Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Judgement And Doomsday

The Day After Judgement by James Blish and After Doomsday by Poul Anderson sound almost interchangeable. However, Blish's Judgement is spiritual and supernatural, a literal Armageddon, whereas Anderson's "Doomsday" is secular and scientific, the sterilisation of Earth by aliens. In other words, Blish's novel is fantasy whereas Anderson's is science fiction (sf).

CS Lewis begins Perelandra by pointing out that we imagine non-human intelligences as either supernatural or extraterrestrial, then informs us that his character, Ransom, met on Mars beings that were both. That shook me when I read it.

A few other sf writers have had similar ideas. In two of Heinlein's novels, the Martian "Old Ones" are ghosts. In Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Martian "Old Ones" are spiritually evolved Martians. In Brian Aldiss's Helliconia Trilogy, Helliconians have contact with their hereafter which contrasts strangely with the Terrestrial observation station in orbit above their planet. (When, in that station, orderly life broke down, Aldiss wrote an italicised descriptive passage including this marvelous sentence: "Everything depraved flourished.")

Starting with a reflection on two superficially similar but essentially contrasting titles, I have drawn a few parallels between six great names in sf: Blish; Anderson; Lewis; Heinlein; Bradbury; Aldiss. 

Monday, 25 February 2013

The Must Reads

When I was a teenager in the 1960's, I wanted to read everything by Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Robert Heinlein and Clifford Simak. (Heinlein had not yet completely degenerated.) I caught up with Simak, read his, at that time, most recent publication and then forgot about him although he continued churning out novels, probably as many again after that. I thought that he had become repetitive and self-parodying. James Blish, whom I continued to revere, disliked Simak's three instances of talking dogs.

Poul Anderson was not then among my Must Reads. I read some of his works but not others. Now, of the writers mentioned so far, only Blish and Anderson are Must Reads and Anderson, because of his volume and range, is the only one about whom I can blog indefinitely.

After the 1960's, he wrote a lot more and my respect for what he had written increased. Once, when I browsed a novel of his, the blurb described an interstellar spaceship crew returning to Earth to discover that a Social Welfare Party had gained office in their absence. To me at the time, this did not sound sufficiently new so I returned it to the bookshop shelf. Let me end with a question: can any reader of this blog identify that novel from the description given here? Or maybe I am mistaken and it was not an Anderson novel? 

Sunday, 3 February 2013

"Great Books"

Britannica published a Great Books of the Western World series, two volumes of summary and discussion followed by fifty eight volumes covering three thousand years of epics, drama, history, philosophy, logic, mathematics, science, theology, psychology, economics, political theory and novels, from Homer to Beckett.

If the series had been able to include one single work of science fiction (sf), then I suggest that it should have been HG Wells' The Time Machine, an admirably brief speculation about the nature of time and the future of mankind with vivid imaginative descriptions of "time traveling." If an expanded edition of the series were to include a volume of sf, then I suggest that the contents should be:

Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus;
The Time Machine;
Last And First Men;
the first page of Superman from Action Comics no 1, June 1938.

Frankenstein, the first sf novel, addressing the issue of the legitimacy or otherwise of scientific inquiry, is listed as "Additional Reading" on "Science," one of the 102 "great ideas of Western thought," from "Angels" to "World," identified by the Great Books editors. The Time Machine is listed for "Progress" and "Time."

I think that Superman should be included among the works of fiction because:

it can be represented by a single page;
whereas the Great Books includes Nietzsche among the philosophers, the comic book Superman was created by an American Jewish writer-artist team during the period when the Nazis were in power in Germany;
this Superman not only represents a transition of media from prose fiction to sequential art but also initiated the transition of genres from sf to superheroes, just as Frankenstein had initiated the earlier transition of genres from Gothic fiction to sf;
it should be recognized that narrative, drama and sequential art are the three story-telling media;
superheroes, also known as mystery men, are a major modern multi-media mythology mainly in magazines and movies;
the "Additional Reading" for Superman would include the seminal sf novel, Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a possible source for Superman, and Alan Moore's major work, Marvelman/Miracleman, which not only expresses but also reflects on ancient and modern mythology.