Saturday, 29 October 2011

Seven Decades of Science Fiction Books: The Thirties

Sci-Fi is primarily a literary medium as frankly the pictures are better, so having done Sci-Fi films I thought I'd have a look at books. I've started 20 years earlier as literary sci-fi is at least a decade or two ahead of the cinema.

Had a started this list earlier the thirties would have been the first decade since the 1880s not to be won by H.G. Wells, but it would be a close call. Wells published The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, his last great book, in which he predicted a devastating world war beginning in January 1940, and ending with the world run from an air base in Basra. Hmmm.

There was also Olaf Stapledon who in 1930 published Last and First Men, a history of the entire future of the human race over the next two billion years and which included in its predictions the prominent death of a British Princess in Paris. He followed that in 1937 with Star Maker, a history of the entire universe. He didn't exactly do kitchen sink drama, and his books aren't exactly easy to read either, but they are dizzying in their perspective.

A slightly left field choice would be pulp horror writer H. P. Lovecraft's Shadow Out of Time. Loecraft may have been possibly insane, potentially a Nazi and certainly a bit of a weirdo, but he could write. Most of his work is clearly fantasy or horror, but this book, whilst set in the Cthulhu Mythos universe, can count as sci-fi as its the one about the body swaping, time travelling Great Race of Yith. The final scene where the hero, now back in his own body, discovers an ancient manuscript in his handwriting would make a pretty good Doctor Who scene.

However despite the stiff competition I will, rather predictably, give the prize to Aldrous Huxley's Brave New World. The idea of a future that is trivial, uniform and soulless must have seemed pretty boring compared to the grand adventures of Wells and Stapledon. But lets face it - this is what we've got.

Huxley was a strange chap, and although always described as a dystopia, I suspect he was rather ambivalent about the future he created, at least when it comes to the sex and drugs. His later utopia, The Island, quite a lot of both as well.

But that's not the main point of the book. Instead Huxley looked at how industrialisation had changed the workplace, and imagined those forces being set to work on society. He realised that the best best way to hide the truth was not to ban books, but to deluge us with trivia.

Huxley released that the prison we need to really fear does not have walls made of the things we hate and fear, but bars forged from the things we crave and desire. The book is hilariously funny in places, but also unrelentingly grim as Huxley describes a world that is shockingly familiar to us. When the hero finally hangs himself, you can see why.

Winner: Brave New World by Aldrous Huxley (1932)

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