I was browsing the British Library’s Flickr photostream, of all places, when I stumbled across a full PDF scan of the 1895 novel Fifteen Hundred Miles and Hour by Charles Dixon. The title refers to the speed of a spaceship built by a Dr. Hermann which ends up transporting him and three other stalwart individuals, as well as a dog, from England to the planet Mars. Keep in mind, The War of the Worlds wasn’t serialized until 1897. Here we have another example of early scientific romance that I think only Darko Suvin has read cover-to-cover after it went out of print.
I am growing ever more weary from some members of the sf community championing the idea that the chief value of science fiction and fantasy is entertainment above all else, that these genres should not explore deeper aspects of self, society and culture because they overwhelm the story and transform the work into “message fiction” no one wants. Never mind that a good story, a deep story, a worthwhile story does explore the inmost world of the author and the culture surrounding him or her. The books that stay with me are the ones that aren’t merely entertaining, they’re the ones push boundaries of human experience, that let me see outside of our comfortable societal ideas of the norm. These books are fascinating and emotionally resonant because they take advantage of fantastic literature’s chief draw: the ability to articulate worlds different from our own. A book can do this and remain a quick, compulsive read; to include other visions of the human experience outside our immediate context can only help push forward a narrative, not hinder it. To say that sf is solely a vehicle for entertainment devalues the field and dismisses both its readers and writers as people unable to seriously connect, examine, and find meaning (or create it) with the text. It is to say the text has no power. I feel strongly on this point, because writing and reading fantasy has been an important part of my life, to how I ended up negotiating and building my dislocated identity, precisely because it articulates other worlds. Tackling troubling issues in sf does not “ruin” it; rather it expands sf, allows it to touch a wider range of readers, and makes it a legitimate (and vital) form of expression for a broader range of writers.
I can’t accept the premise that trying to find meaning in the narratives you spin is somehow wrong. And I won’t.
The Telling (2000) continues Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle with a pattern familiar to readers of her earlier books: a messenger from the Galaxy-wide confederacy known as the Ekumen comes to a newly-contacted planet on an anthropological expedition. The Left Hand of Darkness has the same premise and takes place in the same imagined future, what changes are the characters and the planet’s society. Le Guin manages to exploit this technique without ever coming across as formulaic. Her writing strengths lie in strong, well-realized characters, and building interesting and believable cultures. The Telling is excellent.