Author: Amanda Rees
If I had to pick the SF that shaped both my expectations of the future and the broad outlines of my conceptual world, I probably wouldn’t start with books. I’d have to begin at about 7pm on Wednesday nights in the mid 1980s, when the closing theme of Star Trek would sing out from BBC2, and I would roil in frustration at the fact that I’d been born at least three centuries too soon. I wanted to be there, not necessarily on the bridge with Kirk and co, but at least somewhere on the Enterprise, encountering new worlds and discovering how other civilisations worked. At that stage, the fact that each new world had a haunting resemblance to different periods in American/European history hadn’t dawned on me: when it did, I was happy to accept the Doctrine of Convergent Evolution and continue to suspend my passionate disbelief. The fact that I had a hopeless (hapless?) crush on Mr Spock probably helped.
For books – it was Neath Library in West Glamorgan that gave me my first SF. Every member was given six reader’s tickets, and they didn’t distinguish between adult and child books. I spent every school holiday morning I could replenishing my supply, and I met Asimov, Heinlein, Wyndham, and especially Andre Norton. Julian May, Steven Donaldson, Diana Wynne Jones (ok, not technically SF, but hey..), Ursula Le Guin, Andre Norton (she wrote a lot, ok?), Marion Zimmer Bradley, C J Cherryh, H P Lovecraft and Charles Fort (both confused hell out of me, one scared the pants off me). They only had John Christopher’s juveniles, for some reason, but those fascinated me because they dealt (albeit briefly and dismissively) with a post-holocaust Wales. And since it was the eighties, nuclear holocaust felt fairly imminent. Z for Zachariah, (Robert C O’Brien, who also wrote Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) and Brother in the Land (Robert E Swindells) haunted my dreams when I first read them and gave me nightmares again when I looked at them recently.
Both those last dealt primarily with the social, environmental and psychological consequences of apocalyptic disaster of some kind, and looking at my top ten list, it’s those themes that prevail there as well. In chronological order, we have these five:
Earth Abides (George Stewart, 1949) – a field scientist survives an epidemic disease that wipes out most of humanity, and watches (objectively…) as ecological relationships reassert themselves in the absence of human/industrial manipulation.
Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951) dawns on a world where humans are no longer the top of the food chain – mainly because, as Wyndham shows, the social and economic contradictions inherent in industrial modernity lead to the downfall of societies based on expert systems (I would want to make a case, in fact, for Wyndham being one of the earliest sociologists of science).
Death of Grass (John Christopher, 1956) – a virus emerging in East Asia and originally only affecting rice crops mutates through inappropriate pesticide use to affect all forms of grass – including all the staple food crops. The novel focuses on a group of civil servants and professionals as their careful plans for the management of disaster fail and they themselves turn feral in the effort to survive.
A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter Miller, 1959) – set in the post-apocalyptic far future, it begins with the preservation of scientific knowledge by the Catholic Church and ends centuries later with the reclamation of spaceflight, another nuclear exchange and the (possible) second coming of Christ. If you’re going to go, go with a bang, not a whimper, I guess.
Dawn (Octavia Butler, 1987) – one of the first authors to make race a telling theme within SF, Butler described the post-holocaust arrival of alien capitalists willing to save humanity in exchange for biological trade: to survive, humanity must accept the breakdown of gender and racial binaries through interspecies sex.
Gender binaries and the question of breeding were central to another three books on my list. Again, taking them chronologically:
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932) should need no detailed description here, nor should The Left Hand of Darkness (Ursula Le Guin, 1969), although their treatment of sexuality and its shaping by society could not really have been more different. Both, however, showed that there was nothing necessarily innate, stable or inevitable about either sexuality or gender: both resulted from the coevolution of environment (social and physical) and biology (natural and artificial).
The Gods Themselves (Isaac Asimov, 1972) gave us an alien race with three sexes (but only two genders – well, this is the good Doctor we’re discussing). And unsurprisingly, for those familiar with Asimov’s work, the ‘female’ alien is highly intelligent and, as a result, ultimately unfulfilled and unhappy – another career woman who doesn’t want children – but hopefully, also the source of the Earth’s salvation as humanity rushes to adopt a source of ‘free’ energy without looking too closely at the gift horse’s mouth.
But I have to end with space opera – or indeed, space revolution.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein, 1966), with Wyndham’s Triffids, is probably the book I’ve re-read most often. Set in a penal colony on the moon, it focuses on the Lunar Revolution as the convicts rise up and declare their Independence – partly politically driven, but also environmentally – lunar agriculture is destroying the local, already fragile, environment, and only by freeing themselves from terrestrial government can the indigenes save their ecology. Like most of the books on this list, it shows how society and environment co-evolve and mediate with individual psychology – and it’s also a (rare) successful effort to develop a new kind of language to fit that environment.
Downbelow Station (C J Cherryh, 1981) is classic space opera. But it’s space opera focused on the anthropology, sociology and political ecology of space-life. In the early centuries of the human diaspora, a new social system – Union – is arising in aggressive response to Earth’s political and economic efforts to control its colonies. Earth develops a new kind of computer trained military to offset Union’s biological advantages, which itself turns pirate, preying on loyal space stations and the merchanter ships. Downbelow deals with the question of refugees, terrorism and the nature of security (individual and social) at the supra-planetary level, and it does it superbly.
Every book I list brings up half a dozen more in my mind. Picking Triffids over The Kraken Wakes for Wyndham seems arbitrary on reflection – and there are any number of juveniles I should have mentioned (The Changes, even Monica Hughes’ ArcOne series, which I realise in retrospect introduced me to the divisions between the arts, sciences and the humanities). Asimov – how much did his Robot novels do to form my notion of what sociology was and how much did the Foundation series condition my notion of history? What about all those authors I encountered as an older teenager or an adult – Stephen Baxter, Adam Roberts, Ken McLeod, Maureen McHugh, Kim Stanley Robinson, Neal Stephenson, Sherry Tepper– and the Neath authors I haven’t mentioned – Philip K Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Harry Harrison, H G Wells, Pamela Sargant, James Tiptree Jr,…
In fact, I’ll end by thanking Neath Library – and my nan, Brenda Williams, who got me those six reader’s tickets – who were partly responsible for the creation of the Unsettling Scientific Stories project. I wonder how much SF they still have on their shelves?
When we first started the Unsettling Scientific Stories project we all produced a ‘top ten’ list of SF texts that were favourites, inspiration, and the types of works we hoped to look at as part of this project. We came up with some interesting lists that showed our own personal preferences and gave everyone a brilliant reading-watching-listening list that we thought we would share. This also gives us a chance to introduce ourselves informally.
Let us know what you think about our SF suggestions in the comments!