Thursday, February 2, 2012

Prodigal Son: Reading Science Fiction

Part Eighteen

    I’ve been eating up science fiction since I was a wee lad.  Give me laser blasters, space ships, giant alien lizards, and hot ladies (yes, the green ones too) in jumpsuits and I’m there.  Serious stuff, silly stuff, heroic stuff, and sleazy stuff.  I love it.  Not to say I’ll read anything.  Considering I’ve read several Star Trek novels, enjoyed the heck out of the Aliens/Predator books, and love Warhammer 40,000 stuff far more than it deserves (and much more than I enjoy the game), I’m actually quite picky when it comes to reading novels.  Like art or pornography, I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it.

    After several years with very little fiction outside graphic novels getting jammed in my brain, I recently went on a classic science fiction kick.  I read books by Andre Norton I’ve been meaning to check out since I was a kid.  I read the first in a long series of John Grimes novels by A. Bertram Chandler.  I even picked up a Halo novel set in that video game universe’s distant past (not gonna lie, I absolutely love the universe that game is sit in; the game is a ton of fun, too).  And then, this week, for some reason I don’t fully understand, I was prompted to order and pick up all (well, two aren’t out yet) of Poul Anderson’s ‘Technic Civilization’ books, which have recently been collected in a series of omnibuses (omnibi?) from publisher Bean.  I’d tried a Flandry novel many years ago, at my father’s suggestion, but for whatever reason, couldn’t get into it at the time.  Perhaps, the time is now…ish.  Flandry doesn’t show up until something like the fourth omnibus. 

    Going back to reading Alan Dean Foster’s Humanx Commonwealth books and Larry Niven’s Known Space stories in high school, not to mention Heinlein’s Future History, Frank Herbert’s Dune books, and Asimov’s Foundation a bit later, I’ve loved expansive, well thought out science fiction settings and the cool characters that frequently inhabit them.  I find myself trying hard to imitate the grandiose, sometimes bloated histories and mythologies of these settings in my own work, for what it’s worth, and to varying degrees of success.

    The kind of science fiction I’ve got in mind goes way back.  At least as far back as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (about to have a film version released as it turns 100 years old), and taken  up several notches by the likes of C.L. Moore with her Northwest Smith stories (as I’ve called them before, The Adventures of Han Solo as written by H.P. Lovecraft…with sex).  It’s the kind of star-hopping, rocket fueled adventure brought to the funny pages in Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.  (Burroughs’ John Carter and the Flash Gordon serials were probably the two biggest inspirations for Star Wars all those decades later).  But it probably had its time in the sun during the late 40s, the 50s, and early 60s, as the postwar era of hope and prosperity, along with the space race and fear of world ending atomic war, drove writers to envision star system and galaxy spanning civilizations, peopled with all sorts of cultures, creatures, beings, and ideas. 

    Each generation of writers built on, and/or reacted to the previous, creating waves of style and concept as technology changed, our culture changed, and our perception of ourselves and our future evolved.  At some point, the reaction against the boundless imagination and hope of earlier generations became the stronger element in science fiction, and the naysayers and neo-Luddites took control of the genre, preaching the evils of progress, the essential darkness and hopelessness of the human condition, and lots of other depressing, self-hating, anti-human nonsense the likes of which has rarely been achieved outside of French film or the Bible.  Not all of this post-Twilight Zone, post-hippie, irony besotted literature was (or is) bad.  And heck, I like a bleak dystopia as much as the next guy, and I’ll always have a place in my heart for cyberpunk.   But a lot of the wonder and thrill went out of the more popular science fiction.  I suppose it migrated over to the Tolkien disciples writing fantasy, but I couldn’t stick with that for long.  Too much ‘chosen one’ and stark ‘good VS evil’ dichotomy for my taste.  Not to mention that spells and demons were never as cool as blasters and aliens, even if their archetypal place within the story was essentially the same. 

    I don’t know if that logically brings me to my next point or not, but, onward I go.  One of the types of gaming I’m most interested in, but have had precious little experience of, is that Golden Age science fiction style adventure.  I’ve played a bit of Star Wars, run some Star Trek, Fading Suns, and Blue Planet.  But, I never played Traveller, which is solidly within the subgenre I’m grasping at.  I suppose there’s almost a spectrum, with Star Wars (and Fading Suns) on one end, and Blue Planet on the other.  Star Trek seems kind of off to one side, toward the Blue Planet end.  And Traveller would be the very center.  Kind of generic, yet balanced in a way that makes it special.  My recent discovery and purchase of Diaspora, which I’m sure was part of what got me back on this kick, seems tailored to my interests and gaming aspirations.  With a setting at just about the right balance that Traveller has, and a system more in tune with my low-maintenance, low-math, simple, quick and easy kind of gaming style, it may be just what I need and just what I want to play (hopefully soon).  

    So, putting together a good reading list for the sort of science fiction I am specifically enamored of at this moment, I’ve come up with a few selections.  They vary quite a bit, ranging across the above indicated spectrum, from the near fantasy of Dune (the RPG Fading Suns is on this end) to the semi-realistic techno-thriller of a Michael Crichton novel or Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (the RPG Blue Planet is somewhere in this area).  They appear on this list in no particular order. 

C.L. Moore- Northwest of Earth: A dashing rogue travels among the worlds of the Solar system, making a quick buck and battling nameless and ancient things that lurk in the shadows of dead and near-dead civilizations.  Moore’s stories manage to capture a lot of the cosmic horror of Lovecraft, but with a subtle humor and an undercurrent of disquieting sexuality that wasn’t all together common in her peers (though few were more asexual than Lovecraft). 

Larry Niven- The Known Space books, especially Ringworld, Protector, and The Integral Trees:  A super-science heavy, deep history featuring setting with lots of interesting characters and cultures.  This is some real Big Idea stuff.  Sometimes reading it, I get that very small feeling I get when looking at the night’s sky.  Don’t take that wrong.  I feel small.  I feel awed.  But I feel more alive than at any other time.  The universe is there.

Mike Resnick- His Far Future books, especially Santiago and The Return of Santiago:  Capturing some of the essential American Frontier vibe of classic Westerns, Resnick weaves myth with science fiction and creates magic.  Santiago was one of the most satisfying novels I’ve ever read.  It felt like I’d just sat across the fire from a master storyteller.  I imagine hearing Homer relate The Odyssey live would have felt something like it.  Also, if you enjoy Firefly’s special blend of science fiction and western, this should have plenty for you to love. 

Isaac Asimov- Foundation:  The Foundation trilogy is definitive Golden Age science fiction, with world-cities, sprawling civilizations, amazing technologies, and epoch spanning plots.  Like an archeologist finding the origins of our modern world in the remnants of ancient ruins, I found myself constantly picking up bits and ideas that would shape everything written after. 

E.C. Tubb- The Dumarest novels:  Though frustratingly difficult to get hold of right now, I’ve read a few of these, and the universe they create is interesting and exciting.  Dumarest is a wandering orphan of sorts, lost out there somewhere, just trying to find his way back home.  His home happens to be the mythological Terra, the supposed birthplace of humanity.  And some very bad people want to find it before he does.

Frank Herbert- His Dune novels:  Well deserving of its place as a classic of science fiction, I would argue that Dune is in fact simply a classic of literature in general, and should be much more widely read.  I even got a friend who HATES science fiction to read it, and he loved it.  It transcends genre like few others.  Juggling complex issues of science, religion, politics, and all the many things that we humans get up to when nobody’s watching, it features world building on a scale at least as big as Tolkien, but with masterful plotting and writing, too accompany.  And you know what?  I like all five of Frank Herbert’s sequel novels, too.  Yes, even God Emperor of Dune, a book where almost nothing happens for more than 400 pages, and I couldn’t get enough.  Herbert’s universe is grand, complex, heart stopping, sad, wondrous, and terrible.  And yet, as crazy as the specifics often become, at its heart, it always feels true enough to the world we live in. 

Andre Norton- Her Forerunner series:  What starts out as a fun but kind of forgettable Cold War era time travel story takes a turn for the crazy near the end, but doesn’t take it very far in The Time Traders.  However, not far into the second book, Galactic Derelict, things go bugnuts and this series demands to be put alongside Asimov as essential Golden Age reading.  Her career spanned a long time, and much of the latter two thirds doesn’t interest me one bit, but Andre Norton’s early work is top notch. 

Alan Dean Foster- The Humanx Commonwealth stories:  Foster has got to be one of the most prolific authors in the field, and sadly, that means he’s written a LOT of garbage.  However, most of the Humanx novels I have read (there are so many) have been good, and a few of them very good.  His particular setting feels very much in keeping with the above mentioned roleplaying game, Traveller.  And his books and stories span a lot of time.  I believe the most popular books from this setting are the Flinx and Pip adventures.  But my personal favorite is probably Nor Crystal Tears, a very cool first contact story told from the perspective of a Thranx, insect-like aliens who eventually become humanity’s greatest ally, but not without some serious problems.

    I still have to read more of Poul Anderson’s Technic Civilization, Jack McDevitt’s Hutch books, A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes series, and I have yet to even open Charles Ingrid’s The Sand Wars books.  And even from the above list, there are plenty of works I have yet to read, especially Niven and Foster.  And I left off a lot of stuff like the Halo and Warhammer 40,000 books, though some may very well be a part of what I’m talking about.  I’m also leaving off a lot of individual novels, like Richard Paul Russo’s Ship of Fools, because while quite good examples, frequently with lots of implied universe and history creation, they don’t do quite the same job of weaving worlds. 

    After quite a while of reading mostly non-fiction, it’s been nice to get back into reading novels and reminding myself of the wonder of classic science fiction.  It’s so rarely tapped in film, where I’ve always felt it could be stunningly realized if the effort were put forth.  Alas, for now, it’ll have to live in print and maybe, just maybe, in future sessions of a roleplaying game featuring yours truly. 


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