May 29 2014

Mandatory Reading: Five Classic Sci-Fi Novels that Changed the Way I Look at the World

Published by at 11:00 am under Books,Lists

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Since I’m going to be discussion true literary classics this week, I feel like I should get us in the mood with a suitably pretentious and overused quote from a dead famous person. Pablo Picasso defined art as “the lie that enables us to realize the truth”, and conceptual science fiction in particular takes this timeless observation to heart. It’s a genre that almost by definition strives to take modern day stupidity and fast forward it to its logical future conclusions.

As somebody who has spent his entire life captivated by the most imaginative aspects of fiction and storytelling, it makes sense that a lot of the values I’ve grown into would be reflected in some of those works. Sometimes I read a novel and it opens up my mind to endless possibilities or it puts into words feelings that I’ve always had but had never effectively crystalized. The joy of writing is not only in sharing thoughts and feelings with other people, but in the process of defining those thoughts for yourself so they can be shared in verbal form.

The best stories are the ones that hold personal relevance to your life and the world you live it in. Here are five bonafide science fiction classics I’ve read throughout my life that stuck in my brain, helped me define my values, and in doing so contributed in part to making me the person I am today. Sure, that person is a cynical, antisocial geek who derives pleasure from anarchy, but he still finds childlike joy in exploring this world through allegory, metaphor, and stories where people die horribly so here we are. Nick Verboon: this is your life.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Yeah, I know; Mary Shelley’s masterpiece is a gothic horror novel. But its central premise of a scientist who seeks to conquer death by creating life is pure science fiction. Conceptual sci-fi speaks to the possibilities of future technology and its possible impacts on human society, and Frankenstein meets and exceeds that standard.

Frankenstein’s monster represents so many things and there are so many ways to approach the story there’s no way to cover it all here. He’s a symbol of technology exceeding man’s ability to control its results and he’s an icon of the disenfranchised who were born into a hostile world that doesn’t understand or accept them. He’s the Devil to Frankenstein’s God; a being who never asked to be created in the first place and never had a say in how he was made, but is forced to suffer the consequences and bear the burden regardless. In one way or another, we’re all Frankenstein’s monster.

Reading Frankenstein in college during my tour of all things horror gave voice to so much that was going on my head at the time, but hadn’t really come together yet. The idea of the sins of the father, of being different and shunned because of things outside of your control, of not being in control of your own destiny in spite of attempts to better yourself, and of disenfranchisement turning into cold anger and eventually vengeance was something that really spoke to me at the time and made me ponder the world at large and our places in it on a whole different level.

The story works on a socio-political level, as a science fiction/horror story, as a philosophical study, and even as a religious argument. Does the created owe fealty to the creator or does the creator bear responsibility for the deeds of that which he brings into the world? It’s a question that speaks to everything from the parent-child relationship to man and God, and possible future technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloning. Any way you look at it, this is one of the greatest books of all time, sci-fi or horror.

 

Fahrenheit 451

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Ray Bradbury’s dystopian masterpiece remains a cultural touchstone over sixty years later because the concepts have not lost their power. In fact, they’re arguably more relevant than ever, as is often the case with these kinds of tales. People naturally equate the story with the negative connotations of book burning, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’ a parable designed to teach us the value and meaning of freedom and tolerance.

When I read Fahrenheit 451, I saw a story the power of art and fiction to stoke imagination and independent thought. Self-expression is the thing that makes us human more than anything else and the idea that a governing body would try to stifle that and render the masses as nothing more than exploitable commodities like cattle is deeply disturbing to me.

Now understand that when I poo-poo arguments demanding that we ban comics with girls in skimpy clothing and movies or shows with politically incorrect humor and the like, I’m not supporting oppression of minorities. I’m opposing it. Human expression is an extremely individual thing and attempting to control it is the very spirit of oppression. Each true artist is a minority of one and nobody should have the right to tell them what they can and cannot create in fiction. And who exactly has the right to decide what entails a true artist? Nobody, I suppose. It’s entirely subjective, hence the need for tolerance.

The only possible way to insure any semblance of equality is to allow EVERYONE to express themselves freely, regardless of taste. By individually or collectively attempting to limit creativity to only what we deem acceptable and suggesting that anything potentially offensive is unacceptable, we fail to follow the logic to the inevitable result.

Pretty much everything is offensive to somebody on some level. In Fahrenheit 451, society has reached the end game of this stupidity, in which people are no longer allowed to create for themselves at all. The government decides what’s okay and that’s what they get, no questions asked. Everything else burns.

Anticipating modern culture, Bradbury’s fictional society went so far as to have installed televisions in entire walls of homes. The characters in the inane programming were referred to as “the Family”. They serve as both a universal fixation and a substitute for real human interaction. Who’s up for some reality TV? Personally, I’d rather read a good book.

 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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I remember that I read this one in grade school after seeing the live action Disney film adaptation and being taken with it. I read it again a few years ago and it occurred to me that there is no way I understood it at the time. Nonetheless, it left its mark. I may not have grasped all of the scientific terminology, but the notion of a man choosing to forgo society entirely and live a truly independent life on his own terms is something that’s inspired me my entire life.

Self-reliance and isolation have been themes of my life since a very early age and there’s something really great about Jules Verne’s portrayal of a man so fed up with the corruption of world governments that he literally builds an advanced underwater vehicle, the legendary Nautilus, which is designed to allow him to live a sustainable existence under the sea.

In addition to his extreme antisocialism, Captain Nemo is a man fascinated by the unknown which leads him to tirelessly explore every attainable facet of the world he can reach using his submarine. He’s an explorer that does so not for any recognition, but just because he’s curious. Knowledge gained for its own sake is the best knowledge.

Although Nemo is often described as the “mad sea captain”, I’ve always seen him as kind of inspirational in his pursuit of absolute freedom, even if I don’t share his propensity for violence. Then again, I’ve never understood how if a man kills for his own personal vendetta he’s a maniac, but if he kills those who’ve done him no wrong because someone else tells him to he’s a hero. Maybe there was something to that crab’s song from The Little Mermaid. “Under the sea we off the hook” indeed.

 

Jurassic Park

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Wait, wait, wait. Now I’m saying Jurassic Park changed the way I look at the world? Dude. It’s about dinosaurs eating people. Well yeah, but there’s more. Specifically, Michael Crichton’s exploration of chaos theory, which has been a driving force in the way I look at and anticipate problems in my life. And to think I just read the novel in high school because I thought dinosaurs are cool.

The theme of the story, which is touched on but not elaborated on in the film, is that perfect order is something that cannot be maintained indefinitely. The universe is a cycle of varying degrees of order and chaos. Chaos eventually finds order that same order will eventually fall back to chaos. It’s inevitable; a force of nature. This is a very practical way of looking at the world and once you grasp it, you see it everywhere.

Crichton went so far as to include diagrams illustrating the systematic breakdown of any given pattern given enough time for individually imperceptible flaws to accumulate like a rolling snowball becoming an avalanche. Once I started looking at things with chaos theory in mind, the world made a lot more sense to me and it granted me a lot of perspective and peace of mind in a time where I really needed those things. When you know everything is going to go to shit and that shit will eventually work itself out, it makes you appreciate what you have while you have it and makes it a lot easier to adapt and let go of things you can’t change.  It takes one hell of a writer to infuse that level of profundity into a story about dinosaurs eating people.

1984

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This is another one of those novels where once you understand it, you can’t stop seeing it in everything around you. Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece illustrated and even anticipated various techniques that are used to control the way we think, and did a decent job of portraying how technology would be used to monitor us for compliance even if the timeline was off by a few decades.

With Microsoft’s Kinect utilizing tech startlingly similar to the emotion-reading cameras, internet hiveminds behaving as amateur thought police, corporations owning the news and controlling the flow of political information, and the government utilizing both the internet and cell phone technology to spy on our lives at will, 1984 borders on prophecy.

Other ideas Orwell put forth that are coming to pass include the government staging a perpetual war that they never intend to finish and the systematic devolution of effective language with the end game of rendering people literally unable to verbally express or even form independent thought beyond what they’re told because language has been stripped of any meaning and nuance. Declaring war on abstract concepts much, America? Ever tried asking a raving wannabe political activist what the actual meanings of the words “liberal” and “conservative” are?

I could spend all day listing things that 1984 put forth in the 40’s that are coming to fruition in this generation, but that stuff’s like potato chips. It’s too tempting to keep popping one after another. The point is having read this book the world becomes a much more disturbing place. It leaves you to consider whether Orwell had a mind way ahead of his time or if governments have been using it as an instruction manual.

So that’s how tales of man-eating dinosaurs, an emo zombie, sea tourism, firemen who set fires, and Big Brother conspiracies can change the world. Or at least the way you perceive it. They don’t make ‘em like these anymore, but the thing about the classics is that they last forever. There’s something comforting in knowing that no matter how many willfully ignorant reality shows and vapid blockbusters get rammed down our throats, they’ll always be out there opening minds and inspiring the uninspired.





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6 responses so far

  • David R

    Gah, I need to read 1984. One of those books that keeps slipping through the cracks for me. Will rectify soon. All the others are great, though — Crichton doesn’t really get enough love IMO. I learned so much from his books, particularly his earlier ones. Also, how does Frankenstein even exist? Amazing.

    Five off the top of my head that would possibly be on mine. I still need to read 1984 and Foundation, both of which I would imagine could be included if I had.

    DUNE — No one thing, but this book is loaded with great little philosophical nuggets.
    UNWIND — An emotionally taxing look at what happens when we take away the value of certain categories of people.
    ENDER’S GAME — The exploitation of excellence, the nature of violence and combat, and the mechanics of teamwork and power.
    ALL-STAR SUPERMAN — Just the most gloriously optimistic thing ever.
    BRAVE NEW WORLD — Our appetites and ignorance are complicit in our own domination. Pursuit of pleasure over deeper, more spiritual/philosophical happiness invites a world of no substance. Removal of consequence takes meaning with it.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      Damn it, what happened to my original response? Anyways, I just finished Brave New World. Interestingly, my edition included a letter from Huxley to Orwell comparing their two dystopian visions. Pretty cool. BNW is something that could potentially happen in a few hundred years, but 1984 is something that you can see happening right now and it’s the darker of the two novels for sure. I’d much rather live in BNW, messed up as it is.

  • Steve

    “There’s something comforting in knowing
    that no matter how many willfully ignorant reality shows and vapid
    blockbusters get rammed down our throats, they’ll always be out there
    opening minds and inspiring the uninspired.”

    Until humanity burns all the books probably for the 100th time in human history. Then we’ll have to wait for the next one to come along, open everyone’s eyes, be littered with controversy, eventually come true, all the books are burnt again. Rinse, repeat.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      Ooh, you’re even more cynical than me! Well done, sir.

  • Benjamin Shidler

    This might make me sound unbelievably naive but… Hitchhiker’s Guide. I was maybe 11 or 12 when I read it for the first time, and my mind was totally blown when the earth exploded in like chapter 2. I know, I know, but keep in mind this was pre-Internet and I’d never heard of the book before, just picked it up while browsing the library because it had a funny cover. All I knew of sci-fi prior to that was Star Trek, and HHGTTG broadened my horizon to all the possibilities of the genre.

    • http://nickverboon.wordpress.com/ Nick Verboon

      That’s actually a pretty common answer in my experience. People love Hitchhiker’s Guide. I had a copy of it that I never got around to reading and now I can’t find it. Need to pick it up at the library and finally put the stamp on that one.

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