I love science fiction for its scope, for showing what the human race can achieve and become, for showing how we in our conceit are actually dwarfed by the universe, that to the universe we are nothing but dust, yet precious because we are alive (or sentient enough to think we’re alive).
Frank Herbert – Dune
The greatest piece of science fiction written, if just edging the Mars Trilogy for the honour. Astounding in its scope, spanning thousands of years, across star systems and galaxies, countless worlds and their denizens. And ofcourse the magical world of Arrakis. Parts or the book are almost metaphysical with the characters reflecting and introspecting. The Bene Gesserit viewpoint on history shows how subtle touches can affect the future. No reading of this book is complete without reading Dune – Genesis where Frank Herbert explains what lead him to write the book and how the book is a critique of the time he wrote it in. I’ve copy pasted the text at the end of this article. If anyone has copyright issues with it or something, I’ll take it off. Though I doubt it, since it is not the work itself, just why he wrote the series.
The followups by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson are worth reading, they don’t resemble the original series as far as the philosophy goes, but they are absolute thrillers and page turners. These book do well to explain the genesis of the many factions you will meet in Dune, while remaining books in their own right.
IMO this series blurs the boundary between science fiction and fantasy, I consider it to be a blend of both.
Kim Stanley Robinson – Mars Trilogy
The Mars Trilogy consists of three books – Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, the titles reflecting the changing face of Mars as it is terraformed. This series is absolutely breathtaking, not simply as a science function but because of the author’s literary style and the literary devices he employs to bring alive the beauty of an alien planet which none of us have seen. For example, when Sax and Maya try to put names to the myriad hues of the Martian skies and find themselves lacking because of the sheer variety of colours.
And after that they had a little hobby. Really it was remarkable how varied the colors of the Odessa sunsets were……So most evenings they held up their forearms, and tried different colors against the sky, and found a patch that matched fairly well, and it was a nondescript; no name. They made up names: 2 October the llth Orange, Aphelion Purple, Lemon Leaf, Almost Green, Arkady’s Beard; Maya could go on forever, she was really good at it…….Maya seized his arm in her clawlike grip, “That’s Martian orange, look, that’s the color of the planet from space, what we saw from the Ares! Look! Quick, what color is that, what color is that?”…….Cinnamon, raw sienna, Persian orange, sunburn, camel, rust brown, Sahara, chrome orange …… they began to laugh. Nothing was quite right. “We’ll call it Martian orange,” Maya decided.
Leave all that aside, and this book is still amazing…why? Because read it and you will understand what humanity can achieve if we look beyond, to the stars, if we give science its rightful place and do. My favourite quotations has more quotes.
Alastair Reynolds – Revelation Space
Reynolds background in Science (PhD in AstroPhysics/Worked at ESA) shines through here, with precise descriptions of pulsars, quasars, neutron stars, exotic physical processes, their extrapolation into eventual technological use, and their impact on human society. What is wonderful is that science is kept to the plausible,yet technology remains inventive and engaging. It’s impact on human psychology and society is explored realistically. And best of all, actual processes that one could expect play out in the novel! For example, networked human consciousnesses. If you want to read epic, realistic, hard science fiction that builds over the course of three books to explore how technology could evolve in reality and shape us, read this. For example, conundrums such as the lack of intelligent life in the galaxy are woven into the book. Or the effects of interstellar travel capped by the speed of light. Good stuff.
Charles Stross – Accelerando
Exceedingly intelligent, highly aware writing. A true hard science novel with a supreme grasp of evolution. The novel obsesses with the Singularity, viewing it as a continuing exponential increase in information processing. The author’s computer science background shines through. Timing channel attacks on the fabric of spacetime? Conversion of all mass into computronium? Infinite virtual ghosts venturing immortality? Galaxy wide router systems? Economics 2.0? It’s all in here. If you want hyper-aware, realistic science fiction with a human thread tying it together, the intertwining of technology and primal human drives being the main theme, read this. Or rather, read it anyway.
Issac Asimov – Foundation
Known to science fiction fans all over the globe, inventor of the three famous laws of robotics, I think the Foundations series is Asimov’s best known work. I have yet to read everything he has written, but this stands head and shoulders above everything else. The epic saga of Hari Seldon, Gaia, and ultimately R. Daneel Olivaw. I think Asimov is to be appreciated for his appraisal of robots. Of the robot role in human affairs. It also remains a great thrust in foreshadowing the human future, from the prequels describing humans and spacers to the decision on galactic rule. Asimov’s vast narrative stirs the imagination and casts your mind out into the future, awawkening you to the possibilities of robots, planets, stars and humans. You are drawn by this work because it discusses the future of the human race. What will we become? And in the end, you too must choose. The Empire disentigrates. Humanity is on the verge of regression. Yet there is hope. Foundation 1, Foundation 2 or Gaia? Foundation 1, Foundation 2 or Gaia? Foundation 1, Foundation 2 or Gaia???
Arthur C. Clarke – Odyssey Series
Not only a great science fiction writer, but a great visionary who predicted developments such as communication satellites long before they came into being and famously claimed that any technology advanced enough is indistinguishable from magic. I read this series years ago, and unfortunately have retained too little of it to say anything more than this is worth reading!! =P
William Gibson – The Sprawl/Neuromancer Trilogy
Hailed as the coming of age of the cyberpunk sub-genre, this novel typifies the gritty, run-down, tech-permeated world envisioned in cyberpunk novels. Neuromancer’s power lies in its ability to grasp you and throw you into a world radically different from what conventional science fiction portrays. There are no squawking robots, no huge spaceships, no pulse cannon battles. Instead you have sentient AIs and genetic engineering, and hacking has achieved primacy among human vocations. It’s like science fiction, leveraging the techniques used in realism, makes you feel the future. Gibson’s descriptions are vivid such that you can feel their texture:set apart by his ability to convey not how his mind’s image of the future looks but how the impression that image makes on your senses: literary impressionism if you may. With it’s futuristic, tech-immersed world where tech has saturated everyday life we are given a vision of a future where humanity has begun to fray a little at the edges being transformed by its own creations have wrought.
Hannu Rajaniemi – The Jean le Flambeur Trilogy
Uncompromising, post-human, future-embracing, hard as nails Science Fiction. Rajaniemi goes all out, invoking quantum mechanics and computing at every turn, from Hadamard gates to Lagrange points to entanglement. If you want true Science Fiction that invokes what could be when Science scales up, read this. For the visions of where privacy and technology meet, for where mind uploading and trade meet and where base human emotion and power meet. We await the third installment with bated breath.
Neal Stephenson – Snow Crash
Stephenson presents us with a comic caper through a entertaining world populated by offbeat characters with their idiosyncratic thoughts, characters who wend their way for the sake of wending their way, as if the world is drenched in meaningless and existence is it’s own justification, often doing things because they can. With odd dollops of ancient Sumeria combined with something about your brainstem, the plot bumps along entertainingly with its aim seemingly little more than to show us how wild and wacky the effects of technology can be.
Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl
Biopunk! First one I’ve read. The premise that genetic manipulation will enable a plethora of lifeforms that we cannot even envision, and they will impossibly affect our world. Bacigalupi’s world is fun, vivid and lively with cheshire cats and New People. At the same time, a sense of nostalgia for the lost innocence of the Old World pervades the book along with an underlying uncertainly and a tenuous reality. Generipping and genetic manipulation mean the future blows on fickle winds. Oh and did I mention the engrossing cultural setting? Definitely worth a read.
Charles Stross – Glasshouse
By the author of the mesmerizing Accelerando, this book is worth a read. It’s worth lies in exhibiting the weird and fascinating directions in which technology can take us. It reads like it was written a little hastily, where the ideas were of greater worth than the plot details. Indeed, what happens when we can create copies of ourselves using atomic assemblers? What is an identity? How does death mean? When everything is fleeting and one’s being morphs unaccountably?
Andy Weir – The Martian
A unique book and a refreshing read after the universe-spanning science fiction I’m used to seeing. This book is a highly personal take on the protagonist. The title itself is fascinating — at point does someone become “Martian”? The author grounds the book in realistic science, which only sparks the reader’s interest because of the balance between realism and fiction. Humour interspersed with technology keeps the reading enjoyable.
Greg Egan – Diaspora
If you love hard science fiction, and you know something of maths and physics, then Diaspora is for you. Diaspora reads as a cross between a polymath’s dream science textbook and a transhumanistic multidimensional voyage. The author explores consciousness, spacetime, and our future trajectories in 200 pages of tight prose. Conversely, the heavy emphasis on maths and physics concepts can turn off some readers. Read, with caution.
Dune – Genesis
This essay was originally published in the July 1980 issue of Omni Magazine. It has never been reprinted, and most DUNE fans have not had the opportunity to read Frank Herbert’s description of creating his masterpiece.
Dune Genesis by Frank Herbert
Dune began with a concept whose mostly unfleshed images took shape across about six years of research and one and a half years of writing. The story was all in my head until it appeared on paper as I typed it out.
How did it evolve? I conceived of a long novel, the whole trilogy as one book about the messianic convulsions that periodically overtake us. Demagogues, fanatics, con-game artists, the innocent and the not-so-innocent bystanders-all were to have a part in the drama. This grows from my theory that superheroes are disastrous for humankind. Even if we find a real hero (whatever-or whoever-that may be), eventually fallible mortals take over the power structure that always comes into being around such a leader.
Personal observation has convinced me that in the power area of politics/economics and in their logical consequence, war, people tend to give over every decision-making capacity to any leader who can wrap himself in the myth fabric of the society. Hitler did it. Churchill did it. Franklin Roosevelt did it. Stalin did it. Mussolini did it.
My favorite examples are John F. Kennedy and George Patton. Both fitted themselves into the flamboyant Camelot pattern, consciously assuming bigger-than-life appearance. But the most casual observation reveals that neither was bigger than life. Each had our common human ailment-clay feet.
This, then, was one of my themes for Dune: Don’t give over all of your critical faculties to people in power, no matter how admirable those people may appear to be. Beneath the hero’s facade you will find a human being who makes human mistakes. Enormous problems arise when human mistakes are made on the grand scale available to a superhero. And sometimes you run into another problem.
It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are imbalanced-in a word, insane.
That was the beginning. Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.
It is the systems themselves that I see as dangerous Systematic is a deadly word. Systems originate with human creators, with people who employ them. Systems take over and grind on and on. They are like a flood tide that picks up everything in its path. How do they originate?
All of this encapsulates the stuff of high drama, of entertainment-and I’m in the entertainment business first. It’s all right to include a pot of message, but that’s not the key ingredient of wide readership. Yes, there are analogs in Dune of today’s events-corruption and bribery in the highest places, whole police forces lost to organized crime, regulatory agencies taken over by the people they are supposed to regulate. The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC.
But that was only the beginning.
While this concept was still fresh in my mind, I went to Florence, Oregon, to write a magazine article about a US Department of Agriculture project there. The USDA was seeking ways to control coastal (and other) sand dunes. I had already written several pieces about ecological matters, but my superhero concept filled me with a concern that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade.
Our society, after all, operates on guilt, which often serves only to obscure its real workings and to prevent obvious solutions. An adrenaline high can be just as addictive as any other kind of high.
Ecology encompasses a real concern, however, and the Florence project fed my interest in how we inflict ourselves upon our planet. I could begin to see the shape of a global problem, no part of it separated from any other-social ecology, political ecology, economic ecology. It’s an open-ended list.
Even after all of the research and writing, I find fresh nuances in religions, psychoanalytic theories, linguistics, economics, philosophy, plant research, soil chemistry, and the metalanguages of pheromones. A new field of study rises out of this like a spirit rising from a witch’s cauldron: the psychology of planetary societies.
Out of all this came a profound reevaluation of my original concepts. In the beginning I was just as ready as anyone to fall into step, to seek out the guilty and to punish the sinners, even to become a leader. Nothing, I felt, would give me more gratification than riding the steed of yellow journalism into crusade, doing the book that would right the old wrongs.
Reevaluation raised haunting questions. I now believe that evolution, or deevolution, never ends short of death, that no society has ever achieved an absolute pinnacle, that all humans are not created equal. In fact, I believe attempts to create some abstract equalization create a morass of injustices that rebound on the equalizers. Equal justice and equal opportunity are ideals we should seek, but we should recognize that humans administer the ideals and that humans do not have equal ability.
Reevaluation taught me caution. I approached the problem with trepidation. Certainly, by the loosest of our standards there were plenty of visible targets, a plethora of blind fanaticism and guilty opportunism at which to aim painful barbs.
But how did we get this way? What makes a Nixon? What part do the meek play in creating the powerful? If a leader cannot admit mistakes, these mistakes will be hidden. Who says our leaders must be perfect? Where do they learn this?
Enter the fugue. In music, the fugue is usually based on a single theme that is played many different ways. Sometimes there are free voices that do fanciful dances around the interplay. There can be secondary themes and contrasts in harmony, rhythm, and melody. From the moment when a single voice introduces the primary theme, however, the whole is woven into a single fabric.
What were my instruments in this ecological fugue? Images, conflicts, things that turn upon themselves and become something quite different, myth figures and strange creatures from the depths of our common heritage, products of our technological evolution, our human desires, and our human fears.
You can imagine my surprise to learn that John Schoenherr, one of the world’s most foremost wildlife artists and illustrators, had been living in my head with the same images. People find it difficult to believe that John and I had no consultations prior to his painting of the Dune illustrations. I assure you that the paintings were a wonderful surprise to me.
The Sardaukar appear like the weathered stones of Dune. The Baron’s paunch could absorb a world. The ornithopters are insects preying on the land. The sandworms are Earth shipworms grown monstrous. Stilgar glares out at us with the menace of a warlock.
What especially pleases me is to see the interwoven themes, the fuguelike relationships of images that exactly replay the way Dune took shape.
As in an Escher lithograph, I involved myself with recurrent themes that turn into paradox. The central paradox concerns the human vision of time. What about Paul’s gift of prescience-the Presbyterian fixation? For the Delphic Oracle to perform, it must tangle itself in a web of predestination. Yet predestination negates surprises and, in fact, sets up a mathematically enclosed universe whose limits are always inconsistent, always encountering the unprovable. It’s like a koan, a Zen mind breaker. It’s like the Cretan Epimenides saying, “All Cretans are liars.”
Each limiting descriptive step you take drives your vision outward into a larger universe which is contained in still a larger universe ad infinitum, and in the smaller universes ad infinitum. No matter how finely you subdivide time and space, each tiny division contains infinity.
But this could imply that you can cut across linear time, open it like a ripe fruit, and see consequential connections. You could be prescient, predict accurately. Predestination and paradox once more.
The flaw must lie in our methods of description, in languages, in social networks of meaning, in moral structures, and in philosophies and religions-all of which convey implicit limits where no limits exist. Paul Muad’Dib, after all, says this time after time throughout Dune.
Do you want an absolute prediction? Then you want only today, and you reject tomorrow. You are the ultimate conservative. You are trying to hold back movement in an infinitely changing universe. The verb to be does make idiots of us all.
Of course there are other themes and fugal interplays in Dune and throughout the trilogy. Dune Messiah performs a classic inversion of the theme. Children of Dune expands the number of themes interplaying. I refuse, however, to provide further answers to this complex mixture. That fits the pattern of the fugue. You find your own solutions. Don’t look to me as your leader.
Caution is indeed indicated, but not the terror that prevents all movement. Hang loose. And when someone asks whether you’re starting a new cult, do what I do: Run like hell.