Science Fiction Books That Start Snowballing Themes

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 3, 2016

2017 Sci-Fi ExperienceOver at Stainless Steel Droppings, Carl Anderson has started his 2017 Sci-Fi Experience early. It’s based on Andrea’s Vintage Science Fiction Month. Usually, Carl reads old science fiction in January and February, but decided this year to switch to December and January. Since I’m already reading old science fiction I decided to join in. But I want to put a focus on my efforts. I recently read “17 Science Fiction Books That Forever Changed The Genre” and although I agree with some of their selections, I disagreed with others. However I really liked their idea of identifying the books that either changed the rules/direction of science fiction, or inspired other writers to explore their ideas. I like to think of certain science fiction books as snowballs rolling down a slope getting bigger and bigger – or even causing an avalanche.

James Gleick’s new book, Time Travel: A History does just that for The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Wells’ little book has started a huge snowball rolling down the decades. It might be the best example of what I’m talking about. And Gleick describes many classic time travel novels that came afterwards, but he doesn’t come close to covering all the major time travel stories, just look at this list of books, television shows and films at Wikipedia. Hasn’t every possible speculative variation on time travel been imagined by now?

I want to make my reading of vintage science fiction about studying science fiction themes. I keep wondering if there’s a limited number of science fictional concepts. But then I read something like Spin by Robert Charles Wilson or Quarantine by Greg Egan, and think speculative fiction is unlimited. I do believe we can identify snowballing books, and that will help us count up the themes.

Another good example would be Starship Troopers, a book that inspired such novels as The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, plus seems to have launched the Military SF sub-genre. When I watch movies like Aliens, I think Starship Troopers. When I watch Star Wars I think of Asimov’s Foundation books.

Under-the-Ocean-to-the-South-Pole-2What other books, or series of books inspired a sub-genre in science fiction? Did Heinlein start the YA science fiction market with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947? But then, does anyone remember The Great Marvel Series by Roy Rockwood (1906-1935)? Carl’s reading challenge generally focuses on books from 1950-1979, but what about books from 1850-1950? Have we already forgotten the books that inspired the Golden Age writers to write those 1950-1979 classics? Older fans today can remember juvenile series by Heinlein, Norton, Asimov and Wollheim, but science fiction for young people goes way back.

Did The Last Man by Mary Shelley, The Scarlet Plague by Jack London and Earth Abides by George R. Stewart start the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic science fiction last man on Earth stories? Remember Wells hinted at that in The Time Machine. And didn’t The Time Machine set things up for Olaf Stapledon? All that stuff about future species of humans.

The Stars Are Ours - NortonI’ve been been wondering two things. One, is there a limited number of science fictional ideas, themes, subgenres? And two, how far back do they go? For my science fiction book club, we’re reading The Stars Are Ours! by Andre Norton from 1954. It presents two interesting themes. One, conservative/religious groups repress/destroy science and scientists, and two, people need to escape Earth to start over again on another planet. Both themes are relevant today.  Can we find books from the 19th century or even 18th century that first got those snowballs rolling? Do those themes ever stop being relevant? Will science fiction written in the  22nd century add to the existing snowballs? Will science fiction fans in the 2050s read many SF books from the 1950s? Or even known about them? Or will they think the science fiction they discover in adolescence as having original ideas?

At what point does vintage science fiction become forgotten science fiction, and newer, but older science fiction, become vintage? SF of the 2010s will be vintage by the 2050s. The appeal of vintage science fiction might be due to fans getting older and realizing what they once thought of as original ideas might be as old as the hills. As I’ve said before, Noah’s Ark might have been the first generation ship story. I find parts of The Book of Genesis to be very science fictional. If you squint at it in the right way, doesn’t the whole tree of knowledge of good and evil story seem like speculation about the evolution of human awareness? I can easily imagine a writer, male or female, living under Babylonian occupation, trying to imagine how everything got started, and wrote about a powerful alien being creating us. What’s really science fictional, is people think that story is the literal truth 2700 years later.

Generally, we read for story. We want to be entertained. But I think as we read and reread these vintage science fiction tales, we should examine the ideas they present. Then speculate about what inspired those ideas, and finally, evaluate how well they were implemented. As a liberal, I was rather shocked by the 2016 election results. The lesson I learned is don’t trust my assumptions. I’m applying that lesson to reading vintage science fiction. For example, should we assume that humans can leave Earth and start over on another planet if we totally screw things up here? I hated that Interstellar depended on that idea.

Some snowballs rolling down a hill just fall apart. Can we also count them as we read?

I believe science fiction represents a collection of speculative ideas that have been around a very long time. Eventually, they become real – like heavier than air flight, traveling to the Moon, cloning, constructing robots to do our work – or, we can eventually give up on the idea. I think time travel stories are now considered fantasy by most people. I hear they are remaking filmed versions of Starship Troopers and A Handmaid’s Tale. That’s a recognition that those themes are still valid to a mass audience. But are they considered fantasies or science fiction? Do we believe space marines and horrible theocracies are possible? I think we do.

I’m currently listening to The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard, a short novel that was first published in 1962. Ballard wrote several eco-apocalyptic novels back in the 1960s. They are part of a speculative snowball that now includes The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson. In biblical times God caused such catastrophes. After Darwin, it was nature that could destroy us. Now we imagine species suicide. But the theme is the same. Either all, or nearly everyone, gets wiped out. That theme isn’t new – it might have existed in pre-history.

I want to contemplate vintage themes while reading my vintage science fiction.



15 thoughts on “Science Fiction Books That Start Snowballing Themes”

  1. JIm,

    While doing your research on early sources of SF, have you looked at James Gunn’s series–The Road to SF–especially the first three volumes? I haven’t read Vol. 4 and 5? yet, so I can’t comment.

    Vol. 1, From Gilgamesh to Wells
    Vol. 2, From Wells to Heinlein
    Vol. 3, From Heinlien to Here

    1. Fred, The Road to Science Fiction is one of my favorite anthologies. I wish it was audio. One of my big wishes in recent years is to hear all the classic short science fiction stories, and these Gunn books would cover most of the great stories.

  2. Just to clarify a bit, my event actually covers all time periods of science fiction (Andrea’s is 1979 and before) and they aren’t in any way inspired by one another, but I enjoy her event so much that I like to encourage everyone who might do mine to do hers too.

    When I read vintage/classic science fiction I am always interested in what the author was speculating about the future, but that interest is generally wrapped up tightly in thoughts about what the world was like at that time when it was written and what it says about how the author was trying to process what was going on then. In some ways I do the same with contemporary fiction.

    I find it interesting to see major themes in SF during different decades. We’ve seen so much post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction over these last several years and I’m really curious about what the next big trend will be. I’m certainly hoping science fiction will become much more optimistic as a backlash against the negativity of the actual world we are living in. But that is just me.

    I remember when Jonathan Strahan released Engineering Infinity and talked about “fourth generational science fiction” in his introduction, describing science fiction that married the “romance of science and the romance of fiction”, fiction that inspires readers and scientists to embrace our love affair with tomorrow and to look within our solar system for the next great frontier of exploration. I have no doubt there is much science fiction that already does that. I certainly enjoyed that collection, and I would consider The Martian that kind of fiction, and I have no doubt there is more out there already, I just need to find and read more of it. I’m growing ever more fascinated with space that is (relatively) close to home.

    Time travel is definitely one of those science fictional ideas that continues to have staying power. Is there any other theme that would top it in frequency or longevity? Time travel also seems to be one of those science fictional tropes that appeals to those who don’t normally embrace a lot of science fiction, at least as far as film and television shows go. I’m wondering if part of that is because the time travel idea allows the writer/director/etc. to actually weave in a number of different time periods that do appeal to a wider range of people.

    1. Carl, I’m not sure if utopian hopes make for good drama. My guess is young people find stories like The Hunger Games appealing because their lives are boring and controlled, and they wish for adventure and romance. Katniss has a lot of freedom for a young person.

      1. I think stories with a hopeful idea about the future (like The Martian) have plenty of drama in them. I do agree that the themes of control vs. freedom are appealing, but those themes are often the impetus of stories involving moving out into our universe to populate it. Throw in some teenagers and angst-filled romantic triangles and there you go, lol!

        Engineering Infinity is full of stories with drama, but they also paint a more generally hopeful picture of the future, because instead of simply viewing the future as one of a destroyed Earth and consequently much smaller population, they depict us actually getting out there to man our solar system. Ultimately I consider these stories pure fantasy as there still does not seem to be any practical reason to try to populate our neighboring planets vs. trying to figure out how to get to an Earth-like planet elsewhere, but I for one continue to be thrilled about the dream of humanity finding a way to live on the moon and Mars because, if nothing else, it makes for fun reading.

        I think the reasons stories like The Hunger Games are popular is that they are a reflection of the way people in general feel about the controls they feel society, government, etc. are placing on them as well as a reflection of how they feel they are being treated by society. That and I truly think we have a huge segment of the population that is a sucker for any kind of love triangle story…thus the popularity of not only this kind of literature/film but shows like The Bachelor and so very, very many of the television dramas that are foisted upon us by the television networks.

        I myself have never been a big fan of love triangle stories. I much prefer the drama of two people struggling to find one another. The “team Edward” vs “team Jacob” nonsense has never had much of an appeal.

        1. With The Hunger Games I think many readers were probably attracted to the concept of the games, and the fact that teenagers were leading a rebellion. I really only cared about the first book, so I wasn’t too concerned with the love affairs.

          I think it’s interesting at the book club that members have picked such a diverse variety of favorite books. Which suggests to me that what people enjoy in a book is extremely varied. It might not even be SF plot elements. There might be hundreds of reasons why people love science fiction. Maybe I should poll on that.

  3. Interestingly, concerning Hunger Games I understand the fear of government/control which is obvious. But I also see the the degradation of society/human condition of the the capital district where the love of self and self-gratification are the central focus of the population and as a result they have no compassion for those in lesser districts other than as subjects for drama and entertainment. A situation that seems to have risen from a government that lets the people do whatever they want as long as it does not threaten the government itself.

    1. That appears to be how it is in China. It allows certain freedoms as long as those freedoms don’t in any way threaten the government. But don’t we do that too? It’s interesting that our most recent election seems to be an anti-government mandate.

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