Are they the best science fiction novels ever written? I’m not going to make that claim. I’m sure people will notice my glaring omissions rather than celebrate my actual choices, but I’m okay with that. These are just the five books I want to tell you about.
5. The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham
John Wyndham seems to have fallen out of fashion in the last few decades, which is tragic when you weigh up his huge contribution to the field of science fiction. Perhaps his writing style seems too restrained, too cosy, too 1950s middle class England, to resonate harmoniously with the modern ear.
To be honest it’s a pity.
If you get past the slightly stilted prose and the sometimes utterly passive narrators, you will discover Wyndham to be a fine writer, constantly exploring the fabric that makes up human society by manufacturing threats to pitch it against. In truth I could have picked any one of his classics –The Day of the Triffids; The Chrysalids; Chocky; The Kraken Wakes – but I have chosen The Midwich Cuckoos because it is a book that rises above any stylistic limitations through the sheer power of its thought-provoking, intelligent and elegant central idea.
A two mile exclusion zone appears around the village of Midwich. Anyone that enters it falls unconscious. Aerial reconnaissance shows that everyone in Midwich is asleep, and that a strange silver object sits at the centre of the zone. When the object disappears and everyone wakes up it seems like the threat is ended, but when every woman in Midwich who is of childbearing age turns out to be pregnant, the true scope of the event dawns.
What follows is a masterful tale of alien-invasion-by-stealth, of creepy kids and telekinetic powers, and it was one of the literary touchstones that informed the writing of my first novel Human.4.
4. Blood Music – Greg Bear
Before ALMOST EVERYONE was including nanotechnology in their science fiction, Blood Music set a standard that is yet to be bettered. Expanded from an award winning novella, Greg Bear’s novel gives us a scientific disaster scenario to savour, complete with a mad scientist; the unique ‘monsters’ he creates; and the hubris that sets those monsters free on an unsuspecting world.
Vergil Ulam might be an odd name for a scientist, but the breakthrough he makes when he creates noocytes - biotech computers from his own cells – is going to make the whole world a lot odder. In order to protect his discovery, Vergil smuggles the noocytes out of his lab at Genetron by injecting them into his own body. It is a decision that changes the world. Forever.
Greg Bear presents us with a fast-paced vision of a transhuman world: a world where humanity steps outside of its bodily limits onto the next step of its evolution. It turns the plague/catastrophe idea on its head in the last few chapters, and gives a reader so much food for thought that they will be mentally digesting it for days after.
3. The War of the Worlds – H G Wells
H G Wells invented so many of the tropes that sustain the genre that it almost seems an understatement to call him the grandfather of modern science fiction. Although the central idea behind The War of the Worlds had been explored previously, Well’s book is our first, fully-realised taste of an alien invasion, and it still remains matchless in its depiction of human society plunged into war with alien invaders.
The War of the Worlds pitches Victorian imperialism, optimism and ingenuity against an invading force that is simply too strong for it to resist; an invading force that sees us as nothing more than a nuisance to be swept aside. Oh, and they view us as a food source, too.
The swift collapse of society is beautifully handled; the encroachment of the Martian Red Weed is eerie and atmospheric; the responses of the other characters – most notably the artilleryman and the Curate – are believable and offer psychological insights into the way humanity WOULD react to invasion; and the narrative drive is pretty much note perfect.
The alien tripods –machines built to contain the invaders, who are composed entirely of brain - still remain one of the most spectacular, and iconic, visions of extra-terrestrial invasion; and the downfall of the invaders,
slain by terrestrial bacteria when all human attempts have failed, is one of the most perfect ends a science fiction story has ever achieved.
Michael Marshall Smith burst onto the scene with this breath-taking display of science fiction pyrotechnics, fusing elements of science fiction, thriller, comedy, fantasy and horror into one heck of a yarn that packs a strong emotional punch too.
A missing person’s case leads a man called Stark on the trail of a missing ‘actioneer’ from The Action Centre - one of the many ‘neighbourhoods’ that make up ‘The City’. Cue breath-taking action; witty one-liners; talking household appliances; a neighbourhood inhabited only by cats; meditations on dream and reality; and a heart-breaking finale, in which Stark must confront his own personal demons.
None of which does Only Forward justice. It’s a tour de force that needs to be experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible. Let Stark into your head and he’s liable to stay there for a long, long time.
I remember reading it in one or two sittings - curtly dismissing any distractions - and on hitting the end of the book, feeling almost overwhelmed by Smith’s story-telling power. The darker, more philosophical stuff at the end is in almost direct contrast to the lightness of touch displayed in the early part of the book, and the juxtaposition of comedy with tragedy makes the experience so much richer, and incredibly haunting.
And Smith’s one-liners are laugh out loud funny.
1. At The Mountains of Madness – H P Lovecraft
Few people indeed have adjectives named after them, but the weird tales of a peculiar gentleman from Providence, Rhode Island, gave rise to the term: ‘Lovecraftian’. It’s a style that has been utilised by hundreds of writers, including such luminaries as Stephen King; Ramsey Campbell; Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore.
Back when I was in my teens, Lovecraft was at the very top of my list of adored science fiction writers. Now I’m older, he’s still there. People parody and criticise his style, his politics, his prejudices, but in Lovecraft’s stories these things serve to create a perfect storm; and rather than marginalising his contribution to the genre, they only serve to give it power.
Most people view him as a writer of horror stories, and in many ways they’re probably right. But his was a horror of things cosmic, a fear of alien science that to us looks like magic - much as an iPod would to Neolithic man. Lovecraft was aware that this planet that we stand upon is not some glorious centrepiece in the fabric of the universe, but rather a small cul-de-sac of a planet, spinning vulnerably through space near an utterly unremarkable sun.
His triumph was in imagining that out there, in space, is where all the amazing, awe-inspiring stuff is taking place; while we scuttle about oblivious to it. Out there lie wonders that we can scarcely imagine, and horrors that we cannot dare to know by name. Sometimes they brush past us, and we are forever changed by the experience. A typical Lovecraft character, encountering one of his list of unpronounceable monsters, will end up dead or insane.
At the Mountains of Madness gives us a tantalising glimpse of the things that inhabit outer space, and their awful relationship to us earthbound folk. It tells of an Antarctic expedition that finds, in those desolate, frozen wastes, the remains of creatures that do not fit with our human ideas of evolution; and things only get worse when the expedition members discover that the specimens are neither terrestrial in origin, nor as dead as they thought.
Everything leads to a terrifying journey to the titular Mountains of Madness – a mountain range that dwarfs the Himalayas – where the protagonists, Dyer and Danforth, discover the truths that underscore human existence itself. The novel’s one, slight misfire – giant, blind, albino penguins, no less! – does not lessen the relentless feeling of cosmic dread that permeates the novel.
Ridley Scott’s eye-pleasing but ultimately vacuous film Prometheus borrowed so heavily from Lovecraft’s story that a long-mooted Mountains adaptation from Guillermo del Toro now seems unlikely, because of the thematic overlaps. But Hollywood’s loss is not ours because we still have Lovecraft’s terrific story to inspire a movie, right in that best cinema seat of all: the imagination.
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