Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Heart & Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction - Part 8

Continuing with the following 10 novels:

1)      Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock
2)      Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
3)      The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
4)      Bug Jack Barron by Norman Spinrad
5)      Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
6)      Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
7)      The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
8)      Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
9)      Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
10)  The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson

Here are some more books that are generally published outside of the genre; that is, their publishers do not usually put “Science Fiction” anywhere on the book. These are the works by Finney, Vonnegut, and Crichton. However, their influence on the genre cannot be denied.

Behold the Man is probably the second most important SF treatment (critique? condemnation?) of religion (after A Canticle for Liebowitz in terms of impact) and certainly one of the most daring. It explores the nature of belief as being a facet of desperation (at least, that's my opinion) from a writer at the center of science fiction's New Wave movement.

Solaris is easily the most important SF book by a non-English speaker. Lem’s entire body of work is a prime example of literary SF that has transcended the genre as well as his native Polish language. It is a haunting work that explores the difficulty (or, in this instance, impossibility) in communication between human and alien. 

Here we have several books that were turned into movies: Solaris, Soylent Green (Make Room! Make Room!), Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Jurassic Park , and  Slaughterhouse-Five.  Books that become movies, especially in the case of a book like Body Snatchers, have an over-weighted influence on the genre by popularizing the ideas of science fiction.

The Man in the High Castle could be considered the true parent (or grandparent) of the alternate history sub-genre of SF and employs many of the devices that PKD used, such as the nature of reality.

Bug Jack Barron is another great example of subversive SF from a New Wave writer. Despite its use of gadgets and technology that has come to past, it probably is most notable for having foreseen the rise of the talk show host as a major influence in our culture.

Jurassic Park may raise eyebrows for being on this list, but its influence on the heart & soul of SF cannot be denied. As a bestseller and blockbuster movie it exposed more readers to SF than most books on this list. It may very well be the most well-known book in the genre due to its popularity in the mainstream. It is a fast read and exciting story featuring many of the tropes of sci-fi, including a mad scientist and a warning about messing with Mother Nature.

In Make Room! Make Room! we have a truly horrific account of the effects of runaway population growth leading an ever more authoritarian government, protest marches and riots, among other things.

The science fiction satire Slaughterhouse-Five is, like Haldeman's The Forever War, another book inspired by real-life experience in war. Vonnegut's book also explores the concepts of free will vs. fate. Vonnegut's other book to make the list so far (Sirens of Titan could be considered later) is the short story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. This collection of satirical stories may be the only science fiction collection where the bulk of stories in it originally appeared in magazines not primarily focused on publishing science fiction, such as Ladies Home Journal, Collier's Magazine and The Saturday Evening Post -- although the Saturday Evening Post, at least, also published stories by Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein. Vonnegut was another writer of science fiction who disliked the label.

The Body Snatchers has been criticized as lacking in merit both literary and scientific, and considered to be an unoriginal idea to boot, but the story itself seems to have stayed with us -- enough to spawn, so to speak, four movie adaptations so far. Therefore I felt it needed to be on this list as it seems to have seeped into pop culture in spite of its faults.

Finally, in this set of ten, we come to The Legion of Space by Jack Williamson, which is an early example of science fiction adventure known as "space opera" by a writer whose life spanned almost the entire 20th century (he was born in Arizona Territory...yes, before Arizona became a state). Human beings advance into space and encounter belligerent aliens. The series makes use of inventive weapons and alien societies, as well as some interesting twists on our own civilization, such as entrusting the stewardship of a "weapon of mass destruction" to women only. 

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