Monday, November 07, 2016

Milestones in Sci-Fi Writing

Anyone’s list of the “best” or “greatest” or “most noteworthy” books is, obviously, subjective, and ultimately, mere opinion. The reader must view such lists, as entertaining as they may be, critically.

In August 2011, NPR published its list of “Your Picks: Top 100 Science-Fiction and Fantasy Books” on its website. Despite NPR’s many crimes, which prevent any naive acceptance of its reporting, the list is at least thought-provoking.

Like many books on the list, The Forever War is dystopian, depicting a future in which much has gone wrong and little has gone right. The protagonists, a man and a woman named Mandella and Marygay, see what’s wrong and represent the reader’s and narrator’s perspective. Written by Joe Haldeman, the novel conforms to a common sci-fi paradigm.

The Sword of Shannara belongs to the ‘quest’ category of fantasy novels, quite similar to Tolkien’s fiction.

One of the earliest novels about space travel, Out of the Silent Planet is an effort by C.S. Lewis to work with the hypothesis of intelligent life on other planets, as scientists from earth travel first to Mars and then (in a sequel novel) to Venus.

This pattern is reversed in Rendezvous with Rama, when a mysterious spacecraft enters our solar system.

In a variation on the dystopian theme, A Canticle for Leibowitz is set in a post-apocalyptic future in which monks study to recover lost science.

In some plots, the dystopian phase is overcome, and the storyline points to a hopeful future. In Magician, there’s a rift between two worlds and an army from one world invades the other. Peace is only achieved when the main character obtains powers of wizardry and manages to force the end of the war through magic.

Another common device is the “save the world” narrative, e.g., in Dragonflight, where a blight from space will wipe out everything on the planet unless the heroes manage to defeat it. Of course, in sci-fi and fantasy, “save the world” doesn’t necessarily mean our world; often it’s a different planet.

Using artistic liberty, writers often blend elements of the medieval past with a high-tech future. This is the case in Mistborn: The Final Empire. In this book, society has been rigidly stratified into two classes, creating a plot device of political oppression.

In Lord’s Foul Bane, a leper is transported to another world (which he doesn’t believe is real) and is no longer a leper. The people in this world think he’s there to save it from the oncoming evil.

Class structures and political scenarios likewise shape the narrative in The Diamond Age, in which the protagonist, a girl named Nell, aspires to raise herself from the bottommost class.

Exile and expulsion also shape plots. In A Spell for Chameleon, the protagonist has no magical talent and unless he gets one, he will be kicked out of his magical kingdom.

Naturally, Isaac Asimov has to be on a such a list, but in addition to I, Robot, NPR also chose Caves of Steel.

Other obvious inclusions were Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Herbert’s Dune, Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Huxley’s Brave New World, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and other titles by Heinlein, Stephen King, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne.

Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is an interesting choice for the list, as it’s categorization among the “sci-fi and fantasy” titles is somewhat arguable. The list also includes Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.

While not definitive, the NPR is at least an introduction to the genres. The plural noun is justified when the reader surveys the diversity of the list.