Let’s imagine you die and are resurrected in front of a powerful being that offers to let you live any novel you’ve read as your next life.
Science fiction is known for escapist fun but would you want to actually live through a specific SF novel? Fiction is based on conflict, so our heroes must go through great adversity to get to the end of the story. How much pain and suffering would you put up with to have a far out science fictional lifetime? And which of your favorite books would you want to experience? Why, in twenty-five words or more….
Now for the rules of this little fantasy game. Do we pretend we must live the exact life as written, or do we live the life the character would have lived if he or she was real, including all the sleeping, eating, bathroom visits, etc., that wasn’t written in? I think we should twist the knob to 11, and make this a high stakes game! Any novel we pick, we must live the entire life of the character, even if the book is only about a few days of their life. Living the life of character of a different gender, race, sexual orientation or species is perfectly a-okay.
Do we read fiction to vicariously live a different life? Is it really escapism when most novels are about people going through tough times? Maybe we read just to avoid thinking about our own life. Are our lives so bad that we must spend hours ever day reading books, watching TV shows, going to the movies, playing video games, just to get away? Or do books represent a life we’d love to live? Are novels a kind of wish fulfillment?
If you play my little game you’ll quickly see books in a different light. I find it hard to remember books I’d want to live in. Are most books really like car wrecks that we can’t stop from staring at? Playing this reincarnate into fiction game makes me realize the value of world building in science fiction. Science fiction writers actual do create alternate worlds, and some of them are quite fleshed out. But are those worlds appealing destinations? Sure we all might want more romance, adventure, sex, love and excitement in our lives, and that might be the real appeal of fiction – a substitute for things we don’t get enough of in our own reality.
If that is the case, what’s missing from your life that you want more of, and which of your favorite novels would provide the best form of what you miss?
Adventure – Space Travel
My favorite SF novel of all time is Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein, which I first read it in 1964. I’ve probably read it at least eight times since then, maybe more. Kip Russell, almost dies from being frozen on Pluto, and that sounds very unpleasant, but he’s totally resurrected by advanced alien technology on a planet near Vega. Kip wins a space-suit on Earth, gets kidnapped and taken to the Moon in a flying saucer, from there goes to Pluto, is rescued and taken to Vega and finally goes out to the Lesser Magellanic Cloud. The down side? Well, he doesn’t get laid, no sex in this story, he gets frozen like I mentioned before, and he’s imprisoned at least three times, so a lot waiting happens.
Despite the pain, torture and damage Kip experiences, this is a tremendously upbeat novel. Kip is very determined, works hard, and focuses on his ambitions, something I’ve never been good at. And when given an opportunity makes the most of it. Kip doesn’t waste time reading novels or watching TV, he keeps busy. But if I reincarnated into Have Space Suit-Will Travel, would I become a lazy Kip that never wins the space suit, and thus goes to the stars? Isn’t part of our love of fiction dreaming of being people we’re not?
I’ve always wanted to travel in space, and this book offers a lot of space travel. Few science fiction stories ever leave the galaxy. So Have Space Suit-Will Travel is pretty far out, and it ends just as Kip is about to begin his adult life. It’s a life of wonderful promise.
Adventure – Last Man on Earth
Earth Abides is a grim novel because its hero Isherwood Williams must survive the total collapse of civilization and the death of most of humanity. But I’ve always found stories about lone survivors fascinating and challenging. Ish, lives a long life and sees the third generation of survivors as they begin the process of rebuilding civilization. Now this fantasy of being thrown into a book brings up another interesting question. Would you live the book the same way as the written protagonist? On one hand, I’d say part of the game of picking the books is to pick ones that you’d be willing to live out exactly, that might be boring. What if you think you could do better than the original hero?
Isherwood faces major challenges. How do you convince people to rebuild civilization? And how do you quickly rebuild civilization from scratch? Plus, is your vision really better than the other people’s idea of how to get the job done? If you’ve ever watched the reality TV show Survivor, then you’ll know how hard it is to get a group of people working toward the same goal, much less avoid all the petty disagreements.
Most novels like Earth Abides, have survivors living off of canned food and living in old houses. What happens when feasting off the carrion of a dead civilization ends?
Adventure – Mars
When I was growing up I wanted to go to Mars. As a teen I’d have sold my soul to get to the Red Planet. Back then, I pictured Mars like Heinlein and Edgar Rice Burroughs imagined it before Mariner 4. Now I’m tempted to live on Mars as John Carter, but I don’t know if I’d enjoy that much fighting. I’d love to have a lot of sex with Dejah Thoris, but ERD wasn’t that explicit in his sex scenes, so it would probably be a fictional life of frustration. Of course, we have to assume that if I lived John Carter’s life 24×7 I’d get plenty of action with the Princess of Mars. But if I really want to experience the reality of Mars I don’t think there’s any book better than Red Mars and it’s two sequels.
Is that the real virtue of a great science fiction novel, that it presents a reality to us that we can never experience? Right now I want the most realistic Mars I can find, but maybe on another day I’d want a romantic adventure via Edgar Rice Burroughs. But Red Mars is the closest to any book I’ve read to describing a life I wished I had lived.
I’ve been a big fan of the robots Spirit and Opportunity, and following the adventures of those little bots on Mars is very revealing. Mars is very bleak. It’s beautiful is you love rocks. It’s similar to trying to live Earth Abides, where the goal is to build civilization, but this time it’s really from scratch. Maybe that reveals something psychological about myself. I want to redesign civilization. With Mars you design everything. This is reflected in many of my favorite novels, for instance Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein, where high school and college students are sent to another planet for a survival exam.
Adventure – Time Travel
Replay by Ken Grimwood is about a man, Jeff Winston who lives his life over and over again. It’s like Groundhog Day, except that cycle is an adult lifetime, 18 to 43. Now Replay is a strange novel to want to actually live – it could come very close to hell – but what an epic learning experience! Replay is a deeply philosophical novel that if lived would be a grueling road to wisdom. I doubt I have the guts to pick Replay as my first choice if our imaginary God asked me what book I’d want to live, but if I died several times and kept getting the same offer I’d eventually pick it.
And again, I’m seeing a trend here. Replay is like Earth Abides, but on a personal level, another story of starting over from scratch. Jeff Winston ultimately gets to relive his life several times, and there’s a lesson in that. It’s not about getting it right, but about experiencing the moment. Jeff tries spends lifetimes pursuing riches, debauchery, charity and scholarship, but he always returns to start over again. Eventually, he wants just one life, the one where he dies, and not because he wants to die, but because it’s the one that matters for keeps. And isn’t that the life we all live now?
Romance and Love
Now here’s a problem with science fiction, it doesn’t have any great love stories. Lous McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro, and others, write romantic science fiction novels, but I haven’t been partial to them. As far as I can recall, I don’t remember any lovers like Levin and Kitty from Anna Karenina, in all of science fiction. There are zillions of love affairs in science fiction, but none that I can remember were lasting. It would be nice to live a nice long romantic life with children, grand children and great grand children.
Now, the one love story I remember that does last a lifetime is painfully tragic, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, but it’s much to painful to want to reincarnate into. There are fantasies like The Princess Bride by William Goldman, but it’s too silly to desire. I think Riders of the Purple Sage is a great love story, but Lassiter has to live a hard, brutal life before he finds Jane. I admire the little people who struggle to get by in Philip K. Dick stories, but I can’t imagine wanting to live through Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? And there’s a major problem with wanting to live fictional love stories – they are usually about longing and lost, and very little time about being together.
If we include movies I’d be tempted to say Blade Runner has a great love story between Deckard and Rachel. Ridley Scott, the director claims Deckard is a replicant, and if that’s true, there’s would be no love story. It’s Romeo and Juliet if a human falls in love with a robot, but it’s not if a machine designed to kill robots falls in love with another machine.
Now there are some non-SF literary novels that would lead to very educational romantic lives. Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch by George Elliot might teach me a lot about being a woman. Being Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would be enlightening, but hard and tragic. It might be a good deal more fun to be Lady Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway. I assume if I became a famous female character I’d learn to like men, otherwise I’d turn these women into lesbians. Why aren’t there any epic women characters in science fiction? Am I missing the obvious?
To be honest, I don’t have much interest in living a life as a woman, although if I got to reincarnate endlessly, it would spice things up to try all the genders and sexual orientations. However, I’m still troubled by finding a male romantic role to reincarnate into. Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is an obvious choice, and Elizabeth Bennett might be wonderful to spend a lifetime with, but being rich and stuck up isn’t all that appealing.
Maybe romance just isn’t that appealing to me, and that’s very revealing too. Nor does a lifetime of sexual delights seem all that appealing. I guess if I found sex or romance while on a space adventure, that would be enough of each for me. I think Heinlein had this trouble in his later old man fantasies where people would find true love but they were long lived. The ending of Glory Road was very revealing – Scar leaves Star.
Exotic travel and Alien Life
Science fiction seldom presents alien life as alien, but if I got a chance to live a life based on a book that conveys an exotic alien I would pick Nia in The Woman of the Iron People by Eleanor Arnason. All too often aliens are our adversaries in fiction. How many books can you think of where you’d want to be the alien and live out a life on their home world? And please don’t tell me you want to be a Wookie.
Over the years I’ve had strange dreams where I wasn’t human. I can only remember snippets of them. Among the Hindus there are famous stories about reincarnation. One is about a master who had almost completed his growth to enlightened, but he admired a stag while he was dying, and returned as one. Can you imagine a life as a dolphin or bonobo or polar bear? Eleanor Arnason imagines anthropologists visiting a world where the aliens were more like animals, and they led lives more like primitive men, but they had a strange beauty.
I don’t think science fiction has given us enough aliens, and stories about their lives and worlds. Has any Hindu ever imagined reincarnating on another world as an intelligent creature there? Is it so sad that we only get one life as one kind of being? Luckily, we got to live as a being that can imagine all kinds of other lives, even lives without self-awareness. I don’t personally believe in God, but I’ve always like the idea that God breaking itself up into all the beings in the reality so it could see itself from every angle. Could you imagine being a redwood living for thousands of years?
I like to think the purpose of science fiction is to imagine all the realities we won’t ever live.
JWH – 7/23/12