I’m not your biggest expert in science fiction, not having read most of the bests. So undecided as I was about what to read for The 2014 Science Fiction Experience, which has begun already this month, I downloaded all the free science fiction short stories and novellas available on my phone. So far, I’ve read three.
The Scarlet Plague by Jack London: This is supposed to be a classic dystopian; the book description called it a post apocalyptic fiction novel. To me, it seemed less like a novel and more like the basic framework of a novel. Set in the year 2072, the story follows an old man, Professor Howard James Smith, the only survivor from the old world and his savage grandsons. The old man tells them the story of the scarlet plague, which, ironically, struck the world in 2013 and wiped most living creatures off the earth. The savages listen to the old man’s detailed descriptions with disbelief, dismiss his complex language as the ravings of a mad man as the once Professor Smith mulls over the fate of civilization.
This book made hardly a story, narrated mostly in flashback. If it really were one of the first dystopians ever written, I can understand the charm. It is ingenious and does make you wonder. But the fact is, now, for the most part, it seems like a dull narration, put in contrast with many post apocalyptic stories I really like. It is too short to be called a novel (made me wonder if that slim Call of the Wild copy of mine is in fact, unabridged) and recommended, I guess, only to fans of the author.
The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster: This is a short story set in a future world where people live wholly underground with everything they need provided to them in their solitary cells. The only contact with the surface of the earth is during flights, but people prefer not to travel unless absolutely necessary, and when they do, they’re mostly uncomfortable and nearly always, scared of the view. The only activity people do is share their ideas through machine messages. This Machine, which runs their lives, has slowly gained a mystical, godly image and people have begun to revere it. One of these people is the main character, Vashti, who is invited by her son Kuno to visit her, out of the blue. He turns out to be a rebel and Vashti’s reluctant visit leads to her shocking discovery that Kuno has been to the surface of the earth, illegally.
If all this sounds just too obvious for your liking, consider this: the story was written in 1909. I know quite a few people who didn’t like Howard’s End much, but I seem to be very comfortable with Forster’s writing style. For a book written more than a hundred years ago, it is quite perceptive of the future and the characters and interactions so aptly and simply put will certainly strike a chord with today’s readers. If our machines stopped, would we be able to survive? In a few pages, the story makes you rethink a lot of your basic assumptions about the world and yourself. You can read it online here.
2BR02B by Kurt Vonnegut: 2BR02B, with the 0 read as ‘naught’, is a very short story, a brilliant satire about a future where they’ve found a cure for aging. What would happen if, like in this new world, the government took up the responsibility for administering all births and deaths? It goes like this: for every person to be allowed to be born into the world, one person has to volunteer to die.
This story was very Kurt Vonnegut. Dark, hilarious and abrupt. It took me only a couple of minutes to read this, it was over even before it really began and I found myself chuckling at the end! Basically: I loved it. Go read it here.
I’d say this was a good start to the challenge, and I mostly want to read short stories and novellas for now.