A Year of Classic Science Fiction Books

Roughly a year ago, I obtained a 30-book series called "Masterworks of Science Fiction". Not a series in that each book continued the same story, but a series of what some consider the best Science Fiction novels since 1950. Many of these classic books had gone out of print, and the creators of the collection thought this a good way to bring them back... to the attention of a whole new generation of readers.

Since then I've been tearing my way through them. Fortunately, the version of the collection I stumbled on must have been about 10 years old. Since 2000 the complete collection has expanded from 30 to 73 books. Also, I had already read some of them. In all, I've made it through 17 straight and started three others. I still have a ways to go, but I was missing my usual History books. After a year of solid Science Fiction, I need a break.

Some authors were amazing in their ability to predict future technologies and their impact on society. Some were ominous, not due to accuracy in predicting future technologies, but by going a step further to where that technology would lead civilization in an even more remote future. Others were very effective at using a story to bring up evolutionary, sociological and even theological issues. 

I would do an inadequate job of reviewing all of them, but I would point out several that I think anyone might find worthwhile. I'd highly recommend you finding at least a couple of these classic books:

cities in flightCities In Flight (1955-1962): By James Blish, Cities is an omnibus volume of four novels chronicling the discovery of an anti-ageing drug and anti-gravity devices, and what happens as a result. The anti-ageing drug opens up the practicality of humans spending decades travelling the stars, the anti-gravity devices allowed entire cities to uproot and leave an Earth torn by war, poverty and sickness. The first part of the book covers the discoveries. The second, the beginning of the migration of cities from Earth to deep space. The last two parts cover the several hundred year history of New York City as it travels the universe, all the while under the leadership of a single Mayor, John Amalfi.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): There were four Philip K. Dick books in the collection and I had already read a couple of them. This one was the  basis for the movie Blade Runner (1982). An excellent post-apocalyptic story of escaped androids, the man hired to terminate them, and figuring out what it means to be human. If you enjoyed Blade Runner, this is also worth a read to note the differences between the book and the movie.

Case of Conscience (1958): Also written by James Blish, this book introduces a theological issue as the main plot point... fairly rare for science fiction. Jesuit Father Ruiz-Sanchez is part of a four-man team evaluating an alien race to determine whether their planet should be open to human contact. The aliens have no religion, yet appear to have a perfect sense of morality (no crime, conflict, petty desires, etc). This conflicts with the Father's Catholic teaching. If it's not of God, it must be of Satan, yet... per the Church, Satan does not have the power to create. Dilemma. 

Stand on ZanzibarStand on Zanzibar (1968): Written by John Brunner, Stand breaks the mold by slipping netween narrative styles, multiple points of view, and weaving in collages of newspaper clippings. While sometimes way off-target in seeing the future, Brunner often seems so prescient that at one point I had to double-check the year the book was written because I just couldn't believe it was from 1968. It's not a pleasant future Brunner envisions, and none of his characters come close to fitting the hero mold, but it moves fast by mixing information-rich chapters with those of action. The main plots concern a corporate takeover of a small African country and a breakthrough in genetic engineering, both set against the backdrop of a world of enourmous population and its impacts (social stresses, eugenics, extremism, etc).

Lord of Light (1968): Written by Roger Zelazny. This is a hard book to summarize, but it's set on a planet colonized by a spaceship from the remnants of Earth. To dominate the indigenous peoples, the crew and original colonists have used various means to enhance themselves and have devised a way to transfer their souls electonically to a new body before death, becoming essentially immortal. They've also taken on the names, trappings and powers of Hindu Dieties, instituted the Hindu caste system and used this to control future generations. The protagonist and his followers have rejected this and seek to empower the masses, setting up an eventual battle in the Heavens. A hard book to put down. 

More Than Human (1953): Written by Theodore Sturgeon. More Than Human suggests that the next step in human evolution may not be one marked by physical adaptation, but by a change in consciousness. The story chronicles the creation of a group of humans, each with unique powers, as they learn to blend their abilities and act as a single organism, "homo gestalt". 

The Forever WarThe Forever War (1974): Written by Joe Haldeman. Forever War chronicles the career of a conscripted soldier in an intergalactic war that lasts over 1000 years. Soldiers travel to and from battles via wormhole, allowing them to travel light-years in seconds (their time), but not in real time. While the first expedition lasts only a couple years from a soldier's perspective, on Earth decades have passed. There's a lot of military action, influenced greatly by the time shifts as units get ambushed by enemy technology that is decades more advanced than when they left for service. More significant is the observation of how life on earth changes between campaigns. The protaganist, who manages to survive multiple assignments, is faced on each return with a civilization that has become so alien and unpalatable to him that he continues to choose a life of military service. Even so, as he moves into officer positions he's forced to work with recruits he can't relate to. Another hard book to put down.

Behold The Man (1969): Written by Michael Moorcock. Hard not to give away the ending of this book. The protaganist is a poorly adjusted 20th century Englishman obsessed with Jung and religious issues. He manages to travel into time with the purpose of meeting Jesus and answering his burning questions. Along the way he meets John the Baptists, and gets personally involved in the events of the time.

Others I Liked: Through A Scanner Darkly (1977 - Philip K. Dick), Emphyrio (1969 - Jack Vance), Babel-17 (1966 - Samuel R. Delany), Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes - 1966), Martian Time Slip (Philip K. Dick - 1964), Ubik (Philip K. Dick - 1969), The Sirens of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut Jr. - 1959), The Drowned World (J.G. Ballard - 1962), Demolished Man (Alfred Bester - 1953), Timescape (Gregory Benford - 1980)

In Progress: Star Maker (Olaf Stapledon -1937), The Fifth Head of Cerberus (Gene Wolfe - 1972)

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