Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

My Top 20 Science Fiction Novels

In an earlier post, I listed my (purely subjective) list of the top fantasy novels/series.   Here I will attempt a similar post with the related genre of science fiction. 

  1. Isaac Asimov,  I, Robot (1950).  Not really a novel, but a collection of connected short stories that introduced Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.”  It should be read as the necessary prequel to the three (3) “Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw” novels:  The Caves of Steel ; The Naked Sun; The Robots of Dawn.  The film starring Will Smith was only loosely based on Asimov’s work–combining some of the “Susan Calvin” stories in I, Robot with The Caves of Steel.
  2. Robert A.  Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).  Many of Heinlein’s novels (e.g., Starship Troopers) are vehicles for him to preach his libertarian economics and militaristic view of the world. But he is a superb storyteller and his engineering background (like Asimov’s background in physics) enables him to write very convincing “hard science” fiction.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is Heinlein’s ode to the American revolution, projecting a future in which Earth’s moon has become an international penal colony (a hat-tip to Australia) and, with the aid of a self-aware supercomputer named Mike, revolts from Earth and becomes Luna Free State.
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984).  A feminist novel of a dystopic future in which an increase in infertility combines with the takeover of the U.S. (now become the Republic of Gilead) by a militaristic and patriarchal religious  fundamentalism to create a nightmare society for women–especially those few who are still fertile and  are forced to become “handmaids.”
  4. Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.  The late Octavia Butler was one of the few African-American women to write comercially successful science fiction.  Here she projects a dystopic near future where gang crime leads to the breakdown of U.S. society and of the ability of a young woman to forge a new society out of this disaster that can reach the stars–an achievement that partly depends on the spread of a new religion, “Earthseed.”  Butler also shows how the kind of driven personalities that can fundamentally change history are often poor at interpersonal relationships–since the second novel is told through the eyes of the estranged daughter of the heroine of the first.
  5. Frank Herbert, Dune (1965).  The sequels are not as good, but still worth reading.  This is a “space opera” and science fantasy of a far future where humanity has become a galactic empire that has become decadent and feudal. It also projects salvation through a messiah who is a result of a breeding program and genetic manipulation, played out on the desert planet of Arakis (Dune).  The film wasn’t so hot, despite roles by Patrick Stewart (later Capt. Picard and Prof. X), Dean Jones, and Sting.
  6. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1954).  Benign alien visitors who look strangely like the devils of earthly legend (giant, red, horns,  tail, wings) help earth people leave the species’ childhood and prepare for the next stage of evolution–a stage that  these aliens cannot themselves achieve.
  7. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974).  If Heinlein’s Starship Troopers glorifies war, Haldeman’s novel is the rebuttal.  Published at the end of the Vietnam War (and with that clearly in mind), Haldeman projects a future war between earth and an alien species that, because of the time distortions near the speed of light, goes on for centuries–and is all based on miscommunication between the two species.  Haldeman’s Forever Peace is not connected.  Another great Haldeman classic is All My Sins Remembered which Haldeman wrote in reply to the super-spy novels and species which show such work taking no toll on the spies.  Haldeman’s spy is an Anglo-Buddhist recruited precisely FOR his strong moral code–which then haunts him more and more in his career as a super-spy.
  8. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1954).  In a dystopic future, an oppressive government stays in power by suppressing books and reading.  Education is by rote memorization giant televisions combine with recreational drugs to keep everyone “happy” suburbanites.  All houses are fireproof (and believed to have always been so) and “firemen” do not put out fires, but find and burn hidden caches of books (while those who hide books are sent to reeducation camps).  “Fahrenheit 451” is the temperature at which book paper burns.  A resistance gathers in small groups away from populated areas with the task of each person so memorizing one book completely that s/he becomes that book, preserving learning and literature until the current dark age is over.  This is Bradbury’s warning against the dangers of McCarthyism—but it works equally well for similar movements since the mid-50s.
  9. Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars; Blue Mars; Green Mars.  A trilogy concerning the colonization and terraforming of Mars.  Very realistic science combines with a strong story concerning the likely problems of colonists, personal and cultural clashes, and major ecological concerns to form 3 really strong books.  I promised myself that I would only include one entry about Mars, though I have been fascinated by it since my childhood. 
  10. Anne McAffrey, “Dragonriders of Pern” series.  Science fiction with fantasy trappings:  A colonized planet is cut off from contact with Earth civilization and because of a unique threat (spores from a nearby planet called “Thread”) devolves into a low-tech, feudal civilization.  An indigenous lifeform (“fire lizards”) so resemble the dragons of earth mythology (except for size), that they are genetically engineered to be larger and to breath fire–and to use telepathic and teleportational abilities to help ESP-gifted humans fight this threat as “dragonriders.”  McAffrey wrote numerous works of science fiction, but it is the Pern books for which the “dragonlady” will always be known best.
  11. Carl Sagan, Contact (1985).  Astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote the definitive novel of first contact between earth and an alien species.
  12. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990).  Highly entertaining cautionary tale about the headlong rush of genetic engineering (going on at breakneck speed in the food industry).
  13. Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959).  A brilliant novel about a cyclic view of history (scientific advance followed by destruction, a new dark ages, a slow climb out and the whole cycle repeats), clashes of religion and government, and the dangers of global nuclear war.
  14. David Brin, Earth (1990).  An ecological cautionary tale of the near future.  This is a murder mystery set in 2038 in which the attempted victim is Gaia, the earth itself.  Technology is both blessing (it allows truly global village networking that helps find clues and mobilize responses) and bane (it is responsible for the ecological abuse of the planet).
  15. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Tale of an encounter between an emissary of a “normal” society and a society of gender-benders. 
  16. David Brin, Glory Season (1993).  Excellent tale of a world settled by radical feminist separatists who have the genetic know-how to create a rural utopia where women dominate and men are only needed tangentially and mostly live apart from women.  This is a kind of counter-Handmaid’s Tale in which Brin argues for sexual equality and for societies in which men and women need each other. He demonstrates that it is not only male-dominated societies which can go deeply wrong.
  17. Pat Frank, Alas Babylon (1959).  An early cautionary tale of nuclear war.  One of the first to question the 1950s propaganda that nuclear war would be easily survivable and winnable.
  18. Octavia E. Butler, Kindred is a time-travel story that includes painfully realistic descriptions of slavery in antebellum 19th C. America.
  19. Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain (1993). A novel of genetic manipulation to create children who don’t need to sleep.  In a recession, they are blamed for everything wrong and need to find a sanctuary colony.
  20. Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai novels.  They were eventually supposed to form a complete Childe Cycle, but I think Dickson died before the historical prequels could be written.  This is a saga of human evolution.  The advent of star travel and  colonization splits humanity into sub-species:  the pure scientists; the people of (fanatical) faith (the “Friendlies”); the mystics and philosophers; and the ultimate soldiers (the Dorsai who, like the ancient Swiss, live on a planet of such barren resources that they are forced to send their sons and daughters out as high-paid mercenaries in the  wars of other planets). Eventually, the scattered fragments of humanity must reunite with the fragments having been greatly enhanced.  Whether or not one like’s Dickson’s overall saga, his Dorsai novels  are really good reads–and he even includes one, Lost Dorsai, about a Dorsai who becomes a pacifist yet still embodies the fierce courage and strength of will of the Dorsai soldiers.  It is only now, after Dickson’s death, that we can view the (incomplete) series as a whole.  He did not write the novels and short stories in order and was supposed to write a series of historical novels beginning with the 14th C. to go with the science fiction ones.

What have I overlooked? What have I rated too high? What have I not valued enough?

June 29, 2009 Posted by | books, science-fiction | 19 Comments

Defining Fantasy and Science Fiction

Fantasy and Science Fiction are distinct-but-related genres of fictitious literature, both belonging to the larger category of speculative fiction.  Fantasy is a modern term for fictional literature set in worlds wherein magic works and where there are often supernatural beings (e.g., djinn or genii, ghosts, demons, vampires, nymphs, dryads, goddesses and/or gods, etc.) or creatures from mythology (e.g., elves, dwarves, giants, dragons, etc.).  Major characters often have supernatural abilities or magical devices (e.g., rings, swords, harps, lamps, flying carpets, etc.).  Fantasy draws from many ancient mythologies, texts from extinct religions (and sometimes from living religions), fairy tales, medieval  romances and legends, but, unlike these earlier works (which often serve as source material), modern fantasy is deliberately composed by one or more authors not as history, but as entertainment–the fantastic elements are not expected to be believed by either the author(s) or readers.  Although people often refer to “sexual fantasies,” fantasy literature is not usually a written form of pornography; the term for that “literature” is erotic fiction.  (This is not to say that fantasy literature aimed at adult readers may not entail elements of romance or even of the erotic–but this is not the focus and because of the wide age range of readers, love scenes seldom become overly graphic.)

What distinguishes fantasy from science fiction is that the latter attempts to base all fantastic elements on principles from known science or to give a plausible scientific explanation for the fantastic elements.  Usually, the laws of the universe in science fiction either function in ways known to contemporary science or the changes are cautious and a scientific or pseudo-scientific explanation is attempted.  (For this reason, despite the genetically altered indigenous lizards of Pern, that the colonists from earth named “dragons,” Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” books are science fiction and not fantasy, as McCaffrey herself would argue.) 

The two literary genres do sometimes overlap and, when this happens, the result is often called science fantasy.  The currently most famous example of science fantasy are the films in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga which include science fiction elements (starships, laser weapons, advanced technology, robots/droids, holograms, alien races, etc.) but also elements of fantasy (e.g., the powers of the Jedi Knights and the Sith Lords; a “quest” structure and a cosmic battle between good and evil, etc.).  Other major examples  of science fantasy include Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels in which the “Mars” to which Captain John Carter of Virginia is transported bears little resemblance to the Mars known by astronomers; C.S. Lewis’ “Space Trilogy,” Lin Carter’s “Callisto” books, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover stories and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.  The great pioneer of modern science fiction was 19th C. French author, Jules Verne (e. g., 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; The Mysterious Island; From Earth to Moon; Around the World in 20 Days, etc.)

In later posts, I will outliine the major sources of modern fantasy, an overview of the history of the genre (especially the pioneers of the 19th and early 20th centuries), and outline some of the sub-genres within fantasy literature (e.g., “heroic, high, or epic ” fantasy; historical fantasy; alternate timeline fantasies; gothic and horror stories; sword and sorcery tales; “dark” fantasy; contemporary fantasy; humorous fantasy;  urban fantasy.  I may also compose a post outlining a brief history of science fiction and some of its sub-genres.

Since I believe imagination is crucial to both religious faith and moral discernment, I encourage wide reading in this literature, regardless of the particular religious commitments (or lack thereof) of the author(s).  I am also convinced that both fantasy and science fiction are excellent vehicles for exploring moral, philosophical, and spiritual questions, although this should never be so heavy-handed as to dominate the narrative structure.  The story must first work AS literature.  Far too many Christian apologists with no real literary ability and boringly dogmatic outlooks have wasted trees in attempts as “Christian fantasy,” believing falsely that they are the next C.S. Lewis. (Left Behind and all its sequels should be LEFT OUT. Ugh!)

June 15, 2009 Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction, science-fiction | 6 Comments

No Salvation for “Terminator” Film Series

A friend took me to the new Terminator: Salvation today.  I went because it was free for me and to spend time with a friend I hadn’t hung out with in awhile.  But I have to say, my review is bad.  Despite my disdain for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (lack of) acting skills, I really liked the first two “Terminator” movies, Terminator and Terminator II: Judgment Day.  Both used an old theme (going back at least to the gothic novel Frankenstein) of technology gone amuck–which could also be read as fear of globalization, of like out of control, less human.  Both first two films featured a very strong female lead (Linda Hamilton) and in the second film, she has no love interest and rescues the men.  The second film is also more openly anti-war and deals with the theme of a machine designed to kill learning the value of human life (Can humans learn it in time?).

All this disappears in the third Terminator.  The female Terminator is nearly voiceless and simply an excuse (as he later said in an interview) for Schwarzenegger to violently attack a woman with impunity. (“When else can you put a woman’s head in the toilet and get away with it?” Nice guy, the Governator.) The third Terminator was just an excuse to blow things up on film.

This is even more the case in the latest edition.  There is no real plot.  No strong characters, female or male.  Just lots of killer machines and explosions.

No wonder James Cameron quit as director after the second film.  Sigh.

June 6, 2009 Posted by | arts, science-fiction | Comments Off on No Salvation for “Terminator” Film Series

Star Trek: Science Fiction for Progressives

Okay, first of all, I haven’t seen the new movie, yet, so there are no spoilers here.  Second, I don’t want to be too politically correct.  Conservatives can certainly like the Star Trek universe.  (I hear they are especially fans of the Ferengii and have many posters of Quark. Go figure. 🙂 ) I am a strong progressive, but love the Terminator movies and other films with conservative themes like Bruce Willis’ Die Hard series. (Although the Die Hard movies aren’t QUITE as rightwing as many wingers seem to believe.  After all, a prevailing theme in the films is of hi-tech thieves, motivated by nothing more than capitalist greed, are the real villains.  They pretend to be terrorists, taking advantage of conservative government hyper-fear of terrorism to provide cover for real crimes.  Hint, hint.  Is this too subtle?)  We all have our guilty pleasures.

But I do think that Star Trek is a fairly progressive/liberal science fiction franchise.  It’s a basically hopeful vision of the future.  It offers up a future earth that has survived war, terrorism, and ecological disasters and forged a global government of representative democracy (we are never told this, but it must be some form of federalist system to avoid tyranny).  Hunger and poverty have been overcome.  Most diseases have been conquered and high quality universal healthcare is available for all.  Education is free and the world is highly literate with most people going beyond secondary education.  It’s a clean energy society that is eco-friendly. (In Star Trek IV, the Enterprise crew in their stolen Klingon ship actually go back in time  to the 20th C. to keep whales from going extinct–and in the process save the earth of their future.) There is finally global racial harmony.  And, despite the micro-mini-skirted uniforms that reflected the fact that the original series was made in the ’60s, we finally have gender equality, too.

Even moving beyond terrestrial concerns, Star Trek paints a hopeful future not of a terrestrial-based galactic empire, but a United Federation of Planets–that eventually even includes the Klingons.  The Starfleet ships are armed–Roddenberry’s humanistic vision is liberal, but not pacifist–but their main purpose is exploration and diplomacy.  They try to avoid wars.  (It would be hard to write a pacifist space adventure series that would still find ways to be action-oriented–but I write that as a challenge that I hope some will take up.) And, although often violated, there is a strong attempt to avoid repeating the grim histories of imperialist colonialism and neo-colonialism through a “Prime Directive” of non-interference in pre-space cultures and non-interference in the internal  politics of even space-faring worlds.  The problems still to be faced are the problems inherent in civilization.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no problems with Roddenberry’s vision.  Several come quickly to mind:

  1. I could never comprehend the Star Trek economics.  Money has disappeared. So how are goods and services exchanged?  A galactic system on the barter system?  The Ferengii certainly show capitalism at its worst (and I find it very fitting that their planet is horribly polluted and their society so patriarchal that the women are required to be naked all the time and to remain homebound!), but at least their economics is recognizable.  I am a democratic socialist, but NOT a Marxian communist.  I can’t buy the Marxist dream of the withering away of the state, never mind the withering away of money!
  2. It is a very secular vision.  Not until Next Generation explores Klingon religion and Deep Space Nine explores the faith of the Bejorranns do we see any exploration of spirituality.  Star Trek projects a rationalist view of the future that I do not share.  The Roddenberry vision still sees science/logic and faith as locked in eternal warfare.  This is a modernist outlook that our post-modernist world has, thankfully, begun to question. (Although, international readers take notice:  Here in the U.S., the Bush admin.’s utter hostility to science has led to a resurgence of modernist “scientism” among progressives.  The “faith vs. reason” framing that I thought we had begun to transcend in the ’90s is back with a vengeance. Sigh. Thanks, AGAIN, George.) I also like that the movies and the later series flesh out what the original series only hinted at: that even the Vulcans were not completely empiricist, having numerous meditation techniques and disciplines–even for their devotion to logic.  Like our Zen Buddhists, or some forms of Quakerism or Unitarianism,  the Vulcans may have purged the supernatural  from their worldview, but they have not been able to abandon some form of spirituality, including heavy doses of ritual.
  3. There is an Enlightenment/modernist disregard for tradition in the Roddenberry vision and in progressivism itself.  It can easily become rootless.  Of course, this is endemic  to pioneers.  Explorers and pioneers who leave home to find out what’s over the next mountain or the next wave or beyond the next star are a decidedly rare breed in human history.  They leave home and home traditions behind–but bring more home traditions than they think.  Yet they cannot be traditionless.  In the new place, they forge new traditions–and more of what they once knew will  work itself in that they consciously intend.  I have a healthier respect for tradition and received wisdom.  I think there needs to be a constant creative tension between tradition and innovation.

In general, I think, conservatives paint their ideal societies in the past.  In a lost Eden or a lost Golden Age or swallowed Atlantis.  They idealize the 1950s of Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best or they idealize an Old Europe or Puritan New England or the First Generation after the U.S. Revolution or life on the American Frontier (Little House on the Prairie)–or Ronald Reagan’s America.  The real history of all those eras was not so idealistic, of course. Wally and the Beav may have been oblivious to it, but the America of the 1950s had a Cold War, McCarthyist witch-hunts, a war in Korea, and deep segregation and the beginnings of the great challenge to segregation.  I could complicate the pictures of the other “golden ages” too.

Even when conservatives paint hopeful pictures of the future, they tend to be projections of a return to the idealized past:  Lost in Space shows the patriarchal nuclear family structure of Father Knows Best in the future.  And those science fiction shows simply had no black people, indeed, no non-whites, in them–not even in subservient roles.  It’s no wonder that African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s viewed those shows as genocidal–they seemed to take place after an (unmentioned) racial genocide.  And no wonder that civil rights leaders like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were fans of Star Trek, which featured prominent roles for African Americans!

The conservative regard for the past  is not completely without merit.  We all search for a “usable past.”  The Hebrew prophets appealed to past actions of God  and past eras of greater faithfulness in order to call Israel/Judah to repentance and reformation.  We do well to judge ourselves by the ideals of our forebears at their  best. But we also do well to remember their failings and faults and to refuse to make idols of either our forebears or the times in which they lived.

Progressives, by contrast, tend to be more like the Church Father Irenaeus than like Augustine of Hippo:  we tend to project human perfection not in an unfallen past, but in a redeemed future.  But this also has its limits.  It easily falls into the trap of the Myth of Inevitable Progress.  Progress comes only through struggle and never without set-backs and pain.

Still, I remain a progressive.  I grew up in Florida–a mile from Cape Canaveral until Junior High.  I watched Apollo rockets and later space shuttles take off.  I had a poster of Neal Armstrong (as well as Jacques Cousteau).  My Christian commitments lead me to modify Roddenberry’s vision, but the Star Trek vision of the future still resonates with me.  In this time of economic recession and multiple perils, may we all “Live Long and Prosper.”

May 10, 2009 Posted by | arts, entertainment, science-fiction | 29 Comments