Author: Sam Robinson
I am a Cold War historian, with a focus on the history of science. This means that I write about militaries, politics and science (with a specific environmental focus) in the period after 1945 (but more realistically 1938 onward) up until about the end of the 20th century. In my research I look at the interactions, real or imagined, between governments and scientists. My research makes administrative history interesting by appealing to ‘sexy’ topics such as geopolitics, surveillance, and secrecy. In summary I think the oceans are endlessly fascinating, whales are cool, and that government policy making is a form of comedy.
My reading interests are varied. I have always been intrigued by the printed word. My home is full of books, fiction and non-fiction, covering also sorts of topics, and every wall I can put an Ikea bookcase in front of. On my currently reading pile is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora, Tony Benn’s Diaries, and Nicole Starosielski’s the undersea network. Sat on my to be read(re-read) pile are works including Robert Repino’s Mort(e), J.G. Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere, and C.P. Snow’s Corridors of Power. This is of course a selection of an always massive ‘to be read pile’ which never seems to get any smaller…anyway here is a selection of books always welcome on my reading pile.
1984 (George Orwell, 1949)
1984 probably inspired my interest in Cold War history when still in high-school. I didn’t read it as a novel of the mid-twentieth century I think it has much stronger resonances than that. Some will argue that it’s a political rather than SF novel, but the language of newspeak inspired what has come to be known as nukespeak, a very particular Cold War media vocabulary of nucleararity. For more on nukespeak see here.
The Wind from Nowhere (1961), Concrete Island (1974), & High Rise (1975)
After George Orwell my second favorite British author has to be J.G. Ballard. I am a little obsessed. So why these three from the many. As a novelist rather than short-story writer Ballard burst onto the scene with a series of ecological apocalyptic novels in the early 1960s. The one I include here The Wind from Nowhere was disowned by Ballard, who always claimed his second novel The Drowned World was his first novel. Ignore Ballard’s moaning and start from the beginning, if you do you’ll understand the Wind, Water, Earth, Fire sequence of the novels. Concrete Island reflects Ballard’s obsession with the mundane, in particular road infrastructure. Ballard is perhaps best known for the Mary Whitehouse baiting Crash which shocked audiences on first publication. But Concrete Island is different and it reflects the newly created no-mans lands of hastily constructed concrete infrastructures which ‘modernised’ postwar Britain. And finally High-Rise; more wonderful concrete and more Ballardian chaos. Recently made into a film I highly recommend you (re-) read the book. You may ask is this even a work of SF but who cares, this novel, much like ‘Crash,’ is gloriously uncategorisable. For the project I think a couple of things standout; the desire for consumption, the lack of Cold War tension but the omnipotence of class tension, and the idea of societal collapse because of technological idealism.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Science in the Capital series (2004, 2005, 2007)
Now for something modern. My historical interests lie in the intersection of scientific and political worlds. For my money nobody writes about this world better than KSR. The Mars Trilogy might be better known, and if this was a longer list most of KSR’s other works would be here somewhere, but for now lets dwell in the world of Washington science-politics. Recently reprinted as a combined and slightly shorter single volume – Green Earth – this trilogy should be read widely and well beyond the SF community. The storyworld is inner-space, the future is near, and the plot twists surround the inner workings of the interactions between scientists, government, and politicians.
The Bed Sitting Room [Stage Play] (John Antrobus and Spike Milligan, 1962)
“The great nuclear misunderstanding lasted 2 minutes and 28 seconds
(including the peace treaty)”
So begins my favorite Cold War play. I have encountered this wonderful piece of Cold War literature in many forms, but my favorite has to be a read-through of the play as a PhD student in the snug of a Manchester pub one Christmas with fellow students and faculty at CHSTM. What the locals thought I have no idea but it was a hilarious couple of hours. There is of course the 1969 film version which the BFI have re-released, and last Christmas, on Boxing Day I snuck upstairs to “finish off some work” which was really an excuse to go listen to Radio 4’s new recording with Paul Merton in the lead as Captain Kak.
Why this is considered good holiday listening by the BBC is a mystery, our excuse as students was that we were letting off steam at the end of term (historians don’t get out much). Essentially this is satirical surrealist post-apocalyptic nuclear fiction at its very best and most disturbing. Finally its only got one Act; much like a nuclear war really.
There Will Come Soft Rains (Ray Bradbury, 1950)
A short story based on a poem of the same title by Sara Tisdale, There Will Come Soft Rains. A very short story originally published in Collier’s Magazine (May 6, 1950), it tells the story of a robot still carrying out its duties in a house that has been almost destroyed by nuclear war, to a family long since dead. This very short story is driven along by Bradbury’s constant reminder of the passage of time,
“Tick-tock, seven AM o’clock, time to get up!”
“Seven-nine, breakfast time, seven-nine”
“Eight one, run, run, off to school, off to work, run, run, ticktock, eight-one o’clock!”
And so on… The unsettling quiet is Ballardian in the way in which it slowly reveals the absences in what is otherwise an apparently normal busy family household. It is atomic fiction done well, long before the full fears of nuclear fallout, nuclear winter and Soviet H-bombs threatened middle-America. And it is still unsettling today, what remains of us when we are gone in a white hot flash…
Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson: Undersea Trilogy (1954, 1956, 1958)
Ok so my other great passion is the oceans. Water covers 71% of Earth, it is dynamic, rarely still, and therefore, for me at least, infinitely more fascinating than land. There are very few histories of the oceans – I mean of the natural ocean environment rather than daring-do on the high-seas.
Now a slight caveat to this is that the Undersea Trilogy is hardly the highlight of any Hard SF canon, they are Jules Verne-esque adventure stories so common in 1950s SF. For me they reflect a couple of interesting variations on the typical SF of their genre of the period.
Firstly, the storyworld is firmly rooted to planet earth, as I am sure I will mention in later posts I am fascinated by the shift in SF from outer-space to inner-space at the end of the 1950s. Secondly historically this was the opening up of the oceans by humankind, through scientific inquiry and military strategy. Nuclear submarines (developed during the years between ‘Undersea Quest’ and ‘Undersea City’) offered the opportunity to remain underwater indefinitely, bathyscaphes’ opened up the deepest reaches of the oceans, and the Sealab project asked could humans live underwater away from Cold War chaos on land.
The Kraken Wakes (John Wyndham, 1953)
Continuing with the oceans and the environment theme (which I hope you’ve noticed is developing) number seven on my list is ‘The Kraken Wakes’. [Note: The Day of the Triffids would be here too, but Amanda pinched it for her list…]
The Voice of Dolphins (Leo Szilard, 1961)
Leo Szilard (1898-1964) was a great 20th century physicist but a much less gifted author. Therefore, this is not the best work of SF…but allow me to defend Szilard’s inclusion here. His career as a physicist included conceiving the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, he patented the nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi, and he worked on the Manhattan Project. After the war he switch to biology and campaign against the further development of nuclear weapons.
Now why is this little book of short stories on my list. It is here because of the title story ‘The Voice of the Dolphins’. In this little story America and the USSR decide to put their political differences aside to form a biological research institute in Vienna to study Dolphins, or rather to learn to communicate with Dolphins. If you think this is far fetched, then see below. The scientific premise of the story is secondary to Szilard’s description of Cold War Science and the tensions between east-west played out in laboratories. Perhaps even more startling is that at a meeting in 1962 it was decided to establish the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, where the library was named the Szilard Library and its logo features a leaping dolphin, because his colleague felt Szilard’s east-west institute was such a good idea.
A Sentient Animal (Robert Merle, 1967 – trans. Un Animal Doue de Raison)
The Day of the Dolphin (dir. Mike Nichols, 1973)
‘Unwittingly, he trained a Dolphin to kill the president of the United States’
Where to even begin with this guilty pleasure… The back cover of the Penguin edition (1973) described the book like this: “Of all creatures on our planet, only the dolphin is endowed with a brain similar to man’s. In The Day of the Dolphin Robert Merle has written much more than a suspenseful thriller – it is a heartbreaking portrait of the way in which the modern world of power, politics and espionage distorts and destroys. You may disagree with the author’s caustic cynicism, but you will never forget the humanity of the dolphins.”
I don’t think I really need to add anything here. I have given you oceans, environment, politics and now ‘cute’ dolphins, all in a Cold War landscape.
The War in the Air (H.G. Wells, 1907)
Well I could not leave out H.G. Wells. In my selections so far I have tried to reflect the kinds of literature that I will be working on and thinking about for the project, but I had to include something non-Cold War/Environmental and a work that is often forgotten, War in the Air.
This is the novel that predicted the strategic bombing that would come to define the mindless destruction of human lives and the environment in the 20th century; from German airships bombing London in 1915, to the Allied bombing of refuge filled Dresden in 1945, to Operation Rolling Thunder the US air campaign over Vietnam from 1965-1968. At the time of its publication the general political and public belief was that future war would be fought by Dreadnought battleships at sea not by the newfangled flimsy aeroplanes.
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!