It’s not unusual to want to read science fiction in the feverish times we live in today. In the midst of a deadly global pandemic, on the brink of the cliff of a climate crisis, who could be blamed for gazing wistfully at the sky and wondering if there might be a better option out there?
That is almost certainly not why Penguin Classics has just launched a new series of science-fiction classics – these things take too long to plan – but it’s handy timing. More likely the aim is to remove science fiction from its niche, not just in bookshops and airbrushed cover designs, but in people’s heads.
Does science fiction have a reputational problem with the unenlightened general reader? It was sci-fi author Theodore Sturgeon who came up with what’s now known as Sturgeon’s Law: “Sure, 90 per cent of science fiction is crud. That’s because 90 per cent of everything is crud.” And when Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood and Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro write sci-fi, what’s niche about it?
Anyway, that desire to gaze into the sky is a common theme in science fiction: the journey outward, away from Earth. John Wyndham, one of the most popular sci-fi novelists of the mid-20th century, wrote a novel about exploring the solar system called The Outward Urge. Kurt Vonnegut in The Sirens of Titan wrote that “mankind flung its advance agents outward, ever outward. Eventually it flung them out into space, into the colourless, weightless, tasteless sea of outwardness without end.”
In James Tiptree Jr’s 10 Billion Light Years from Home, one of the most interesting titles in the new Penguin series, one character observes that “We’re built to dream outwards.” More bathetically, Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy features a planet that sends its most useless members of society into space to get rid of them: the account executives, the management consultants, the telephone sanitisers. Unfortunately, everyone on the planet subsequently dies from a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.
Yet just as interesting in science fiction are the journeys inward: what it can tell us about people. Even when we travel light years away, we always bring ourselves along. The measure of this is how these books continue to speak to us decades after they were written.
Cat’s Cradle (1963), perhaps Kurt Vonnegut’s best book, is filled with his characteristic blend of humanity, whimsy, despair and comedy. It creates a new religion where people are encouraged to use its “harmless untruths” as a source of consolation, where science brings about the end of the world, and where everyone is longing for belonging. The elements, though inspired by the nuclear arms race, are timeless: cult leaders and American exceptionalism, for instance, seem like very “now” issues indeed.
Vonnegut isn’t the only science-fiction writer who used comedy to help the ideas go down smoothly – and God knows we could do with a laugh right now. Fans of Douglas Adams – except the telephone sanitisers – will be pleased to find three of his influences in the Penguin series. Vonnegut was big for Adams (“I’ve read The Sirens of Titan six times now. He’s very much an influence”), as was Robert Sheckley, whom Adams found “very, very funny”.
Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles has a similar sensibility to Hitchhiker's Guide: a bewildered everyman, satire on hopeless bureaucracy, and even a character who designed the planet Earth (in Sheckley’s vision, the reason things here are so shoddy is because of budget cuts at the construction stage).
Adams was also “very fond” of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, whose book The Cyberiad is a collection of bonkers stories about two inventors who keep getting in trouble with their inventions (including a calculating robot that refuses to accept that two and two is four, and ends up hunting down his creators in a rage).
Prior associations and prejudices
Why set stories in far-off worlds? Well, you could tell them anywhere on Earth; but as soon as you start writing a story set in contemporary Ireland, near-future America or 18th-century Japan, prior associations and prejudices about the place, people and era come rushing in, and the wider message may be lost.
Setting a book about the encroachment of freedoms by government in contemporary America will just see readers scanning the pages for references to Donald Trump, his enablers and hangers-on; but by making up a new world, as Yevgeny Zamyatin did in We, we get to see the worldwide application of it that says: this is not a problem for one country, it is a problem for us all; it is not a characteristic of one man, it is a characteristic of all people.
George Orwell read We and was influenced by it in creating his own anonymised dystopian state of Airstrip One in Nineteen Eighty-Four; though his invention was so successful that its most powerful elements – Big Brother, Room 101 – have gone out the other side and become anodyne and familiar.
Our problems don’t change; they just take on new forms. In terms of sexism, for example, James Tiptree Jr’s book highlights this not just in content but in its existence: Tiptree was the pen name for Alice Bradley Sheldon, a US army major and CIA agent, who didn’t want to be judged by her sex. “I had a feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.”
Her stories – hard sci-fi that doesn’t give the reader an easy ride – often look at relations between men and women, and knowing the author’s gender puts a different perspective on a story, say, where Amazonian giantesses keep men as sex slaves. It also revealed sexist assumptions in the publishing industry: before her real identity was known, author Robert Silverberg wrote that it was “absurd” that some considered Tiptree female: “there is something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing”, adding that he found her work “superior in masculinity” to Hemingway, the great grandaddy of macho nonsense.
Indeed, with its frequent focus on “us v them” – human v alien intelligence, people v robots – science fiction is ideally placed to deal with “othering” generally.
John Wyndham may be best known for The Day of the Triffids, a “cosy catastrophe” (as Brian Aldiss cuttingly put it) in which the entire population of Earth has to be blinded in order to make walking plants seem dangerous. But his best novel is The Chrysalids, about a post-apocalyptic Earth where people with mutations are killed or sterilised to preserve the purity of the human race. It’s an unforgettable allegory for religious fundamentalism and intolerance. But like all good books, it flexes to fit our current world, and right now it seems like an exposé of racism.
Other sci-fi writers have tackled that issue head-on, such as Octavia Butler. Her best-known novel, Kindred, is probably in the Atwood mould: a black woman travels back in time to pre-civil war America, where among other horrors she realises she must allow one of her ancestors to be raped in order to ensure her own existence in the future.
Not all science fiction can be claimed by progressives: The Colour Out of Space in the new Penguin series is a science fiction story by HP Lovecraft, a deeply divisive figure because of his avowed anti-Semitism and racism. He defended the lynching of black people and wrote a poem in 1912 – the title of which could not be printed in full in this paper – which theorised that black people were created to fill the gap between white people and animals. So, yes, science fiction does represent all of humanity, even its worst elements.
That uneasy line between science fiction and fantastical literature evoked by Octavia Butler brings us back home to Ireland. As Julian Gough pointed out in this paper, Ireland does not have a strong tradition of science fiction writing. (Until recently, that is; now “Ireland, at last, feels like a country that has a future, rather than just a past.”) Highlights of what there was have been gathered scrupulously by Jack Fennell in the recent Tramp Press anthology A Brilliant Void.
On the speculative, fantastical and uncanny, however, Ireland’s reputation is second to none – Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker were all groundbreakers in their respective periods. Indeed, this month, Tramp and Fennell will follow up A Brilliant Void with an anthology of Irish fantasy stories, It Rose Up.
Now with writers like Sarah Maria Griffin, Jo Zebedee and Ian McDonald carrying the torch for Irish science fiction, the future – pun intended – looks brighter than ever. Soon we will have not just more Irish science fiction in anthologies, but perhaps even a Penguin Classic or two.