Summer Reading Themes: Part Two

The Novel From Outer Space  

1968 Panther edition
Many so called literary authors have started off their career writing what one might classify as genre fiction.
Of those genre debuts, science fiction seems to hulk over the rest. For instance, many of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s early stories could be classified as sci-fi and his debut novel, 1952's Player Piano was publicised as science fiction although it is more accurately described as a dystopian novel. Later in his career, Vonnegut did not shy away from delving into aspects of the genre. He sets the anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five partially on the imaginary planet of Tralfamador.

Summer vacation, Sci-Fi, and the beach all seem to go together; after all, as we vacationers frolic in the ocean this season, how can one ignore its lunar influenced tide. As we repose in the evening along the shore, how can one gaze up at the pinpricks of light we name stars and fail to be reminded of our vast universe and the potential that lay out there, how can we in our quest to see a decent summer movie, avoid Transformers Part 3. So here are a few recommendations in the science fiction vein, with a twist: all the authors have either gone on to write mainstream literary novels or have simultaneously dabbled in the two genres.
C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy
  • Girl in Landscape is Jonathan Lethem's fourth novel and the fourth of a run of early novels which could have all been classified as science fiction. Although Lethem is known more as a genre busting craftsman, his tendency to sci-fi pigeonholed him erstwhile in his career. This one is a coming of age tale set on an alternate world.
  • Doris Lessing's first novel in her Canopus in Argos quintet is called Shikasta: Re, Colonised Planet 5. The South African Nobel laureate is better known for her seminal classic The Golden Notebook which addresses many universal themes, among which include self assessment and power struggle between the sexes. However, she has had mixed notices on her speculative fiction, but anyone with an open mind and some free time to read will enjoy this planetary epic. Its a look at our world, masquerading as Shikasta, from the Canopus, an advanced alien species, point of view. 
  • Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is the first in a trio of space parables. Lewis was primarily known for his theological treatise and for his Narnia books, fantasies with a religious bent ostensibly aimed at children. The Space Trilogy is his story of Dr. Ransom, the stranger in a strange land.
  • Mary Doria Russell's first novel, The Sparrow blends speculative fiction, religion, and courtroom drama. It the story of a Jesuit priest and his mission to breach contact with an alien civilization on the distant planet of Rakhat. Ms. Russell has gone on to write well received historical fiction like her latest release, Doc about everyone's favorite gun-slinging dentist, Doc Holliday.
  • Pierre Boulle, the author my next recommendation, Planet of the Apes was equally known for his other major work, The Bridge on the River Kwai. His cautionary tale of evolutionary revolution became almost iconic with its many spawned novels and the film adaptations in the 70's; Tim Burton's 2001 re-imagining of the work is too stylized and just misses the mark. A prequel entitled Rise of the Planet of the Apes looms on the movie horizon, hoping to prolong Boulle's contribution to the collective pop culture of Earth.
In the hands of some of our most creative and brilliant minds, like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert A Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, science fiction has shined among the classics of general literature; so much so that mainstream authors just can't keep their hands off the genre.  I hope you'll take the time this year during your very busy vacation, or staycation as the case may be, to pick up a book. If you do, consider revisiting one or two of the sci-fi  titles above. If nothing else they will take you away for a few hours to wonder and wander amid alien surroundings, and perhaps remind you how better to deal with our own little rock we call home.