Nasa / Space

Science-fiction's subversive side

In an NPR podcast, science fiction author James Gunn and science fiction editor Amy H. Sturgis discuss the genre's origins and its subversive side.

From ideas about what is contained inside our planet to who lives on other planets in our solar system and beyond, from ideas about ideological futures to "Future Imperfect," science fiction has been filling our minds and our imaginations with "what could be" and "why does this happen." In a recent broadcast of State of Affairs on the Louisville, KY, local NPR station 89.3 WFPL, everything from the origins to the extremes of science fiction were discussed in a show titled The Subversive Side of Science Fiction.

Joining host Julie Kredens on this broadcast are James Gunn, director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas and author of science fiction for more than 60 years, and Amy H. Sturgis, editor of science fiction and fantasy and teacher of interdisciplinary studies at Belmont University.

They discuss which author "started" modern science fiction writing (comparing Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells), explore why science fiction became so popular in its imagination and analysis of the political, economic, and social ramifications of technology, and compare the utopian and dystopian themes of various works. In addition, they look into how scientific development has expanded science fiction, as well as how science fiction has affected scientific development.

The guests also talk about how science fiction has been subversive ever since the gothic and dystopian points of view of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allen Poe. During the Golden Age of Science Fiction (1938-1950), the traditional mood of science fiction, "pessimistic irony" (which finds problems with current society and discusses how to improve or overcome those problems) was established and continues today. To compare, some works written during the Cold War were outlawed in their own country, such as Russia and East Germany, while other works and events, such as World's Fairs during that Golden Age were considered "views of the future," even going so far as to say "we have seen the future and it was good."

Amy H. Sturgis is working on a project that looks into current science-fiction writings, and she has found that a large portion of these works are self-critical ("self" meaning humanity) and generally more pessimistic than works written even a couple of decades ago. She goes on to say that young people getting into science fiction for the first time are subjected to this overwhelming level of criticism and pessimism, and it may lead to harm or at the very least disinterest in today's young people.

Science-fiction fans (or perhaps especially if you're not a fan) should consider downloading this podcast. The host and guests provide a great look into the history of science fiction and discuss the changes in science fiction throughout the last two centuries. I am a big fan of the very early science fiction, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, up through authors such as Heinlein and Clarke. When it comes to modern science fiction, I generally stick to franchises that I was interested in from other forms of media, such as Star Trek.

Are you a fan of science fiction? If so, what eras or styles interest you the most?

80 comments
darpoke
darpoke

for alternate histories. There's some licence for massive social commentary as well as evoking times past or how things could be different *right now*. Authors I'd recommend include Mary Gentle - read Ash or 1610 - and Jon Courtenay Grimwood - read the Arabesk trilogy (Pashazade, Effendi, Felaheen). For straight-up sci-fi it would have to be Dan Simmons or Alastair Reynolds. Those guys rock the spot. And for those fans of fantasy? Lewis Carroll's works are just fantastic.

andrew.semler
andrew.semler

I personally love the dystopia novels and the critiques of society. I dilike the whole. "WE ARE EARTH WATCH US WIN" IT isn't as fun or as enjoyable as reading something which says we are earth, we have failed.

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Subversive. Because it activates imagination, I'd say.

NthDegree
NthDegree

When authors such as Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Brunner, Bradbury, Blish, Sturgeon, Herbert and Silverberg defined the Science Fiction genre. Yes, there were stories of dystopia and the more evil side of the universe but generally it pointed us in the right direction, galactic empires where everyone had a voice, steps to the stars where humans and sometimes non-humans showed grace under pressure and themes of where will we go next. I am not surprised that science fiction has gotten darker. The same trend has occurred in movies (much more gore), music (dark songs of death, killing cops etc.) and television (why do we like reality shows where we only see the bad side of people and shows about crime and death, don't we get enough in the news?). I, for one, will look ahead and see the bright path. As Coth quotes in The Silver Stallion by James Cabell, "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true."

aharper
aharper

Subversive, Sci-Fi, rocking good time? Heinlein. Citizen of the Galaxy Stranger in a Strange Land Revolt in 2100 Time Enough for Love I Will Fear No Evil The Number of the Beast The Moon is a Harsh Mistress To Sail Beyond the Sunset The Cat Who Walks Through Walls Farnham's Freehold All of these have an undercurrent of subversion from social disobedience to outright revolt against unacceptable status quo or unjust tyranny. Also check out This Perfect Day by Ira Levin.

owner
owner

I am a huge Sci-Fi fan...or more appropriately, Science Fantasy. I am not sure what the first book I read was, though as a young child, I was a very avid reader. My first sci-fi memories are of seeing the original Star Wars as well as shows like Dr. Who, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek ,and Space:1999. I was addicted. As far as books go, I lean more towards Science Fantasy rather than Science Fiction as I find many Sci-Fi authors to be a bit dry in thier writings. I tried reading Arthur C. Clarke's "Childhood's End" and couldn't get past the first couple of pages, yet I devoured Asimov's "I Robot" and Frank Herbert's "Dune" series. I was hooked (and still colledct) books by Michael Moorcock (famous for his Elric of Melnibone series which is part of the larger Eternal Champion Cycle). I do agree that most Sci-Fi and even Science Fantasy addresses issues that were prevelant at the time the books/comics were written. X-Men dealt with racism. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover Novels also touched on this as well as other political topics. As someone posted above, they allowed you to see both sides of the issue without threatening the reader's worldview, and in the process, hopefully opened the mind of the reader a bit. Star Wars, if you read some of the books do this when they go go more in depth about the Sith...going from the figure of absolute evil you see in the movies to almost an X-Men like dichotomy of 2 differnt viewpoints that want to lead to the same outcome. As a book fiend in general, I find Sci-Fi to be an expression of the times. A very intersting view of Star Wars was done by Joseph Campbell in his Power of Myth. If you haven't seen this put into it's mythological context, I would highly suggest checking it out. Very intersting. George Lucas was one of Campbell's students at UC Berkley (I believe that is the correcdt school).

Mabrick
Mabrick

I have read, in no particular order: Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Norton, Pournelle, Foster, Steakley, Adams, Drake, Laumer, Brin, Bear, Scalzi, Wells, Verne, Herbert many others that I have not the time or memory to list. I have also read Tolstoy, Twain, Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Dumas and other "literary" authors. The art is the same. The vehicle is all that is different. All are intellectual. All have merit. Asking which is better is like asking would you rather have a Monet, Van Gogh or Warhol hanging in your living room. It is a matter of personal preference but they all attest to good taste!

psingleton
psingleton

I have to admit that the darker, more anti-establishment Science fiction has drawn me in of late, even the culture of it. By this I mean the Steampunk. I also found myself enraptured by the Nightside series by Simon Greene and the Death's Head series by David Gunn. All of these look at the darker side of people, government, and society, but they all show individual good, and that is a beneficial thing. Just as every era is shown in it's art, you can also see the changing of era's from the art. The literature of the day is art, and it is showing that we are leaving the "modern era" and progressing into a "post-modern" era. By Era, I do view everything since the Industrial revolution as 1 era, though we have had many sub-movements throughout this time period (every 10-15 years). One of the reasons behind the rising Steampunk sub-culture is that change, it was seen at the end of the Victorian age and beginning of the Modern Era, with the Industrial Age. Steam Engines and Electricity took us to the Modern Era just as the miniaturization of technology is leading us into the next era.

edwardwstanley
edwardwstanley

the machine stops, or the war of the worlds. all SF can trace itself back to either of those stories.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Barry B Longyear's Manifest Destiny. Never been mad keen on the utopian fallacy myself. History is against it, so it stretches credulity to breaking point.

Geek3001
Geek3001

SF can encourage people to think of alternatives to the status quo, which can upset the powers that be. It reminds me of a Gordon Dickson quote, that has been quoted by other science fiction writers. "Trouble rather the tiger in his lair than the sage among his books. For to you kingdoms and their armies are things mighty and enduring, but to him they are but toys of the moment, to be overturned with the flick of a finger."

Rumple
Rumple

All the classics in the 60's. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, everything I could get my pre-pubescent hands on. These days I still search for the 'gems among the debris'. I think that some of William Gibsin's writing is extremely prescient.

rocket ride
rocket ride

IMHO, _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ is the single best thing Heinlein ever wrote. It's also on my top 10 list of best SFnal stories anyone ever wrote.

psingleton
psingleton

Heinlein became very much a socialist. I thought the first of the socialist leaning works was Cat who walks through walls, but it may have been earlier. Strangers in a Strange Land was not a subversive work, it and Starship Troopers were both social experiments. One thing about Starship Troopers that kills me is when people associate it with "benevolent military dictatorship", read the book first people. The movie needs to be wiped from the planet, but the book is on most military commander's required reading list for their junior officers. A few points about it: 1) Not a dictatorship, leader is elected in free election. 2) Anyone can vote, as long as you serve a term in the military. 3)Unlike our military, anyone can join. Diabetes? Sure, paraplegic? We've got a desk right here. Asthma? Guess you'll have to be in the navy. 4)No more prison, Lashes or Death, seems like a great way to remove a tax burden from our shoulders. I served as a medic in the Army for 9 years, including 1 in Iraq. I read this book as a teen and then again after arriving at my first base. I understood it at 21, not at 15, because I had felt and seen the things Heinlein expertly describes. Just wish I'd had a teacher like Rasczak.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You can't put the moon is a harsh mistress, or starship troopers in the same category as outright drivel like Number of the beast. Not sure where the cut off point is (Glory Road ??) but like Clarke he went from genius to moron.

mdeans
mdeans

Have you read The Singularity is Near? The first half seems to be really solid projections for the next twenty or thirty years. The second half makes me wonder if the author needs medication but that is beside the point. The math behind the projections is awesome along with the authors previous ability to project technological advances. I think it's by Ray Kurzweil.

Snak
Snak

... some guy called Ezekiel or something gets to see the first UFO. I have read hundreds of SF books but when this trend for non-story books appeared - so-called New Age SciFi, I switched to Fantasy. I like to escape when I read - as far from this planet as possible - and, latterly, as far from this reality as possible. Nothing but SF or Fantasy does that for you. Unless you count the bible that is....

mdeans
mdeans

You could also serve your stint in police or firefighting if I recall correctly. As long as the job was dangerous and of service to the community. That's why I think he called it a service requirement.

aharper
aharper

I have always used the expression "Benevolent Military Dictatorship" to describe the government of Starship Troopers, but as you pointed out, dictatorships don't get elected. You are correct of course. I rather like the social implications of this society, but in order to feed the military machine it must expand and find enemies. Otherwise it will lose relevance and power. I agree that the movie needs to be buried and the producer lashed. Probably one of the worst examples of a semiliterate movie producer peddling his drivel to an illiterate shallow public. The interesting thing is how different people perceive the book. Career military like you and I would function well in it as citizens, but everyone I know who hated the book was either a civvie or one term wonder. I commend you on your service to your nation. I served as Air Force Pararescue for 12 years. My survival instructor resembled Rasczak an awful lot. We hated him while in training and loved him for the rest of our careers.

Geek3001
Geek3001

When I was in high school, I wrote a paper connecting several Heinlein stories that weren't explicitly linked in his Future History. You might call it literary research by a fan. When "Time Enough for Love" came out, some of my theories were verified. Note that "The Number of the Beast" came out after a seven year publishing drought. It also came after he had a mini stroke in 1978. These later works, as you pointed out, aren't very good examples of his works. Of course, by that time, a lot of his hard science fiction stories had been overrun by science fact. Keeping up with technology as a SF writer can be a full time job. I sometimes wonder how large Mycroft would be if "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" were written today.

aharper
aharper

All authors have their good and bad stories. I am having the worst time with some of his later works.

aharper
aharper

I left it and a few others out on purpose. Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie made by those who missed the point) is not about subversion. Sometimes Heinlein, Baer, Anderson, Pohl, and others write to create a world as a social experiment, not to evoke or mirror change.

aharper
aharper

I left it and a few others out on purpose. Starship Troopers (the book, not the movie made by those who missed the point) is not about subversion. Sometimes Heinlein, Baer, Anderson, Pohl, and others write to create a world as a social experiment, not to evoke or mirror change. Starship troopers was such an experiment to explore the social concept of a benevolent military dictatorship and citizenship by merit.

chuckp1066
chuckp1066

Sadly, only the book is worth a damn. I think the screenwriters completely missed the real story, and instead concentrated on the setting. Truth be told, they would have failed History and Moral Philosophy. In High school.

psingleton
psingleton

Do you believe in hell? Di you know that 86% of people believe there is a hell, while only something like 30% believe in heaven, how is this possible? Well I for one am sorry for your life. But I am assured of my everlasting one. I wish you luck in your walk through life, and I hope that someone helps you see the truth of the matter.

susan.burris
susan.burris

I think that the first SF story in the bible is actually the Genesis story, you know, where some guy named GOD creates the universe in 7 days, or wait maybe that's really Fantasy. Hmmm... maybe I'm being to critical and pessimistic.

edwardwstanley
edwardwstanley

I still stick with my assertion that all SF stems from both either Wells generally positivist view vs Forster's more critical view of this technological future we create. I should include 'the time machine' as well. The one major area, I don't think they considered how much of this future would be "sponsored by...".

mbrown
mbrown

There actually is still good science fiction out there. I found a bunch of it by joining up with the science fiction book club, after at least a decade away from novels. You have to sift through the franchise BS, but there is still solid, well-written, story-telling, idea-driven science fiction, similar in quality to the pulps like Analog and Asimov's; it does take some digging and quite a few duds in the mix, but I have found the results rewarding. If you have a good non-chain book store, like Powell's in Portland, you can even get your hands on the hardcopy and browse to weed out the clunkers. I'm old-fashioned, I like movies for entertainment, but I want my books to encourage me to think.

matthew.balthrop
matthew.balthrop

I agree on the latter point. I am of the opinion that whatever system of faith or belief that a person chooses is fine, if that is what makes them happy. I find a hard time grasping the literal translation of the bible to reality though. Similar to what you stated, the bible reads much like a SciFi, fantasy work. That is a faith i suppose i just don't understand.

mdeans
mdeans

I was somehow equating non-combat with non-military. good catch

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

You had to be an ex military service person to apply to the fire service, the police, politics, or any community leadership position. Mind you, the military organisation Heinlein set out was a lot more than what we call military toady. It included, as part of its organisation, what the US calls the Peace Corps, and other community help organisations, as well as research organisations. And, service with any part of the military qualified you as an ex military person - be you a retired combat officer or a retired logistic clerk who never left their home town, as long as you donned the uniform and did your time, you can then go on to the other jobs, if you want.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

the concept of service to something before you can wield power over it is something I have a lot of time for. Going out and risking your life for your community is a very visible example of service to it. There are others. Compared to what we have now, having to spend six years on litter picking would make you more fit for office. Serve in order to gain power vs gain power in order to serve(maybe), was the real idea.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but it would have taken up less space. There's nothing particularly uncredible about self programming computer evolving self awareness at a particular complexity threshold. The thing I've always found interesting is humans actually assiciate intelligence with what's effectively inividuality, perhaps a hive style mentality is more likely initially, of course that would be very alien to us. It wasn't the science that let him down, it was the public masturbation. I have little time for the many worlds theorem at the best of times, the idea that an infinite number of them would mean that one indistinguishable from a fiction must exist somewhere is just outright f'ing drivel.

psingleton
psingleton

His writing was amazing with Starship Troopers (having been a soldier myself, the emotional experience is very well written), Space Cadet, and Stranger in a Strange Land, but his later works just became drivel.

MartyL
MartyL

I always thought that the book was one of Heinlein's political position papers - freedom isn't free, citizenship demands service, etc etc. The first movie was almost a parody of the book, and played as an ani-war music video. The second movie was made because, well, because people bought tickets to the first one.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

I have no option but to point out a few errors in your last post. The Bible, as we know it today, is NOT exactly like the one first written. To start with, the Conference of Nicea in the 4th century AD removed over half the books from the official Bible. Mostly for church internal political reasons. Second, the English translations we use do NOT carry the fine overtones of the original Greek in the New Testament, or the original Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament. In English, we frequently use one word where those languages had several with finer distinctions, also, they sometimes had one word where we use many words. Add in that most of the early translations were translations through other language translations, and you can see why there are now recognised as difference in the translations of many passages. Third, much of what people understand in the Bible today, is not what the scriptures actually say, but what the church hierarchy issue as approved doctrine. I'm sorry, but I couldn't let this error go unchallenged, once I read it. I have NO intention of continuing this discussion here, as this is NOT the right place for it. The subject has been well covered in past threads at TR, and it can be handled as either peer mails or a thread of its own, if you wish to take it further.

mdeans
mdeans

You may not believe you were being self-righteous but from my perspective you were. My previous statement illustrates my point. Had you made statements to the effect that you believe such and such to be the truth, and you believe some other thing to be false, I believe you would have gotten a much different response to your initial post. You certainly would have from me. By stating your beliefs as absolute fact you shut out and disregard everyone else's beliefs. This could be considered rude. I appreciate that to you your comments were absolute fact, but they aren't to everyone and an appreciation of that might be useful. I'm not saying your beliefs are wrong,as they are very similar to my own, just your presentation of them. The statement, "This is irrefutable truth." versus the statement, "I believe this to be irrefutable truth." say the same thing from your side without disrespecting other belief systems even indirectly.

psingleton
psingleton

Well there you go, if you place yourself as equal to animals, then you have forgotten or never knew the difference between man and animal. I'm out.

NthDegree
NthDegree

I think people got the wrong, or, it might be argued, the right impression that your comments were less about the bible being used as a source of science fiction and more about your condemning of those who don't share your beliefs. The comment: "Well I for one am sorry for your life. But I am assured of my everlasting one." would tend to prickle the hairs of any self-aware animals. We have no problem with your beliefs, we would just appreciate you not bashing ours.

psingleton
psingleton

bring up the topic of the Bible, someone else did. All of you lashing out against me are hypocritical. If I said that something you believe to be fact was "science-fiction" you would feel just as compelled to speak out. I am not being self righteous, I am only speaking my beliefs. And the only sin that puts you in hell is not believing and accepting Jesus as your savior. He forgives everything else, period. I did not read this topic with the goal of witnessing, but when someone takes a direct strike at my faith, and at the only book which we know to be essentially the same as when it was written(less than 150 years after the birth of Christ) based on the 16000 copies we have dating from that timeline and the support given to it by historians writings of the same era, I will defend myself. Call me an idiot. Call me arrogant. Call me what you will, I am doing what I am called to do by God, not by man.

mdeans
mdeans

If you wish to witness on your faith please find a thread related to that topic. Also, please find a productive way to go about it. Please investigate the difference between righteous and self-righteous. It is a very important distinction.

Snak
Snak

That 14% that do not believe in hell haven't realised where they're living. What tosh. Try seeing the obvious contradiction. God LOVES you, and eternity is a VERY LONG TIME. If you sin a couple of times (because God built you that way) then to be consigned to eternal torment, if true, is a sign of a very evil God indeed. And I'll have nothing to do with it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

spending eternity with the sort of self righteous asshole you are. I can, definite fate worse that death, the flames of perdition are suddenly warm and welcoming...

darpoke
darpoke

it takes to lecture a stranger on 'the truth' is overwhelming. Unless you're posting from beyond the grave you have no better idea of 'the truth' than any of us. No matter how much faith you put in the source of your belief it's still second hand knowledge and opinion rather than fact. Or, in this case, belief.

Snak
Snak

... The Genesis story (without snake) didn't appear in Israeli Mythology until they stole it from the Babylonians whilst they were enslaved. The Israelis added the snake - and blamed women for the world's ills in order to subjegate them. The bible is a middle-eastern history book, written down around 500BC when the Hebrews discovered writing. Until then it had been chinese whispered around tribal fires. How the local history tome became a world-wide book of 'God', remains a total mythtery...

Snak
Snak

.... was the Word. And the Word was BANG.

Geek3001
Geek3001

If you are not a literalist, the Genesis story could be a VERY high level explanation of both the Big Bang AND evolution. I seem to recall an Asimov short story where a scribe is recording the 'true' facts behind the creation of the universe, as voiced by 'God.' The scribe has several objections, one of which is the amount of papyrus available for the manuscript. While the Bible may be considered the word of 'God', do note that the editing, translation, transcription and other phases are in the hands of man.

matthew.balthrop
matthew.balthrop

I think the big guy rested on the seventh day, only took him six. Sounds like Employee of the Month material to me.

Snak
Snak

Nah - think about it. Guy with long hair, preaches peace and love, gets murdered and is worshiped. I expect in a couple of thousand years (if we'ree still here) people will be wearing little guns round their necks and preaching that John Loves You, or John Saves! Gawd help us.

psingleton
psingleton

This written by the man who stated "The fastest way to become a millionaire is start your own religion." And then he did... Scientologists= people with too much money and little or no sense That aside, Hubbard did write a lot of Sci-Fi

MartyL
MartyL

That branch of theology wherein we debate the number of angels that can dance on the head of . . . a beer.

Arcturus909
Arcturus909

...would of course be the Silmarillion . :) The Hobbit is just the first chapter of LoTR, really.

matthew.balthrop
matthew.balthrop

Would that make "The Hobbit" Genesis? Or would that be the "Book of Lost Tales"?

Arcturus909
Arcturus909

I predict that 3,000 years from now, "The Lord of the Rings" will be the religious text our ancestors will quote and follow. And Elvis will be the Jesus of the future. (This is completely fateous. Nobody is goign to be around in 3,000 years)

matthew.balthrop
matthew.balthrop

I did digress from the topic at hand here, I always find myself being pulled into theological conversations.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

they have a number of free electronic books, so you can try them out at www.baen.com and the free books are at http://www.baen.com/library/defaultTitles.htm I love the Honor Harrington series by David Webber, all of Anne McCaffrey's stuff, most of Elizabeth Moon's works, Keith Laumer's Bolo series is good, and several other of their authors write good stuff. And, yes, before you start, they do have some sci fantasy stuff, but not much - and some of the 'taken into history' type stories too.

rocket ride
rocket ride

If you like Greg Bear's work, try Vernor Vinge, Gregory Benford or David Brin. Stephen Baxter, too, but he tends to be just a little morbid. -- Paul

mbrown
mbrown

Caught Moon at the Living Room Theater in Portland...I strongly recommend it for SF junkies looking for the real thing.

cherie_carter
cherie_carter

I have a great deal of difficulty finding sci-fi that I like. The science part is more important than the fiction part. Currently I am rereading some of Bear's stuff and always looking for new writers but way to often pick up a book and it is more fantasy than science.

mbrown
mbrown

...I just meant I could enjoy a Star Wars franchise as a movie, but hate it as a book series. I am anxiously waiting for the weekend so I can catch Duncan Jones's Moon at the Living Room Theaters! Enjoy Powell's when you make it up here, but plan at least half a day, it is huge and stuffed with books!

matthew.balthrop
matthew.balthrop

that i will have to look up. I'll admit that i have not delved into the realm of written science fiction as much as i would like. I began my reading primarily with fantasy, medieval epics and the like. I have always been a fan of science fiction in theater, about time i explored the written world more in depth.

edwardwstanley
edwardwstanley

that fantasy and scifi is one and the same... i know at u of toronto, they are kept in the same library... elves are vulcans, orcs are klingons , lotr stems from fantastical merging of ww2 experiences while ST was a militaristic conflict with alien races... my top 5 modern scifi movies or series: Alien (to think that movie was made 30 years ago is still more compelling than most SF today), new BSG (so say we all), B5 JMS FTW, Bladerunner, 2001: A space odyssey

matthew.balthrop
matthew.balthrop

you point of view, though i do enjoy a movie with a well written story it is easier to compromise with the film industry. I will have to visit Powell's next time i am in Oregon, i am originally from Eugene and always make a trip up to Portland while i am there.

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