Archive | Science Fiction

Stowaway to Mars | John Wyndham

The cover of Wyndham's Stowaway to MarsI love John Wyndham’s science fiction. I have been a fan since my college days when I read The Chrysalids (in an effort to read all the books I was supposed to read in High School).

Wyndham first published this work with the title, Planet Plane in 1936 under the pen name John Beynon. It was later published as a serial novel under the names The Space Machine and Stowaway to Mars. Stowaway is one of his first works, and it shows. The plot lacks the drive and balance of his later efforts.

The story centres around one person’s drive to be the first to reach Mars and return. Of course, there is a stowaway—a woman named Joan.

It’s interesting to see how Wyndham handled gender issues. On the one hand, Joan is portrayed as a tough woman who is determined to break free of preassigned roles (in contrast to the protagonists’s earthbound and pregnant wife). Her iconoclastic role is undermined, however, as the story continues.

The philosophic role of machines and technology in society is the most interesting part of the book. The protagonist is enamored with his machines and the accolades they have won him. His wife, on the other hand, is threatened by them. Martian society has fully accepted and allowed machinery to flourish. Joan, in a conversation with the Martian Vaygan questions his acceptance of them:

‘The Machines?’ Joan repeated. ‘What are the Machines? They are the puzzle which brought me here.’ She told him of the machine which had somehow reached Earth. ‘I felt nervous of it,’ she owned, ‘and I felt nervous of your machines last night. I think that is the first reaction of all of us to our own machines. Some never get beyond it, others get used to it, but when we think of machines we feel that in spite of all they have given us and all they do for us there is something malignant about them. Their very presence forces us down ways we do not want to go.’ (149)

Joan continues to question the Martian’s apparent subservience to their machines. Vaygan later admits:

‘In a sense the machine must rule from the moment it is put to work. One surrenders to its higher efficiency—that is why it was made.’ (168)

These thoughts anticipate the work of Jacques Ellul!

Stowaway is not one of Wyndham’s great stories, but it’s still a thought-provoking read.

—John Wyndham, Stowaway to Mars (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977).

The Windup Girl | Paolo Bacigalupi

The cover of Bacigalupi's The Windup GirlTime Magazine said it best in their blurb (printed inside the front cover): “Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson: this is cyberpunk without computers.”

The Windup Girl is disturbing science fiction precisely because the future it imagines feels so real. From the first pages that describe Anderson’s search for a newly engineered blight-resistant fruit to the depraved handlers of the windup girl herself, everything feels plausible.

When you read about Anderson’s factory (complete with mastodon-like creatures that turn giant posts to generate power), you can almost feel the grit and smell the muggy stench.

This is not escapist fiction—this is fiction with a critical edge. The world has suffered major ecological collapse. Genetically engineered crops from the leading agribusinesses have (ironically) destroyed most of the world’s traditional food sources. (Does Wendell Barry read science fiction?) Racism and nationalism run wild in the collapse of society. Trade leaders become more powerful than politicians. There’s much to digest here.

Bacigalupi’s imagined world will stick in your memory long after the book’s finished. Here’s hoping for a sequel!

—Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2009).

The Time Hoppers | Robert Silverberg

The cover of Silverberg's The Time HoppersI suppose even legends can write a stinker or two.

Robert Silverberg certainly qualifies as a legend. He is one of the writers (along with Asimov, Pohl, and handful of others) who brought the genre of science fiction into the popular consciousness. He has won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for his copious writing.

Time Hoppers is not one of his best stories.

The book promises to explore the paradoxes involved with time travel (a topic that’s interested me since I watched Back to the Future as a kid and one we’re still exploring today in movies like Looper). Instead of fleshing out these paradoxes, the book devolves into a cautionary tale about classism with an unlikable protagonist at the helm.

The most interesting part of this book was considering how a person in 1967 thought society would develop. With the rise of the super-rich and the growing divide between rich and poor, he may have been on to something.

—Robert Silverberg, The Time Hoppers (New York: Belmont, 1974).

Consider Her Ways and Others | John Wyndham

If your only experience with Wyndham was being forced to read The Crysalids in high school, it’s time to pay this science fiction master another visit. In addition to rereading all of his major books (The Day of the Triffids, The Kraken Wakes, The Chrysalids, The Seeds of Time, Trouble with Lichen, and The Midwich Cukoos), I’ve been reading through his lesser known forays such as Chocky, The Outward Urge and Web. I recently continued this journey with his collection of short stories entitled,Consider Her Ways and Others.

As with most collections, there are highlights and lowlights. The novella, “Consider Her Ways” is the shining light here. It’s a disorienting horror story about the future of men and women with a distinctive Wyndham twist at the end. Many of the stories in this collection deal with time travel, Wyndham’s bread and butter, in some form.

Wyndham falls short when he stretches too far from his base such as “Oh, Where, Now, is Peggy MacRafferty?”, a cultural satire where prospective movie starlets are groomed and modified to the point where they are all indiscernible.

The final story, “A Long Spoon,” was a clever surprise. It’s quite a twist on the old idea of selling your soul!

These stories are well worth reading.

Downward to the Earth | Robert Silverberg

Fantasy and Science Fiction are often kept in two separate sections of the bookstore. Silverberg marries the two masterfully in Downward to the Earth.

This book is essentially the sequel to Avatar. No, it’s not set in the same world, but the themes remain. In fact, I’d be surprised to find out that the script writers of Avatar had not drawn inspiration from this book.

In Downward to the Earth, the humans recognized the error of mining a world with sentient creatures on it so they gave back ownership of the planet. Now, a few years later, a former player during the mining days returns for some unfinished business. The contrast between the science fiction of space travel and the fantastic elements of native creature’s religion make a compelling story.

This is more than just another museum-piece science fiction novel. It’s a story about spiritual discovery with a few unseen twists along the way.

The Empire of the Ants | H. G. Wells

In high school I became infatuated with the fathers of science fiction: Jules Verne & H. G. Wells. After having read many of his famous works (The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Time Machine to name a few), it was a pleasure to find a slim collection of his short stories.

This Scholastic Publication contains five stories:

  1. The Empire of the Ants (1905)
  2. The Country of the Blind (1904)
  3. The Crystal Egg (1897)
  4. The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1898)
  5. The Magic Shop (1903)

Two of the stories really stand out. “The Country of the Blind” explores the old proverb, “In the Country of the Blind the One-eyed Man is King”. The unconventional twist (although not entirely unexpected) fires the reader’s imagination. “The Crystal Egg” reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ unfinished The Dark Tower. Come to think of it, the idea of a crystal orb granting vision resonates with Stephen King’s Dark Tower books as well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the stories are at or below average. They might have been titillating in an age where science fiction was novel but they don’t stand up as well today. Unless you’re an H. G. Wells completist, stick to his major works of science fiction.

Turn Left At Thursday | Frederick Pohl

Turn Left At Thursday is a collection of three novelettes and three stories, although I’d call the “novelettes” short stories as well. The longest clocked in at 43 pages.

These stories go beyond the usual golden age sci-fi fare. Rather than just setting adventure stories in space, Pohl used some mind-warping points of view to shed a dystopian light on the world.

The best part of reading mid-twentieth century science fiction is the light it sheds on the culture of that day. You can learn a lot about people’s history by reading their dreams (and nightmares) for the future. The last story, “I Plingot, Who You” is particularly telling. In it, an alien exploits cold war tensions to attempt to bring earth to the point of nuclear annihilation.

Even though the quality of some of the shorter stories was lacking, this was an interesting set of tales.

The End of Eternity | Isaac Asimov

Reading 50 year old science fiction is an entertaining experience. Not only do you have to envision the future with the author, you have to view it through a dated lens.

Asimov’s The End of Eternity is a great example of classic science fiction. You get an archetypal mystery/love story mix set in a world of time-travel.

Asimov’s science-fiction creativity is superb. How, for example, did he think up a time-travel system energized by the power of our sun in the distant future as it goes nova? The paradoxes that are always explored in time-travel books are well worked into the mystery.

Unfortunately, the character development is as bad as the science-fiction is good. These people feel like little more than artificial devices invented to carry the plot forward—which, of course, they are.

If you’re feeling nostalgic, this book provides a few interesting hours of escape.

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