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.



SuperBookworms and Reading Challenges

I wrote about my discovery of SuperBookworms at the end of 2007.  I was in awe of Eva who read over 200 books that year.  Well, this year she’s read over 400!  And she’s not just reading little escapist genre novels, but mostly a diet of big meaty literary books, and she follows up her reading by writing long elegant and educational reviews.  If you love to read you will find Eva’s blog a total inspiration.  Eva is part of an Internet sub-culture of online bookworm bloggers.  These people love books and reading, and they inspire each other to read more by proposing reading challenges.  A reading challenge works to get people to read a certain type of book, or a certain number of books.  Here are some examples of 2010 reading challenges:

There’s even a blog about reading challenges, A Novel Challenge.  Each of these sites will set up the rules for the challenge, and many of them will ask you to register – all this means is your name (real or imaginary) and blog URL gets added to a public list of people joining the challenge.  That way other people can go check what you’re reading.  You can link to your blog’s home page, or to a page created just for the challenge.  Most sites that host a challenge also create a challenge logo with link that you can place on your blog to help advertize the challenge.  Some challenges get 100-200 readers.

If you love discussing books, a reading challenge is merely an informal online book club.  There’s no real obligation.  It’s a great way to find new books and meet likeminded bookworms.  And some of these bookworms are super bookworms, which I’ve define as bookworms who read over a hundred books a year.  I’ve never found anyone who has read as much as Eva read this year, but it’s not uncommon to find readers who read 100-200 books a year, and pretty easy to find a handful of readers who read more than 200 books in a year.  I once read 478 books in 18 months, but I was a college dropout at the time, avoiding work, and they were mostly little science fiction paperbacks. 

I’m lucky to finish 40-50 books a year.  I aim for 52 a year, or one book a week, but in recent years I haven’t even made that goal.  I don’t think my mind could handle 400+ books like Eva reads – that’s just too much for me to think about.  Eva has health problems and reading is a relief for her, but her mind is far sharper than mine, and can digest and process vast quantities of words.  I can’t, even though I wish I could.  I mentally move like a sloth compared to Eva’s hummingbird speed thinking.  I would love to read and review more books but there are physical limits for everyone, and I’ve long discovered my limits.

Because of my reading limitations, I’ve decided to improve my bookworm life from another angle of attack.  I want to read fewer books, but find intensely great books to read.  I have three reading goals for 2010.  First I want to read 10-12 books published in 2010, and hopeful find books that will be on the best of the year lists at the end of 2010.  Second, I want to read another 10-12 classics that are memorable across the ages.  Finally, I want to read 10-12 books off my bookshelf – I have hundreds of unread books that I couldn’t wait to read them when I bought them, but have been neglected ever since.

I was very disappointed in my 2009 year of reading. I want to make 2010 a standout year.  Since 2002, I felt I’ve been going through a reading renaissance, but things got stale last year.  This past decade was the most exciting time for reading since I became a bookworm in my youth.  Reading excitement fell off after my early college years, and it wasn’t until I discovered audiobooks in 2002 that reading got exciting again like it had been in my teen years.  I don’t want to lose that thrill, but I think it will take concentrated work.

What’s really sad is I have so many great books on my bookshelves going unread.  I took five minutes and grabbed all the books that made my heart ache that I didn’t read this year.  I should give these top considerations for 2010.  I could have grabbed ten times more.  I’ve got to stop buying books if I can’t find the time to read them.  Here is my personal reading challenge – finish 10 of these books before I write my reading roundup one year from now:

  1. The Book Nobody Read: In Pursuit of the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus – Owen Gingerich
  2. The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism – Ross King
  3. H. G.: The History of Mr. Wells – Michael Foot
  4. The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World – Jenny Uglow
  5. A Long Fatal Love Chase – Louisa May Alcott
  6. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature – Steven Pinker
  7. Emotional Intelligence:  Why it Can Matter More than IQ – Daniel Goleman
  8. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Society – Jared Diamond
  9. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe – Simon Singh
  10. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
  11. Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions – Lisa Randall
  12. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – Erich Auerbach
  13. Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe – Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee
  14. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science – Richard Holmes
  15. Stories of your Life and Others – Ted Chiang
  16. The Axemaker’s Gift: Technology’s Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture – James Burke and Robert Ornstein
  17. Body and Soul: The Making of American Modernism: Art, Music and Literature in the Jazz Age 1919-1926 – Robert M. Crunden

If I finish any of these books, I’ll write a review and make a link of the title.  Just creating this personal challenge makes me feel excited about 2010.

JWH – 1/1/10

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die


Over at 1% Well-Read Challenge they have set up a reading dare that I found very enticing.  It is built around the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I ran out and bought and highly recommend to anyone who loves to read widely.  It’s richly illustrated and gives fascinating tidbits and short plot synopsis for 1001 books.  Oh sure, if you read the reviews on Amazon and other places on the net you’ll see a lot of grumbling that they didn’t include this book or that, but ignore such whining because overall, editor Peter Boxall included an amazing line-up of stories to get to know.  I’m now reading through this rather massive volume trying to select the perfect 10 books I’d like to read for the challenge.  The challenge is rather simple – read 1% – that is 10 books in 10 months.  You can see the list of titles here.

When I get the time, and I’m afraid I say this much too often and never find the time, I’m going to set up a web site for general books like I set up for science fiction.  My Classics of Science Fiction created a recommended reading list by finding 28 sources of recommendation, building a cross-tabulation database of all the titles and then deciding that any book that had been on 6 or more of the 28 sources would make my Classics of Science Fiction list.  I would use 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as one of the sources for a Classic Books to Read web site.

Since I started blogging I’ve discovered the concept of the reading challenge, which is a fun blogging activity.  Over at A Striped Armchair, Eva seems to be the queen of reading challenges, and you can find a lot of good information there.  I don’t have Eva’s ability to read so many books quickly, so I think I’ll start out slow and just stick to this one challenge for awhile, but if you’re a bookworm, I bet they’re addictive.  Although scanning down Eva’s right hand column makes me want to bite off a lot more than my eyes can chew reading-wise.

One reason this reading challenge is so enticing is because of the reading rut I’m in.  I read all the time, but I seem to be going through a period of less than stellar books.  I’m finding plenty to read, even very good books, but few books this year have really jazzed my mind.  The last was The Road by Cormac McCarthy back in January.  That’s the thing about being a jaded bookworm – reading is only as exciting as your last great book.  I want every novel to go nova in my brain.  And when I finish that explosion I hunger for a book that will go supernova.

Then I’m willing to back off and read some gentle books for awhile, maybe some nice informative non-fiction, or even a crappy guilty-pleasure novel, but eventually, the gnawing returns and I need another nova level fix.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I want something that will make every white blood cell tango in my veins and give me a reading fever.  As every bookworm knows, unless a book makes you willing to give up food, sleep and sex and contort you body for hours clutching a tome until it hurts, then it’s not much of a page turner.

Scan the list and let me know of any that have blown your mind.  I’m looking for 10 Supernova Books!

[The New York Times just reviewed 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as “Volumes to Go Before You Die” and it is an excellent supplement to the book.]