It’s a common question - if you could travel in time, to what point in history would you go? For Karl Glogauer, the protagonist of Behold the Man, the answer is never in doubt. After meeting an eccentric scientist who has devised an improbable time machine, the troubled Karl volunteers to visit 28 AD in a bid to meet Jesus Christ. He discovers that the Nazarene can barely speak, let alone save mankind. Karl takes an extraordinary step and becomes the Jesus we know from the Bible - despite knowing where his actions will lead.
Originally published as a novella in New Worlds magazine in 1966, Behold the Man is one of the most bold and unique of all time travel stories. Michael Moorcock won the Nebula Award for Best Novella for his work, and subsequently extended it into a short novel which was published in 1969. This story is a classic of new wave science fiction, which Moorcock championed as editor of New Worlds at the time. It is a fast-paced and intriguing exploration of religious belief, psychology, and the quest for meaning.
The planet Earth is home to an immense variety of lifeforms, from the tiniest viruses and microbes up to the huge and complex mammals that roam the land and sea. This teeming glut of life is enormously varied, but in one respect it is monotonously uniform - all life on our planet employs a carbon-based biochemistry. For science fiction writers, the various hypothetical types of biochemistry have long been a source of inspiration. Chief amongst these is the notion that somewhere, on another world, life may have arisen that is based not on carbon but instead on another element with some similar properties: silicon.
Originally published in 1985, Sentenced to Prism is the fifth standalone entry in Alan Dean Foster’s long-running series of SF novels set in his Humanx Commonwealth universe. It represents a novel-length exploration of the idea of silicon-based life. The book depicts a distant planet that is rife with crystalline creatures, and looks into the implications this would have on body type, survival strategies, reproduction, communication, and the nature of intelligence. In classic Foster style, the novel is not only a headlong leap into alternative biology but is also an exciting adventure story about human survival on a bizarre and hostile world.
Scottish author Iain M. Banks has been much missed since he passed away in 2013. For science fiction readers, he made a tremendous impact with his Culture series: ten novels about a powerful, post-scarcity civilization set on a vast, interstellar scale. The first novel in the series to be published - and Banks’ first SF book - was Consider Phlebas, in April 1987.
While this sprawling space opera does introduce the Culture, it does so in an unusual way. It focuses not on the citizens of the Culture, or on its starships or institutions. Instead, the protagonist of the book is an implacable enemy of the Culture, working to secure its defeat in a galaxy-spanning war. By taking this approach, Banks worked to not only help readers view the Culture from outside, but also to subvert the established tropes of the space opera. In the process, Banks began an iconic series that occupied much of the rest of his working life; and helped to revitalise that same genre.
While few Banks fans regard Consider Phlebas to be among the best of the series, it is an exciting SF adventure and a strong start to one of the most important and revered series in the whole genre.
By the time that Kate Wilhelm died in March 2018, she was arguably best known as a writer of mystery novels. She had first come to prominence, though, through her science fiction and had a long career in that genre beginning in 1956. Her career in SF peaked in the 1970s, when she contributed to the long-running Orbit series of anthologies, and taught at the famous Clarion Workshop for aspiring SF and fantasy writers. In both of these endeavours, she worked alongside her husband, Damon Knight (1922 - 2002).
In 1974, Wilhelm published the novella “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” in Orbit 15. Wilhelm added two further sections to the story, and published the result as a novel of the same title in 1976. Dealing with human cloning, community, and individuality in the aftermath of a global catastrophe, the novel proved to be the peak of Wilhelm’s success. It won the Hugo, Locus, and Jupiter Awards for Best Novel in 1977, and has come to be seen as one of the best SF novels focused on the topic of cloning.
Today, Where Late the Sweet Birds sang is by far the most visible and well-known of Wilhelm’s SF works - likely due to its awards success. While it is often said that its outsized profile distracts from Wilhelm’s accomplished work in short fiction, it is an intriguing post-apocalyptic tale in its own right.
By 1991, the Scottish author Iain M. Banks was very much one of the rising stars of science fiction. He had already published three SF novels: Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), and Use of Weapons (1990). While Banks was solidifying his reputation, his earlier short fiction was not widely available and the collection The State of the Art was published to rectify this.
The collection contains eight stories, all originally published in the brief period between 1987 and 1989. The book could have become a relatively minor part of Banks’ bibliography, but instead it has an important place. This is largely because it contains three short stories concerned with The Culture - the author’s acclaimed post-scarcity SF setting for most of his genre novels. The short stories “A Gift From the Culture” and “Descendant”, as well as the novella “The State of the Art” are therefore essential for anyone interested in that setting.
What follows is a brief overview of all eight stories featured in The State of the Art, which serves as a good, brief introduction to Banks’ work - including the iconic Culture.
One interesting thread that runs through the history of science fiction is the changing depiction of Mars. As science has gradually expanded our knowledge of the “red planet”, fiction has changed to accommodate new information. Key novels like The War of the Worlds (1897), A Princess of Mars (1912), The Martian Chronicles (1950), the Mars trilogy (1992 - 1996) and The Martian (2011) all chart this shifting perspective.
An important milestone in this history is the flyby conducted by the Mariner 4 mission in 1965. The visit cemented the new understanding of a lifeless, desolate Mars so thoroughly that stories about the planet can be divided into pre-Mariner and post-Mariner eras. After the 1960s, some writers still wrote nostalgic stories that explored the romantic, adventurous, and inhabited Mars that never was - as in the anthology Old Mars (2013) edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
Arthur C. Clarke’s novel The Sands of Mars occupies an interesting and unusual position in this history. One of the author’s earliest books, it was published in 1951, long before the Mariner 4 flyby. However, its portrayal of the red planet is much closer to reality than other books of its era. In keeping with his hard science fiction approach, Clarke adhered to the emerging ideas about Mars. This book deals thoughtfully with the challenges of reaching Mars, of surviving on the surface, and even of making it more Earth-like.
In the wider context of Clarke’s glittering career, The Sands of Mars is a minor novel. It is an interesting one, though, for a number of reasons - not only due to its view of Mars. Because its main character is himself a science fiction author, it has a kind of meta quality. It can also be said to serve as a kind of spiritual prequel to Clarke’s later book set on Earth’s moon, Earthlight (1955). Finally, it represents a prototype more generally for the author’s later books, which present a similar positivist view of humankind’s future.
Recent years have seen the rise of feminist dystopias - stories focusing on societies in which women are an oppressed underclass. Building on and examining the actual sexism in our real, contemporary world, these works represent a significant trend in social science fiction. It has been suggested that the uptick in this genre has coincided with specific real-world developments, especially in the United States - notably the Trump presidency and the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Probably the best-known feminist dystopia, however, is much older - Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The book was a major success at the time, and was popularised again by the TV adaptation which premiered in 2017. But The Handmaid’s Tale was not the first book of its kind. Published in 1984, Native Tongue is a science fiction novel by Suzette Haden Elgin which also takes the form of a feminist dystopia. It uses a different approach to Atwood’s work, partly because it fuses its feminist message with discussion of a particular science, and Elgin’s profession: linguistics.
Between 1969 and 1975, American author Roger Zelazny (1937 - 1995) wrote three stories featuring a nameless trouble-shooting protagonist in a highly computerised future. The book My Name Is Legion collects all three of these tales, the third of which won both the Hugo and Locus awards for Best Novella in 1976.
Today, Zelazny is best known for his Chronicles of Amber fantasy series, published between 1970 and 1991, and to a certain extent for his influential post-apocalyptic science fiction novel Damnation Alley (1969). The stories collected in My Name Is Legion are an interesting, if uneven, window into Zelazny’s short fiction.
For scientists of the Humanx Commonwealth, the planet Horseye is the site of many unexamined wonders. Its unique and dramatic topography has given rise to three distinctive sentient species, who each occupy a specific ecological niche. When a pair of bickering, married human scientists set out on an epic journey of exploration, what they find could make their careers - if they survive.
Voyage to the City of the Dead is the fourth standalone novel in the Humanx Commonwealth series by Alan Dean Foster. It combines some aspects of the previous three books; the deadly fauna of Midworld (1975), the aquatic settings of Cachalot (1980), and the interspecies relationships of Nor Crystal Tears (1982). While on one level the book is a relatively straightforward science fiction adventure, it also features interesting speculations about geology, ecology, and alien cultures. What initially seems like a minor side-story in Foster’s fictional universe ultimately ends with some major revelations of galactic significance.
The idea of humans mastering spaceflight, venturing out into the stars, and encountering alien species is one of the most commonly recurring concepts in science fiction. Often, humankind is presented as a latecomer to galactic affairs, and stories often feature numerous more advanced species. But what if humans were instead the first to explore the galaxy? Might some people become convinced of the innate superiority of the human species, and use violence to keep humankind on top?
This is the premise of The Long Result, a 1965 novel by British author John Brunner. Written between his earlier space operas and his later, more ambitious books, this novel can be thought of as a transitional work for Brunner. While it by no means reaches the heights of his best work, it does deal thoughtfully with some intriguing ideas.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.