Sometimes, when you go back and revisit something you once loved you are disappointed. But sometimes there’s no difference; you still like whatever it is. And sometimes you still like it, but find new things to enjoy, things you missed the first time round.
Now I know I said I’d be concentrating on non-fiction books, my true and deep love, but I have been tidying up lately (oh, surely not) and that has led me to some other rediscoveries. Hidden away on a top shelf, right at one end, as though I was ashamed of them.
When I was growing up, before I went to Uni, I loved science fiction. I scratted around dodgy second-hand bookshops in order to feed my habit and build up the world’s biggest collection of paperback novels by Philip K Dick. And Arthur C Clark, and Brian Aldiss, and and and…
Most of these have, over the years, vanished, which is probably just as well, but there are a few survivors. I have no idea what inspired me to get a couple of them down, but I found myself reading books I’d not read for – oh – maybe 25 years. The first was John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes.
Wyndham is better known as the writer of Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, but I prefer this book. I’ve always had a fascination with the way a familiar landscape can be changed by the weather – snow, floods – and the last third of Wyndham’s dystopian novel is set in a world terribly altered by rising sea levels. These aren’t caused by people driving too many cars – the book was published in 1953 – but by submarine alien invaders melting the ice caps. Nonetheless, the vision of a flooded world is extraordinary. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There are three phases to the book, as the protagonists – a couple, and I’ll get onto that – experience the changing world. The first can basically be summed up as ‘what are those strange lights in the sky, plummeting into the sea?’ (anticipation, if you like). The second is the period of initial investigative attacks from below the sea – disappearing ships and raids on coastal communities, vividly described – and their consequences. And the third is the changed world, where sea levels have risen and society has (partly) broken down, but where the humans finally seem to be winning the battle.
It’s very well written. That was my first surprise; I think I remembered it as more ‘pulpy’, but I may have been remembering my reading as a whole rather than specific books. The second surprise was the almost complete lack of gender stereotyping. The protagonists are a married couple, Phyllis and Mike. They are both broadcast journalists, and – if anything – Phyllis is the better one, something openly acknowledged by Mike. Phyllis drives the story just as much as he does, maybe a little more. Perhaps this is a result of when it was written – the early 50s, with memories of the role of women in WW2 still very fresh. Perhaps, had it been written in 1963 instead, it would have been very different. Or perhaps John Wyndham was just a decent bloke.
The other book I picked up was, in some ways, equally surprising.
I was a huge fan of Isaac Asimov: I always tended towards the ‘spaceships and robots’ type of SF, and I think this is why I hung on to some of his books. The Naked Sun is the second book involving his detective, Lije Bailey, solving a crime that involves (or appears to involve) a robot.
Asimov is now possibly most well known for coming up with the ‘three laws of robotics’: that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; that a robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; and that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other laws. These are vital here, as they are in several of his other books: there are loopholes, loopholes which lead to murder…
The Naked Sun is set in the ‘Outer Worlds’. Earth is overpopulated, heavily polluted, with its crowds of inhabitants living in vast, teeming underground cities, fearing the outside to the point of agoraphobia. The colonised planets, on the other hand, are underpopulated and have no desire to be ‘contaminated’ (literally and metaphorically) by contact with Earth. They have the upper hand, and don’t need vast numbers of people because the work is done by vast numbers of robots (on Earth, robots are viewed with deep distrust).
The situation is at its most extreme on Solaria. Here people have very little contact with each other, to such an extent that being in someone’s actual presence can make people physically ill. They ‘view’ each other: a foretaste of Skype, only rather more sophisticated (The Naked Sun was written in 1958). But now they need help from the outside because someone has been killed. And so Bailey, an agoraphobic Earth detective, with previous experience of working alongside the ‘Spacers’, finds himself on another planet trying to work out how someone could be bludgeoned to death in a world where the merest degree of physical contact is next-to impossible.
The appeal of The Naked Sun lies mainly in its depiction of the alienated Solarian world (the equally distorted Earth is explored in its predecessor, The Caves of Steel), and not in the discovery of the murderer – that plot line, for me, is a little weak. I don’t find it as engaging as The Kraken Wakes and it isn’t as well written; there is more stereotyping too, with mainly male protagonists and only two female characters, neither leading the action although one is a suspect. (Natch. And characters smoke, though not on Solaria; Bailey loves his pipe.)
But there is more to it than that. Earth and Solaria are similar but different; they both inhabit limiting extremes which will eventually lead to their destruction, an insight Bailey gains right at the end of the book. And, rather creepily, modern readers can see something of Solaria here and now: in our growing presence in and dependence on the virtual world.
Science fiction, at its best, explores apparently exotic possibilities in a plausible way, and the predictive nature of these two books was what stunned me the most. In one, the consequences of a kind of global warming are foreshadowed; in another, the effects of living in a virtual world. It’s one thing to predict things when you are ‘closer’ to them, but these books are now around 60 years old. Maybe I should not have culled quite so much…