Classic Science Fiction
Armageddon 2419 A.D. and The Airlords of Han by Philip Francis Nowlan
These two short novels created the character who became Buck Rogers. He’s not Buck Rogers yet in these stories. Throw out any memories you have of the 1970s television series with Gil Gerard in the starring role and the little robots Tweaky and Dr. Theopolus. There are no dog fights in space (the hero is not even a fighter pilot) and no New Chicago. Even the evil Draconians are gone. In fact, the only recognizable elements of this tale are 1) the hero’s last name, 2) Wilma Deering, and 3) 500 years in suspended animation.
Anthony (Tony) Rogers is a veteran of World War I who gets trapped in a coalmine after a cave-in and exposed to radioactive gasses which cause him to fall into suspended animation for 500 years. When he wakes he is able to escape the mine and discovers that the world is very much changed. World War II was not fought between the Axis and the Allies but between the Soviet Union and Communist China on one side and everyone else on the other. America lost and the world was taken over by the Han, whom, at the end of the second story, Nowlan suggests are really space aliens. This may have been an effort on his part to reduce the racist overtones of the two stories, or it may be an effort to explain how America really fell to the Chinese who were not a world power when Nowlan wrote the stories.
The Han have degenerated over the centuries from the globe conquering villains to people who have had success for so long they have lost much of their edge. The Americans, on the other hand, have become a semi nomadic people hiding in the forests and living in camps. They have not, however, forgotten that they were conquered by the Han and they dream of restoring their sovereignty and freedoms. To this end, they have developed very impressive science and manufacturing capability and are now only waiting the right time (and the right leader) to lead them in war against their hated enemies. It was never adequately explained how semi nomadic peoples were able to develop all of this ultra-science-based hardware.
Rogers major contribution besides extraordinary charisma is that he has actually fought in a major war. He brings the idea of artillery to the fray, and he stumbles onto a way of bringing down the Han airships—neutralizing the enemy’s potent disintegrator rays.
In the first story, the action is mostly geared toward identifying the traitors among the American gangs who are selling vital information to the Han. In the second story, the war heats up as the Americans and the Han fight it out for supremacy in North America. Together the two short books are an interesting example of early science fiction, but not, frankly, great stories by today’s standards. I would be interested in reading something that told how the character of “Buck Rogers” evolved from these two stories into the modern image promoted on TV and in the comics.
Flash Gordon by Arthur Byron Cover
I have a confession to make. I am one of the apparently six or seven people on the planet who really liked the Flash Gordon movie when it came out in 1980. I was a young teenager at the time and I and my friends loved every minute of the admittedly campy film. (My friends apparently made up the other five or six people who liked the movie.) I bought the novel and read it quickly after seeing the movie and forty-three years later (wow, that’s a big number) I just reread it and enjoyed it a second time.
The novelization is not perfect. It sets a tone that is a little too serious for what was such a lighthearted film. But what Cover does really well is build some backstory to Flash that I simply don’t remember being in the movie. We learn about his childhood and his growing love of football and of the big Super Bowl win that makes Flash a household name in the United States. And then he gets pulled into the thick of the movie plot trying to save the world.
Cover’s Flash Gordon has a bit of zen to him and a healthy dose of old-fashioned patriotism. He believes in human rights (and alien rights for the people of Mongo). And he really hates totalitarian amoral bad guys. Add in a fun supporting cast (Dale Arden, Vultan, Zarkov and Barin) and you have the makings of a good story. Yes, it’s cheesy but it’s a purposefully humorous take on the early sf film genre whose special effects make it very hard for modern audiences to take seriously. I’d love to see someone serious play with this franchise again whether on television or in books.
In Alpha by Author
Martians, Go Home by Frederic Brown
Where H.G. Wells had Martians try to conquer the Earth through superior technology, Frederic Brown has them succeed by the power of being ultra annoying. They literally bother people into madness, destroying first the entertainment industry and with it, the whole global economy. In doing so, they often annoy the reader as well. What starts out as somewhat humorous banter quickly becomes amazingly irritating, which lends credence to Brown’s premise.
If this wasn’t such a short book, I don’t think I would have ultimately gotten through the whole novel. But I’m glad it was short and I’m glad I finished this very unique take on first contact and alien invasion.
A Princess of Mars by Edgar RIce Burroughs
A Princess of Mars reads as a pretty straight forward adventure piece. Earthman John Carter finds himself on the planet Mars, meets the woman of his dreams, and moves the Martian equivalent of heaven and earth to rescue her from a horrible fate. Along the way there are loyal and heroic friends, terrifying monsters and epic fights and battles. When you sum it up like this, the novel doesn’t sound that groundbreaking, and yet it has inspired the dreams of generations of readers and many of those readers (such as Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Jack Vance) grew up to inspire even more readers of all ages.
This book is also important to western culture in general. First off, it’s inspired two movies, numerous comic books, and an amazing amount of both fan fiction and authorized sequels by ERB’s estate. It’s also an important piece of literature in its own right as it (and its many sequels) popularized the science fiction subgenre called the Planetary Romance.
Planetary Romance is not a term that’s used a lot today, but anyone who’s seen Avatar knows exactly what this subgenre is all about. The hero (or heroine) encounters adventure on a foreign planet and moves heaven and earth because of love. Another prominent modern example is the Planet Hulk and World War Hulk comic series. Classic examples can be seen in Buck Rogers, Adam Strange, Dune, Pern, the World of Tiers, Darkover, and the Hainish Cycle.
So how does A Princess of Mars stack up today? In my opinion it’s one of ERB’s absolutely best works. He will later be accused of being formulaic in his prose, but that charge cannot be brought to bear against this work because it’s the first. What we have instead is a pretty straight forward adventure story with awesome heroes in the form of John Carter and Tars Tarkas, one of the best pets in the history of fiction, and the titular heroine who—while not a fully formed modern heroine—breaks early twentieth century gender expectations both as a stateswoman and as a selfless defender both of John Carter and her nation, Helium.
2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
It’s almost impossible to think about the epic 2001: A Space Odyssey without hearing in your mind the opening music of Thus Spake Zarathustra, and reading it will have that music bouncing around in your head again for days after. I read this book the first time forty years ago and always liked it better than the movie. My reread reinforces that impression. This is an extraordinary first contact novel that stands out today as much for its optimism about that contact as for the incredible mystery that the aliens and the monolith represent.
And yet, the strongest part of the novel remains the confrontation with HAL aboard the Discovery. HAL manages to be both an eerie and terrifying opponent and, in the final moments before he’s shut down, an incredibly sympathetic one. As his memory chips are pulled and he regresses, it’s hard not to feel sorry for him and, of course, Clarke makes it clear that his actions were not ultimately HAL’s fault.
If you’ve never read 2001, you should. If you have read it, it’s a great novel to rediscover. I hope it won’t take me forty years to do so again.
Tunnel through Time by Lester Del Rey
I first read this novel when I found a copy in my grade school library. It’s an adventure story geared toward a younger audience told from the perspective of Bob Miller, whose father has invented a time portal through which his close friend, a paleontologist, travels 80 million years into the past. Unfortunately, the paleontologist doesn’t return when the portal is turned back on sparking a crisis. After a couple of days of checking the equipment and worrying, 17 year old Bob, and Pete, the 17 year old son of the paleontologist, are chosen to go after him and find out what went wrong.
Obviously this decision on the part of the scientific team that invented the portal should require a substantial amount of disbelief by the reader, but it’s actually easy to get past as the boys begin their adventure. They find Pete’s father but the portal is damaged when a dinosaur stumbles into it and getting home quickly becomes a major problem. They can’t generate enough power to bring the three travelers back to the present in one jump. They can’t even generate enough power to let them jump together. So we get to visit more than the Cretaceous period. It was exciting when I was ten and it is still exciting now.
A final note of caution. Evidently, Lester Del Rey never read Ray
Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder even though it was published 14 years before this
novel. Bob and his friends shoot and kill everything. They eat dinosaur eggs.
They basically take no care to preserve the past at all and Del Rey never tries
to deal with that potential problem. Now I personally think that if stepping on
a butterfly could change the results of an election eighty million years later,
than just breathing the air would have been a problem, but it still seems like
Del Rey should have at least addressed the issue by throwing out some theory
that the past is robust and can’t be affected by what time travelers are doing.
That being said, I remembered these scenes vividly forty years later and
especially the fate of the little girl, Gina. That’s saying quite a lot about a
novel. This isn’t a great work of literature, but it’s a story that for me has
withstood the passage of time.
Count Zero by William Gibson
This is one of my favorite William Gibson novels (behind The Peripheral and neck and neck with Neuromancer). It focuses on Bobby (the Count Zero of the title) a teenager who is set up to fail as a deck cowboy but who doesn’t die because of the interaction of a mysterious woman on the net. Her intervention pulls Bobby into a group who are trying to discover who she is and whether or not she is one of the entities moving around in the net appearing to be voodoo spirits but probably in reality AIs.
It's a fast-moving novel which showcases one of Gibson’s favorite structural techniques—moving several (three in this case) storylines independently through the novel until they all link up at the end for the conclusion. It also contains Gibson’s trademark focus on imagery that gives his books their distinctive flavor.
This is the first time I’ve reread the novel since it was published. The two scenes that I remembered most, Bobby’s first and last appearance in the book, intrigued and satisfied me just as they did thirty-five-ish years ago. If you enjoyed Neuromancer, you should definitely read this one too.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
Neuromancer is a formative novel, perhaps creating and certainly popularizing the cyber punk genre. It has an excellent opening line which decades later people can’t stop talking about, and it’s also the key to the novel. Visuals are Gibson’s bread and butter. Everything we encounter is described in beautiful and excruciating detail—except of course for the main character through whose eyes we experience everything. Description of the environment is much more important to Gibson than plot or characterization (which is not to say that there isn’t a plot or character development or mystery).
I’ve read the book several times now and even though I know where we’re going to end up, I still find the journey remarkably fresh and often don’t really know how we’re getting between points in the story. It’s an experience that’s worth having, not only because it’s one of the modern classics that has really influenced the way the cyberpunk genre developed but because it is a beautiful, thought provoking, piece of literature.
Now I’ll have to reread Count Zero.
The Stars, My Brothers by Edmund Hamilton
This is a short story that will make you think. Reed Kieran has the misfortune to be frozen to death on a space station orbiting the earth in the twenty-first century. He then suffers the greater misfortune of being revived by a cabal who wishes to use him to win a political debate in the twenty-second century. On the surface this is a fairly straightforward adventure story, but the climax depends completely on your understanding of such heady concepts as the meaning of humanity, civilization, intelligence and nature.
In the future humans have spread to the stars and discovered other humans on many planets—humans who are not so technologically advanced as those originating on earth. On one world they find a race of very primitive humans (think caveman) living on the same planet as a technologically sophisticated reptilian race. What should be done with the humans? Are they effectively animals or should they be educated and helped to reach their potential as expressed by humans from earth? And what to do about the reptilian species who does not want earth’s humans meddling with their planet.
Hamilton makes this exploration into these very serious issues eminently entertaining. If you like a good adventure story with a little bit of deep thinking, you should give this tale a try.
Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein
This is the book that introduces one of Heinlein’s most famous characters, immortal Lazarus Long. It opens up with a plot that has the classic Heinlein feel. The existence of tens of thousands of members of the extremely long-lived “Howard Family” has become public knowledge and their extremely tolerant society has decided to throw out their constitution, capture, torture, and study these people out of the belief that they must have a secret to their longevity other than good genes. (The truth is that they have been marrying for longevity for centuries, but no one wants to believe that.) So roughly the first half of the novel is devoted to how the family can survive this sudden persecution.
The second half of the novel was not quite as interesting and fast moving. Having escaped into space, Heinlein uses the opportunity to explore two opposite lifestyles—one of total conformity and the other composed of lotus eaters. Unsurprisingly, Heinlein’s heroes don’t like either choice, but it’s always fun to watch Heinlein bring us to that conclusion.
I don’t think this is one of Heinlein’s great novels like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, or Stranger in a Strange Land, or even my personal favorite, Double Star, but it’s a good example of classic Heinlein.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
This is one of Robert A. Heinlein’s all-time best novels and his most detailed exploration of his libertarian ideals. The moon is being used as a prison colony for mostly political prisoners from Earth. It’s a one-way sentence because after six months or so on the moon’s surface, physical changes to a human’s body chemistry make it impossible for people to return to earth and live a full and active life. However, three generations later, 90% of the people on the moon are the descendants of deportees—not actual prisoners even though the Lunar Authority continues to treat them that way.
The moon holds an important position in the Earth’s economy providing food for the mother planet’s 11 billion people. The market for lunar grain is completely controlled by the Lunar Authority which sets the price it will pay for grain and the lunar ice which provides the water to nurture the plants. In three generations it has never raised those rates even while the cost of production rises rapidly and the prices it charges individual Lunies for power, water, air, food, etc. continues to rise. It provides no genuine services (such as police protection or education) but exerts iron control over the lives of the people of Luna.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is a tale of reluctant rebellion forced upon the inhabitants of the moon when they discover that the growing demands of the earth and the Lunar Authority for grain, coupled with the decreasing availability of the resources required to produce that food, have put the colonies into a downward cycle toward food riots and cannibalism. This discovery is made through the calculations of the most interesting character in the novel—Mike, the first (and only) self-aware computer in existence. Mike is the computer of the Lunar Authority, but he has hidden his “awakening” from the Authority because he finds their programmers “stupid”. They are not interested in conversations, but in programming him for routine tasks. The narrator of the story is a computer technician who is a third generation Lunie who has the advantage of being “not stupid”. He likes, Mike. Quickly understands what Mike is and accepts him as a friend, not trying to use him or to “fix” him. When Mike comes to understand the threat the Lunar Authority represents to Mannie (and two other friends) he joins (and in fact leads) the revolution to free Luna.
The novel is told from the perspective of Mannie many years after the successful revolution. Mannie was non-political at the start of the book. He has a steep learning curve if he is to save his family and friends so there is a lot of political philosophy in this book as Mannie comes to understand what a revolution requires and what dangers governments represent to the freedom of individuals. There is also a lot of exploration of alternate ways of structuring society (for example, family units) which helps to make the lunar society more vivid. These people may be transplanted earth men and women, but they have become something remarkably distinct from their terrestrial counterparts.
The novel is wonderful on multiple levels and well worth reading, but its ending is not truly a happy one.
Robert Heinlein Radio Dramas by Robert A. Heinlein
Back in the 1950s, the radio program Dimension X featured fully dramatized versions of four of Robert A. Heinlein’s stories: Universe, Requiem, The Green Hills of Earth, and The Roads Must Roll. I’m not a big fan of Universe, but the others are outstanding examples of Heinlein’s work. I’ve always enjoyed fully dramatized audio productions and these represent a bit of history. The voice acting quality is slightly subpar by today’s standards, but the power of the stories overcomes any lack there to make for a highly enjoyable listen.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin
I first encountered Ursula Le Guin as a teenager in her Earth Sea Trilogy, a wonderful tale of magic with deeper levels I totally missed in my initial reading. The Lathe of Heaven is for a more mature reader dealing with themes like responsibility, hubris, compassion and love. This is the second time I’ve read the novel and it won’t be the last.
When the novel opens George Orr is an unassuming man with a problem. He’s convinced his dreams can change reality and he’s taking illegal drugs to keep him from hurting people while he sleeps. He’s put under the care of Dr. William Haber who’s skepticism quickly disappears as he begins to unethically abuse Orr’s gift through hypnotism and an experimental machine to remake the world into a better place where his own importance is recognized and the big problems—war, racism, overpopulation, etc.—don’t exist anymore. But Orr’s power works through the unconscious and Haber never quite gets the results he wants—not that he blames himself. Success is due to his genius, failure is the fault of the man he’s using his legal hold over to coerce into changing the world.
Orr’s effort to get legal help introduces the third and most interesting character to the story. Heather LeLache is a lawyer who becomes interested in Orr’s case and actually sees the world rewritten while she observes his therapy. The shared experience brings Orr and LeLache closer but can their growing friendship—hidden from Haber—survive an ever-rewritten world?
The ending of this novel is a painful one filled
with growth and horror, but not without hope. This one will make your head
King Kong by Delos Lovelace, Edgar Wallace and Merian Cooper
King Kong is one of the most recognizable names and images in America. He’s inspired movies, novels, comic books and more. I first became aware of him through a cartoon when I was four years old—but rather than be scary that Kong was taking care of a young boy. Since then I seem to run into him everywhere and so it was with a great deal of interest that I decided to read this novelization of the original movie.
Kong quite understandably overshadows the whole book even though he doesn’t make his first appearance until halfway through the novel. The tension builds well as Denham leads his cast out into the middle of the ocean in search of something new and exotic that he can film. He finds an isolated island he’s heard rumors of. There a great wall protects the natives from some unknown threat and adds to the sense of suspense as we, the readers, recognize that the westerners have no idea what they are getting into. They are so wonderfully confident—even after they see Kong—and so woefully unprepared for the horrors of nature unleashed on this island out of time.
Of course, the heart of the story quickly becomes Kong and Ann Darrow. This is always described as Kong falling in love with Darrow (and certainly that’s the position of Denham terming it “Beauty and the Beast”) but I didn’t feel like the evidence in the novel supported that position. My reading was that Kong was absolutely fascinated by Darrow’s hair and pale skin and the texture of her clothes—so unlike anything he had experienced before. She was akin to a new favorite pet or toy to him, and perhaps he would have quickly tired of her. We’ll never find out for certain because Jack rescues her, but I think this is a more likely conclusion than the rather absurd notion that Kong has fallen in love as if Darrow were a potential mate.
The brilliance of this novel is that there is a complete juxtaposition
of hero and villain by the end of the story. Denham who was so brave in leading
his men to rescue Darrow becomes a monster, torturing Kong to break his will
and turn him into a sort of circus spectacle. As he does so, Kong becomes the
underdog we want to escape and be free again. The fact that we know that’s not
going to happen only makes the story more tragic. I was surprised by how much I
enjoyed this tale.
Logan's Run by William F. Nolan
I was first introduced to Logan’s Run through the television series that began in 1977. I was young enough that I only remember a few things about it—the robot in the ice cave, Logan demanding to know if he’d get his four years back, and maybe a dozen other equally small details. But I’ve always had a fond place in my memory for the short-lived series and was glad to stumble across the audio book read by the author, William F. Nolan.
So first off—Logan’s Run the book is a lot grittier than I remember the TV series being. In it we follow a sandman (a sort of cop) whose job it is to kill “runners”, people who turn 21 years old and decide they don’t want to die for the good of the world. (Evidently to combat overpopulation after something called the Little War, it was decided that all people would be killed on their twenty-first birthday.) Logan is approaching 21 and wants to make his mark on the world before dying. When he retrieves a key and the code name “sanctuary” from a runner, he decides that his mark will be made by finding Sanctuary and destroying the hope of all runners. He believes this will make him a legend among sandmen, but to pull off the feat, he has to pretend to run.
What follows are several adventures which Logan and another runner named Jessica experience as they follow lead after lead trying to reach Sanctuary. Logan believes that a possibly mythical “42 year old man” named Ballard is manipulating them bringing them to trap after trap until Logan begins to out think him. This is partially true, but as Logan and Jessica survive, they gain experiences most of their peers never have. They begin to understand that their society is doomed to deteriorate and die. The basic problem is that children are not capable of maintaining the technology upon which their society depends and they are not capable of producing more. These experiences allow Logan to grow up in a way that none of his peers do and cause him to have a highly credible moral conundrum when he has his chance to end the hope of Sanctuary at the end of the novel.
I suppose that it should be said here that the runners (including the supposedly ingenious Ballard) are really stupid. The reason that the sandmen can track them is they have a device embedded in their palms that both keeps track of their age and permits them to be tracked by computer devices. When a citizen turns 21 the sandmen are alerted and use their scanners to hunt them down. To defeat this system, all people need to do is leave for Sanctuary before their twenty-first birthday. If they “ran” at twenty years and eleven months, no monitor would treat them differently than any other citizen and they could escape without ever endangering themselves. However, we wouldn’t have a novel if the runners figured that out so I suppose we’ll have to overlook this major flaw in the plot.
Mostly Logan’s Run is a straightforward adventure story but that moral conundrum, combined with Logan and Jessica’s growing feelings for each other, and one superb surprise at the end of the book, make this a story well worth the attention of fans of classic science fiction. If you like old SF, you might want to check it out.
Wolfbane by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth
This novel was written in the 1950s by two of the greats of science fiction—Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. As one would expect from two such authors, it is filled with humongous ideas and images that have reappeared repeatedly in the genre since then. The earth has been conquered by aliens who have never appeared on the planet—only sent their pyramid machine to carry out their will from the heights of Mount Everest. The Earth, itself, has been ripped out of the solar system and placed in a new orbit around the moon which has been turned into a miniature sun which needs to be reignited every five years. Most of humanity didn’t survive this and now there are perhaps a hundred million humans left, most of whom have become “sheep” who follow the course of life laid out by the aliens—one in which greed is gone and people spend a great deal of their time in meditation. Occasionally, meditation attracts the attention of the pyramid and the meditator is teleported away to an unknown fate.
That’s all the initial setting and things only get grander in scope and scale after that. Before the novel is finished we’ll see an alien world, humans melded to machines, hive minds, and so much more. The action revolves around a man, Glen Tropile, who fancies himself a wolf (capable of acting out of self-interest) but doesn’t truly seem to be either wolf or sheep. Tropile is what makes this book so interesting and is Pohl and Kornbluth’s foil for comparing facsimiles of a Marxist civilization and a more libertarian society—neither of which appear to have what it takes to help humanity escape from and survive its alien conquerors.
This is a great book and deserves to be more widely known, but it isn’t the easiest read. Writing conventions have evolved over the last sixty years, so be prepared to give it your full attention to maximize your enjoyment.
Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider RobinsonI’ve heard about this book for years and have always been interesting in seeing what all the fuss was about. It’s a set of short stories that each occurs within a very special bar. It’s a friendly place—more interesting than Cheers but I think trying to be just as funny with a lot of bad puns and tall tales. The motif of the stories tends to be that people with unusual problems (usually science fiction in flavor—time travel, telepathy, etc.) stumble into the bar at their whit’s end and get a little human comfort and hope. It’s a nice collection.
Sailing to Byzantium by Robert Silverberg
This is a classic Silverberg novella which I have been planning to read for a very long time. It’s a sad but beautiful story of a man from 1984 who has been pulled into the world of the fiftieth century—a strange place where people spend their lives sightseeing recreated wonderous cities of the past. He has fallen in love, but the woman he is in love with abandons and hides from him leaving him to determine the problem that has grown between them and find a way to bring hope to two lives in the far future. It’s really a lovely tale.
Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak
This is a strange little book that links an ancient alien spacecraft, portals in time, and a quiet man who has figured out the existence of both things. Asa is interested primarily in research, but his girlfriend convinces him that if they don’t monetize his discovery they will lose control of it. So they create the concept of Mastodonia—essentially an independent country situated in the past when humans were still hunting mastodons—from which they can operate various time travel services. Those services begin with hunting trips but everything becomes complicated when the government begins considering moving their “excess” population off of welfare and into the past while religious fanatics become concerned that people might prove (or disprove) elementals of the New Testament.
Despite the big issues inherent in the plot, Mastodonia is a slow-moving
exploration of the time travel scene. Dinosaurs and mastodons provide some big
adventure and human problems introduce a lot of tension. I was surprised that
Simak raised issues like the possibility of introducing new diseases to the
present and then dropped them without exploring the possibility. That being
said, it was still an enjoyable piece of fiction.