Friday, July 31, 2015

Eleven Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books You Must Read

In the year 2018, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein story will be 200 years old. Yet, today, in the 21st Century, after hundreds of books, cartoons, movies, TV shows and the Internet,  the Frankenstein myth still intrigues us and we continue to re-imagine it in many different forms.

To increase your enjoyment of science fiction and fantasy, discover how it was spawned and developed. Naturally, it is unrealistic to render all the marvelous stories published over the years. However, the following eleven suggestions will take you from the 18th Century up to current events. You will gain a powerful perspective of how sci-fi evolved.

There is no doubt in my mind, that today's very best AFROCentric speculative fiction writers based their own tales on the shoulders of literary giants.

The authors presented include futurists, staunch racists, teachers, mentally-ill patients, political activists, social misfits, or starry-eyed visionaries that we will never completely understand. But they all were/are gifted storytellers.

As writers and readers, we can learn much from them.
  1. Grimms Children's and Household Tales (1812)
  2. Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus (1818)
  3. Lewis Carrol's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass (1865 & 1871)
  4. Brams Stoker's Dracula (1897)
  5. Any collection of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe Stories and Poems (19th Century)
  6. H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897)
  7. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland (20th Century)
  8. Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars
  9. Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles (1950)
  10. Ursela LaGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
  11. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (2008)

Grimms Children's and Household Tales

This is where Science Fiction began . . . .

There are many fantastic threads and speculative themes woven tapestry-like in the European folktales collected by Brothers Grimm. Despite being tagged "fairy tales" there are many surprises and horrid turnabouts that make fantasy and fiction so much fun. A drunken sailor, after reading Grimm, might blush and go to church. Talking animals, haunted forests, benevolent kings, evil queens, stalwart soldiers, common people in uncommon circumstances are the meat and potatoes of these folk fictions and life lessons.

The moral of the tales: stay alive and try not to get eaten or murdered by your kinfolk. In 17th Century Europe, a casual frolic in the forest or answering a whisper at the cottage front door could have been catastrophic. For instance, take the story of "The Wolf and the Seven Goslings"; mama goose leaves her young goslings alone at home and while she's gone guess who comes a knocking?

In the tale, "A Cat and Mouse in Partnership", a feline and a rodent decide to live together in domestic bliss. Of course, the cat, a player, has ulterior motives and the poor mouse, stuck at home, eventually must flee for her safety.

Forget about what you think you know about the lyrical fairy tales you sang and clapped to during your tenure in elementary school. The Grimm Brothers were renown scholars bouncing between having only one meal a day while at other times gracing the banquet halls of the European Monarchy. The Grimms changed the world. Hitler's Germany used some of their tales to promote the master race. Walt Disney created multi-colored cinema to sell hotdogs at his theme parks.

The Grimms are an excellent starting point for your journey into speculative fiction.

Lewis Carrol's Adventures in "Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass"

We should consider that . . .

The key to warmly enjoying Alice is picking the right lock so you won't be left out in the cold. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson better known as Lewis Carroll gave the world "Alice" and her adventures in Wonderland. The two books are more than a child's tale, Carroll's works are brainteasers. And, as with all games, when we win, we grin like a Cheshire cat. Count the puns, wallow in the triple and quadruple innermost hidden meanings. Study Carroll's literary "slight of hand". Pay very close attention to his pen.

Alice falls down the rabbit hole or steps through the mirror to an opposite world. There, plants and animals talk, a deck of cards come to life, fat oysters stroll down a beach and everyone say the weirdest things. Doors, entryways, portals, parallel avenues of thought all provide multiple levels of game play to explore and understand.

Consider quantum physics in Alice.

"That's the most important piece of evidence we've heard yet," said the King, rubbing his hands; "so now let the jury--"

"If any one of them can explain it," said Alice (she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn't a bit afraid of interrupting him). "I'll give him sixpence. I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it."

The jury all wrote down on their slates, "She doesn't believe there's an atom of meaning in it," but none of them attempted to explain the paper.

According the Lewis Carroll Society of North American, Dodgson books are among the most quoted works in the English language. Even Morpheus in the film "The Matrix" asks Neo about "tumbling down the rabbit hole". And, we all know what happened.

"Alice" entertains and challenges anyone willing to push beyond the veil to discover, relish and prosper in the unexpected.

Brams Stoker's "Dracula"

In my opinion . . .

Reading Bram Stoker's Dracula requires dedication. Written as a series of English Victorian journal entries, the pacing and timing of the novel can be challenging. This is a linear story told in a nonlinear fashion. Different narrators express observations of events and interactions from different points on the clock or calendar. Sometimes, we go back in time or ahead. Despite these literary theatrics, there is much to be devoured and enjoyed in this 19th century horror tale. So, let's discuss "food" and the roles of "predator and prey".

On page one, third paragraph of Dracula, Johnathan Harker tells us via his diary, "I had for dinner, or rather supper, a chicken done up some way with red pepper, which was very good but thirsty." A few pages later, the coachman (Dracula) offers Johnathan a flask of plum wine for the journey. Once inside the castle, Dracula has prepared a magnificent table with "an excellent roast chicken", some cheese and another bottle of wine. Stoker pays close attention to culinary details throughout the story. The characters frequently come together for food and drink to fortify themselves against the evils of Dracula.

But Stoker is sending us another message: nourishment sometimes comes with a price.

Humans raise livestock, fatten them up and slaughter them for our dinner tables. Vampires require human victims not only for food but for the perpetuation of the vampire species. This is basic survival. This is top predator against top predator. We condemn the Count as an evil monster. That is one horror of Dracula. However, consider the fates of barnyard chickens, cows or pigs. It is very scary to imagine yourself in a lower position on the food chain.

Another horror is that we may be the evil monsters who eat children, bend the will of lesser creatures for our enjoyment and seek the extension of our lives regardless of the cost to other lifeforms that share the planet with us.

Mary Shelly's Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus

It should be considered that . . . 

The book Frankenstein brightly illuminates sexism, religion, science and the trappings of melodrama during 19th century. The traditional roles of men and women were abruptly changing. Science was overcoming magic and superstition.

Shelly explores fear of the "other". This is not merely class, gender or race confrontation but introduction of a new species of humanoids that could push prevalent homo sapiens into extinction.

Be advised, don't expect to see Boris Karloff's lumbering, mute giant or a jovial Herman Munster. The "real" Frankenstein monster in Shelly's book moves fluidly over icy obstacles, is more agile than humans, carefully plots, and tirelessly spouts philosophy from books he has read. Dr. Frankenstein's creation is a renaissance man -- able to accumulate and absorb the knowledge of the world and adapt to crude environments. The monster can survive in a harsh world that fears him. He thrives where most humans would fail. He is the ultimate outsider; the nameless creature who dispenses justice upon those who have committed  wrongs against him. He struggles to maintain compassion. But, like most humans, just beneath the thin surface layer of civility is a mad beast, who rages because the world considers him ugly or evil or unacceptable despite his best efforts to help humanity.

It is the role of the "other" that most intrigues readers. The creature brought to life by Victor Frankenstein may be probably the first "misunderstood" superhero. And like many superbeings he is flawed. Consider the much adored Superman if there were no Ma and Pa Kent to help him understand his  uniqueness and solitary position in society; no Lois Lane or fellow Justice League members to temper his frustrations and isolation.

Shelly's musing of a mad monster and its equally mad creator present the romanticism and horror of unchecked ambition.  The world should be warned.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe Stories and Poems

If you are afraid of the dark . . . 

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe were born only four years apart in the early 1800s. After memorable careers as literary icons, they both died before the end of the American Civil War -- in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Both authors have been celebrated as frontrunners in the Romantic Era. More importantly, they helped to make popular "speculative fiction" which offered horror, fantasy, sci-fi and dark gothic tales to rabid readers.

Hawthorne is known for his love of New England lore involving alchemy, witchcraft, religion, and morality. His story the "Birth-Mark" explored the short-comings of a successful 19th century scientist who is intensely troubled by a tiny red scar in the shape of a hand on his wife's cheek. He uses his awesome scientific powers to destroy the anomaly yet in the end loses his wife. Again, we see the obsessions of a mad genius who has the ability to offer immortality to humanity, yet fails to see the simple beauty in the woman to whom he professes love (Victor Frankenstein likewise lost his wife because of his blind ambition). Hawthorne's words are infused with allegory and emotional references.

Poe,  renowned author and literary critic, offered travel, adventure and discovery of the unknown to his readers. He denounced the use of allegory and didacticism -- literature that was created to instruct. He entertained and mesmerized while not always presenting a moral message. Both "MS. Found in a Bottle" and "Decent into the Malestrom" takes the reader into fantastic adventure with the elements of the sea. This is reminiscent of Jules Verne's Captain Nemo battling the forces of nature or Star Trek's Jean-Luc Picard confrounting unknown dangers at the edge of a super massive black hole sucking in the universe.

The enjoyment and enlightenment both authors bring to modern readers are the result of the Speculative Fiction Revolution born in the 1800s, worldwide. But in their day-to-day lives,  both authors were a little creepy.

H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man

An original monster tale that will trouble your sleep . . . 

In good horror stories, the scariest villains appear sane at first glance  or a sad victim of misfortune. We are horrified when they become raging lunatics seeking mischief. The Invisible Man has anger management issues that would make Marvel's comic book icon the Hulk ask WTF.

In the opening, the Invisible Man (Griffin) takes refuge in a normal inn, in a normal English village filled with normal townsfolk. The mysterious Mr. Griffin is considered a pitiful visitor.

“The poor soul’s had an accident or an op’ration or somethin’,” said Mrs. Hall. “What a turn them bandages did give me, to be sure!” 

Tongues wag and imaginations soar, but no one could predict the terror to come.

His emotions frequently explode and we experience the real monster. In Chapter 6: The Furniture That Went Mad, he breaks chairs and slams doors. To observers, it appears as if the room is possessed by demons. In Chapter 7, he reveals himself, “You don’t understand,” he said, “who I am or what I am. I’ll show you. By Heaven! I’ll show you.” He is accused of theft and chased. He kicks a dog and runs away screaming. But he returns for some belongings and amuses himself by breaking out all the windows in the Inn as well as other wrong doings. The townsfolk are terrified of something they can't see or understand.

Reading further, we dig deeper into the history of the Invisible Man. Before he became invisible, he was a vile person who stole his father's money and turned a poor cat invisible. As he narrated his tale of mayhem to his former classmate Dr. Kemp, the reader senses the tension building. Kemp offers food and shelter. Griffin plots on creating a reign of murder.

The greatest moments in horror occur when something ordinary becomes unrecognizable. Batman's Joker played by Heath Ledger was a quiet but vicious clown. Hannibal Lecter spoke softly as he digested a gruesome meal. And, take for instance, the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Invisible Man is a part of your nightmares.

Edar Rice Burroughs' John Carter: A Princess of Mars and Charlotte Perkins' Gilman's Herland

Speaking plays an important role in  speculative fiction . . .

Language is an important aspect of any speculative fiction story. Meaningful conversation allows the characters to "know" and develop in their new environments with strange inhabitants. Thus, the reader gains insight as the characters learn how to interact and survive. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Charlotte Perkins Gilman offer two completely opposite examples of the outsider(s) dropping into vastly different societies and confronting the challenge of communication. In order to survive, the main characters must learn how to talk.

A Princess of Mars is a male-oriented, pulp fiction, adventure romp. A bare chested hero, John Carter, slashes and bashes his way to win the woman of his dreams. Herland is on the opposite pole; three  "civilized" white males fall into the clutches of an all female society where virtue is measured by temperance, cooperation and a vegetarian diet. Yet, both novels present the problem of communication. Learning a new language is not an easy task. In reality, months or years are required to easily exchange ideas with someone of a completely different culture. Even if the words are understood, deeper meanings may be misinterpreted.

Frankenstein's monster learned language by peering though a hole in wall. John Carter of Mars is thrust amongst the infants of an alien species. Van, Terry, and Jeff in Herland are given tutors; and are unaware that they themselves are being studied by the entire female nation.

The classic outsider must adapt and gain insight into their brave new worlds through the mastery of the language and the way things are done. On Mars, slicing off the head of a rival is socially acceptable. In Herland, forcing your wife to have sex is a capital offense.

Many writers cheat the reader on the importance of language in speculative fiction. Modern sci-fi yarns have universal translators, telepathy, or simply ignore the fact that people sometimes only separated by a river have great difficulty to clearly express themselves. Aliens from other planets will not speak the King's English unless they have spent years amongst humans.

Comprehension of language is needed to understand a foreign society. And, that creates the real drama.

Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles

This book helped to define the coming of the 21st Century . . .

Racial politics and science fiction collide in "Way in the Middle of the Air" by Ray Bradbury. The short story first appeared in a small magazine during the 1950s. Later, it was incorporated in some editions of The Martian Chronicles book during the 1960s and 70s.

"Air" openly presented white racism. African Americans are leaving Earth to go to Mars on spaceships that they had purchased and built in secret. A few good ole white boys were upset that their "niggers" were leaving. Despite setbacks and threats,  Black people were determined to find a better life. The actual northern migration occurred in the United States during the 1950s and 60s. Douglas Turner Ward's satiric play "Day of Absence" written in 1965 similarly presents a situation where one day all the Black folks in a small southern town disappeared and the whites (Black actors in whiteface) were dismayed.

There are many undercurrents in Bradbury's tales that expose the raw lacerations of America's treatment of non Europeans. A gold skinned Martian woman falls in love with a white, blue eye male from the first human expedition. Eventually, human interaction collapses the mighty Martian civilization because of a disease spread by Earth explorers. Throughout the European colonization of the Americas, that same scenario occurred frequently -- sometimes purposefully with small pox infected blankets, and sometimes causally when Europeans traders made contact thus spreading  diseases to natives who had no immunity.

Bradbury predicted the civil rights confrontations of the 1960s. He was anti-war, especially nuclear war. He opposed lack of freedom to criticize the government during its 1950s communist witch hunt. According to documents declassified through the Freedom of Information Act, the FBI investigated Bradbury in the 1950s and 1960s. Bradbury was not only a talented writer, he was a futurist, and social activist, like Martin Luther King, Jr., and others. Fiction was his primary weapon.

Ursela LaGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness

Creating worlds takes imagination and guts . . .

Empire building is a favorite theme among science fiction writers. Frank Herberts' Dune and the Star Wars/Trek sagas focus on building and maintaining empires. The Left Hand of Darkness offers empire building with a bold twist.

Gender roles exist in nature. A male lion's primarily duty is to fight other males to maintain a harem (empire). Lionesses cooperatively hunt for food and protect the cubs. Traditionally, western society considers empire building a strictly male activity. Men go to war for conquest and pillaging. Women are homemakers and birth more soldiers. The females of Herland were pacifists and who didn't seek territory or conflict; the male dominated societies of Mars were eager for bloody engagements and booty.

Ursula Le Guin breaks that mold and re-engineers gender roles and expectations. Her hermaphroditic Gethenians experience intense sexual desire as a man or a woman but only for two days each month. Their society has adapted with the ability to change sexes. Thus, there have been no major wars on the planet but "forays" and barn burnings, political murders and skullduggery are rampant. Jealousy and long term feuds exist.

Genly Ai is considered by the inhabitants to be a pervert because he has only one gender--one frame of reference as permanently male. He represents the Ekumen, an interstellar association of 80 planets spreading across 100 light years. According to the field notes of the first Ekumenical landing party: "The fact is that Gethenians, though highly competitive (as proved by the elaborate social channels provided for competition for prestige, etc.) seem not to be very aggressive; at least they apparently have never yet had what one could call a war. They kill one another readily by ones and twos; seldom by tens or twenties; never by hundreds or thousands."

Gethenians combine male and female tactics for empire building. Out of control aggression is tempered by measured compassion.

Cory Doctorow's Little Brother

Don't run away, use technology to challenge the MAN . . . 

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow follows in the footsteps of authors who used Science Fiction/Fantasy as protest literature. Although the book was written for young adults, it contains torture, radical activity, debate and life-threatening situations. The characters are forced to re-examine their world and decide what actions to take.

Like Bradbury's Martian Chronicles and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four written more than 50 years prior, Little Brother is an anti-establishment novel. Doctorow warns us of what could happen if our leaders resort to false imprisonment, unwarranted surveillance and the cultivation of fear for economic or political gain. The similarities and differences between 1984 and Little Brother offer valuable insight into what Doctorow suggests to his YA audience. According to, 1984 is number 13 on required reading lists in high school. So, Doctorow was probably well aware that many of his readers would see the connection. Yet, his novel takes a different path from 1984 and instead of disaster at the end, the hero triumphs. Marcus uses his knowledge and courage to keep his freedom, earn the respect of his parents and win the girl.

Placing teenagers in life or death situations and watching them mature could be considered its own sci-fi genre. Devil's Wake by Barnes and Due presents a "zombiefied" world where juvenile delinquents hijack a broken down school bus and search for sanctuary. Slasher movies with bikini clad teenagers is almost a parody of itself since the 1960s. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight Saga has deadly vampires and werewolves romantically interacting with a high school girl. YA books are written to be fun, creating mildly dangerous situations -- and like a rollercoaster ride, you are fairly certain that you will walk away unharmed.

Yet, in today's political climate, Little Brother pushes us into a dark place. Doctorow offers real world solutions to overthrow an evil government that has turned against its citizens.

Note: These are my (slightly edited) essays submitted to the University of Michigan's free Coursea Course: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World. The course was led by Eric S. Rabkin a Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, Professor of English Language and Literature, and Professor of Art and Design at the University of Michigan. I thoroughly enjoyed the course and wanted to share this with my readers.

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