Best Science Fiction - Books, news, discussions, book giveaways, and more
Our goal is to help you find the best science fiction books out there. Detailed recommendation lists of the best of the best science fiction books, science fiction discussions, science fiction reviews and a blog about all things scifi.
We’re not going to be posting much here while the site is still not behaving properly, but we do have to keep up with the news. Particularly at this time of the year when there is a lot of award news coming out.
First up, the BSFA Awards. The winners will be announced at the British Eastercon (30 March – 2 April).
I’ve been holding off posting in the hope that the glitches we’ve experienced recently might be cleared up. But no luck so far. So here’es something light to remind you that we’re still here …
Comedy is hard. Science fiction comedy is harder still. Oh there’s a lot of it out there, but an inordinate amount of it seems to consist of little more than strings of sophomoric puns or weak jokes. If you’re really interested you can check out Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart, or practically anything by Piers Anthony. Fine if you want to groan, not so great if you’re looking to laugh out loud.
There is also the problem that humour can date pretty quickly. Actually, science fiction is in something of a double bind here, because a lot of sf comedy is basically satire, and that also tends to lose its bite once we forget the thing being satirised. Some old satires, like Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, still make us smile because of the extraordinary invention of the storytelling, but in the main comic satires have a very short shelf life.
And if you’re trying to write comic science fiction that isn’t specifically satirical in intent, you need to find some way around the fact that sf worldbuilding can slow down the pace that is a necessary part of good comic writing, while jokes tend to work by twisting the familiar which doesn’t often fit with the science fictional need to make things new. That’s why jokes tend to work better if they are short and sharp, and similarly the best comic sf is often in short stories. If you want to see what I mean, check out the often surrealist tales of R.A. Lafferty (in the multi-volume (and outrageously expensive, do check around for cheaper collections) collected stories beginning with The Man Who Made Models, for instance), the outrageous inventions of Fredric Brown (in The Best Short Stories of Fredric Brown), and the wild distortions of history from Howard Waldrop (as in Things Will Never Be The Same). But though these writers are dazzlingly funny in short form, their novel-length work tends not to be so funny.
On the whole, writers of sustained comic invention, in the style of, say, P.G. Wodehouse or Thorne Smith, tend to be short on the ground in science fiction. Though, interestingly, both Wodehouse and Smith wrote sf. Check out Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse, in which a British Earl and a Hollywood child star accidentally swap personalities, or Thorne Smith’s Skin and Bones, in which a new photographic technique accidentally renders the hero and his dog invisible except for their skeletons. This quality of writing is not easy: Gene Wolfe attempted something in the manner of Thorne Smith in his novel There Are Doors, and it ended up being one of his weaker works.
Here, then, are five writer who managed the tricky balancing act of writing funny science fiction at novel length.
This is the exception that proves the rule: an old comedy that can still make us smile. That’s mostly because we are still familiar with the two things that are being satirised here: the romantic image of King Arthur’s Middle Ages, and the idea of the super-competent modern American man. A Yankee mechanic is knocked out and wakes up at Camelot. There he uses his can-do Yankee attitude and a host of modern inventions to transform the court, but all of his modern introductions are countered by the wiliness of the court magician, Merlin.
From the late-1950s onwards, Harry Harrison produced a stream of fast-paced novels that satirised the conventions of science fiction, including The Stainless Steel Rat about an intergalactic thief turned cop, and The Technicolor Time Machine about a time machine being used for film making. But the funniest of these was Bill the Galactic Hero, which hilariously lampooned the cliches of military sf. Bill is a farmboy shanghaied into the military who finds himself in a ridiculous space war against alien lizards, and who, through a series of misadventures, becomes a hero. Twenty-odd years later Harrison returned to the character with a series of sequels, each a collaboration with a different writer and each worse than the last. But the original is still one of the bright spots in sf comedy.
Most of Shaw’s work was serious and engaging, but in person he had a very dry wit which came out in a series of “Serious Scientific Talks” he gave at British sf conventions, and which were collected as A Load of Old Bosh. The ludicrous technological ideas he floated in these talks rarely came into his fiction, but it did in his one overtly comic novel. There is, for instance, a spaceship with a matter transmitter at either end, which moves through space by constantly transmitting itself along its own length. The basic story, like Bill the Galactic Hero, is a parody of military sf with a reluctant hero, Warren Peace, who joined the Space Legion to forget. Unfortunately, the only way he can get out of the Legion is to find out what it was he’d forgotten. There was a less successful sequel, but this original remains an exemplar of Bob Shaw at his funniest.
There is a sense that women don’t write comedy. Certainly, the entry on Humour in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia doesn’t mention a single woman. Yet the idea is nonsense, there’s a lot of witty work from women. Connie Willis, for instance, has used comedy very effectively in her short stories and in short novels such as her sparkling parody of Hollywood, Remake. Her best comedy is perhaps, To Say Nothing of the Dog, one of her series of time travel novels, though this is a light-hearted interlude between much darker works such as Doomsday Book and Blackout and All Clear. In this instance, travellers are sent back to Victorian England on a quest for something that none of then understand or would recognise, and end up re-enacting the adventures of Jerome K. Jerome ad his fellows in Three Men in a Boat.
Let’s face it, you couldn’t write a list of comic sf and miss this. It is the great classic of comic science fiction: it began life as a radio serial, became a television series, was filmed (not very well), and ended up as a trilogy of six books. It starts when Earth is demolished to make way for an intergalactic freeway, but Arthur Dent is rescued at the last minute by his friend, Ford Prefect, who then leads him on an amazing adventure that includes Vogon poetry, Zaphod Beeblebrox the two-headed president of the galaxy, Marvin the paranoid android, a computer built by mice, and the answer 42. Still as fresh and as funny as ever, this remains the standard against which all future sf comedy has to be measured.
Gavin Smith has made a name for himself with hard-hitting, often brutal military sf, and as the title of this new novel shows, this is right on the money. It’s the first part of a new series, set 400 years in the future when criminals are stored in suspended animation aboard prison ships. But Miska Corbin, with a background in black ops, has stolen one of these ships and turned its inmates into her own private army. The question is: what does she want this army for?
Pennsylvania, 1997: a Navy SEAL’s family has been murdered, and his daughter is missing. Shannon Moss, the Navy investigator, finds out that the SEAL was aboard the spaceship Libra which was lost in a time travel experiment. Determined to find the missing girl, Moss travels into different versions of the future, looking for a clue. But what she finds there is terrifying, because what she discovers there is the approaching Terminus, the end of humanity, and the only way to prevent it is to crack the case.
There’s a time portal in the bar where Hallie works, and when a strange woman known as the Chronometrist starts to harass her Hallie has little choice but to step through the portal. Soon she is tumbling into the past and the future, falling in love and changing the world. But each journey she makes costs a little bit of herself, and before long the effects of her journeys are rippling through time so thoroughly that it is impossible to tell what is the future that she is trying to save.
This is a fast-paced thriller about reincarnation, memory and life after death. It starts with psychologist Matilda Deacon’s new patient, Ashanique, an eleven-year-old girl with the memories of the last man killed in the First World War. But when Ashanique starts talking about the Night Doctors, Matilda starts to realise that the girl is in grave danger. Then she learns about Rade, an assassin who has left a bloody trail around the world, and who is after a secret contained in memories.
When their father left them, the only thing that made life bearable for the three Vasquez children was Luz. Luz was a shimmering figure who materialized in the canyon behind their house, and he befriended the children each in their own way. But then Luz left also, and he took with him something from each of the children. But Luz had changed the way they see themselves and the world, and in his absence they have to work out anew how to connect with other people again while learning what the alien presence had taken from them.
Borne was one of the most highly-praised novels of 2017; now Jeff VanderMeer follows it up with this intriguing story about a creature built in a laboratory. Part bird, part human, she has to flee when the scientists turn against her. But though she makes good her escape, she still isn’t safe. The wildlife also rejects her, and the world is full of biotech monsters, failed experiments that have outlived the company who made them. Amid the detritus of human civilization, she must find a way to survive in a story that builds a whole new perspective on the world of Borne.
And talking of strange birds … here’s a first short story collection from multi-award winning Jo Walton. Long overdue, I suspect many people will say. It’s a mixture of fantasy and science fiction, magic and machinery. Secrets are uncovered, magic mirrors see everything, and search engines set off down the path to existential despair. As varied, as skilled, as intriguing as her novels, this is a stunning collection of stories, vignettes, poetry and more.
The second part of the Hob Series is set on Tanegawa’s World, where TransRift Inc have found the strange blue mineral that allows the interstellar travel that human society now takes for granted. TransRift will stop at nothing to rip out every last bit of the invaluable mineral, and the only thing that stands in their way is Hob Ravani’s Ghost Wolves, the outlaw resistance that is doing everything in their power to hold on to their world. As the hunger for the mineral gets ever stronger and the company pushes the miners ever harder, things are coming to a violent head.
Elizabeth Moon’s latest military sf adventure featuring Admiral Kylara Vatta begins with a ragtag group of crash survivors seeking refuge on a remote arctic island. But the harsh conditions of the island are nothing compared to the turmoil that follows when Vatta’s report on the rescue goes missing, along with the other survivors. Vatta realises she is up against a powerful and dangerous enemy, a conspiracy that is closing in on her with murderous intent,and her family and the government she supports are both under threat.
This is another novel of survival in dangerous and extraordinary circumstances. In this instance, it is a luxury space liner, Supreme, on its maiden voyage with a passenger list full of aristocrats and celebrities. Then the liner collides with a pirate ship in hyperspace, leaving it becalmed, and circumstances suddenly change. As the weird, unnatural realm of hyperspace begins to have its inevitable effect upon the passengers, they suddenly realise that they are not alone in this floating graveyard. The only way to survive is to hold on to their sanity in this maddest of settings.
This debut novel is an sf thriller set on a grittily described Moon, where there are so many things that can kill you that murder seems almost redundant. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. When the head of a mining operation on the Sea of Serenity starts to investigate an explosion that killed one of his diggers, it quickly becomes more than a quest to solve the first murder on the Moon. The Moon is a political powder keg that could ignite into open warfare on the slightest excuse, and the effects could be devastating not just for the Moon but for Earth as well.
As a child, Ana was found drifting through space with a sentient android, D09. But when she needs to save D09, the only option is to find a lost ship. Her search for the coordinates brings her into contest with a spoiled Ironblood boy, but when things go wrong she and the Ironblood end up as fugitives, and the powerful forces after them don’t necessarily want to take them alive. This is a romantic adventure that forces Ana to face the darkness of her own past, and to make an impossible choice.
BSFA Award-winner Gareth Powell begins a new epic of war and adventure in space. Trouble Dog is a sentient warship disgusted with her role in genocide, so when the war is over she strips out her weapons and, with her crew of misfits, joins a peaceful mission to rescue ships in distress. But her latest mission, to seek out a starship which had a famous poet on board, turns dramatically wrong. What should have been a straightforward rescue mission plunges Trouble Dog and her crew into the middle of a new conflict, and she is going to have to learn how to fight all over again.
This is a debut collection of short stories that introduce an exciting new writer. The stories range in setting from the past to the near future, and many are intriguing exercises in speculative fiction. Within these stories you will explore a secret subterranean world beneath the prairie of the Old West; meet genetically modified septuplets; and see a man being transformed into a medical oddity by the blast furnaces of a steel mill. Questioning whether our new gods of science are any more reliable than the old gods of the past, these stories offer a powerful evocation of terror and wonder.
It was called the Rending, a strange, apocalyptic event in which 95% of the Earth’s population suddenly disappeared. Now, four years later, in a community of survivors known as Zion, Lana announces that she is pregnant, it will be the first birth since the Rending. But it turns out that she gives birth to an inanimate object, and soon other women of Zion are following suit. What do these Babies signify for the future of Zion? And what does it all have to do with the arrival of a stranger, Michael, who lures Lana away from the community?
For those who have been following the career of this remarkable writer, this surely must be one of the most anticipated short story collections of the year. The collection includes a brand-new novella, “Requiem”, which follows a young woman to Alaska to investigate the strange disappearance of her aunt. Other stories tell of an 11th century poet who finds himself revived as an AI aboard a starship, a solar powered utopia, and a woman from the slums with the curious ability to see into the past.
The blog still doesn’t seem to be behaving itself, but I’m sure you’ll excuse us if we’re limited to a more stripped-down appearance for a while. After all, it’s the end of the month, time to look forward to what’s on offer in February. It may be the shortest month, but there’s no shortage of new titles to look forward to. So this is the first of three posts loaded with goodies …
This is the sequel to Empress of a Thousand Skies, and tells the story of a high-stakes battle for control of the galaxy. On the one side there’s Nero, ambitious media star who’ll do anything to win; facing him is the Empress, Rhee, who has to make a choice between cutting a deal with her enemy or possibly losing her crown. And between the two, there’s the assassin, Aly, out for revenge even if it takes him to a place he never wanted to go back to, and the Princess Kara seeking the one piece of technology that will allow her to remember, and erase, who she is.
Earth is in ruins. The last refuge for humanity is the vast space station known as Outer Earth, a place that is overcrowded and filthy, and a place from which there is no escape. But all is not well on Outer Earth; there are dark forces at work that threaten chaos, and if they succeed there is no place left to run. This this breathless, high-octane space adventure is an omnibus edition that contains all three of Boffard’s Outer Earth novels, Tracer, Zero-G and Impact.
This debut novel is a first contact story unlike any you’ve read; and it’s already winning praise from such luminaries as David Brin, James Patrick Kelly and Adrian Tchaikovsky. Colonists from Earth have found a new world. It’s not perfect, but they don’t have much choice, so they settle down to make the best of it. What they don’t realise, at first, is that there is another intelligent species already living there. Is there a way of opening communication, so that they can forge an alliance that will benefit both humans and aliens?
It is the concluding part of Spencer Ellsworth’s gritty Starfire trilogy, and John Starfire, tyrannical ruler of the empire, has to be stopped before he carries out his plan to destroy humankind. Meanwhile, the alien Shir have emerged from the Dark Zone and are busy destroying the galaxy’s suns. The only way that Araskar can hold them back is to join with the Resistance, led by John Starfire’s wife, and she wants him dead. The very survival of the galaxy is at stake in this rip-roaring space opera.
Donovan is a paradise, a beautiful planet that offers everything the colonists could want. So why, when Supervisor Kalico Aguila arrives on Donovan, does she find that the colony has failed, the government overthrown, and the surviving colonists gone wild? And what has all of this got to do with the ship Freelander that turns up in orbit having been missing for two years, and how come the whole crew are dead of old age? And just to make things more complicated, there’s a brutal killer on the loose. Solving the mystery of Donovan could make Aguila the most powerful woman in the solar system; or it could kill her.
It’s not easy, living forever. Tom has had an illustrious past, acting with Shakespeare, exploring with Captain Cook, carousing with F. Scott Fitzgerald. But there are times when you just want a quiet, ordinary life. So Tom moves back to London and becomes a history teacher. Which is all well and good, until he meets the French teacher. There’s a secret society that looks after people like Tom, it’s called the Albatross Society and it has a lot of rules. One of the rules is: don’t fall in love. That’s the rule Tom is about to break, with extraordinary consequences.
2065, and surveyers studying an asteroid that may be suitable for mining make a remarkable discovery: it is really a derelict alien spaceship. For the first time, humanity knows that we are not alone in the universe. Unfortunately, what we do not know is that, across the galaxy, alien races have been at war with each other for millennia. And that war could be coming to our solar system. But Methone, a tiny egg-shaped moon of Saturn, may hold the answer; if we can get there first.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen were published with five years of each other, so it is perhaps no great stretch to imagine that Mary Bennet might encounter the enigmatic Victor Frankenstein when he travels to England to fashion a bride for his Creature. But as Frankenstein seeks out a female body he can use for the Creature’s mate, Mary tries to penetrate the dark secret she senses that Victor is keeping from her. John Kessel’s latest novel is a remarkable mash-up of Gothic horror and Regency romance.
The latest in Gini Koch’s ongoing series featuring the alien adventures of Katherine “Kitty” Katt is another blend of sf action and steamy romance. The discovery of a new planet at the opposite end of the galaxy that seems to be the twin of Earth could just provide the much-needed answer to the growing number of alien refugees arriving on Earth. But the planet has problems of its own, which is why Kitty and her husband, Jeff, find themselves swept away on a mission they weren’t supposed to be part of aboard the spaceship Distant Voyager.
We seem to be facing an escalating series of glitches on the blog at the moment. Not exactly sure what it is, but for a short while you may not hear too much from us except the occasional scream of frustration. We’ll be back as soon as we can.
The death has been announced of Ursula K. Le Guin. She was 88.
It is almost impossible to write about Le Guin without making her sound less than she was. She is revered for her wisdom, but that wisdom is revealed in the subtle and complex humanity that pervades her best work, rather than in short quotable lines. She is acclaimed for the quality of her fiction as if that was a given, something unquestioned, without reckoning on the work that was less than stellar, though that is what highlights how hard she worked to produce her very best novels. And she is inevitably referred to as a writer of fantasy and science fiction, even though that fails to encompass the range and ambition of her work.
She was, quite simply, one of the most important writers in the history of late-20th century literature. The way she uses clear, simple language in A Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels to convey a world that is morally complex. The way she produces fables like “Sur” or “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (surely one of the outstanding short stories of the last half-century) that continue to have a powerful impact on the reader no matter how many times you read them. The way she embeds challenging social and political messages about gender and equality into dramatic science fiction novels like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.
Her influence on other writers is immeasureable, there are few genre writers of any note who have emerged since the 1970s that are untouched by her work, and most admit direct inspiration. There are not many writers of science fiction and fantasy that are essential reading, but Ursula K. Le Guin is undoubtedly of that company.
Ursula Le Guin was the daughter of Californian anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, best known for his work with Ishi, said to be the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe. Le Guin’s mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote a famous biography of Ishi, Ishi in Two Worlds. The anthropological viewpoint, and the awareness of other ways of living in the world, would be one of the abiding characteristics of her work. She attended the same school as Philip K. Dick, though the two seem to have been unaware of each other at the time.
Some of her earliest published writings were about an imaginary central-European country of Orsinia at a time of romance and revolution. This would later produce a collection of stories and a novel, Malafrena, together collected by the Library of America as The Complete Orsinia. Around this time she also wrote a short story, “The Word of Unbinding”, that was the first part of what would go on to become the Earthsea sequence, young adult novels that have proved to be among the most powerful and influential works of fantasy ever written.
Her first science fiction novel was Rocannon’s World in 1966, which was also part of the Hainish Cycle, a sequence of loosely linked novels and stories set amid a galactic civilization of several worlds jointly known as the Ekumen. There is instantaneous communication among them by way of a device known as the ansible, but no faster than light travel, so connections between worlds are tentative and irregular. The various novels and stories that make up the Hainish Cycle, consisting of the novels Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed and The Telling, and the collections Four Ways to Forgiveness and The Birthday of the World, have been collected in two volumes from the Library of America, Hainish Novels and Stories volume 1 and volume 2.
Ursula K. Le Guin won all of the genre’s major awards, usually multiple times. These include the Hugo Award for Best Novel for The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, the Hugo Award for Novella for The Word for World is Forest, for Novelette for “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight”, and for Short Story for “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”; the Nebula Award for Best Novel for The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, Tehanu, and Powers, for Novelette for “Solitude”, and for Short Story for “The Day Before the Revolution”; plus a handful of Tiptree Awards, Sturgeon Awards, Locus Awards and a whole host of others.
Ursula K. Le Guin has simply been one of the most important writers of our generation. To mark her passing, go and read her work: you won’t be sorry.
The 1955 Worldcon in Cleveland revived the idea of an award ceremony from two years before. But they did rather change the awards. In 1953, there had been awards for Best Novel, Professional Magazine, Cover Artist, Interior Illustrator, Excellence in Fact Articles, New Author or Artist and No 1 Fan Personality. When the Hugo Awards were revived two years later, there was more emphasis on fiction, the awards for cover artist and interior illustrator were combined into a single award for Professional Artist, and the awards for fact articles, new author and fan personality were dropped entirely.
As in 1953, there were no shortlists; it seems that voters simply wrote in their choice for each of the six categories. The result is a curious snapshot of the particular tastes of science fiction writers at the time. The winners of the Best Novelette and Best Short Story awards would continue to crop up in anthologies well into the 1970s, though they have rather dropped out of view since then. But the Best Novel winner is probably the least well known of all Hugo Winners. There is no current edition of the book in print, though an abridged paperback under the title The Forever Machine can still be found. It is the story of a computer that can grant immortality, but only to those people who are prepared to give up their prejudices. But most people choose not to do so because, as the novel’s original title put it, They’d Rather Be Right. To be honest, the subject makes it sound as if it could be relevant today, but the prose is clumsy and in truth the novel deserves its relative obscurity in Hugo terms.
So far this year, we’ve looked forward in time to consider the books that will be coming out this month, then travelled back in time to the very beginnings of science fiction. Since we’re still recovering from this literary jetlag, it seems only appropriate to look at the history of this literary device. We’ve picked five representative novels (and one collection) as the focus for this history, but we’re certainly not going to confine our attention to just these works.
From the moment when writers started paying attention to the fact that the future will be as different from the present as the present is different from the past, it was inevitable that they would conjure some way of taking their protagonists through time. At first these tended to be quasi-magical devices. In Washington Irving’s story, Rip Van Winkle sleeps into the future (a more sophisticated version of which would recur, for example, in The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells), while in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the hero is knocked out in the present and comes to in the past.
The first mechanical means of travelling through time was possibly The Time Ship by Enrique Gaspar, a little-known novel that tried to replicate the extraordinary voyages of Jules Verne, taking the travellers to colourful and romantic moments in the past. More significant was H.G. Wells’s first novel, The Time Machine, which was an immediate and massive success and helped to create the idea of controlled travel through time that became a key element in subsequent science fiction.
One of the indications of how important The Time Machine was in the history of science fiction is the number of times it has been the basis for sequels by other hands, novels that take Wells’s time machine but then add a twist of their own. Examples include The Space Machine by Christopher Priest in which The Time Machine is merged with The War of the Worlds; The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter in which the travellers move so far forward in time that they pass through the end of the universe; and A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright which travels into an ecologically changed future.
In retrospect, one of the curiosities about Wells’s novel is that he uses the machine to travel into the future. The many writers who picked up on the idea of a time machine and started turning out their own time travel adventures almost invariably chose to send their heroes into the past. There are plenty of reasons for this: a little historical research would provide a colourful arena for a romantic adventure, paradoxes could be worked into the mix, and the prospect of changing history provided a ready cause of dramatic tension.
Early examples of such ventures into the past included Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp, in which a time traveller to ancient Rome attempted to prevent the Dark Ages (a story by William Golding, “Envoy Extraordinary”, in his collection The Scorpion God, also features a time traveller bringing advanced technology to ancient Rome); The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison had a film crew travelling to the past to film an authentic Viking epic; and Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg, in which the prehistoric past became a prison for political exiles.
Perhaps the most effective of these quasi-romantic views of the past was Time And Again by Jack Finney, in which a discontented time traveller from the 1970s present is sent back to New York in the early 1880s on a mission to change the past. Finney incorporates contemporary photographs of New York in order to create a vivid, lived-in sense of what it was like to be in the city at that period in history.
The possibility of going into the past to change history of course opened up all sorts of time paradoxes. The classic formulation is the Grandfather Paradox: what if you went into the past and killed your own grandfather so that you were never born? Straight formulations of the paradox haven’t really generated much in the way of interesting science fiction, but the idea has given rise to a whole subset of time travel stories about the Time Police who are charged with stopping people changing history. Examples of the type include Times Without Number by John Brunner, Up The Line by Robert Silverberg, and, more recently, The Tourist by Robert Dickinson.
Usually, such efforts to control time fail, which ends up with a proliferation of times and realities, as in Transition by Iain Banks or Lost Futures by Lisa Tuttle. The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold seems to include just about every possible time paradox.
The problem with time generating such paradoxes, of course, is that it becomes a trap. This usually takes the form of a loop in which things are repeated, sometimes on a broad scale as in A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones, but usually on a more personal level. In Replay by Ken Grimwood a man dies and wakes again as an 18-year-old, but with all of his memories intact, he then replays his life from 18 to his death over and over again, each time with small but significant variations. The later film, Groundhog Day, has much the same premise, but it is a single day that is replayed. In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson a woman exists through countless variations of her own life, while in The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North the hero finds himself part of a whole society that live their lives over and over again.
In time, perhaps because of the possibilities for change and for entrapment offered by the idea of time paradoxes, the straightforward adventurous journey into the past became darker. The past was no longer a colourful setting but rather a place of danger. In truth, a person from the present is unlikely to survive long if suddenly transported to anything other than the recent past, but it seemed to take a long time for science fiction writers to recognise that life in the past is likely to be nasty, brutish and short.
Eventually, however, authors began to use the past not as a way of finding adventure, but as a way of confronting terrors. The most powerful example of this is probably Kindred by Octavia Butler, in which a modern black woman finds herself transported back into a slaveholding America.
Other variations on the idea of an unwelcoming past include Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, in which a near-future researcher finds herself trapped in the Middle Ages just as the Black Death strikes. While The Cusanus Game by Wolfgang Jeschke sees the past as a possible source of aid for a damaged future, only for time to reassert itself.
Another form that time travel sometimes takes is less direct contact but rather a psychological link across time. In such stories, there is always the possibility that the apparent time travel is no more than a manifestation of some psychosis. But in its broadest terms, that is probably true of all time travel stories. The best example of this form is A Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, in which a contemporary woman confined in a mental hospital finds herself in contact with an emissary from a future feminist utopia.
Other ways in which time travel does not include physical contact is by way of a time viewer, a device by which an observer can watch but not interact with a different time. The finest examples of this are probably the slow glass stories of Bob Shaw collected in Other Days, Other Eyes, though an intriguing later development of the idea was Light of Other Days by Stephen Baxter and Arthur C. Clarke.
The thing about time travel is that it often works best in short fiction. Which explains why there are quite a lot of time travel anthologies out there. The best of them, because the most comprehensive, is probably The Time Traveler’s Almanac edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer, if only for a selection of such classic stories as “Another Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Gernsback Continuum” by William Gibson, “A Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, and “Enoch Soames” by Max Beerbohm. But even so you will need to keep your eyes out elsewhere for such important time travel stories as “By His Bootstraps” by Robert Heinlein, “Chronopolis” by J.G. Ballard, “The Very Slow Time Machine” by Ian Watson, and “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts” by Philip K. Dick.
Okay, for science fiction you really need strange worlds and alien creatures. Well, no you don’t, really; but it is still one of the typical characteristics of an awful lot of sf. And it’s a characteristic that goes right back to the early days of sf. Back, indeed, to those ancient Greek writers who wrote stories of travelling to the Moon. But we’re restricting ourselves here to those 300 years or so between the Renaissance (and Thomas More’s Utopia) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which Brian Aldiss claimed was the first work of sf). We’ve already seen that this period produced lots of work that introduced such typical sf devices as utopias, marvellous inventions and travel into the future. So now let’s look at stories that took us away from planet Earth.
By the early years of the 17th century, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler had all changed the way we think of the heavens. At least in the Protestant areas of Europe, where such speculation was not discouraged, we were starting to recognise that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, that planets orbited the sun, and that the stars were also suns that may have planets of their own. And when Galileo took up the Dutch invention of the telescope, and then turned it towards the sky, he produced a detailed map of the Moon that turned it from a featureless disc into a landscape that might, so it was thought, have forests and oceans and maybe even cities. And if there were cities, would there not also be inhabitants?
In 1620, the great Jacobean playwright, Ben Jonson, produced a masque for the court of James I called Newes of the New World Discover’d in the Moon, which was perhaps the first published work that treated the Moon as a landscape with its own inhabitants. Even before this, Kepler was circulating the manuscript of his Somnium, though it wasn’t published until after his death in 1630. This was an allegorical explanation of his views on astronomy, but it also featured tall, pale beings who lived on the Moon. These beings are actually rather similar to the lunar beings in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, which we’ll come to shortly.
Perhaps the most spectacular of the early aliens, however, came in Micromegas by Voltaire. In this story a massive alien from the star Sirius wanders into our solar system, and meets up with a not-quite-so-massive alien from Saturn, and together they tour the inner solar system. But they decide that the tiny little beings from Earth are too insignificant to be worth paying attention to.
Travel to Other Worlds
At first, these aliens were encountered in dreams (as in Kepler’s story) or by some magical device. But Francis Godwin’s posthumous The Man in the Moone introduced something new: a mechanical contrivance. His luckless protagonist, Domingo Gonsales, is trapped on St Helena, and in an effort to escape he builds a carriage then harnesses it to a flock of wild geese, which he hopes will carry him to the mainland. But the belief at the time was that geese migrated to the Moon, and that is exactly what they do. It is a particularly interesting voyage in science fictional terms, because at the mid-point of the journey he actually experiences a period of weightlessness, the first time that such an idea had crept into fiction. In the same year that Godwin’s book was published, John Wilkins, who would go on to be one of the founders of the Royal Society, wrote a text book about the Moon, Discovery of a World in the Moon; but he was so intrigued by Godwin’s invention of a mechanical conveyance that he republished his textbook with a new chapter in which he explored ways of travel to the Moon. For perhaps the first time, science fiction had directly influenced scientific thought.
Godwin’s book, published anonymously, was particularly popular in France. So much so that when Jules Verne read it a couple of centuries later, he assumed that the author must have been French. Among the writers directly influenced by the book was Cyrano de Bergerac, who included Domingo Gonsales as one of the characters in A Voyage to the Moon, which told of journeys to the Moon and the Sun by such extravagant means as evaporating dew and a rocket. Other mechanical means of travel to other worlds include a feathered flying machine in The Consolidator by Daniel Defoe.
One of the most colourful characters in the early history of science fiction has to be Margaret Cavendish. She was a lady-in-waiting to Charles I’s Queen Henrietta Maria and was with the queen when she fled to France during the Civil War, her boat chased all the way by the Cromwellian navy; in France she met and married the Marquess (later Duke) of Newcastle and through him met Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes, John Evelyn, and her brother-in-law the scientist Charles Cavendish. She was the first woman to write and publish books under her own name, and in her poetry produced the first atomist theory of nature to appear in English. And after the Restoration she attempted to become a member of the Royal Society, but was refused because of her sex. Her (sometimes eccentric) interest in science was at the heart of most of what she wrote, which included an extraordinary science fiction novel, The Blazing World. A lady is kidnapped by pirates but abandoned at the North Pole, where she discovers another world joined to this one. Crossing to the new world she discovers it is a hollow world, and she makes herself Empress of the society she finds there. At one point in the novel she begins to communicate with the Duchess of Newcastle in our world, an early example of the postmodern device by which the author appears as a character in her own book.
For some reason, the idea that the Earth itself was hollow became popular during the 18th century, and there were a whole load of stories which explored the lands discovered there. The biggest of these, The Journey of Niels Klim by Ludvig Holberg, was an international bestseller that helped to establish its author as the best known Scandinavian writer before Ibsen. Klim’s journey to the centre of the Earth introduces him to intelligent trees, mercurial apes and warring birds. Another example of the form was The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock, in which the hero is shipwrecked on an inaccessible island, marries a flying woman, and is then transported to the subterranean world of her people.
To be honest, this list barely scrapes the surface of the works of recogniseable science fiction that appeared in the centuries before Frankenstein. But with so many aliens and other worlds and hollow planets, not to mention utopias and future times and strange inventions, it has to be clear that, important as it was, Frankenstein really was not the first work of science fiction.