100 sf

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

What’s Missing? part i

I’m calling this “part i” because any debate about what David Pringle left off his list of the 100 Best Science Fiction Novels will necessarily go on forever. These are just my thoughts tonight, and what I’m about to suggest aren’t necessarily books that I think HAVE to be on a 100 list. Instead, I mean these as suggestions for consideration. In that respect, I have to admit up front that I haven’t read every page of every book that follows. But here’s something to chew on…

First things first, there are clearly several books that could be on a list like this if it had been compiled more recently. Looking that direction seems fairer to me than working backwards (which for fun’s sake would have to include Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and here I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t) because Pringle had a definite starting point in mind when he put his list together. Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash), China Mieville (The Scar), the always-out-of-print-in-the-US Iain M. Banks (The Player of Games?, Excession?), and Greg Bear (though I personally would not vote for Moving Mars) would be there somewhere, yes? Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy or Three Californias series would have to be up for serious consideration. Perhaps Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker missed Pringle’s eye because of publication dates. Dan Simmons’ Hyperion and David Brin’s forget-the-Costner-film-already-and-read-the-book The Postman would have to be given serious thought because of their popularity. And speaking of popularity, it’s seems Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be included, and I personally think it would be a no brainer to have Ender’s Game on the list.

I think one major difference, if Pringle had written his book now, would be the number of female authors on the list. Octavia Butler is already there, but Kindred is not. And I think Parable of the Sower would be a good candidate, too. Cherryh (Downbelow Station or maybe Cyteen) and Willis (Doomsday Book) are serious candidates for the final cut, and I would be strongly in favor of seeing The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell on the list.

My own personal qualms with Pringle, however, are often not with the writers missing but with what books he’s chosen by the ones that are there. For example, there are six Philip K. Dick novels on the list but no A Scanner Darkly. Thomas Disch is on three times, so I don’t really have reason to bitch, but I really do enjoy (I can see the hate mail now) The Genocides. I love Camp Concentration, 334, and all, but the simplicity and gruesome disaster thrills of TG win me over. Like Pringle, I’m not a huge fan of Asimov, and even if we were all to dismiss the Foundation Trilogy like he does, it seems like there are some better choices for Asimov’s sole representation on the list than The End of Eternity. If The Martian Chronicles and 334 count as novels, maybe I, Robot can as well. And if it doesn’t, perhaps The Gods Themselves might be a nice choice. Which Heinlein books to include can be debated ad nauseam, but I would like to have seen The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger in a Strange Land, or Starship Troopers get its due. As well, Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke is one of my favorite sf novels and created the whole big-ass-strange-thing-flying-in-space subgenre, though it’s nowhere to be found. Delany’s Dhalgren and/or The Einstein Intersection are missing, as is Slaughterhouse-Five, Ringworld by Larry Niven, Lord of Light and Damnation Alley by Zelazny, and Pohl’s Gateway.

Beyond all that, many miss van Vogt. But the one novel I really wished was there is Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, which seems like a David Pringle kind of book to me. And if we threw in non-English titles, a whole new can of worms would be opened. Top of the list for me if that were true: Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. But, yak, yak, yak. Any of the five people I know read this have any thoughts? Or certainly any one else out there. If Pringle wrote the list as 1949-2006, what should be included? Any quibbles with the novels within his timeframe (1949-1985)? Do you think I have any idea what I’m talking about?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Interlude: Kenobi Car Shops

From BBC series Dead Ringers

Thursday, October 26, 2006

#6: Limbo (1952) by Bernard Wolfe

“So then: Immob started as a joke. A joke that miscarried. But every one of the big Salvationist movements in history--from the Ten Commandments all the way down to the Mormons’ Later Day Sainthood and Christian Science and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Fletcherism and Bolshevik-Leninism and Dianetics and Orgonotics and Santa Monica Vedanta and Mandunga--every one of them started out as a great Swiftean joke. That some humorless man got hold of and took literally.”

Wolfe (1915-1985) is an interesting figure with a diverse background. A BA in psychology from Yale, he spent 2 years in the Merchant Marine before working as an editor, writer, and journalist. He also served for a time as one of Leon Trotsky’s bodyguards, and, judging by this novel, he was a raging misogynist. But with that said, I must say that Limbo is clearly one of the best sf novels ever written by an American in terms of ideas and literary value, which makes the fact that it’s a very, very difficult book to find that much more sad and frustrating. I have to admit that I myself had never heard of the book until I picked up David Pringle’s text five years ago, and I’m not sure why that is. Wolfe’s investigation of the possibilities of cybernetics predates similar issues addressed by cyberpunk writers by almost 30 years. How has this book been so forgotten?

The story revolves around the figure of Dr. Martine, a neurosurgeon who went AWOL from the military 18 years prior to the novel during a time when World War III is being waged by the States and the Soviets, both controlled militarily by EMSIAC: MAD computer strategists bent on total victory. Martine spent those eighteen years performing lobotomies for a tribe of pacifists (who are such because of the lobotomies) on a secluded island near the Indian Ocean. Martine has mixed feelings about the surgery because it removes not only aggression but also its “Siamese twin” the ability to orgasm. Martine flees when a group from the Island Strip (the remnants of the United States) arrives. Oddly, the folks that show up are all quad amputees wearing powerful mechanical prosthetics.

Martine eventually ends up on the Island Strip and finds a world where men (and only men) voluntarily have their limbs amputated as a sign of their pacifism (know as “Immob,” as in immobilization). Philosophically these men are split into two groups: pro- and anti-prosthetics. The pro-pros are comprised of folks like the ones who arrived at Martine’s island. The anti-pros spend the rest of their lives in baskets, cared for by sisters, wives, mothers, etc. Martine is horrified by all this, and he becomes almost delirious when he finds out…Immob’s principles are based on Martine’s own journal writings from his time in the military! Satirical jokes he made about the sacrifices of young men were taken seriously, and he is held up as a martyr for the cause. The fascinating conceit here then is the idea of a society’s savior being able to return “after death” to witness the distortions of his writings and thoughts and then comment on them. One can only imagine if someone like Marx was able to do the same thing.

Limbo is loaded (pun intentional) with sexual frustration, Freudianism, metaphorical castration, and even a couple of highly disturbing rape scenes. There’s no question that Wolfe knew Civilization and Its Discontents backwards and forwards, and that’s equally true of his character Martine. It often seems that Martine’s major qualms with Immob are its progression towards voluntary castration and its resultant flip-flop in sexual predation. Of course, women are not really up to the task of being sexual hunters for Wolfe, and Martine suggests that “when a woman [is] cavalier in her handouts, the suspicion [arises] that what she [has] to offer [is] less a rare gourmet’s delicacy than a soggy free lunch.” And there’s a lot more of that type of thing in the book, which is a fascinating and quite disturbing look into the mind of a writer dealing with the tensions and frustrations of the cold war, women’s lib, and the beginning of modernism’s slow death. But by no means is that a reason to throw the book on the fire. Wolfe’s sexual dwellings are at least honest, and I think it’s awfully difficult to separate ideas about human/machine relationships, international conflicts, and power relations between developed and developing nations from sexuality and gender. And sex isn’t Wolfe’s only focus. The book is filled with the complexities of pacifism, the individual’s responsibilities to society, and just what handing culpability over to a machine (namely a computer) means. But as LeVar Burton says, don’t take my word for it…

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Interlude: Limbo in limbo

So out of this list of 100 books David Pringle likes so much, a good chunk are out of print, which is really a sad commentary on the state of the publishing industry. The long tail theory hasn’t quite kicked in yet, because I know through my experience as a bookseller that almost every day I look for a classic title for a customer/myself/the store that’s no longer available. I think we live in the time of the sure thing--if it’s not Harry Potter, a NYT bestseller, or touted by Chavez at the UN, there’s a good chance that a couple of print runs later you won’t be able to find it.

This leads me to Limbo by Bernard Wolfe, my current read from the list. This is a novel, if you don’t know, that was considered on literary par with Brave New World and 1984 in the 50s and 60s. Technically, there is an expensive hardcover version in print that is quite difficult to get a copy of, but realistically, this book has been out of print for almost twenty years. For me, it’s made this project difficult. I’ve had to read it at its only location in the St. Louis region, UMSL’s Utopia Collection, which is part of a closed library that’s only open on one of my days off, closes for a least an hour in the middle of the day, and kicks people out of the “reading room” at 4:30 in the afternoon. This isn’t a slam against them, by the way. The people that work there are great, and I’m so thankful that they’ve been letting me read the novel there, even though I have no affiliation with the University of St. Louis system whatsoever. But why hasn’t this book been picked up by a publisher? It’s for sure still used in sf literature courses taught at both American and British universities. My only hope is that print-on-demand will take off at some point or someone will invent a viable electronic text display--something portable with no glare or difficult fonts…you know, like what Jake from DS9 used to write and read on. Speaking of, I’m also waiting for holodecks and replicators, too.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

#5: The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham

“You know, one of the most shocking things about it is to realize how easily we have lost a world that seemed so safe and certain.”

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) first published pulp stories in the 30s, but it wasn’t until this novel was published and he changed his pen name to just “John Wyndham” (thought by many to be a new writer because of it) that his career first took off. Triffids came from a long tradition of British science fiction, dating back as far as Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), which features disaster stories. Brian Aldiss refers to this narrative type disparagingly as “cosy catastrophes,” and Triffids is often held up as the quintessential novel of this type--middle-class values couched in mindless adventure narrative. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily a fair description of Wyndham’s work, but this story is certainly about whites rebuilding white civilization.

The storyline is easy. Bill Masen, the narrator, wakes up one day in a hospital after a terrible tragedy (think 28 Days Later). Seemingly everyone but him is blind from a comet explosion/weapons system gone wrong/unknown reason. He was lucky enough to have been recovering from an eye injury during the event and thus avoided the effects. Anyway, London, Britain, and perhaps the world have gone crazy from the disaster. And then the triffids rise up. A triffid is an ambulatory plant perhaps developed by Trofim Lysenko or from outer space or originating from god knows where. They were once regarded as quaint by the Brits, showing up unannounced in cherished garden plots when Masen was a boy. Later it became clear that they could be dangerous--they can lash out with seriously damaging sting-y “tongues.” And they get totally out of control after the blinding event. Along the way, Masen finds others with sight, takes a trashy novelist to be his lover, considers joining a community based around plural wives, has a run in with a man who enslaves the sighted to care for the blind, is disgusted by a puritanical commune, deals with an out-of-control military unit, and finds lots and lots of triffids.

The novel is entertaining as all, but also quite strange. Wyndham never really explains things: where the triffids come from, what the blinding event was, whether the triffids are sentient, what’s going on outside of the UK (though many are unwisely convinced the mighty US was spared or is too resourceful to be in chaos), and even details about some of the more important characters in the book. Many folks in the novel make odd decisions, and there is much less emphasis on philosophical implications as there is in a book like Earth Abides. But that’s almost part of the fun. Wyndham’s narrative allows the mind to wander, which I often find is the point of such a disaster piece. He’s particularly full of innuendo and leading comments in the area of sexual relations and gender, and who can beat that (no pun intended)?

Triffids on the web:
-on the Gorillaz website there’s a potted triffid in the kitchen of Murdoc’s trailer
-this art piece
-a textile
-a nebula

-a craft project
-an Australian rock band from the 80s
-a nursery
-and so many more

like a plant distributor and the classic sf film and tv series