How Science Fiction’s Futures Changes For Every Generation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 23, 2014

If you are old, has the future you imagined in childhood unfolded during your life? If you’re young, what do you hope to see happen in your lifetime?

I grew up in the 1960s with my visions of the future inspired by 1950s science fiction. Flying cars were not what I hoped for, but evidently many people from my generation expected them and are disappointed we aren’t living in a Buck Rogers future. No, what I expected to see as I grew old was the colonization of the Moon and Mars, and the manned exploration of the solar system. I wasn’t optimistic enough to expect Star Trek like interstellar travel in my lifetime, but I assumed it would arrive after I died. It’s so disappointing to spend a lifetime watching humans never leave orbit. What are we waiting for?

I did expect large flat screen televisions, and they did come to pass. Didn’t see the internet coming even though I was majoring in computer programming in 1971, nor did I imagine smartphones. I guess I lacked the imagination, but so did everyone else it seems. I’m also disappointed we don’t have intelligent robots, or sentient AI machines. After space travel, robots were the biggest tech breakthrough that 1950s SF promised.

Although I hoped we’d have visitors from other star systems I never really thought it would actually happen. I did think we’d make SETI contact by now.

Contemporary science fiction often feels obsessed with apocalyptic visions of the future, and we had those too when I was growing up. But kids today seemed enchanted by future teens fighting oppressive dystopian governments. I can dig that, back in the sixties challenging authority was very popular. I guess blows against the empire never go out of vogue.

Which brings me to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, a science fiction anthology of positive science fiction. It was inspired by the essay “Innovation Starvation” by Neal Stephenson, at the World Policy Institute, in which Stephenson proposes, The Hieroglyph Theory,

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Hieroglyph

The list of stories can be found here, with links to discussion and research.

The Hieroglyph anthology offers strangely different visions of the future than the ones I grew up with, and sadly, I don’t find these new futurist vistas all that appealing. Many of these futures seem to come out of Wired Magazine. In the introduction we’re told that young people today are all too often embracing a dystopian science fiction view of tomorrow, and that science fiction writers should offer a positive alternative. I think that’s missing the point of those YA stories, which are exciting adventure stories symbolizing growing up, and not visions of tomorrow.

Actually, the opposite of dystopian is utopian, and none of these tales in Hieroglyph are about perfect societies. I think everyone has gotten over the naive notion that the future will bring us peace and happiness. The real question is can the future always offer us more sense of wonder? This might reveal my jadedness, but this anthology doesn’t show me it will.

Although I’m embarrassed to admit this, I’m nostalgic for my old futures. Hieroglyph seems more inspired by 3D printers, the internet, giant towers that climb into space, mining the asteroids, social media possibilities, smartphone apps that make us empathetic, etc. Many of the stories are quite engaging as stories, but they aren’t inspiring like the science fiction I grew up with. Now that will be an unfair criticism if young readers do find a sense of wonder in them.

It might be because I’m 62, and these stories lack a sense of wonder to someone with so little future.  Yet, even if I don’t have much of a future, I’m not sure I’d want to live to see these futures come to be? I’d love to know if kids 12 or 22 reading these tales do find them wondrous?

There are millions of people around the world still hoping to build interplanetary colonies and conquer the final frontier, but there are billions of people on Earth that don’t see that future anymore, or maybe never did. Anyone who has embraced science more than science fiction knows faster-than-light travel is about as realistic as time travel, and that living on the Moon or Mars will be closer to cruel and unusual punishment than finding greener pastures to homestead.

Many of the stories in Hieroglyph did capture the struggle of humans surviving. They are  more grown-up than the fictional adventures I took in my teens. I did love Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement.” It was about technology being used to increase empathy. So does “Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper.  “By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby seems far more savvy about the grit of the future, and the misuse of technology. And Karl Schroeder’s story, “Degrees of Freedom” suggests that there are new frontiers of democracy for us to explore. The stories of billionaires conquering outer space didn’t impress me. And although I loved the character development of Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon” a great deal, 3D printing leaves me limp. Bruce Sterling’s story about a man and his horse got me until it became science fiction.

All to often the best science fiction is about being human, and not spacemen, even when the characters live in outer space.

Overall, I’m left with the impression that the women writers in Hieroglyph have thought more about how technology could be good for us than the men. Now that I’m living in my childhood future, I imagine a much different future that might come to be after I ceased to be. It’s not about space adventures but solving our problems, both as individuals and as a species. It’s like an old man I saw in a documentary when he said, “If you’re the problem, and you go somewhere else, you’re still the problem.”

JWH

Classifying Science Fictional Ideas

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, October 11, 2014

We like to think that science fiction has no limits. We love to believe that science fiction writers can imagine anything.  But is that true?  Reading your first few hundred science fiction stories, it does feel like the genre has unlimited avenues of exploration.  However, after a lifetime of reading, over a thousand science fiction novels, and countless science fiction short stories, I’ve started feeling the genre is limited, and limited patterns are emerging.  Even if there’s the potential for an infinite number of science fiction stories, there’s always the limitation of demarcation.  We can divide things into what is science fiction, and what is not science fiction.

biological classfication

What if we classified science fictional ideas like biological classification where science fiction would be compared to how we classify life.  What would be the domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of science fictional ideas?  How would we organize novels into a hierarchy?  Has science fictional ideas evolved out of each other to present an evolutionary taxonomy?  Or are there other structures that we can all agree on?  I’m just opening this idea up for discussion and will present a test classification for consideration.  I’d like to see other classification systems suggested, and amendments to mine.  So post links and suggestions in the comments section.  For instance, Wikipedia offers two classifications:  lists and themes.  Other ideas can be found in their outline of science fiction.

Here’s my first test classification.  [Click to enlarge.]

Classfication of science fiction

I wanted to create the smallest number of domains possible, and I was hoping to find a single highly descriptive word for each.  I flubbed on “Created Beings.”  I’m not really fond of “Humanity” either.  My system mainly thinks of science fiction as stories about the future – future Earth, future humans, meeting aliens, creating new life forms, and traveling through the universe.  Most of the main themes of science fiction would be equal to biological kingdoms – robots, alien invasions, interplanetary travel, post-humans, etc.

Making the classification of science fiction be a perfect analogy to the biological classification of life would be a kluge, but it would be neat if we could map specific novels to be the equivalent of a species.  If we could come up with a successful classification system it should be possible to select any science fiction novel or short story and put it into the structure – assuming we could classify SF stories as being about one topic.

Science fiction novels are usually about many ideas.  For example. The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov.  It could be classified under robots or galactic empires.  However, it’s mostly about robots.  Then again, some people might claim it’s mostly about agoraphobia and space colonies.  And where would we put such a bizarre novel as Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein?  Under my system I’d file it under Humanity, Mind and Philosophy, although Religion might work too.

If you wrote a novel about how intelligent robots create an Earthly utopia, would it be classified under Earth or Created Beings?  There are animals that give biologists trouble when classifying, so we should expect problem novels too.  On the other hand, we could think of a different way of looking at classification.  Think of classifying books for library card catalog systems.  These systems allow for multiple subject entries, but even in libraries, books are shelved under single subject groups.  And I tend to think most writers ultimately think of their books as having a major theme.

Classifying science fictional ideas is an idle amusement, yet it’s a revealing way to think about science fiction.  A way to give a big picture overview of the genre.  Like having the mental ability to instantly distinguish between cats and dogs, such a classification system would define science fiction.  For example, I would never file traditional vampire and werewolves stories into my classification of science fiction.  Even though many people casually dump stories of the undead into the genre because they think science fiction is a dumping ground for anything weird, I believe we need to think of the genre in more precise terms.

We can also think of classifying fiction in general, so that fiction is the highest level, and the genres – literary, mystery, western, science fiction, romance, etc. – are the domains.  This would make Science Fiction one branch off of Fiction.  But if genre is Kingdom, do we need five layers of classification between it and the specific work which would be the Species?  Is Fiction, Genre, Theme, Work enough?  That makes me think of using Fiction, Genre, Theme, Time, Setting, Topic, Work.  That way The Naked Sun would be classified as Fiction, Science Fiction, Robots, Future, Colony World, Conflicting Cultures, The Naked Sun.

Many themes from classifying general fiction can be applied to any of the specific themes of science fiction.  Thus you could add romance or war to almost any of my SF categories.

As you can see, this could lead to all kinds of possibilities.  A classification system really helped understand the organization of biological life.  Would such a classification system help in the understanding of fiction?

[I use Xmind to create the mind map above.  You can get this free program that runs under Windows, OS X and Linux if you want to create your own classification system.]

JWH

Why Hasn’t Hollywood Made More Films From Popular Science Fiction Novels?

Hollywood obviously loves the science fiction of comic books, but why doesn’t it also love the science fiction of novels?  Admittedly, Hollywood doesn’t make films of all popular literary novels either, or mystery books.  Hollywood releases about 500-700 films a year.  Russia and China is in a similar pall park.  India produces about a 1,000 flicks each year.  It’s hard to get exact numbers.  Figures are also hard to find for the number of novels published each year, but I’d guess between 50,000-75,000 from numbers I’ve seen.

And even though science fiction is very popular at the movies, movie makers aren’t going to make science fiction movies all the time.  When movie makers do make science fiction movies they swing for major hits, hoping to make hundreds of millions of dollars, or even billions.  Evidently the mentality of comic book science fiction fits the bill better than science fiction novels when it comes to making a lot of money and appealing to a vast audience.  Science fiction books actually have a very limited appeal on their own.  Science fiction is less popular than mysteries and romances as a genre, and much less popular than general best sellers.  And most single story science fictional films are usually original screenplays.  In other words, science fiction novels don’t get enough attention to be noticed by film makers.

Hyperion

Obviously bestsellers like The Hunger Games do get their attention.  But science fiction novels that merely win the Hugo or Nebula awards don’t garnish enough notice by producers with money to spend.  All my life I’ve heard stories about Hollywood sniffing around certain famous science fiction novels, even buying the rights, but they seldom get a film through production.  Of course, that’s also true of all kinds of books and screenplays.  The process is quite an obstacle course.

I’m sure I’m like tens of millions of bookworms out there who wish Hollywood would make movies out of their favorite books.  The trouble is, unless ten million bookworms are all wishing for the same book, Hollywood isn’t interested.  Dune by Frank Herbert is probably one of the most famous science fiction novels ever, and it’s gotten the film treatment twice and there are rumors filmmakers want to try again.  Hollywood isn’t against trying to turn SF books into gold.  Just look at what they’ve done with Tolkien and Rowling.  Or the success George  R. R. Martin has had with HBO, or the new series based on the Outlander series.  Hollywood knows bestsellers can make big hits, but they also know they need the right book.   Producers know series books work better than single volume stories.  Series show fan commitment.   Yet, some popular series like The Golden Compass crashed and burned at the movies and none of the sequels were filmed.

Also notice, those stories from Tolkien, Rowling, Martin and Gabaldon weren’t science fiction either.  Box office favors fantasy.  Hollywood seems to love Philip K. Dick but few other science fiction writers.  Ender’s Game didn’t make that much of a splash with worldwide audiences, so I wonder if we’ll ever see Speaker for the Dead on the big screen.  David Brin was blessed by Hollywood when they made The Postman, so why haven’t they tried The Uplift series?  Heinlein got decent notice with Starship Troopers and The Puppet Masters, but other than talk all his other novels are ignored.  Heinlein should get some credit for every space marine type film though.  Clarke made it huge back in the 1960s with 2001: A Space Odyssey but why didn’t Hollywood try to win again with one of his other novels?  Childhood’s End would seem like an obvious choice for the big screen.

I guess the question becomes:  What science fiction novels deserve the Hollywood treatment?  Which great science fiction stories have the potential to enchant tens of millions of people?  Or even a hundred million?  As fans of our favorite books, we have to be honest with ourselves, do the books we love have the potential to be loved by a significant percentage of the population?  I love a lot of small films that probably don’t get more ticket buyers in the theaters than a modest bestseller.  Are there classic science fiction novels that could be filmed within the budgets of independent filmmakers? 

My first thought is to recommend the Hyperion Cantos books by Dan Simmons.  Can you imagine what those books would look like visualized on the big screen – it would be tremendous!  And the $$$s to make would be tremendous too.  The Hyperion Cantos films would need the audience of the Marvel comic films to break even.  Are there enough people on Earth interested in that story to make it a worthy film investment?  Or could a series of films made from the Hyperion Cantos stories attract such an audience?  I have no idea.

My favorite science fiction novel is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein.  It was announced in 2010 that Harry Kloor had adapted HSS-WT for the screen, but the last word on the project was it was still in development.  I can’t find any recent news, so I assume the project is dead.  This Heinlein story could have been filmed relatively cheap, and it does have a great fan base.

WWEnd-most-read-books  

Looking at Worlds Without End list of most read books it’s interesting that among the top 24 books, 15 have been filmed.  These are both SF and fantasy.  Of the ones not filmed, they are:

  • American Gods by Neil Gaiman
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
  • The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
  • Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card
  • Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • Ringworld by Larry Niven
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guinn

I’d like to see films of all nine of those books.  The next 24 books, only 12 have been filmed, leaving:

WWEnd-most-read-books-2

  • Foundation/Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Gateway by Frederik Pohl
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
  • Old Man War by John Scalzi

More great science fiction books that need filming.  In the next 24, only 11 have been filmed, leaving:

WWEnd-most-read-books-3

  • Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov
  • Xenocide by Orson Scott Card
  • Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clakre
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester
  • The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
  • Children of Dune by Frank Herbert
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
  • The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

If you’re paying attention you’ll notice that many of these books are part of a series, something Hollywood loves.  And these books are among the most popular SF/F books read right now.  Because so many have been filmed, it suggests that the others might be film worthy too.  If you read the entire list at Worlds Without End you’ll see that many other popular books have been filmed, but more that haven’t.  But what about less popular science fiction books, ones that are the real classics of the science fiction genre?

City by Clifford Simak is a book that is probably not well known by young science fiction fans today, but it was much loved when I was growing up.  City is a fix-up novel of several short stories, so it would be hard to film, but it’s theme ties them together so wonderful that I wish they could make a film out of it.  The gimmick is humans no longer live on Earth and all that’s left are intelligent robots and uplifted dogs, who tell stories about humans they used to know.  I can’t believe a creative screen writer couldn’t do something with such a fantastic idea.

Sadly, so many great science fiction novels of the past have become dated not only by science, but by changing attitudes.  I think it would be extremely hard to film More Than Human, the great classic by Theodore Sturgeon.  It feels like something Carson McCullers would have written after hanging out with a bunch of New Age hippies brought up on reading Stranger in a Strange Land.  Many people have dreamed of seeing Stranger in a Strange Land at their favorite movie theater, but I just don’t think it will ever happen.  I’d love to see an extremely true-to-the-novel version, but I think seeing Stranger on the big screen would only make it all too obvious how fucking weird it really is.  I’m not sure an army of psychiatrists and English professors could make out what Heinlein is unconsciously saying with this novel.

If they had made Stand on Zanzibar as a movie back in 1968, it might creepily look like the news today.

I wish Pixar would make Hothouse by Brian Aldiss, because it’s so damn dazzlingly beautiful to imagine.  And I think they should give the film the American book title, The Long Afternoon of Earth.   I think people leaving the theater would be saying “WTF!” to each other, but it would haunt them for days to think about the far distant future and what might become of humanity.

Because people are so paranoid about robots and artificial intelligence, I think a hit could be made from The Humanoids by Jack Williamson.  Although I’d be afraid Hollywood would turn it into a shoot-em-up like they did I, Robot.  It’s very disappointing to me that Hollywood sees science fiction as a source of video game violence to put on the screen, and make every plot about saving the world.

It seems to me that Ready Player One and Little Brother should be obvious movie hits.

If they could pull it off, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny might generate some good word of mouth movie buzz.  And what would America think of the dark vision of Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany?  Is there the film technology to pull off Uplift series by David Brin, or make The Rediscovery of Man stories by Cordwainer Smith, or Eleanor Arnason’s uber-exotic The Woman of the Iron People?  And what would modern people make of the feminist science fiction novels like The Female Man by Joanna Russ, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski, or Dawn by Octavia Butler?

And is it too late to film such vast comic weirdness as Mindswap and A Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley?

I could go on and on and on, because science fiction has so many wonderful, far out,  sense of wonder inspiring stories that should be filmed.  And I’ve only been talking of novels.  I’d film “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny even though it’s clearly scientifically wrong and outdated.  There are probably hundreds of great SF novelettes and novellas out there would would film perfectly for a two hour movie.  The next Heinlein movie should be “A Menace from Earth.”

Fans of great science fiction stories can hope that the technology, talent and costs of movie making will come down so more classic science fiction stories can be filmed.  I was given hope for this the other day when I saw an article about a Star Trek movie Ananar being made by movie makers not through regular channels.  Maybe it won’t always take hundreds of millions to make an epic science fiction movie.  Let’s hope.

JWH – 8/23/14

Finding The Best Science Fiction Books To Read

Why read an average book when you could read a great book?  With so little time to read, why waste time on a so-so book?  But how do you find the best books to read?  Most people read whatever they stumble across at the moment.  Other folks read book reviews and get recommendations from friends.  Even fewer join book clubs.  About 25-30 years ago I pondered this problem for finding the best science fiction books to read when I developed my Classics of Science Fiction list.  It was first published in a fanzine, then on a gopher server, and finally at a series of web sites.  That was one solution.  Since then I have found a number of web sites that offer other solutions.

worlds-without-end

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End is a reader database discussion site that’s pretty much like GoodReads, but focuses exclusively on science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Worlds Without End collects lists like my Classics of Science Fiction, fan polls, awards lists, author recommended lists, and puts them in one location and then links the titles to a database.  If you join their site – it’s free – you can tag books on the lists to monitor your reading progress, or even add your SF/F/H books to their database.  You can create your own reader challenge in their Roll-Your-Own reader challenge.  Right now they have 32 challenges for 560 members having read 1077 books and reviewed 527 of them.

If you’re a blogger who reviews SF/F/H books, you can join Worlds Without End, tag the books you review, add an introductory review to their site, and then link to the full review on your site.  If you’re a reader you can read the reviews, or discuss the books on their forum.  All the book lists, forums, and reader challenges link back to the books which allow you to track your reading habits, and even measure your progress reading through the reading and awards lists. Since everything is linked to everything else, it makes researching a potential book to read a snap.

Here are my reading stats for Awards lists and Book lists.  Click to enlarge.

Award Books Read

 

Book Lists Read

You can also look up books by publisher.  For example their site lists 256 authors for Tor covering 1,056 titles, of which 335 have been nominated for awards with 55 of those books winning an award.

You can quickly call up an author and easily check off which books you own, read or want to read, and mark whether or not it’s one of your all time favorites.  You can also rate your reads, and then list them, or see how your ratings compares to other members.

Another way to find books to read is see which members have rated books you also rated high and then look at other books they’ve rated high that you haven’t read.  There are many ways to use this site, and the social aspects are very good at helping you find like minded readers.

Best Science Fiction Books

Best Science Fiction Books

BestScienceFictionBooks.com is a newer site that’s not even completed, but has some features to start working with now.  It looks like they hope to compete directly with Worlds Without End, but for now they have mostly lists up.  Some of their lists are pretty good, others are questionable.  But I assume over time they will be refined.  For example their list for Best Alternate History books is pretty good.  Unfortunately most of their features link to file Not Found pages, which is a bad sign.  There was another site, SFFMeta that was going for a couple of years, that wanted to identify the best SF/F/H books and has recently disappeared.

I wish the people at BestScienceFictionBooks.com luck because building a big site like this takes a tremendous amount of work, and even building a great site doesn’t always draw in readers.  I mention this site to mainly give them some attention that might boost their efforts.

Good Reads

GoodReads

GoodReads has been around a very long time, and now that Amazon has bought them, they’ve become the 800-pound gorilla of reader reviews/book database sites.  Just look at the numbers attached to the books on the Time Travel book list.  The #1 book is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger which has 899,564 ratings that average 3.93 stars out of 5.  #2 is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon with 285,187 ratings.  The Time Traveler’s Wife has just 73 ratings and 141 reads at Worlds Without End.

This brings up the problem which site to use.  Worlds Without End is a site for hardcore science fiction fans.  GoodReads is a massive site for all bookworms, so science fiction has to compete with many other kinds of books.  All the time travel books you find on GoodReads will be on Worlds Without End, but the reverse won’t be true.  Logic sort of dictates to go with GoodReads, but I find it more appealing to consider Worlds Without End.

Sometimes its better to be a small fish in a small pond.

I have reviewed other book database sites before, and directly compared LibraryThing to GoodRead.  It took a lot of work to get my collection entered into LibraryThing, but then I didn’t maintain it.  I exported my LibraryThing data and imported it into GoodReads.  I like GoodReads, but didn’t maintain my data there either.  By now I realize that I’m not that interested in maintaining a database of my books.  The value of these sites is for finding out what books other people like.  So the appeal shifts to social media.  I’m in two online book clubs at Yahoo Groups, each with a small number of members.  That works out well for a discussion group.  That’s why I’m leaning more to working with Worlds Without End than GoodReads.  About one quarter of my reading is science fiction.  So hanging out with a small group of people who read a lot of science fiction is an attractive idea at the moment.

However, taking the time to list my favorite SF books will help me meet other members that share the same reading tastes.  I will take that time to enter in my favorite books, but not all my books, or even all the books I’ve read.  Spending any time on so-so books is just a waste of time, especially reading time.

GoodReads is very enticing, as is LibraryThing.  I’m tempted to use Worlds Without End for science fiction, GoodReads for classic and literary books, and LibraryThing for nonfiction.  And in each case just focus on my favorites.

One thing I’d really like is to discover a way to find the best new books to read.  Every year when I write my reading summary I wish I had read more books published new in that year.  What I’d like is a Rotten Tomatoes for various kinds of books, especially for nonfiction.  SFFMeta.com used to do that for science fiction, but they are now out of business – a reminder that new sites will have a hard time making it, because SFFMeta was a well designed site.  Amazon with GoodReads might knock out all competitors like they are doing to local bookstores, but I don’t know.

There are other book listing sites that cover the “best books ever” concept which I wrote about in “Identifying the Greatest Books of All Time.”  These are the true classics, and not just science fiction books.  It’s also fascinating to see which few science fiction books make it to the general classic lists.  Here is the Top 10 site for fantasy and science fiction.  The only SF genre title is Dune.  It’s amazing how few SF books are recognized by the literary world at large.

A List of Books is one of my favorite sites for identifying all-time classics.  It uses the same methodology I used to create the Classics of Science Fiction, but allows members to track their reading.  I’m using it to track all the books I’ve read on the 100 Best Novels by Modern Library.  That list contains just three SF novels.

And what I’ve found out over the years is the books considered classics by literary scholars and readers really are some of the best books I’ve ever read.  Few science fiction books come up to their level.  Another site that does this is The Greatest Books.  Just glance at their page about Ulysses by James Joyce, and look at the lists that pick Ulysses.  When you consider all books, the competition for the best gets tough.  Right now science fiction books are in the minor leagues, so it will be fascinating to see if I live long enough to see if more science fiction books get recognized to general classics.

If you study these sites its possible to pick books to read that have a much greater chance of wowing you than randomly buying a book at the bookstore, or taking a friend’s recommendation of what to read.  And even if you don’t like these classics, you’ve at least educated yourself about science fiction history.

JWH – 8/21/14

Finding Sense of Wonder Science Fiction in My Social Security Years

Back in 1964, when I was twelve, the future was so bright we really had to wear shades to read science fiction.

Fifty years ago,  when I was twelve, I discovered sense of wonder in science fiction books from the 1950s.  Those books were more exciting than getting high—and I knew, because, by a few years later I was smoking dope to jet assist my science fiction take-offs.  My teen years in the 1960s was a combination of rock and roll, counter-culture and science fiction.  My mind flew interplanetary high with great expectations for the future.  In the 1970s I jettisoned the drugs, and coasted though the decades, living off the hope of 1950s futures.  Music and science fiction stoked the fires of the future, and kept the old dreams simmering.  Music stimulated my emotions and books energized my mind, but after fifty years we never reached the futures I once saw so clearly.

Between 1964 and 1969, I read book after book, that wowed my evolving mind with far out ideas.  Now my brain isn’t so young anymore, and I need some science fictional Viagra.  My future vision has been darkened by cataracts cause by living through years of reality.  Is it just me, or do kids growing up today see  different futures?  They look all cyborg cool in their Google Glass specs, but they don’t seem to see as far as we used to.  I’m not sure what they see, or what drugs they are on, but I’m not sure I like their dreams of the future.  Where’s the dazzle?  Where’s the vision?  Where’s the great expectations?  Or was science fiction no better than psychedelics at getting us Baby Boomers off Earth?

wake-us-cover

I still depend on music every day to boost my emotional self, but I’ve developed a tolerance to science fiction.  It just doesn’t give me that old sense of wonder high that thrilled by twelve-year old self.  Maybe the future I see from my retirement years doesn’t work with modern science fiction.  Maybe I need to be young to love today’s science fiction.  But I can’t help but believe there’s new science fiction out there for us old Baby Boomers that will help us keep the old 1950s dreams alive, but where is it?

Oh, I can find plenty of books to escape into, books that make me want to turn the page to find out what will happen, but I rarely read a science fiction story that gets me sensawonder high anymore.  No offense or criticism to modern science fiction writers, but they seem more into story than ideas, especially ones that can turn into a series of books.  Many of my SF reading friends love finding a character to stick with book after book, but that doesn’t appeal to me.

Back in 2009 I wrote “My Science Fiction Thrill is Gone.”  In the almost half decade since then I’ve found a handful of really good science fiction novels that I liked:

  • Wake/Watch/Wonder trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer
  • The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow
  • The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

Actually, averaging one great science fiction book a year isn’t bad.  Looking back over the history of science fiction, most years only produced one or two books I really loved.  But in the past I had a lot more near misses to keep me going through the slow times.

I’ve read many fun books I’m not listing, but they aren’t the kind of SF I’m talking about.   Nor am I talking about non-SF books that impressed me with other kinds of sense of wonders.  I sometimes stumble on older science fiction books I missed from earlier times, like Dawn by Octavia Butler and The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham, as well as rereading many of the classics of SF I’ve encountered over my last half-century.

Yet, what I really crave is great new mind-blowing sense of wonder science fiction.  The kind I have to wear shades to read.

I can go for long stretches without any science fiction sense of wonder boosts in my life.  I miss that.  Such withdrawals are depressing.  Are all the great far out ideas used up?  I know many of my favorites concepts from my Golden Age of Science Fiction years have been done time and again.  Just how many aliens invading Earth or time travel stories can one consume in a lifetime without becoming bored with them?  How many stories about astronauts stranded on Mars before the thrill of being on Mars becomes dull?  Is there a new way to present societies developing colonies on the Moon and Mars?  And don’t get me going on how jaded I am about military SF and galactic empires.

When I look at the science fiction selection at Audible books sorted by relevance, giving the most popular and highly rated books, giant fantasy epics fill the top of the list.  A few science fiction books show up, like Ender’s Game and Ready Player One, both of which I’ve read.  However, fantasy dominates the list, for page after page.  The few new science fiction books that I haven’t read are books that I consider retreads of old ideas.  Sure, they might be great stories, but I just don’t want get involved with trilogies and longer multipart series just because of action and heroic characters.  I guess military SF give many science fiction fans something to read that feels like the old days, but I’m just too worn out on action to care anymore.  I don’t even like action SF at the movies anymore.  I was thrilled by Her.  Action packed, military based SF, including those set into galactic empires, feel like fantasy worlds to me, like reading Tolkien.

I hate to be an old fart bitching about how today’s science fiction ain’t as good as the stuff I read growing up, but well, shit I am.  I sped through The Martian by Andy Weir and it felt like I was twelve again, reading science fiction back in the 1960s, but we should be reading realistic literary fiction about life on Mars by now.  What the fuck went wrong?  Are the futures of 1950s all played out?  How can being a grunt in an interstellar fleet be such a popular future today?  And why did kids switch from space explorers to endless wars with the undead?  Really, is that what you want to grow up and do?  Is the only kind of alien you can imagine is the one you want to kill on your PS4 gun sight?  It’s no wonder that military SF is so popular, kids today grow up game-trigger happy, and they can only imagine futures where cardboard enemies pop up endlessly.

I want science fiction where I explore.  I want futures where fantastically far out ideas are possible.  In a way the failure of science fiction vision can be seen in the history of the various Star Trek series.  Over time stories became routine, usually about conflict with standard enemies.  Science fiction was better when it was like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where they had to invent a new concept every week.

Did all the concepts get imagined?  Have they all been used up?  Have the bright futures become boring?  Or am I just a foolish old fart?  When I was young, I remember old farts claiming their youth was better than ours, so I’m assuming I’m going through the same stupid phase they were, but still, why does things in the past now look so bright I have to wear shades?

JWH – 7/29/14

The Future 101: Science Fiction

I’ve been thinking about the future, but in a different way.  Can we understand the future in any meaningful way?  Now, I don’t mean the actual future that will unfold, but the concept of the future as a feature of reality.  Asking “What is the future?” is more like a Zen kōan than a scientific inquiry.  We think of time as the 4th dimension, as one long continuous stretching of three dimensional space.  And because of science fiction we picture traveling  to other points in time as if they were another spatial coordinate.  I think this is a false concept that corrupts our sense of the past and future.

Another problem we face, is we think of time personally.  Consciousness experiences the now, so it feels like the past is our life before now, and the future is what happens next.  But if the Earth is sterilized by a gamma ray burst in the next minute, reality would continue without us, and so would the future.  Although we experience time as self-aware beings, time exists outside ourselves.  We might exist in the future, and we might not.

Time exists without our consciousness being aware of it.  A tree has very limited awareness of its moment in existence, but its there in the now, and it has a past and future.  Our conscious mind observes the now, remembers the past, and anticipates the future.  Science fiction is the literature about anticipating the future.  We like to think that science fiction both prepares us for possible futures, and helps us build specific futures.  For example, science fiction warns us against the singularity, yet inspires us to build intelligent robots.

The trouble is we don’t take the future seriously.  If we did we would eat healthy and not alter the carbon dioxide ratio in the atmosphere.  We regularly interact with the future, like a squirrel burying nuts, or humans going to the grocery store to buy a week’s groceries, but reaching into the future has a limited range.  Instead of using science fiction to prepare us for the future, we’ve often turned it into Coca-Cola and cotton candy, empty calories to enjoy in the present moment of now.  Our immediate desires always overwhelm any knowledge we might have about the future.  Dealing with the future requires tremendous discipline that most of us lack, including myself.

One analogy that has occurred to me is to think of our brain as a CPU which is the now.  The past is everything written on the hard disk, and the future is the output we’re going to write to the hard disk.  Over time that contents of the hard disk changes.  The now is the main loop of our programming, just idling through the processing cycles.  If we want to interact with the future, we have to write something out to the hard drive, or delete an old file.

Most of us have great expectations about the future.  Some of us worry about the future.  Between dreamers and doomsayers, we find all hopes and fears.  Tomorrow is often pretty much like today, but ten years from now will be more surprising than how memories of ten years ago feels now.  Everything we want is in the future because everything we have is now.  When we throw the dice we want to win big and not come up snake eyes.  We’re all futurologists in that we hope to plan our future accomplishments and predict the obstacles.

SF-logo

We want to know the future even though we know we can’t.  We predict the future even though we know we’ll be wrong.  We just can’t help ourselves.  Some people believe in crystal balls, others in statistics, but some turn to science fiction.  Science fiction plays on the same dichotomy as most people feel about the future—some SF writers write about what they hope will happen, and others write about what they fear will happen.

For over a century before space travel writers wrote about humans traveling to the Moon, planets and to other star systems.  Did science fiction writers predict that humans would travel in space, or did they inspires people to build rockets and space capsules?  Would space travel ever been invented if we hadn’t dreamed about it first?  Some people believe the future already exists and its just a matter of waiting for it to play out.  Others believe the future does not exist, only the now exists, so whatever the future will be won’t be determined until we reach that now to be.

From my personal experience, and reading piles of science books, I don’t think the future exists yet.  Nor do I believe time travel is possible.  I’m a now person.  However, I do think we can interact with the future in limited ways.  On the other hand, I’m not sure our many fantasies about the future do anything at all.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve always said, “The future is everything I never imagined” even though I spent all my time trying to imagine the future.  Now that I’m living in the future, or a future now, it feels like any fantasy I had wiped out its possibility of coming true.  Sort of a weird corruption of the Uncertainty Principle.  I pictured myself going to Mars, so I never went to Mars.  I pictured humans going to Mars, so no one made it to Mars.  Sorry guys, to jinx things.   My mother had a variation on this theme.  She believed worrying about something bad will happen would keep it from happening.

Most of us will wake up tomorrow and find the future, and we’ll do that on average 30,000 times.  Each time a little surprise—until the day we don’t.  Now will cease to exist.  What divides us from the rest of the animals on this planet is we have hopes for the future.  We all want something from the future.  If we’re a child, we want Santa to bring us something exciting, if we’re a teen we want to fall in love and lose our virginity, if we’re in our twenties we want to graduate college and find a great job, and so on, until our only hope is to have a tomorrow, any tomorrow.  Some people want to be rock stars in the future, and others just want more to eat, and some just hope to keep existing.  To me happiness is having something to look forward to, even though it might not happen.

Science fiction books are fantasies about the future, some about things we want to happen, and some about things we hope won’t happen.

The common assumption is science fiction does not predict the future, but speculates on possible futures.  The truth is science fiction is a bunch of wild ideas that we find entertaining and has no relationship to the actual future even when it’s seriously speculative, extrapolating on current events, and is of little use for preparing us for the future.  Science fiction is fun escapism from the present for the most part, and occasionally insightful observations about the here and now.  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell is a brilliant use of science fiction, but does it help us with the future, or help us with how we live now?

Robert A. Heinlein took himself quite seriously as a writer of speculative fiction.  He thought three books expressed his ideas best:  Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  I doubt he meant to be remembered for starting military SF, creating a hippie Bible, and not starting a popular catch phrase about free lunches.  I’ve read these books many times and I don’t think they say anything about the future at all, but a whole lot about Robert A. Heinlein.  He wanted them to be about freedom and responsibility, but I’m not sure even that comes through.   Stranger in a Strange Land was Heinlein’s idea of 1990 from 1960.  Many people think it’s about the 1960s.  After living through both times I don’t feel its about either, but it seems to say a whole lot about Heinlein’s pet ideas and peeves.

I’m starting to wonder if science fiction is about no time at all, like The Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin.

I’m reading Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty.   I don’t think we can predict the future, but I also think the only way to talk about the future is through statistics based on knowing a whole lot data about the past.  I’ll write The Future 101:  Statistics in the future. (Is that a prediction or plan?)  But for now, I shall ask, “How many science fiction novels study the past to extrapolate the future” like Piketty?  I think the common quick answer will be:  Many.  However, I think that’s wrong.  If a science fiction writer writes a well thought out book about people living in the year 2114 and how global warming has changed the world, is that really doing the same thing that Piketty is doing with all his graphs and data sets?  It’s obvious that it’s what climate scientists are doing, but is it the same thing for novel writers?

I don’t think so.  Is there any past science fiction novel about our times that sounds anything close to what’s happening now?  Climate scientists have been graphing changes in average world temperature and CO2 concentrations for decades, and our current temperatures and concentrations fall nicely on their graphs.  Is this predicting the future?  Maybe that’s as close as we can come to predicting the future.  The thing about graphs is they do change, and sometimes surprisingly so, but there’s always a reason why the numbers do something different that changes the direction of the curve.  Being able to say what those things will be ahead of time is really predicting the future.  And we can’t do that.

We can predict rising CO2 concentrations, but we can’t predict what we will do about them

Scientists had hoped twenty years ago that humanity would have heard their warnings and changed their habits so their curves would have reversed direction.  They were hoping to change the future.  Science fiction writers writing about the future of humans colonizing the solar system and the galaxy were hoping they were influencing such a future to happen.  Has that happened?

Science fiction never wanted to predict the future, it never has.  Science fiction has always been about shaping the future.  And strangely, isn’t that what we do all the time.  When Apple rolled out the iPhone didn’t they shape the future?  Without Amazing Stories and Astounding, would we have the space programs we do have today?  Did “The Man Who Sold The Moon” shape the future to produce SpaceX?  I don’t know.  That’s why I writing this essay.

The future is relentless, it’s always coming.  Everything in the now makes the future.  A tree making a seed effects the future.  When we buy groceries how much is just putting food in a shopping cart and how much is reaching into the future to make Thursday’s night dinner?  If we knew that, we’d know how much science fiction influences the future.

JWH – 6/19/14

When I Was A Martian

A popular new book out now is The Martian by Andy Weir, his first novel, about an astronaut Mark Watney stranded on Mars after his fellow crewmen think he’s dead and they have to leave quickly to save their own lives.  Watney is part of the Ares 3 mission, and his story is very much like last year’s film, Gravity, where a solo astronaut must use his scientific wits to stay alive for hundreds of days in an environment that relentlessly keeps trying to kill him.  Watney is like a modern day Robinson Crusoe.  The Martian is a bit of a publishing sensation because it started out as a free ebook at the author’s web site, later became a 99 cent Kindle ebook, then a New York Times bestseller published by Crown, and finally is being promised to be made into a major motion picture.  The story is as good as the book’s success.

I raced through The Martian because it was a riveting read despite the fact that it’s very technical.  If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut on a mission to Mars, then this book is for you.

The Martian

Watney thinks of himself as a Martian, because he’s the only living being on Mars.  When I was a kid I used to pretend I was a Martian.  Back in the 1950s, flying saucers were a big thing with the nutty folk, and when I heard that some flying saucer conspiracy crazies thought the U.S. Air Force kept secrets about UFO’s at Wright-Patterson AFB, where I was born in 1951, I imagined that I was secretly a Martian raised by my human parents who didn’t know their real kid had been swapped by Air Force brass.  If was a fun fantasy to explain why I was so different from my mother, father and sister.

I don’t know when I first heard about Mars, but it seems like it’s always been something I knew about, like dinosaurs.  I’m sure Mars was programmed in my brain before I could even talk, by Saturday morning cartoons and Saturday afternoon science fiction movies.  By the late 1950s when I started reading books for fun, I immediately searched out books on Mars, both fiction and nonfiction.  Before the summer of 1965 I had read enough books on Mars to have endless fantasies about ancient dead cities and the exotic aliens that had built the canals.

Red-Planet

I had read many books about Mars, but the one that really hooked me on science fiction was Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein, the first Heinlein book I ever read, back in 1964.  I was twelve when I read that book, the legendary Golden Age of Science Fiction.  By the time I turned 13 that same year, on November 25th, I had read every Heinlein book I could find.

mariner7-04_07b

It was a crushing blow by mid-July 1965 when the Mariner 4 spacecraft flew by Mars and took a handful of grainy black and white photos that invalidated all my science fictional dreams.  Mars was as dead as the Moon, and the beautiful canals were replaced by goddamn craters.  Heinlein’s speculative fiction about Mars was now just fantasy novels like the Oz books.  No more old ones, no more Willis, and no more Barsoom.

stranger-in-a-strange-land

By high school, and the Moon landing in July of 1969, I knew Mars was cold and inhospitable, but for some strange reason I still wanted to go there.  I still wanted to be a Martian.  I was so excited by Viking 1 and 2 landing on Mars in 1976, that I continued to dream that I might get to Mars someway, even though I was much too old to believe such bullshit.  Over the years NASA landed many spacecraft on Mars, each filling out the real details of the planet that so mesmerized me as a child.   Mars is very well explored.  It’s not a very nice place for humans.  It’s very cold, with plenty of radiation, and no real air to breathe.

Caseformars

After the Apollo program in the 1970s I just assumed NASA would land men and women on Mars in my lifetime.  Boy was I wrong.  In 1996 Robert Zubrin came out with The Case for Mars that made a whole lot of sense about how to get to Mars.  His ideas are the basis of the Ares missions in The Martian.  I thought for sure such a brilliant, logical plan would lead to real missions.  But nothing has ever come of Zubrin’s dreams either.  The Mars Society is ever hopeful, but I don’t believe manned missions to Mars will happen before I die.

I no longer want to be a Martian.  That’s my main criticism of Andy Weir’s book—even though it’s a very realistic book, it never describes how harsh the Martian environment is, and how unpleasant it would be to try to live there.  Weir doesn’t convey the brutal cold or the relentless radiation, or the insidious regolith.  Only a mad geologist could love Mars.  The real Mars has no romance.  It’s definitely not an exotic destination of fictional adventure.  It’s a dead world, a world of rocks and more rocks.

I even wonder why astronauts would want to go there, or why thousands would sign up to be one-way colonists.

That’s the trouble with the romance of space travel, and the dreams of science fiction.  Every place were we could land that’s not Earth is just rocks.  Rocks and radiation, and freeze-in-an instant cold, or melt-the-flesh hot.  I guess I’ve just gotten old.  Old guys don’t like cold.

mars_surface_vik2_big

I used to be a Martian.  I used to be a Martian when we knew nothing about Mars.  The older I get the more I realized that Earth is the only place that humans can live.  And dang if we aren’t hell bent on turning Earth into Venus.

JWH – 6/10/14