Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Scifi list

Over at Schwitzsplinters Eric Schwitzgebel has been collecting Philosophers' recommendations of science fiction for the philosophically-minded.

I couldn't resist piping up when I saw how recent most of the other suggestions are- Greg Egan and Ted Chiang came up loads: Ugh!! Modern scifi seems to me to have taken a really technical turn - its become more like science journalism, about showing off how many details about quantum theory can be included, for example, than about actually playing around with parameters of reality.

The oldies are the best I say. I grew up on good solid 1950s scifi, the kind that was printed in fan magazines, where the characters were reassuringly two dimensional. They were desperately sexist and the dialogue often terrible but it didn't matter, because they were all about the ideas. Attitudes to science have changed a lot since then. Technology used to be magical, something that could save us from work, take us around the galaxy and solve all of humanity's problems. Now we've lost that optimism and science has become somewhat elitist, intellectual, on the back foot under attack from the paranoid homeopathic antivaccination brigade. I feel that science fiction has in turn lost its playfulness, its bravado. I hope it comes back one day soon......

Here are my contributions to Eric's blog.....

Octavia Butler, Blood Child (short story, 1995). Men are forced to bear the progeny of aliens in a gory and powerfully emotional analogy of motherhood, portrayed as a paradoxically enjoyable form of abuse.
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids (novel, 1951). Giant deadly shrubs ambulate around a London riven by a plague of blindness. Moody, scary, tense, dark. An early pioneer of biological scifi, Wyndham reminds us that plants can be evil too.
Larry Niven, A Hole in Space (short stories, collected 1974). The master of 'soft' (sociological) sci fi, Niven was visionary at thinking through the human consequences of new technologies. Teleportation here acts as social lighter fluid, enabling the formation of dangerously volatile 'flash mobs', as well as adding new depths a to murder mystery challenge.
Philip K Dick, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (novel, 1974). If Dick doesn't make you paranoid you're probably not real. Here he explores celebrity and identity via a drug which snatches the targets of a users thoughts into a parallel reality.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). Noble savage meets techno-enhanced scientific rational future and comes off badly.
George Orwell, 1984 (novel, 1949). A vivid polemic on the human cost of political authoritarianism, whose original ideas and phrases - Big Brother, Room 101 - are now firmly in the mainstream.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (novel, 1953). State-administered book burning, anaesthetised life, an eloquent hymn to the power of the written idea.
Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan (novel, 1959). A starkly beautiful spiral through loneliness, omniscience and the meaning of life.
J G Ballard, The Disaster Area (short stories, collected 1967). A masterpiece of unsettling darkness. What happens if we switch off sleep? How does it feel to live in a towerblock of infinite height and breadth? What would life look like in reverse?
Raccoona Shelton, "The Screw Fly Solution" (short story, 1977). We succumb to aliens as screw flies succumb to our biological controls.....a pitchblack feminist nightmare.

I'm glad other people mentioned Stanisław Lem, Edwin A Abbott's 'Flatland' and Italo Calvino's 'Cosmicomics'.

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