A Century of Science Fiction
Last week we took a trip through a century of Fantasy stories, exploring the language and writing style as it developed and changed. This week I intend to do the same with Science Fiction. Unlike Fantasy, SF is a relatively modern genre. Science fiction, as a term, evidently appeared for the first time in 1851, in this delightful definition I mean to hold onto.
“Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true.” – William Wilson
From the beginning, then, Science Fiction was to be about exploring the possibilities of science. Along the way it also became about humanity, or to term it scientifically, anthropology and sociology. I am no collector, merely a reader with an adequately stocked library. Working through my shelves for paper books from which to pull yielded a bare century – I currently have no print copies of any Jules Verne books, although I have several in my digital library, for instance.
Researching for this was fun. I had no idea, for instance, that one of my favorite early scientists, Johannes Kepler, had written a SF novel. Somnium, written in 1634, is the story of some alien race, and their trade with humans. (http://books.google.com/books?id=fRm5AQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false) Here, a description of travel as imagined by Kepler in an era before flight was dreamed of other than Icarus.
“50,000 German miles up in the ether lies the island of Lavania. The Passage to this island from our land, and vice versa, is rarely open, but when it is accessible, it is easy for our kind. However, the transport of men is difficult and dangerous for their lifes [sic]. We do not accept men who are sedentary, corpulent or whimsical in our expeditions. Rather, we prefer those who dedicate their time to ride a fast horse with persistence or those who frequently sail to the Indies, who are accustomed to survive two times a day only by means of bread, garlic, dried fish, and other unpleasant dishes. There are lean elderly women who are particularly suited to our purpose.”
I’m going to leap forward in time here to the oldest print science fiction book in my personal library, which extends back to 1910. Through Space to Mars by Roy Rockwood is a juvenile, written for the amusement and amazement of boys who were growing up in the age of the dirigible and infancy of the aeroplane.
“Instantly there was a trembling though the whole length of the projectile. Would it move? Would it leave the earth and go to Mars?
There was a moment of hesitancy, as if the great machine had not quite decided.
Then came a more violent vibration. There was a humming, throbbing, hissing sound. Suddenly the boys, and all within the projectile, felt it swaying. A moment later it began to shoot through space like a great rocket.
“Hurrah!”cried Jack. “We’re off!”
I’m making another big leap forward, I’m afraid. I think I need to fill in some blanks in my library! I picked up Isotope Man, written in 1957 by Charles Eric Maine, based on the title, which amused me. But this book isn’t necessarily intended to be science fiction as much as it is a novelization of the early Atomic Age, with all the attendant misinformation and fears, the repercussions of which linger to this day.
Presently he turned to me and said: “Did you ever meet Dr. Rayner, Mr. Delany?”
“Once,” I said. “About six months ago – at the time of the isotope K publicity. I seem to remember he was also interested in some scheme to create elements in the laboratory, apart from his work on rocket fuels.”
“Is that what he’s doing here?”
“Something of the sort.”
“What the alchemists used to call transmutation?”
From the golden age of SF, the 1960s and 70s, I have rather too many choices, and it was difficult to thin the options out to a reasonable level. I wound up setting on some of our favorites, like Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict. Published in 1959, it is a tale of time travel and aliens, and a rollicking good adventure story.
“Decided to join us for a look-see into the past?”
“Do you mean you can really do that?”
“We’ve done more than look.” Ashe adjusted a screw delicately. “We’ve been there.”
Travis stared. He could accept the cast of a new and greatly improved Vis-Tex to provide a peephole into history and prehistory. But time travel was something else.
“It’s perfectly true,” Ashe finished with the screw. His attention passed from the tripod to Travis. And there was that in his manner which carried conviction.
“And we’re going back again.”
“After a Folsom man?” demanded the Apache incredulously.
“After a space ship.”
EE “Doc”Smith, whose writing career spanned three decades, is considered the Father of Science Fiction. Sadly, I cannot find my copy of Skylark, so I am inserting a much later work of his, The Vortex Blaster (also published as Masters of the Vortex) which appeared in 1960 with the dedication ‘to Bob Heinlein, with Admiration and Esteem.’ This story is pure space opera, more like a tale of superheroes and comic book characters than extrapolation from existing or dreamt-of science.
“Two now. It’s the new one I’m talking about. It’s acting funny – damned funny.”
Cloud went through the data, brow furrowed in concentration; then sketched three charts and frowned.
“I see what you mean. Damned funny is right. The toxicity is too steady, but at the same time the composition of the effluvium is too varied. Inconsistent. However, there’s no real attempt at a gamma analysis – nowhere near enough data for one – this could be right; they’re so utterly unpredictable. The observers were experienced, I take it, with medical and chemical bias?”
“Check, that’s the way I read it.”
“Well, I’lll say this much – I never saw a gamma chart that would accept half of this stuff, and I can’t even imagine what the sigma curve would look like. Boss, what say I skip over there and get us a full reading on that baby before she goes orthodox – or, should I say, orthodoxly unorthodox?”
Skipping myself, to 1972, and Jerry Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship, we find ourselves with galactic traders on a distant world. Humans are meeting with a more advanced alien race, and a description of something that wasn’t yet possible in the real world, but Pournelle had to have known was coming, follows.
“They want platinum and iridium, too; those metals seem to be very useful to them, and in short supply. But there isn’t much they can give us in return, because the Navy won’t let them sell us what we really want – technology. The Navy rule is, you can’t trade anything more technologically advanced than what your customer already has without special permission from the Imperial Council. We offered to buy those little devices they all carry around like notebooks. ‘Pocket computers,’ the Navy men call them. They seem to be machines. They can’t sell those.”
In 1986 Baen books published one of my favorite series, or at least, the genesis of it. Shards of Honor is one of the new breed of SF, less about exploring science and outer space, and more about the depths of humanity, and the impact of technology on cultures. Lois McMaster Bujold’s insights into motherhood begin here, with Cordelia Naismith… and after getting sucked into reading for far longer than I intended, I’m doing a quote that has nothing to do with SF.
“Not a visit. Permanently. As – as Lady Vorkosigan.” His face brightened with a wry smile. I’m making a hash of this. I promise, I’ll never think of Betans as cowards again. I swear your customs take more bravery than the most suicidal of our boy’s contests of skill.”
She let her breath trickle out through pursed lips. “You don’t – deal in small change, do you?”
Forgive my indulgence in what are perhaps my two favorite characters. I will wind up this rather lengthy post with the most recently published book on my desk, the shiny new copy of The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgerson. Released only weeks ago, it is an alternating tale of a man rediscovering his faith after years of war, and the induction into the military that attenuated him to the breaking point. Stranded with only one other human, and a pair of aggressive aliens, they must find an outpost on a lonely planet. In the journey, much is discovered and remembered…
“What we saw was the most improbably beautiful thing I’d witnessed since going to space with Fleet as an older teenager.
The Queen Mother circled lazily around and around in the air, slowly spiraling with her wings spread to their maximum width, each beating in concert with the others, and together making a low rhythm that sounded not to dissimilar to a helicopter
“She’s beautiful,” the captain whispered.
“I didn’t know they could fly,” I said, still astonished.
After a couple of seconds, Adanaho’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a wide, genuine smile. “I don’t think the Queen Mother knew either. Until now.”