Books that shaped science fiction

Factoid of the Day: The invented word “scientifiction” was coined by Hugo Gernsback, editor of Amazing Stories magazine, in the 1920s, to describe the science-influenced adventure stories he was publishing. It was quickly superseded by the more practical sounding “science fiction.” The term “sci-fi” emerged in 1955.

A few weeks ago I finished the course Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World over at the innovative Cousera.org. The course was run by Professor Rabkin from the University of Michigan. Professor Rabkin is a charismatic, engaging lecturer and the course taught me new skills in reading, appreciating and analysing science fiction literature.

I won’t reveal too much of the content, because that would spoil the experience for future students, but I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learnt. I thought I’d recommend a selection of books from the syllabus–ones that I felt are especially fascinating to tackle, as they are books that shaped science fiction throughout history.

1. Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus (1818) – Mary Shelley

Frankenstein is arguably the first ever science fiction book. According to Prof. Rabkin, Shelley creates a new genre when she reverses the structure of the traditional Gothic mystery novel – she places the denouement in the preface and, from this key idea of a “created Man”, extrapolates the story. The story is a tragedy: Victor Frankenstein (actually the scientist, not the monster) possesses all the elements of his downfall from the beginning. To be honest, I found this book difficult because of the infuriating protagonist, but it’s a worthy read for its interesting epistolary structure, its consideration of the Creator/Nurturer link between Frankenstein and his monster, and for its treatment of scientific progress – a theme that is still relevant two centuries on! Such foresight, Ms Shelley! Also…Mary Shelley had a fascinating personal life, if you care to look into it.

2. The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) , The Invisible Man (1897) & The Country of the Blind (1904) – H.G. Wells


These books are an example of pure science fiction. Wells takes a fantastic idea and shapes a reality of sorts around it. In the Island of Dr. Moreau, he asks: what if there were a scientist who could turn beasts into men? What are the physical, intellectual, social and moral boundaries between animal and human? In The Invisible Man – what would happen if a man turned himself invisible? In the hauntingly intelligent short story The Country of the Blind – what if there were an isolated valley where a tribe of people had been blind for fourteen generations and lost all understanding of vision? Of these, I found The Invisible Man largely comical (and Griffin enjoyably despicable), Dr. Moreau and Country of the Blind horrifying in different ways, and Wells a master of experimental thinking.

3. A Princess of Mars (1917) – Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Barsoom series (eleven books in total, when finally collected) is an example of SF pulp fiction popular in the early 20th century. Burroughs and other pulp writers churned out entertaining stories in serial format on a regular basis. They wrote to live. A Princess of Mars is chock full of green- and red-skinned aliens, bloody battles, wild unbelievable spectral travel, and old-school American cowboy style heroism. And a busty princess thrown in for good fun. After you read this you can watch the recent Disney movie release, John Carter of Mars. It’s got Willem Dafoe voicing an alien.

4. The Martian Chronicles (1950) – Ray Bradbury

It took me a few chapters to get used to Bradbury’s style, but I’m so glad I did. Bradbury’s writing is brilliant, and the stories in TMC are the stuff of magic. Literally. It’s actually a collection of short stories that fit together in a thematic and also a chronological way, mostly set on Mars. Bradbury’s writing is magnificently human, clever, twisty, eerie and humorous. Why is this book important? Bradbury took science fiction out of the pulp and into the world of literature. Although, apparently, he regarded TMC as a fantasy book!

5. 1984 (1949) – George Orwell

This actually wasn’t on the course syllabus, but after reading Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, I knew it was finally time I met his older sibling. 1984 is an important and depressing book. The most frightening elements, to me, were the 1) the mutability of the past, and 2) the fact that you can’t leave a single mark of your own existence in Orwell’s dystopian world. You can’t write a book, a note, even a sentence on a piece of paper to pass on to the next generation. What then are you?

I also loved the essay parts of the book (Goldstein’s manifesto), though I struggled and had to read those bits twice. I love how he explained the seemingly contradictory slogans of the Party: FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, WAR IS PEACE, etc. 1984 is important not so much as a prediction of the future, but perhaps as a warning against certain things and certain patterns of thought.

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