Thursday, March 2, 2017

SF Book Anniversaries: 2016 Review

 The last couple years I have chosen a few books to read that have an anniversary of first publication that year. My rule is that it must be a multiple of 50 years since the book was first published. I usually stick to novels, and they must be some sort of speculative fiction. I tend more toward science fiction than fantasy, because I find it interesting to see the future as imagined from the past. Last year I picked out four books to put together a panel at When Words Collide, but will not be doing that again as it was not well attended. I would still like to keep up my anniversary related reading, though, so I was thinking that I would try putting reviews of the books up on this blog instead. Meanwhile, here are a few notes on last year's books:
Utopia by Thomas More was published in 1516, and so celebrated its 500th anniversary last year. I will be very surprised if I find another book quite so old this time around! It is more descriptive than narrative on the whole, but still does have enough of a narrative framework to count as a novel. It deals with a journey to an imaginary country somewhere in the new world: a topical notion at the time of writing, when the reports of trans-Atlantic explorers were of great interest in Europe. It has quite a bit of mostly dry wit to it, but readers may wish to check a couple different translations to find one that flows well for them. Although Thomas More was English, he wrote the book in Latin. The book had a great deal of influence on later work, and so is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in the history of speculative fiction.
My next choice was The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing-World by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, published in 1666 (350 years ago). It is a novella rather than a novel, which is probably just as well because the writing has an amateurish quality which sometimes becomes tedious. Margaret Cavendish managed to make a name for herself as a female scientist at a time when that alone was ground-breaking, and she has a tendency to use her story as a means of displaying her opinions on various scientific topics. It soon becomes clear why her name is no longer remembered for science, since she displays a marked tendency to place herself against the very theories and methods that led to modern scientific developments. Nonetheless, there is something really fascinating about how she works out her ideas, and also about her gleeful self indulgence in creating her own world, and even writing herself into the story.
I fudged my own rules a bit to include Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling. First of all, it is a collection of stories, not a novel. The earliest surviving print version which can be assigned a date came out in 1766, 250 years ago. However, this was after the author's death, and it is likely that there were earlier versions in circulation. The book was originally written in Chinese, and my English translation did not include all the stories from the original, but I hope was a decent selection of the best stories. Pu Songling was a bit like Hans Christian Andersen, in that he collected stories, but made them very much his own. His stories are much more for adults than for children, and have a literary rather than a oral style to them. They include many fantastic elements from ghosts and fox demons, to dream journeys.
A theme I had found among all four books I chose in 2016 was a very strong political consciousness. The authors of all three books I have mentioned so far were clearly frustrated with their inability to change the many injustices they saw in the world, and turned to writing as a way to express their views. More was a parliamentarian who found himself in the service of an autocratic monarch, and in many ways his book is less about creating an imaginary society than critiquing the current one. Cavendish stated that she chose to be ruler of an invented world partly because she lacked scope to act in the real one. Pu Songling was frustrated after failing to advance as a scholar. He is said to have referred to his work as his "book of isolated indignation," and several of his stories dwell on injustices of his time, including official corruption.
The final book that I included was also very political. The sixties produced so many great science fiction books that it was challenging to pick just one book from 1966, but the one I ended up settling on was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. As the only modern novel of the group, this one definitely stands out as a narrative. The 'Loonies' are interesting as a hypothetical society, but the real interest of the story is in the way political action plays out within that society as the protagonists conspire to achieve independence from Earth. There are also strong threads of scientific speculation on topics including adaptation to the moon and artificial intelligence.
Along with dissatisfaction with society there often seems to be a yearning for some outside force to set things right. More's book is relatively guiltless on this count, perhaps because More had too much real experience with politics to buy in to that particular fantasy. Cavendish characteristically goes to the extreme, describing a fantastical invasion of one world by the denizens of a more advanced one, in order to place them under an idealized absolute monarchy. Pu Songling includes among his stories some tales in which otherworldly intervention brings justice in an unjust world. The equivalent for Heinlein is artificial intelligence. I found this a problematic aspect of the book. At the same time as the characters idealize individualism and free choice, the solution to their problems depends on an absolute adherence to a program of attack determined by a sentient computer. In a book that explores a lot of questions, the questions of whether such a godly machine is firstly possible, and secondly good for humanity felt a bit glossed over to me.

That may be a personal issue though. I find that certain SF tropes tend to feel somehow wrong to me: artificial sentience is one, and time travel is another. Perhaps if I could figure out just what it is that bothers me so, there would be some stories worth writing in that.

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