Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville’s The Last Man (1805)
Long-time readers know I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction, because it reveals so much about our feelings toward science and its place in civilization. Science mediates between us and nature; in modern civilization, we rarely encounter the raw power of nature without science’s buffering effects.
But are we like the sorcerer’s apprentice, putting the world at risk by playing with powers that are out of our league? Have we used science to truly transcend nature’s casual brutality, or are we just kidding ourselves? How much does our own human nature depend on the scientific underpinnings of civilization, and what happens when science’s support is yanked away — will it be Mad Max-style battling warlords, or pastoral communities in tune with nature’s rhythms, as in Earth Abides?
In End of the World fiction, the answers to these questions are all over the map, and that’s why this genre is so awesome.
I’ve already covered post-apocalyptic SF from the 40’s and 50’s, but it’s time to go back to the beginning of the genre, with the very first book that you could call a Dying Earth science fiction novel: The Last Man, by the French priest Jean-Baptiste François Xavier Cousin de Grainville. Published in 1805, it’s a bizarre rewrite of the Book of Revelations as futuristic Gothic novel, filled with temples, spirits, visions, and trans-Atlantic airships. Continue reading
This was a gift from my sister and is a solid science fictiony quote – one that I’m quite happy to put on my wall1.
The Time Machine by HG Wells (1991 Bantam Classic Reissue from library of Josh Witten)
Being a fan of, but hardly an expert on HG Wells2 and being a fan of, but hardly an expert on the history of science, I had to wonder if this quote was actually from HG Wells’ The Time Machine, or was from one of the movie adaptations. As you will see, this is an easy question to answer. The trick is figuring out why you might want to ask the question in the first place.
HG Wells was brilliant and reasonably familiar with scientific research. To pen that line, he would also need to be a time traveler himself. Continue reading
At last: I’ve got an author index of my science fiction reviews here at The Finch and Pea. If you compulsively read vintage science fiction like me (my interests mostly fall in the ~1945 to 1986 range), then you may just find something to your liking here.
Why vintage science fiction? It is a literature that has a lot to say about our culture’s relationship with science and technology, one that has developed some striking metaphors for science and nature.
Over the last few years I’ve managed roughly 30 reviews, fewer than I’d hoped, but not too shabby. Up next is a series on Big Dumb Object science fiction, already begun with Rendezvous with Rama. Coming up soon will be a discussion of Niven’s Ringworld, Varley’s Titan, Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, Greg Bear’s Eon, and finally, once I finish working my way through the Polish original, Lem’s Solaris. Continue reading
The purpose of the Big Dumb Object in science fiction is to cure us of our familiarity with the universe. We tend to forget that the universe is complex, vast, exotic, eerie, and downright mystifying. Our daily experiences with its odd phenomena constitute what is normal, and normal is, of course, that which we’re inclined to take for granted. Among the bizarre things we accept as normal are the spontaneous development of a child into an adult, our ability to perceive coherent images and sounds that reach us through a tangled mess of reflecting waves, that there “are mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata,” and the fortunate fact that Jupiter hasn’t yet sent the Earth spinning out of the Solar System.
Big Dumb Objects are metaphors that regenerate the strangeness of the universe in order remind us that a strange universe is a necessary condition for the sublime experience of scientific discovery. Two writers who knew this well were Arthur C. Clarke and John Keats. Continue reading
Arthur C. Clarke didn’t write write typical post-apocalyptic stories, but he sure liked to write about dying worlds, long-abandoned constructions, last cities, the end of humanity, and vast, empty spaces. In his stories, humans who face extinction, or who live as the last holdouts on a barren Earth, are not doomed. Instead, they’re about to have their consciousness expanded as they become tied into a grand galactic narrative. But unlike other galactic narratives like Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, which treat the galaxy or universe as a gigantic platform on which to re-stage Edward Gibbon, Clarke keeps his universe unfailingly mysterious. Pursuing that mystery is humanity’s noblest aim – it is an essentially religious imperative that becomes a means of transcendence.
What that means for Clarke’s End of the World stories is that the theme of extinction or a dying Earth is an opportunity to encourage us to leave our petty terrestrial concerns behind and embrace our galactic manifest destiny. Continue reading