Glenn Reynolds asks for science fiction recommendations, so, in honor of tomorrow’s Yuri’s Night, here are mine:
- The Wall at the Edge of the World — telepathic society lives in peace and harmony in a walled-in future Northern California…and brutally murders anyone who isn’t a teep. Including the rest of the human population.
- Atlas Shrugged — whaddya mean “it’s not science fiction”? Of course it is. It’s an alternate history, for one thing, splitting off from real history around 1925 as near as I can tell. For another, it features several elements of advanced technology: Rearden metal, Galt’s motor (and related generators), the ray screen, the Xylophone, etc. (It’s also a pretty darned funny book.)
- Methuselah’s Children/Time Enough for Love — they really have to be read together. A good collection of character vignettes, with far-future technology and culture and the allure (and drawbacks) of radical life extension as unifying elements.
- The Children’s War — another alternate history, set in the present-day Third Reich.
- Dune — need I say more?
- Ender’s Game — ditto.
- The Mote in God’s Eye — not your ordinary “first contact” novel. Interesting alien characterizations, and a deep backstory.
- Red Moon — the Soviets got a man to the moon first…and left him there.
- Feed — young-adult science fiction, but one of the few SF novels to make me laugh out loud in numerous places.
- Armor — a vastly more gritty take on Starship Troopers.
I purposely left out a lot of Heinlein and Niven, since they’re pretty much givens. The sad thing is, looking over this list I see very few recent works (Feed being the most recent at 2004). Either I’m getting old, or there just isn’t that much good science fiction being written now — certainly one sees very little SF on the shelves ostensibly devoted to it in the big retail bookstores, and what’s there is swamped out by forgettable and interchangable novels about vampires, wizards, and — of course — vampire wizards. I wasn’t all that impressed with the much-hyped Old Man’s War, which unlike Armor was a weak-coffee retelling of Starship Troopers…not bad, mind you, just not as intense or as thought provoking (respectively) as the other two. And of course there’s the Mars Trilogy, which was a great series of books aside from the asinine politics, unlikeable cardboard characters, Marineris-sized plot holes, and phenomenally naive economics (Robinson did do a good job of painting the Martian environment…at least, when he wasn’t waxing poetic about lichen).
If I had to guess, though, I would say that the fantasy genre’s long-running popularity is losing steam – it probably peaked with the Lord of the Rings movies, and if the box office performance of recent “fantasy epics” is any guide it must have jumped the shark about the same time. If so, we may see a resurgence in both popularity and quality in the SF genre in the near future.
Tangentially related to this, I have to wonder what the effects on SF of the “global warming” mass hysteria and associated fascist cult will be over the long term. Certainly the rationalist and libertarian strains of SF will critique the corruption of science and the bounding of the future which radical greenism represents (Niven/Pournelle/Barnes and Chrichton have already written books along these lines). I for one have a hard time imagining anyone writing good “environmentalist science fiction”, since anything written with the environmentalist perspective is bound to be preachy, teachy, and tedious in the extreme, given that the authors’ first priority will be to convince the reader of the dire consequences facing the planet and urge them to action…instead of, you know, telling an entertaining yarn.
Like Christian end-times fiction, environmentalist science fiction may appeal to a certain small demographic, but go largely unnoticed outside of the true-believer market (unless made mandatory reading in high school
English communications arts classes and the like). It’s not impossible to write a popular novel from the green perspective, any more than a Rapture-themed novel can’t be written that becomes a success in the mainstream market (it’s been done, after all), it’s just that I doubt those who might be motivated to write from this perspective would be able to balance dogma with the demands of good fiction.
One might counter that the oddly popular post-apocalypse sub-genre has been around since the beginning of science fiction, and the environmental catastrophe or post-catastrophe story would be nothing more than a new direction for this sub-genre. I’m not so sure. I’ve read a lot of the more well-known post-apocalypse titles, and the plots typically involve one or more protagonists fighting to stay alive after the End Of The World As We Know It. We follow their struggles, root for them as the action reaches a climax, and cheer their success when they eventually overcome whatever nightmarish eschatological nastiness the author has thrown at them. In short, even books with as dire a theme as the end of civilization (or mankind itself) are pro-human, and will take the side of the human protagonists.
While environmentalist science fiction might also represent humans as the good guys and present their struggle for survival as a good thing, consider what the protagonists would have to do to remain heroic within the value system of radical environmentalism: acknowledge that the catastrophe is not only entirely of human making (which is the case in many post-apocalypse stories) but that it is cosmic justice for mankind’s environmental sins, wallow in existential guilt at being humans, fret about whether humans (including themselves) even deserve to survive The End, etc. It’s difficult to write a compelling survival story about people who hate themselves, since their self-loathing tends to undermine the believability of their struggling to overcome the apocalyptic circumstances — what plausible reason would they have to fight for their own survival when they doubt they have any right to exist in the first place?
Again, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a good story in this sub-genre from the environmentalist perspective, I’m just doubtful it can be done by anyone who might be motivated to do it, because of the very source of their motivation.