Among the 50 classics I read these past four years, a few were science-fiction.
I like a good scifi novel, and I realize I usually enjoy the classic ones. Except maybe Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? which left me a bit disappointed.
I have also reviewed The Martian Chronicles, so today I’ll focus on the others:
We, Solaris, and Childhood’s End, actually my first classic for my 2nd list of 50 classics.
We is a short but very powerful Russian dystopia about totalitarianism. No wonder it was banned there for years. The scary part about the dystopia genre, is that these books sometimes point emphatically to what could be happening to our society. That was definitely the case when Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote this book in 1921, but his insight is so sharp that it could still be happening in the not-so-future development of our current Western society – possibly somewhere else as well, but I can’t speak of societies I’m not familiar with.
The OneState society of We is ruled by the Benefactor. Everything is so well organized and regimented that everyone can be happy. You have everything you need, you are all provided for, so no need to worry nor to imagine something better. Such a place leaves no place for neither dreams nor imagination, nor creativity.
I was talking recently with one of my students, and she felt that art and creativity were very weak nowadays. It made me think about this book. The disappearance of art is indeed troubling for a society. Whether it’s an imposed decision, or a choice you make because you feel too busy with mundane details of everyday life, and you don’t take time to live anywhere else but at the very superficial level of commute-work-sports-sleep. Actually cramming the media with superficial news and shallow entertainment is a very efficient and indirect way for a government to be sure its citizens won’t take time to think and imagine better solutions.
Thank God, there are always a few individuals who go against the current. This is the case here for D-503 – in the context described, it makes sense that people are called by a mere letter and number. There’s no need nor room for individuality, a real person would be a grain of sand in the well-run machinery of the system.
One day, D-503 discovers that he has a soul, something considered like a disease that could destroy OneState if not taken care of.
How many people today think about their souls? Scary.
We is a fascinating reflection on happiness (or rather fake happiness) and freedom.
Solaris, published in 1961, though with a different setting in space, also deals with elements of human-hood, and about individuality. When Kris arrives on the Solaris planet to study its peculiar ocean, he discovers a strange phenomenon has been plaguing the crew, or what’s left of it: when they sleep, each member of the team gets visited by a double of someone they knew in life on earth. These beings seem totally real, they are three dimensional and you can touch them, but they also have characteristics that make them different from us.
You will not meet strange aliens in this book, but you will always wonder about the nature of this ocean. And what about these doubles? Are they real? Are they just products of the mind?
If Arthur C. Clarke, in Childhood’s End (see more below), states that we go to space and other planets because ultimately, we fear loneliness and want to establish communication with the Other, Stanislaw Lem through his book seems to be saying that what we are actually searching for, is self-understanding and self-knowledge. Maybe the biggest mystery is simply ourselves. At least, that’s how I understand this cryptic book. And a big part of it is the working of our memory. It makes sense to me that the phenomenon starts with sleep, which I find more and more intriguing, on the level of consciousness.
A definitely unique science-fiction novel.
The more recent movie has a special ending, quite foreign to the book, I think. Tarkovsky’s is more faithful to the ambiance.
Childhood’s End is more standard (or rather, it set the standard back in 1953!), and can make you think of The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 version): aliens show up all over the earth. The Guardians aka the Overlords end up dominating the earth, and they eradicate war, poverty, and disease.
But is it by pure sympathy for humans, or do they have a larger plan? I liked the tension about this question all along the book.
Like in We, we meet a group of people who decide to live differently and preserve such things as art.
The deeper meaning of the book, I believe, comes up later on in the book, with some dramatic change.
Obviously, I won’t tell you what happens, except that it was unexpected for me and rather scary, in the sense of, what will our evolution turn into?
I was also puzzled by the many references to religion, and I am not too sure what Clarke’s intent is at that level.
Have you read these novels? What did you think?
What’s your favorite classic science-fiction novel? Why?