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O, Robot

January 29, 2010

I grew up reading science fiction. My dad was an English major, but sometime in the scant five years between his graduation and the beginning of my reading life he must’ve shed all of the canonical titles (he may very well have sold them for rent money, times were tough, kids). What was left on the shelves were acres of dime-store pulp. Today even the cheap reads you can grab off the supermarket shelves are printed on acid-free paper; these books must’ve had extra acid added, because there’s not one of them I can remember that wasn’t a toasty yellow-brown. The smell of them was luscious. I used to crack them open, bury my nose in the pages, and huff. The quality of the binding may have made the experience like trying to read a handful of dry autumn leaves, but I wouldn’t trade those books for a shopping cart full of eReaders.

But back to the SF. There were a lot of classics on the shelves – Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, Niven’s Ringworlds, Ursula K. Le Guin’s amazing Earthsea, titles by Frederick Pohl, Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and a dozen others I’m missing – what counts today for a canon in its own right. I suspect that Dad’s tastes weren’t that discerning, though. He was (and is) a voracious and completely undiscriminating reader. I can’t remember a single one of his less than epic choices, but their name was Legion. For every classic or classic-to-be he must’ve had eight stinkers, most of which likely exist nowhere now beyond the shelves of some very rarified collectors or in moldering basement crates.

I began to turn away from SF when I reached middle school and discovered a world of books beyond those that lined our rec room walls. By the time I reached high school I was far too snooty to consider going back to those old titles; I had classics to read! I have sorrowed for years over the impossibility of reading everything that is worth being read before life ends, and no matter what my circumstance in those years that spanned high school, college, poverty, dissipation (phases one and two), and adulthood (such as it is), I clove to the task of reading everything that mattered, even though I know I’ll reach my end without completing the job.

Recently, though, I’ve begun to turn back. I have to credit Michael Chabon for the shove in the right direction. At a reading he gave in DC not long ago, when asked what he was reading lately, he mentioned Iain M. Banks, an author whose name I had never come across. Always on the hunt for new threads to follow, I picked up Mr. Banks’ Consider Phlebas, a stunning space opera set in an intricately imagined future universe populated by space-faring humans who live their lives entirely inside of constructed environments; hyper-intelligent, nearly immortal computer Minds; and a dazzling array of alien species. If all of this sounds hokey to you, trust me, I understand. The writing, though – the writing! Banks is a masterful craftsman, and while some of the novels in his Culture series fall flat (I’ve read them all now), it’s more than made up for by those that hit the proverbial ball out of the park. He’s a rare find.

Banks sold me, and I began to dabble into other SF directions. Dan Simmons is an author of spectacular power and capability and his Hyperion is gripping and masterful. Simmons led me to Harlan Ellison, whose name I knew but whose work I had never considered. Primarily a short story writer, Ellison is widely acknowledged as one of the leading voices of the 20th century, and has had a hand in more television and film writing than you’d believe if I told you. His classic short, “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man,” is one of the ten most reprinted short stories in history. If that’s not enough for you, Ellison wrote “Repent, Harlequin” for a writing workshop in 1965, in one six-hour session. The printed version is scarcely different than what appeared on the pages he pushed through his manual Olympia typewriter.

If you’ve followed me this far, perhaps this will shake you off: In addition to my reading forays into SF, I’ve been seduced by the high-quality product being produced for the small screen. The cable channel Syfy (née SciFi – why on earth did they change it?) recently aired Caprica, a spin-off miniseries of the recently reimagined Battlestar Galactica franchise, and I am here to tell you that both are excellent. The premise of Battlestar is endlessly fascinating – there are no creepy aliens lurking about, no strange new civilizations to be encountered, no green women; the chief nemeses of mankind are the Cylons, artificially intelligent cyber-lifeforms who are essentially indistinguishable from humans. If there isn’t a cultural studies doctoral thesis about Fear of the Other being written about this yet, someone should get on it promptly. The show is gorgeously produced, and the acting is as good as anything happening on television.

All of this is by way of saying that science fiction seems resurgent these days. The new season of Lost (if you’re tiring of me mentioning it here, change the channel) premieres in a few days, and it’s pure science fiction once you wipe off the Hawaiian sand. Syfy has posted numbers to die for in the past couple years, increasing its female viewership by double-digit gains for two years in a row; it’s among the top ten most watched networks now, and ranks #5 among adults 25-54. New science fiction television and movie franchises are popping off the assembly line every day. Production values are high and as CGI comes into its own there’s no telling where we’ll end up. It’s not all about effects, of course. Battlestar has enough great space-battle action to make a thirteen-year old Pavlov in his pants, but most of the show takes place in real, human-occupied unmediated life and the writing is pristine. Avatar, though visually stunning, was essentially Dances With Wolves avec tall blue people. Mark my words, though, the day is soon coming when state of the art at an Avatar level will meet writing worthy of the spectacle.

I’m not sure what to attribute the science fiction trend to – maybe it’s because we already live in the future – but I’m happy it’s here. If you told me in high school that I’d be writing a novel in 20 years and toying with the idea of including robots I’d have laughed you out of the room. Who’s laughing now?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 9:36 pm

    Greetings from a fellow old-book page huffer. Books: they’re why I became a teacher. Besides, of course, the fabulous pay.

  2. February 2, 2010 1:38 am

    Excuse me, if you haven’t read the Foundation Series by Isaac Asimov, you are clearly just a poseur.

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