Science Fiction changed my life!
Much has been written about the effect the television show Star Trek has had on popular culture, and of the gadgets invented for the show 40 years ago which are now commonplace, or soon will be. The show continues to influence my view of culture, science, and philosophy on a daily basis. I own the books The Physics of Star Trek; The Metaphysics of Star Trek; Boldly Live as You’ve Never Lived Before; and I Am Not Spock. [major geek alert here!] This post however, is about science fiction novels and how and why they’ve influenced my world view.
I started reading Sci-Fi at an early age. My very first adventure was a book called You Will Go to The Moon (Freeman). When I was a child my school library did not have the most up-to-date selection. This book was published in 1959, a full ten years before NASA astronauts did go to the moon. It was created at a time when scholars analyzed language and chose words comprehensible to a 6-year-old for the “I can read it all by myself” series of books. I think I was about that age when I first read it. It describes very vividly in pictures and words what a trip to the moon would be like for an average person. I identified with the little boy in the book, and I really wanted to go! The book’s unusual second person directive style made a huge impact as well. There was no question in the authors’ minds: “You WILL go to the moon!” I hadn’t heard of NASA or cosmonauts or astronauts yet, and the book made it seem like this sort of space travel was just around the corner. <Sigh>. As I got older, some of my family wished I would go to the moon, and, preferably, stay there. 😉
I still want to go! In looking up the book for this post, I discovered that a user named ApeLad has posted the entire book on Flickr! This is exciting because it’s long been out of print. You can view the 38 pages as a slide show, and since it’s mostly pictures it’s a fast read.
After this, and convinced I’d be going to the moon “any day now”, I became an avid space fan, and read all the children’s books possible. Now that I’m much older, I still hold out a small hope of going to the moon, but humankind hasn’t been there for a long, long time. Instead, I’ve turned my attention to adult science fiction. I find I still love the gadgets and technical developments, but what I most enjoy are the sociological imaginings many Sci-Fi authors propose for their alternate civilizations.
In this category I would include almost all the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, particularly The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, The Word for World is Forest and The Hainish Trilogy among others. They’ve all had a profound effect on my world view, but it proved impossible to pick a favorite among them, so I’m deferring to three other authors. Here is a list of my all-time favorite Science Fiction novels. They generally have a large helping of science and gadgetry, and even more of social commentary, and, for good measure, a pinch of metaphysics thrown in. I’d thought of including such classics as Stranger in a Strange Land (that darling of the hippie generation) and Childhood’s End (the devil in new clothes), both of which I found thought provoking commentary on society, but they didn’t change me. These did:
#5: — Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint~~~This is the only book this author ever wrote. It’s more of a fantasy / adventure / thriller, really, than a Sci-Fi story, but I still feel it belongs on this list as it draws a richly detailed alternate reality. The science comes in the form of the event that turns the hero, Nick, invisible, and I found the descriptions plausible and fascinating. There is more science involved in discussion about how to “treat” the invisible man. Outside of this one element, though—the fact that Nick has become completely invisible and must use his own resources to exist in a world that wants to capture and control him—the setting and situations are contemporary, as they were 20 years ago. The author obviously knew New York City very well, and the book is partially a running love affair with the city. The descriptions of the “invisible life” are so richly detailed that reader believes them, and I was drawn into Nick’s world utterly. It’s the mark of a good novel, for me, when I both admire, and sometimes get a little annoyed with a character’s choices, and I imagine how I would handle a situation differently. It caused me to expand my view of how to define reality as I read the intriguing ways Nick copes with a totally alien yet very familiar life.
#4: — The Age of the Pussyfoot by Frederick Pohl~~~A novel about how life would be different if death were reversible. The social exploration is of interest here, and the author explores relationships from a unique perspective. What got to me in this book—and I can tell I’m intrigued by a novel if I read it several times—is the technology. Written nearly forty years ago, Pussyfoot examines a reality where everyone carries around a device called a joymaker (read iPhone?) by which s/he is continually connected to the city’s “central computing facility” (the Internet?). Through this device one can apply for a job, pay ones rent, order dinner, make new friends, and receive personalized drugs to alter ones mood. I borrowed this book from the library at a young age, and of course wanted my own joymaker. I don’t have an iPhone yet, but…
#3: — The Lantern of God by John Dalmas~~~Another thought provoking social commentary. After a spaceship crashes on an uninhabited planet, the crew unloads their cargo, as it’s too heavy to be transported on the now damaged ship. The “humans” go on to colonize another continent, while the cargo turns out to be sentient “pleasure droids” (don’t get me started on the meaning of those) 😉 . The settlements on both colonies thrive, and thousands of years later, the evolved “human” society decides to pay a visit to the evolved “droids”. It does not go as planned. The great themes in this novel are more social than sci-fi. We get to explore religion from a very different perspective than is usual in these kinds of books. The two societies have come to value different priorities and abilities. Though a minor sub-plot, I found one of the more compelling storylines was one character’s relationship with a sentient being who happened to live in the sea. The reason there had been no conversation between the two species before? No one had bothered to learn the sea creature’s language. The novel expanded my view of what is spiritually and mentally possible.
#2: — Gateway by Frederick Pohl~~~Gateway has it all: some “hard” sci-fi, such as advanced technology, travel to other planets and systems, reverse engineering, etc. The heart of the book, though, is a relationship between two prospectors, and between one of the prospectors and his computer-generated psychiatrist. It made me wonder how I and our society would feel and act if we came upon leftover machinery from a culture who’d abandoned their base. Our comfortable earth community would be forever changed. This is the first book in a trilogy, and I’d recommend the other two, but not the more recent “conclusion”.
#1: — The Reality Matrix by John Dalmas~~~Well, here’s the one this post is really about. Part physics, part Taoism, computer modeling, and game theory, the book is an alternate view of reality downloaded directly into author John Dalmas’ mind. He’s known for his series such as The Regiment and Farside. This book is a stand-alone cosmology of mind shattering proportions. It’s now back in print after a lag of some ten years. Get it! Get it! The novel speaks of a time when society is troubled; the economy is unpredictable, and people suddenly start to act crazy and shoot other people for no reason. Sound familiar? The problem seems to be a glitch in the “reality generator”. The quest to hunt down the problem and fix it before reality as we know it goes “critical” is the heart of the book. The concept of a reality generator, which can be reset if need be so reality can start over again, just blew my mind. The characters who get involved in the adventure—and yes, the clock is ticking—are a memorable lot, each bringing her/his life skills and strengths to the game. Visits to the “other side of reality” made me question everything I thought I knew about physical experience. Yes, this is “just” a novel, but if you read it you may find it’s one which becomes something so much more.