Sci-fi and Great Books
|Still a better adaptation than that godawful travesty that Paul Verhoeven inflicted upon us|
As much as it pains me to say it, my reluctant conclusion is that there is no great Science Fiction literature.
Now, before you get out your crying bags, fanboys, keep in mind that the standard for being a Great Book is extremely, absurdly high. It is the best of the best of the best. There is no Western that makes the cut for being a Great Book; no mystery novel; no horror novel (unless we stretch a point to include HAMLET, because it has a ghost scene). One might even argue that no romance novel that makes the cut, not even GONE WITH THE WIND, and that is a damn fine novel. Genre writing does not reach the stratospheric heights of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe.
Science fiction is the fiction of the scientific revolution. It is the unique product of the revolution in thought that ushered in the modern age. That revolution changed both the theory and the practice of life, the paradigm and the technology, both what men thought about the cosmos and how they lived their daily lives.
Having lived through one paradigm shift and its attendant technological advancements, an audience was ready for fictional speculation about the next paradigm shift, the next technological advancement.
Speculative fiction, properly so called, is fiction taking place in a cosmos that differs from what the audience understands to be the real world, either (in science fiction) after the next paradigm shift or (in fantasy) before the previous one. Both challenge the imagination by rejecting the paradigm, or the technology, current to the time and place in which the author and his readers generally agree they live.
Even a single element unearthly or extraterrestrial element in an otherwise mundane setting —a Mindreader in Brooklyn—can make the story science fiction; this is because discovering a Mindreader in Brooklyn would overthrow the current paradigm. We don’t believe in telepaths, and James Randi disbelieves even less than we do.
Therefore a tale where the reader is asked to take that possibility seriously, to think through the implications, challenges the current paradigm.
- Is the book timeless? Does it speak to eternal truths and facts?
- Is the book infinitely re-readable? Does it give you something new and original to think about every time you read through it?
- Is it relevant to the Great Conversation? Can the book, and by extension its author, give you any meaningful information about Man's eternal quest to understand the Universe?
- Is the book graceful? Does the writing style come across as one that future authors will attempt to match or exceed?
- Is it natural? Are the characters realistic, is the plot sensible (given the nature of sci-fi), and are the ideas presented within it plausible?
- Is there wisdom to be found in the book? Does it leave you better informed and more capable of understanding the human condition?
- This book is indeed timeless. The ideas contained within it are nearly 60 years old. Yet they are still as fresh and as interesting today as they were then. Without this book, countless other science fiction books, movies, and video games simply would not exist- including my beloved HALO, and imitators like TitanFall, Destiny, and considerable parts of the StarCraft canon. Moreover, the concepts of powered armour, of space-borne assault troops, and of highly specialised, highly trained corps of men operating as shock troops in hostile environments, were radical at the time- but are now considered normal in military environments.
- It is absolutely infinitely re-readable. I have lost count of the number of times I have re-read this book, just in the last three years alone. Prior to that, the first time I read it was when I was just fifteen years old. Even then, I could tell that there was something amazing about it- and many of the concepts and ideas within it have stayed with me, around and through the many abuses heaped upon its legacy by Hollywood's pathetic and cack-handed attempts to adapt it into cinematic format. Every time I read this book, I discover something new and wonderful to enjoy- whether it is the concepts of powered armour, the shock tactics, the descriptions of the importance of the military chain of command, or the incredibly powerful and timeless lessons about what it means to be a man, a productive agent, and a citizen of a body politic.
- Its relevance to the Great Conversation has never been more pronounced than it is now. This is the book that argued, at a time when it was horribly unfashionable to do so, that citizenship is not something that should simply be given away cheaply. It argued, passionately, logically, and clearly, that citizenship must be earned by those willing to strive and sacrifice for the good of their people and their nation- an idea that is more relevant today, in an era in which this country's government is stupidly considering granting amnesty and citizenship to millions of law-breakers, than it has ever been before. It was branded as a work of fascist propaganda at the time by people who completely misunderstood its basic points about the fact that human freedom is precious and must be protected by those who understand and appreciate its true worth. Its author was slandered as a reactionary and a lunatic by people without the wit to read its message and understand it- and one of these twits included Paul Verhoeven, whose "adaptation" of the book into one of the most ridiculously stupid action movies ever made was one of the most egregious and vile abuses that Hollywood has ever committed upon great science fiction.
- The writing style is as prosaic as it gets, and yet flows from every page. The book is written, of course, from the first-person point of view of one Juan Rico, and you never ever get the feeling that the prosaic, homely style is in any way forced or affected. You get the distinct impression of standing right next to him as he goes through the trials and tribulations of a boot and eventually becomes an admirable, upstanding young man. He takes you on his journey, and you never once find yourself thinking that the prose is over the top. The ideas, as powerful and weighty as they are, are delivered in terms that are easy to understand, with an eloquence and a gravity that is commensurate with their worth. Yet you never get the feeling that you're being lectured at or hectored; you are on a journey of discovery as much as young Johnnie Rico is.
- The plot, the characters, and the development are natural, though somewhat odd at points. What I mean by this is that, although the plot itself flows well enough- it tells the story of a war, after all- the flow of the book is probably the weakest thing about it. It starts with a skirmish in enemy territory, then backtracks considerably to tell Juan Rico's story, then goes forward a bit to talk about his time as a candidate for officer, and finally finishes with a murthering great battle followed by the beginning of another raid. While the characters contained within this book are natural and interesting and relatable, the flow of the book is probably the one area where we can legitimately criticise it.
- Is there wisdom to be found? Dude, have you read the book?! There is more wisdom to be found within the 268 pages of this short, brilliant story than you will find in entire libraries of textbooks on civics and citizenship. This one little book has done more to shape my views about the rights and responsibilities of free men than any other document ever produced by Man, except for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America. This one book is the most brilliantly realised exposition on the rights and duties of a citizen in a free society that has ever been written.