Monday, 20 January 2014

The SF Genome, by Rod Rees

A couple of years ago I attended a SF conference where the keynote talk was given by a very successful writer (who shall remain nameless). This pompous individual opined that ‘classic’ SF wasn’t worth reading because the science underpinning it was ‘flawed’. I challenged him, suggesting that as all SF writers stood on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before it was the originality of their ideas we should be celebrating rather than disparaging them on the basis of their antiquated science. It was an argument that cut little ice with the speaker.

Thinking about this I got to wondering, if the SF genome could be disentangled, which books provided the ideas that underpin the stories being written today. In other words which SF books were truly original, which novels were, well, novel. 

This is my list and I’ve been pushed to think of any book post-1990 which has added to this SF genome, something that might, or might not, speak volumes for the state of SF today.

1.       Le Morte d’Arthur (Sir Thomas Mallory, 1485)
Every ‘quest’ story since has referenced, in some way, Book VI, ‘The Noble Tale of the Sangreal’, which describes how Lancelot, Percival, Bors and Galahad searched for the Holy Grail.

2.       Frankenstein or, The Modern Prometheus (Mary Shelley, 1818)
The book that kick-started modern SF and provided the template for every ‘mad professor’, ‘science mustn’t interfere with Nature’ and ‘man creates monster’ story ever since.

3.       Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865)
The first fantasy and the first to use anthropomorphic creatures/objects.

4.       20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Jules Verne, 1870)
‘What use are the best of arguments when they can be destroyed by force?’ Captain Nemo: the prototype madman (tho’ is he mad?) who wants to change the world.

5.       The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886)
Good vs evil, the duality of the human condition, transmogrification: it’s all here.

6.       Dracula (Bram Stoker, 1897)
The quintessential vampire story that spawned the whole blood-sucking genre. (Nelli insists that it should have been Gogol’s ‘Vy’ cited here but given the popularity of ‘Dracula’ it gets my vote)

7.       War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells, 1898)
Every ‘alien invasion’ tale ever since owes a debt of gratitude to this book.

8.       Time Machine (H.G. Wells, 1895)
The novella which spawned a multitude of ‘time travel’ stories.

9.       Tarzan of the Apes (Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912)
Tarzan was, perhaps, the world’s first ‘superman’ in literature and a man to whom all who come after are indebted.

10.   The Lost World (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1912)
Where would ‘Jurassic Park’ be without it?

11.   We (Yebgeny Zamyatin, 1921)
Dystopia; check. State surveillance; check. Dangers of totalitarianism; check. Little man kicking against the pricks; check. Feisty, insightful female protagonist; check.  ‘We’ predated ‘1984’ by twenty-eight years.

12.   Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932)
Just pipping Wells’s ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ (which I prefer) is this seminal vision of a future London of 2540 AD. It sets the tone for all stories that come after that deal with extrapolation of the present in the future, eugenics, psychological manipulation, and recreational drug use.

13.   I, Robot (Isaac Asimov, 1950)
The Three Laws of Robotics have been referenced in practically every tale of androids since. These stories also provided the seed corn for the tales that came after concerning the problems of artificial intelligence and ‘out-of-control’ computers.

14.   The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov, 1951)
With these three books the ‘space opera’ came of age. The Foundation trilogy was the original universe spanning, multi-world encompassing, tale of political machinations (and, it did, of course, introduced the world to the intriguing theory of psychohistory).

15.   I am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
The harbinger of all the zombie stories crowding our bookshelves.

16.   The Man in the High Castle (Philip K. Dick, 1962)
The genesis of the alt-history genre.

17.   To Your Scattered Bodies Go (Philip Jose Farmer, 1971)
The book that melded ‘real’ and ‘fictitious’ characters within the same story.

18.   The Difference Engine (William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, 1990)
The progenitor of the ‘steampunk’ genre.


Eighteen books which, in some way, can be described as ‘original’ or ‘seminal’. I’m surprised there are so many. Of course, this is a very personal list and hence subject to challenge: for instance, Nelli was aghast that I’d omitted Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Any suggestions gratefully received.

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