with fringe science, scientific pursuits that are not real but are based on real scientific ideas, much like many ideas in hard science fiction.  The three primary characters of the show are Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), Walter Bishop (John Noble), and Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson).

In the pilot episode, Dunham’s FBI partner (Agent Scott) is exposed to a chemical which crystallizes his flesh and sends him into a coma.  Dunham recruits Dr. Bishop, a scientist living in a mental institution, to help her save him.  Dr. Bishop’s son Peter is needed to get him out of the institution, bringing the three characters together for the first time.  They send Dunham into drug-induced unconsciousness and syncs her brainwaves with her partners, letting her see into his memory and identify his attacker.  The chemicals are linked to a company called Massive Dynamic, founded by Dr. Bishop’s former lab partner.  Once Scott is cured using the information, Dunham discovers that Scott was involved with Massive Dynamic and these chemicals, but before she can get to him he kills his original attacker before he can give any more information away.  Scott is killed in a car accident in his attempt to get away from Dunham.  The competition between Dr. Bishop and the Fringe group and Massive Dynamic is an integral part of the series.

Once I have time to watch the rest of the first season I will post what I think.  Let me know your opinion on Fringe if you’re already a fan.

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What I’m Reading: Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE

The Man in the High Castle, 2001 Penguin Class...

A few days ago I began reading The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick.  The novel was written in 1962 in an alternate history centered around a Axis victory in World War II, the alternation beginning with the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.  The novel centers around life in the former United States under the oppression of the Fascist states of Germany and Japan who have divided the North American continent between them.

While I am not very far into the book (and will not read the entire Wikipedia plot summary, to forgo spoilers) I do know that the interesting thing about The Man in the High Castle is Dick’s use of a book-inside-a-book, called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.  This novel is, like The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history inside Dick’s alternate history in which the Allied Powers won the war (albeit not exactly the same as true fact), defeating the Nazis and the Japanese.

Alternate history world map of Philip K. Dick'...

As soon as I finish the book I will put up a post of what I think, full of my own spoilers for those of you who don’t want to bother reading it yourselves.  You’re welcome.

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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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My Top Asimov Stories #1: “The Last Question”

My favorite short story of all time is Asimov’s “The Last Question.”  It’s scale, both in space and time, is very extensive for a short story, and it is very plot-based, not centered around a particular human character but around the computer Multivac, a recurring “character” in Asimov’s stories set in the Robot Era.  “The Last Question” was published in the November 1956 edition of Science Fiction Quarterly and has been anthologized many times.

The story follows a series of characters, each who by one circumstance or another end up asking Multivac how the total entropy (or heat death, or “running-down”) of the universe can be reversed.  However, each time, despite the vast resources and power of the computer, it cannot come up with an answer and each human character is disappointed.

As the story progresses, we see the evolution of both Man and Multivac.  The computer begins as an extensive machine, occupying multiple buildings much like the computers which were being developed when the story was written.  Soon, however, Multivac becomes both smaller and farther-reaching, until it has become the central control of everything for humanity.  Humanity, to the same effect, expands it’s control over countless millions of planets and multiplies to the trillions of trillions.  Their evolution parallels each other, Multivac moving entirely into hyperspace (without physical parts) and humanity separating themselves from their physical bodies, becoming only consciousnesses.  In the final stages of this evolution, all the consciousnesses of humanity combine into one to become Man, and ask the entropy question one last time.  But the all-knowing Multivac still can’t answer, and as the universe dies Man merges with Multivac and disappears.  But Multivac continues to ponder the answer, outside of the limitations of space and time, and eventually comes up with the answer, and I’ll let you read the solution.

Part of what makes this story incredible, once again, is the scale at which “The Last Question” operates, at which most novels would not attempt.  In one short story Asimov has traipsed through the entire future evolution of Man to it’s pinnacle and come back, and as usual, makes the reader think about life and the Universe in general.

Asimov consistently said that this story was his favorite, and I certainly agree with him.  Normally I would not do this (because I want you to go buy the works) but this may or may not be the full text.

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