Science fiction is, by far, one of my favourite genres.
I know a lot of people who really don’t like science fiction (or, for that matter, fantasy), mainly because Hollywood has stereotyped it as being aliens and invasions. It really isn’t, as I hope to demonstrate: it’s nearly as far from that as it’s possible to go, while still keeping that in the same genre.
Many people look at me as if I’ve grown a third head if I even suggest I enjoy it, let alone enjoy writing it. One of the main problems, I find, is there’s very little “good” science fiction left any more. My favourite authors, let alone the Great Three SF Writers, have mostly died out, leaving authors who really don’t have a grasp of the scale and beauty of science ficton.
Science Fiction or Fantasy?
The line between science fiction and fantasy is quite fuzzy. As it goes, many science fiction movies or books could better be classified as fantasy, and vice versa; and it’s also a surprisingly easy transition to push a text from fantasy to science fiction when writing it, and especially, I would think, while directing it. It’s some of the subtlest things that make a text science fiction, and not fantasy: the way they address situations, settings and events is detectably different between the two.
Broadly, though, I’d say fantasy focuses more on the challenges of human flaws, with the added problems posed by, for instance, magic or vampirism or wolvishness or any number of other attributes. One series I’ve read particularly recently uses a magical triad of realms, as well as the undead and witches, but it uses those elements to tell a story about human flaws.
Science fiction, on the other hand, revolves around the notion of science and technology being used to address those situations and events, and highlighting human flaws in such a way that we can respond to them, and this is where the line gets slippery — some books tackle both, but can only strictly be categorised in one way.
Being asked to select my favourite book or movie of all time is, therefore, a difficult challenge. I’ve read and seen a lot of science fiction, and thus picking a single particular text to be the top of the list is a difficult proposition.
The Art of Good Science Fiction
Science fiction and fantasy are really the ultimate tool for social commentary: a good author can construct society of their own that may mirror our own imperfectly, in such a way that the flaws of human nature clearly visible, and we can see them, and remedy them, against the backdrop of our own social and moral problems.
Sure, you can get good science fiction that tells a rollicking good story, and tackles all manner of aliens and monsters, but I don’t feel those stories are nearly as great. That said, some of my favourite science fiction doesn’t follow the “social commentary” model, but is my favourite because it reflects something about the time it was written that I particularly like, or about the time I read it.
So, here are a few of my favourites from across a few media, and why I love them as texts.
My Picks: Books
This is by far the hardest, because I take in more science fiction by reading it than I do by any other medium. In fact, some of the best science fiction can be found in short story anthologies: an example that springs to mind would be Nightfall, the Asimov classic. But here’s my list:
the Barefoot Times series: Barefoot Times, Call of the Delphinidae, Mind of the Dolphins and Cry of the Bunyips, with another book forthcoming — Jeff Pages
I really enjoy this series, because of how artfully written the science is. It’s a documentary of relationships, and it’s insightful about the way human interaction works, too.
Set in Australia, a real rarity in the science fiction that I’ve read, it’s an excellent reflection of political concerns about native title and science. The characters are well-constructed and believable, although their relationships are intricate and occasionally convoluted, but it is possible to follow even despite moments where one asks, ‘is that character actually alive in this timeline?’ The plot devices are explained enough and make enough sense that you could almost reach forward and grab the science and technology that powers the “subspace” and timelines of this set of universes.
Having read the series dozens of times, and performed sections of it, you’d expect it to have gone stale, but no: with each reading, there’s still a crispness and vitality that’s often lost in other works, and that’s one of the things that makes this one of my favourite books.
Dragondawn and All The Weyrs of Pern from the Dragonriders of Pern series — Anne McCaffrey
McCaffrey is more well known for her fantasy works, but there’s no denying that she can also write science fiction. Dragondawn and All The Weyrs of Pern, part of the mostly fantasy-focussed Dragonriders of Pern universe, are where it crosses over into science fiction, using all number of advanced technologies, and showing how the fantasy world becomes more realistic.
Dragondawn tells of the colonisation of Pern, and why the dragons of the series exist: a genetic engineering project on a massive scale, based on the “fire-lizards”, who can chew a coal-like substance and can belch flame, but modified to carry riders, all to protect the human settlements from a mycorrhizoid spore. And the great thing is, unlike the first (published) book of the series, this actually explains the mechanisms for their function and purpose, not just the political landscape.
All The Weyrs of Pern shows the “modern” Pernese rediscovering the first craft, buried at the end of Dragondawn by a volcanic eruption, and recovering the initial scientific and technological skills of their ancestors, merging fantasy with science fiction in a masterful way.
McCaffrey’s work ticks the social reflection boxes by again providing a mirror of our own society, albeit less technologically advanced, for the majority of the stories in this universe.
the Known Space universe — Larry Niven
Known Space is a series of books and short stories, all taking place within a scientifically advanced world. Dozens of planets have been colonised by humans, and all manner of aliens have been encountered. Bussard ramjets, fusion engines, Dyson spheres (or, rather, Dyson strips, because Dyson spheres are a grand theory — almost too grand, in fact) all make routine appearances in the books, all theoretically possible.
Niven rode the cutting edge of cosmology, theoretical physics, applied physics, xenobiology, to produce a world that mimics the politics of our own, but has a few more problems to boot. Alien liaison, naturally, but also the limits of human exploration. All in all, these books are truly fantastic.
the Dune trilogy (of twenty-odd books) — Frank Herbert, with Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson
Dune is, far and away, the best-known of the legendary-scale science fiction, and could almost classify as a “space opera”, except it’s not set in space (compare, for instance, The Saga of Seven Suns by Kevin J. Anderson). The first book of the “trilogy”, Dune, creates a desert world, drawing strong inspiration from Islam and the Middle East, and set against the backdrop of a world that has been, by our standards, crippled by a technology jihad and endless warring between the Great Houses.
A reflection of our own world at the time of writing in the fifties and sixties, but later augmented by the technology of our more modern world in the countless sequels and prequels, the series has become an acknowledged master-work of the genre, with numerous references flowing into popular culture.
The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — Douglas Adams
“… starring Peter Jones as the Book.”
H2G2, as it’s occasionally referred to, is one of the seminal works of science fiction, and ticks the “social commentary” box so hard it tore through the page. With adaptations to radio, television and film, the H2G2 series, characterised by intense science, droll humour and incredible wit, is much loved, and is often cited as an inspiration by Adams’ contemporaries.
H2G2 has filled a hole in our society that really didn’t exist. It reflects on the human condition excellently, exaggerating elements of our lives such as the over-technologisation predicted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rise of known mental illnesses such as depression.
The City and the Stars — Arthur C. Clarke
This is a truly classic work of science fiction, and is one of, by far, my favourite of the works of the Great Three SF Writers (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein and Bradbury). The City and the Stars is is commonly considered one of Clarke’s most perfect stories, and the notion of a universe within a universe, the diaspora of Diaspar and the true depth of human shame show themselves in this masterwork.
More than Blade Runner, I feel, does this book deal with themes of the environment, both the damage we have done to it, and that damage it has done to us. As wih the protagonist’s regular discussions about the nature of the city reveal, a perfect utopia and a perfectly “free” society have been common themes of many works, not just science fiction, but the way that City tackles them is truly beautiful.
The City and the Stars is that rarity: a novel in two versions, both of which are in roughly equal circulation. I haven’t read Against the Fall of Night (not to be confused with Nightfall, Asimov’s opus maximus) but the plot and characterisation differences make them two wholly unique books, with entirely different tones. Yet, City, one of my most loved reflections on the way society is failing, has failed to garner a serious audience beyond those who enjoy science fiction. This is one of the many novels that can truly change the way an individual looks at the world around them, because of the distortions that Clarke has liberally applied to our own society.
Billions of years of humanity, with exactly the same flaws, preserved perfectly.
A Fall of Moondust — Arthur C. Clarke
A Fall of Moondust is a staple of the genre, now: the idea of being marooned, racing against an implacable clock in an incredibly inhospitable environment. Clarke’s style puts a novel spin on what is now an overused trope of bad science fiction.
Moondust is a projected US/Soviet future, from the shallower end of the cold war, but in a much more spaced-up Earth, with permanent bases on the moon, expeditions to Pluto, and space stations at Lagrange points (an orbital eccentricity based on the way that barycentres behave); only fairly recently have satellites been placed into the Earth-Sun Lagrange points. Moondust also has a habited “far side” of the Moon, and, although the tyranny of light-speed has not been conquered, the world itself, if not the whole solar system, by television.
Like most of the books on this list, it captures a time and a place perfectly, and shows human flaws, human urges and human desires to a tee. It also, indirectly, hints at the constancy of connection that has enveloped our lives now.
Neuromancer — William Gibson
William Gibson is that rarity, an author who creates a genre. Neuromancer is heralded as being the founding work of the cyberpunk genre, a subset of science fiction that focuses on the way technology is received in society. With Neuromancer’s drug-using, matrix-inhabiting criminal computer cowboys, it’s hard to find a place to stop loving this book.
This book is still incredibly influential in computing circles, let alone in literary ones. Recent advances in consumer virtual reality technology have heralded a game called “Case and Molly”, for the two protagonists of Neuromancer, which set out to imitate the chip implanted in Molly’s optic nerve, or the digital matrix that Case knows so well. And, of course, The Matrix follows nearly directly in the heritage and ideas of Neuromancer.
For all its pioneering style, Gibson’s novel is one of the most artful of the novels to grace bookshelves everywhere, and its impact on society is immeasurable, both in the way it predicts the direction that technology, cybernetics, corporatism and security are heading, and in the way it captures the flavour of our world perfectly, entombing it in paper.
The Mote in God’s Eye — Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
I’ve read three books by Niven and Pournelle; in reverse order, they are Lucifer’s Hammer, Footfall and The Mote in God’s Eye. And I’m glad I read them in the order that I did, because Mote is by far the best of these three, and I found the former two to be agonisingly boring. Yes, it’s possible for science fiction to go wrong to even the best authors.
Mote is an alien contact story. But it evokes very strongly the Iron Curtain of the Soviet era, or the chained country of North Korea, in the way it operates. Humanity is represented as being a dysfunctional wreckage, although the characters within this novel are definitely some of the best characters I’ve read: Rod Blaine and Sandra Fowler are, far and away, the most human characters in a series. But it’s not just them, because every individual, even the somewhat despotic Kutuzov is incredibly human and portrayed as such, which is excellent, because when the “Moties”, the aliens, start mimicking the humans, the uncanny valley starts looking too shallow.
Mote has a sequel, where Blaine goes back to see that Motie civilisation, which naturally undergoes radical boom/bust cycles, has collapsed back to a mediaeval state. I haven’t read The Mote in Murcheson’s Eye, and have seen reviews suggesting it’s just as junk as the other Niven/Pournelle books, but the premise seems sound. In fact, the whole Mote storyline is of a sufficiently grand scale that a film adaptation would be, if it were done right, an utter masterpiece, simply because it’s so difficult to get wrong.
Mote does the “first contact” story incredibly well, and far from seeing it as an overused trope, this book makes it enlivens it again, by capturing characters, capturing humanity, in a storyline where the very humanity of humanity is questioned.
the Barsoom series — Edgar Rice Burroughs
Edgar Rice Burroughs is probably not best known for his science fiction. More in the pulp line of popular fiction, he’s well known for the Tarzan books. But he wrote science fiction — the Barsoom series — and it’s not too bad, although still fairly pulpy.
A well-built, twenties-era US army gentleman somehow gets transported to Mars, known to the natives as “Barsoom”. Hijinks ensue. Will he get the girl? Oh, he does. It’s not particularly thrilling or unpredictable (and, in fact, I dread the notion that Hollywood is adapting this for the big screen because it will be boring as hell) but it’s earned a place because of the way it captures, yes, character, and the time of writing.
Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury
The fourth of the Great Three SF Writers, Ray Bradbury is perhaps best known for his dystopic, apocalyptic novel, Fahrenheit 451, a title chosen because that is allegedly the temperature that book paper burns at. This is, much like about a quarter of The Mote in God’s Eye, a book about censorship and freedom of speech, set in a world where books are burned.
451 beautifully covers the pre-Cold War suspicion, and was published in the 1960s, amid the furore of the McCarthy era. As books go, it’s a chillingly accurate reflection of our own society – so chilling, in fact, that I have only fairly recently managed to finish, at last, this book. It’s captivating, resonating and terrifying, playing back a projection of our own society onto the parlour walls.
The Illustrated Man — Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s other famous book is, in fact, a collection of short stories, all following a theme. The Illustrated Man is the reason I’m terrified of tattoos: the man in the story sees a sign for “body illustrations”, takes up the offer, and finds that his tattoos move. They tell stories, and the fifteen short stories in this book are framed by the unnamed Illustrated Man’s body. A sixteenth space eventually shows the fate of any viewer.
As short story anthologies go, this one is a cracker, much like I, Robot by Asimov. Each story captures unique, but thematic, ideas of the human condition, in ways that strike scarily close to home.
And I’m still scared of tattoos.
My Picks: Film
2001: A Space Odyssey — Stanley Kubrick (1968)
Often heralded as the ultimate science fiction film, this is quite a polarising work, and people will often find they do not understand it (and therefore do not like it), or they understand it (and therefore do not like it). In my opinion, it’s not possible to understand this film, but that’s the draw of this film: ambiguous storytelling, something that’s incredibly poorly utilised in modern cinema, with most directors being too heavy-handed in their use of it.
2001 was originally a short story, The Sentinel by Arthur C. Clarke, which I enjoyed, having read it in a short story anthology. The universe spun by Clarke and Kubrick here is so much more than that of Sentinel, though, and it shows: the novelisation of 2001 is, in my opinion, one of the worst film novelisations ever. As a standalone work, it’s excellent, but it’s dwarfed by the monolith (hahahahahahahahahah) that is the movie. The sequel books (and film adaptation of 2010, described as “conventional”) were flops, in my opinion: I didn’t enjoy them at all, as they were simply dwarfed in artistic execution, although the premise and plot were strong.
I’ve seen this movie countless times, and I still get something fresh from every viewing. It’s an incredibly precisely metered and well timed exploration of humans and space, featuring some of the best visual effects thanks to the work of Douglas Trumbull (who also did Blade Runner, Star Trek, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to name a few), and marvellous cinematography thanks to one of the best directors in the history of Western cinema.
2001’s haunting soundtrack is another thing entirely. It complements the notion of space so beautifully, and Kubrick, of course, understood that space is silent, something very few people have remembered of late. This film is the foundation of several tropes, has been interpreted, satirised, cut and dried dozens of times, yet it’s still a masterwork of cinematography and science fiction.
And it’s because it is social commentary that this film excels. Human limitations are unmasked. Reflections of the social impact of the space race on the Cold War-era United States (and the Western world as a whole) are scattered liberally throughout the film.
Metropolis — Fritz Lang (1929)
The science fiction film everyone forgot, Metropolis is a landmark of cinema. The most expensive silent, black-and-white film ever produced, then partially lost, some scenes are still ingrained into the collective social psyche.
Often interpreted as a retelling of the Biblical “Tower of Babel” story, Metropolis is so much more: a social commentary on the notion of a worker underbelly which fuels a giant top-heavy city. The notion of cybernetics, still in its infancy, plays spectacularly in this film, as does a beautiful conveyance of the city even in black and white, harnessing some of the most brilliant and cutting-edge cinematic effects. “They do it with mirrors, you know,” and that’s exactly right for this film, even despite the steam-powered city.
This film has a stunning score by Gottfried Huppertz, although it also has scores by dozens of others; Queen, for instance, contributed to the score of an early-80’s restoration of the film, with the song “Radio Gaga”, whose video clip uses Metropolis-esque scenes.
This is a movie I can watch over and over again. Society is captured beautifully by it.
Blade Runner — Ridley Scott (1983/1993/2007)
At the time of its inception and production, a variety of social concerns, including globalisation, consumerism and digitisation and concern about scientific advances in genetic engineering and biology, all heavily weighed on the collective conscience. Blade Runner swirls these around with a mixture of film noir, the gothic, and speculative fiction and science fiction to produce possibly one of the most well-known science fiction films.
Blade Runner is another of the “ambiguous” films, masterfully constructed by Ridley Scott, yet following all the tropes of a film noir artwork. It’s also considered something of a homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but Blade Runner is, in fact, based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, one of the most adapted science fiction novelists of all time, and a jolly good book to boot. While Blade Runner doesn’t follow Do Androids Dream to a letter, the similarity of ideas is present, with Scott’s work more focussed on biotechnology and biomechanics, as opposed to cybernetics and neuroscience that characterises the book.
More strongly noted in Do Androids Dream is the idea of a religion (named ‘Mercerism’) similar to religions and ideas we recognise today, but infused strongly with what we would call ‘consumerism’; the film channels the infancy of globalisation and consumerisation into a dystopic future, a unique feature of the speculative fiction sub-genre. The ever-present, penetrating advertising shown in the Los Angeles of 2019 — brands such as Coca-Cola, Pan-Am, Bell, all representing major market powers at the time of production — merely serve to reinforce this connection, and especially the blimps, advertising a new life on the ‘Off-World Colonies’ (one of very few harder science fiction ideas in this decidedly soft science fiction work) or the mysterious pills constantly being popped by beautiful women, mirroring and distorting our own (current) world impeccably.
Film noir, too, heavily influences this film. Especially with the original theatrical release of this movie, an overlaid narration by Harrison Ford adds elements of the 1950’s and 1960’s mystery and crime fiction film, evocative of Raymond Chandler’s work. Even though the narration, which clearly disambiguates much of the film, has been stripped away from both the Director’s and Final Cuts, other filmic elements, such as defining use of light and shadow, smoke and mirrors to obscure identity and morality.
During the 1980s, technological advancement proceeded with a rapid pace, as integrated circuits continued shrinking. Notably, Apple and IBM computers personal, while Sony made music portable, showcasing digitisation as the direction of the future. The Blade Runner universe is an eccentric fusion of this technology, projected nearly forty years forward from the 1980s, with elements of the gothic genre. An Earth inspired, perhaps, by Metropolis (or the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel), both of which feature a world divided into an aristocratic upper-city (seen very clearly through Tyrell’s building) and the under-city, where Deckard prowls. Tyrell’s building hints at a religious structure, possibly one of the only ones left in what appears an atheist future, clearly influenced by pyramidic constructs of the Mayans, and we are first shown it against a backdrop of majestic horns from Vangelis’ soundtrack, one of the more memorable movie soundtracks of all time.
The Replicants in the movie, while clearly inspired by the ‘andys’ of the book, are wholly different: they are entirely organic, biological creatures, quite probably derived from human stock but ‘enhanced’ by the hand of Dr. Eldon Tyrell — an idea evocative of the creation in Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Impervious to pain, resistant to extremes of heat, cold and radiation, fully conscious (if not more so than some of the other characters in this film), it is not a hard leap to see these artificial characters as the protagonists. Replicants are rapidly becoming science fact, no longer science fiction, due to the efforts of Franklin, Crick and Watson in identifying DNA, and the work undertaken since its discovery up to the time that ‘Blade Runner’ was produced. Efforts like the Human Genome Project, standing in the 1990s, and the cloning of Dolly the sheep, merely serve to highlight how much power humans have over biology and biotechnology, as predicted by the film.
Blade Runner is a nuanced, technical film, artfully capturing society of the 1980s. It’s become a cult classic, and, even as November 2019, the setting of the film, draws near, the film is still relevant (much in the same way that 2001 is still relevant) because it’s truly classic: it truly captures an era.
Contact — Robert Zemeckis
Adapted from the Carl Sagan novel of the same name, Contact is the classic first-contact film, and it’s another excellent testament to the social landscape of the time of its creation, particularly the war between religion and science to control politics.
Contact caters more to the popular expectations of what an alien meeting would be. With just enough science to make it look good, this film pushes the bounds of “science fiction” as it tries to be mainstream turned out by Hollywood.
It does succumb, somewhat, but it’s not too bad. I’ve seen worse movies. And Contact really is masterful science fiction, ticking all the boxes that one would expect from a social reflection as much as an exercise in film-making that satisfies the movie marketing machine. Contact is really the last of a breed of grand science fiction before it became truly broken by the marketing machine.
Star Wars — George Lucas
I’ve included this here because of the sheer social impact. In 1977, when the credits first rolled up the screen, the science fiction film world was changed forever, and not necessarily for the worse. Star Wars captures the late-70’s space fever, still cooling off from the US-Soviet space race of the 60’s, and opened up a world that existed long, long ago, in a galaxy far away.
The technology companies that came out of the series, too, were almost as impressive as the technology in the film, and the pioneering cinematography that captured it. Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, Lucasfilm Animation, LucasArts, Skywalker Sound, THX and Kerner all can claim to be a side-effect of George Lucas’ incredible series.
Star Wars was a fun series of films to watch, and, while it’s not on my “watch compulsively” list, I’m looking forward to see what Disney does with the franchise.
My Picks: Television
By far and away, my favourite of the television science fiction is
Doctor Who — Sydney Newman; Verity Lambert (1963-89, 1996, 2005-)
As Matt Smith so badly put it, “never apply logic to Who”. That’s why this cult science-fiction classic has graced our screens for just on fifty years (exactly fifty in just a few weeks). Doctor Who has been a cornerstone of the way science fiction has shaped society, and is, near enough, the perfect example for why science fiction is such a key part of our social norms.
The premise — a mad man travelling with a magic box and some friends — is not new. But the original philosophy of the show: as a children’s education tool (which is why Barbara and Ian, two of the three initial companions, were school teachers) truly made the show what it was. Once it started shifting towards pure science fiction, it became even more interesting. Time travel is a staple in science fiction, and Doctor Who is one of the shows that allowed that to happen.
Doctor Who also employs a plot mechanic that has become one of its trademarks: the ability of the titular character to “regenerate”, to completely change his appearance and personality, whilst remaining the same person underneath. It’s a running joke that every regeneration sequence’s special effects (until the new series, at least) were completely different, but it did allow a show that may have simply sat down and died in 1966, when William Hartnell’s health began to fail, to continue, nearly indefinitely (provided the writers weren’t complete twits).
The notion of a whole race of observers of the universe, both through space and time, is also a unique one, although now a more common one, since the mythos around the “Time Lords” started to be revealed from the mid-1970s onwards. The canonical universe is that of the television series, but countless books, both print and audio, exist, all of which create subsets of the universe to play in, and with an endless set of Doctors and companions to choose from, it’s really not that hard to pick a set of characters you like and to run with them.
Doctor Who has really only survived because it’s stayed topical. Characterised by Matt Smith’s Doctor’s disgust towards Twitter in the modern series, it’s a great theme of the show that it attempts to, and succeeds, in remaining relevant from week to week. And being topical and serial, it can tackle humanity incredibly well, changing as we do.
Firefly — Joss Whedon
Firefly is the traditional crew-on-a-ship space drama with a western twist, and with the most eclectic characters (and cast!) of any such show. The cult television series that should never have been cancelled, Joss Whedon’s Firefly (and the follow-up movie, Serenity) is one of my favourite television series of all time, because Joss’ vision was so grand and so deep and far-reaching. The attention to detail in the universe of this series is immense, and the character interplay is, by far, the factor that makes this series legendary.
Fringe is certainly science fiction. With crossing timelines, fringe and psedo-science and characters whose existence varies from week to week, this is a well-received and incredibly well-written series, and while I haven’t finished it, I look forward to doing so.
I didn’t pick a large number of things.
Babylon 5. Star Trek. The X-Files. The Seedling Stars. Ender’s Game. The Lensman books. The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Name a science fiction book, movie or television show, and I probably haven’t seen or read it, or, quite rarely, haven’t heard of it. But many, if not all, of the same rules apply to those texts too: they use an unfamiliar or unusual environment to artificially exaggerate some element of humanity, to show the defect or flaw, and to show us it exists.
Science fiction is a master genre. The loss of so many of the great authors – Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Herbert, Sagan, van Vogt, McCaffrey, Adams, Burroughs – and the fact that many of the greats who are still around aren’t writing books I appreciate any more, makes the genre difficult, and Hollywood’s horrifying attempts to capitalise on what is, in reality, a beautiful genre, have truly set it back.
Here’s to the greatest genre in the galaxy!