Seven Things I’ve Learned from the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club

A little more than a year ago I decided that I was going to read an imprint called the SF Masterworks in order of publication, and I formed a book club so that others could join me, share my interest, and discuss the books in question.  The imprint was created to circulate classics of the genre that might otherwise be out of print or hard to find.  I have found this to be an extremely worthwhile experience!  I’d like to share with you some of the things I’ve gotten out of it so far, maybe to encourage you, if you love the genre, to join us!

Science Fiction is not just about space and aliens.

Okay, so I already knew this one because I love the genre, but it’s amazing how many people don’t know this, and this list really drives the point home.  Science fiction is taking something that is possible but has not yet happened and speculating on how this might affect people as individuals and societies.  This ranges from vast technologies that seem like magic to all-too-real dystopias and alternate histories.

Science Fiction makes us consider the ramifications of our decisions.

These explorations make us look at ourselves and our society and ask whether we’re going down the right path.  Science fiction writers have caused us to explore alternative cultures, political systems, and lifestyles; to create legislation to decide how we’re going to deal with bioengineering, climate change, and outer space; to try to communicate with extraterrestrial life (or to argue against the idea); to consider the ramifications of artificial intelligence; and to turn away from the idea that it might be possible to win, or survive, global thermonuclear war.

Science Fiction allows us to explore the possible.

Would it really be possible to live in a society where there are no laws and no hierarchies, and yet live in a way that’s civilized and safe?  (Answer: The Dispossessed.)  Could human evolution be guided by an advanced extraterrestrial benefactor?  (Answer: 2001: A Space Odyssey).  Is the whole world really just a simulation?  Could it be that the mystics who speak of the world as illusion were right all along?  (Answer: The Matrix).  Fantasy asks us to imagine worlds that we know are impossible; science fiction asks us to imagine worlds that might be.

If you think it’s a new idea, it probably isn’t.

If there’s something you think of as a new and radical idea or technology, from same-sex marriage to drone warfare to asteroid mining, chances are some sci-fi writer wrote about it at least twenty to thirty years ago.  They explored the pros and cons of these ideas, writing about everything from the most wonderful of possible futures to the worst case scenario.  So if something new interests (or concerns) you, chances are you can explore it through someone else’s eyes and maybe gain new insight.

Some things that people used to think of as science fiction, aren’t anymore.

It’s more than just Star Trek that’s been shaping our reality.  Science fiction has encouraged people to explore ideas that later become an integral part of our lives.  Jules Verne, C.S. Lewis and Olaf Stapledon were writing about space exploration in the Victorian era.  Mary Shelley wrote about transplanting body parts in the early 19th century. The glimmerings of the idea of cyberspace first appeared in a 1966 novel called Babel-17, though they didn’t call it that then; and William Gibson coined the word in his novel Neuromancer in the 80s.

People have been modern for a long time.

Among some of the science fiction I’ve read recently has been sci-fi from the turn of the twentieth century.  You know, prior to, and around the time of, World War I?  Well, these were people we would recognize as modern people.  They were concerned that their technology might destroy the world, that we might poison ourselves into non-existence, and that we might run out of oil and civilization would collapse.  They were deeply concerned about the dangers of both state-sanctioned socialism and unbridled capitalism.  They expected that we would explore space, that we would bioengineer life forms, and that women would take their place beside men as equal sharers and contributors to our future.

Good writing is good writing.

Nothing Margaret Atwood has written about in her MaddAddam series is new, as far as speculative fiction goes; but she tells it so well!  The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (which I read recently, so it’s on my mind) had more impact because she told two stories in an alternating parallel at once, one of which was in the past and the other the present.  James Blish has a wonderful sense of human nature; Cordwainer Smith has a wonderful sense of how people think as a group; Olaf Stapledon has an excellent sense of the broad implications of a single action in the broad scope of history.  Sometimes how the tale is told is almost as important as the tale itself.

4 thoughts on “Seven Things I’ve Learned from the Science Fiction Masterworks Book Club

  1. It used to be that the thought of attempting to write science fiction filled me with fear. How could I ever come up with a new unique idea? But as you note, there are very few of those. If you think it’s new, some guy probably already covered it in a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories.

    But your last point is the crucial one. More than the idea, it’s the execution. An old idea with excellent execution, in other words, with compelling characters in a dramatic story, will likely be far more successful than a completely original idea without those things.

    Liked by 1 person

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