“I don’t like sci fi!” ever heard yourself saying that? If so, and you are quite happy to have your prejudices against sci-fi challenged, then you might want to consider reading any of these superb examples of classic science fiction that have stood the test of time, have great stories and have subtext that is still relevant today. I may revisit this subject in future, but here are three to start you off and why you should read them.
Mary Shelley’s A Modern Prometheus hit our shelves in 1818 (though she was not credited as the author until the second edition in 1823). Few would have believed that a) a woman and b) one so young, could produce a novel of this magnitude but she did and arguably started the modern scifi novel. Most people know the story, or do they? Victor Frankenstein is a brilliant young inventor who takes it upon himself to attempt to create a life. The result of his experiment is a grotesque-looking yet sentient creature with superior intelligence. Leaving the creature to fend for itself after seeing its hideousness, the “father” attempts to carry on his normal life, hoping to forget it all, but the creature has other ideas.
Some feel the fable is one of a critique of science and humanism, but I disagree. At no point does Shelley condemn the actual science, merely Victor Frankenstein’s abuse of it and refusal to face up to what he has done – with great power comes great responsibility – this is still a common theme today. Frankenstein is the Prometheus here, bringing fire to man with little thought of the consequences of his actions. Time and time again, Victor Frankenstein is given the opportunity to be rid of the creature (who only wants a mate) yet time and time again he sabotage’s his only attempt at breaking free from it. So begins the destructive war between the two. The creature devotes his life to tormenting Frankenstein, and Frankenstein in turn devotes his life to trying to destroy the creature.
War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
HG Wells was a well-known firebrand socialist. Critics of Jeremy Corbyn would do well to remember he’s still not a patch on the sort of people who started The Labour Party. But before I digress too far, War of the Worlds is the alien invasion novel that started it all and it had masses of subtext that means it is not just about alien invasion. Published in 1897 with Queen Victoria in her last days on the throne, it tells the story of Martian invaders coming to claim Earth for themselves. They have ruined their barren world and see our lush greenery as a virgin landscape to be plundered. The British army and navy are no match for these giant walking machines and soon fall to their superior technology. Yet our protagonist witnesses the Martians taking humans and collecting them in baskets. Annihilation does not seem to be their ultimate goal…
There are multiple themes in Wells’ book. Clearly anti-imperialist, it turns the tide against a British Empire that had used superior technology to spread influence, power and the geographic boundaries of empire to technologically inferior people. It asks the contemporary British public “what if somebody did to us what we are doing to others?” He even states this explicitly in the text when the narrator muses on now understanding how the native people must have felt at the arrival of the white man. The red weed which the Martians bring with them suggests the destructive nature of invasive species, either deliberate as an attempt to change the landscape of a native land, or as an unintentional secondary invasion.
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Written much later than the previous two on this list, I quibbled between whether I should include this or The Martian Chronicles. Both have their merits but I think this stands the test of time and has a message that is relevant today whereas TMC message is, in places, redundant. It tells the story of a “Fireman” who, far from being a person who fights fires, burns books for a living. The totalitarian government doesn’t like ideas, you see, and so it seeks to suppress conflicting ideas within those books.
Yet for me, it is a conversation towards the end that lingered in my mind the most. Given a contradictory explanation, Montag is forced to evaluate and consider the notion that books are being burnt at the demand of the population so that nobody ever need feel offended at anything, or have to think too hard. As somebody who is politically left, this hit the mark for me as I feel many people on my political side have become hostile to some elements of free expression and in turn have become like the right wing authoritarianism they claim to stand against – any legitimate criticism of feminism is blanket labelled “misogyny” without consideration. Any criticism of Islamic religious practice is blanket labelled “Islamophobia” and so on. Some people have become professional offence takers, taking offence on behalf of everyone everywhere and in that moment, we are forced to ask precisely what is going on in this book.
I expect to return to this in future so please keep reading!