I’m re-reading an old favorite of mine from my youth when I was a science fiction fan—more than a fan, a compulsive devourer of the genre—Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s typical Heinlein with his oh so stilted style, but it also shows what a futurist he was. The stranger in the title, Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from Mars, is an example of what we could be, may even become in the distant future. And though it would need considerable updating and revising, Stranger would make a great film. One quick quote that seems too relevant today: "There was one field in which man was unsurpassed; he showed unlimited ingenuity in devising bigger and more efficient ways to kill off, enslave, harass, and in all ways make an unbearable nuisance of himself to himself. Man was his own grimmest joke on himself."
Heinlein’s book took me back to that time when I first discovered science fiction, sometime in the mid-Forties when the pulp magazines were in full bloom. I found Edgar Rice Burroughs, probably more famous for the Tarzan series than his science fiction. I devoured them all—the Tarzans, Pellucidar and At the Earth’s Core, all the Mars and Venus series, all the oddball stuff. And then I devoured them again. I was never tuned into the early sci-fi greats, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but I soon learned about the others, both early and late: Isaac Asimov and the Foundation series and I, Robot; Theodore Sturgeon and More Than Human; all of Heinlein’s extrapolations into the future, especially The Door into Summer. I read Ray Bradbury, but he was almost more into horror and fantasy than science fiction with Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man, and the two stories that stand out in my memory, “There Will Come Soft Rains” about the end of man after a nuclear holocaust, with a self-sustaining house slowly running down, and the truly spooky “The Emissary.” And along with all the not so great sci-fi, I read the really good stuff: A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, the Dune trilogy by Frank Herbert, Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and 2001, A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.
But science fiction sort of wandered off into fantasy in the Seventies and I got bored with it. Critics even began calling it speculative fiction, apparently arguing that much of what was written wasn’t based on science so much as pure speculation about what the future might hold for man. “Spec-fi” just doesn’t sound as good to me as “sci-fi.” Lots of dystopian novels warning us of the future (Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World probably the best examples) and a thin sprinkling of utopian views envisioning a positive future (especially Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End). It seems that science fiction is still alive and well, if not in novels and stories, then certainly in film and television. I think of The Hunger Games, the just-released Looper and the up-coming Cloud Atlas, all the Mad Max movies that gave us Mel Gibson whether we wanted him or not. I think of all the tv shows based on science fiction: the comedies like “My Favorite Martian,” “Mork and Mindy,” “3rd Rock from the Sun.” and “Alf”; the very successful “Lost” and the not so successful “Terra Nova,” the still-to-be-determined-if-successful-or-not-so, "Revolution." It seems that sci-fi- or spec-fi is alive and well and will probably continue to be for a long time to come. Anyone looking for a good book and a good change from whatever they’re now reading might do well to turn to one of the sci-fi novels mentioned above.