A few months ago, I filled out a form online called “Am I a Canadian without knowing it?” and discovered that I am, in fact, a Canadian – albeit one who has never travelled west of the Atlantic. I was almost as surprised, when I sat down to compile a list of my top ten science fiction stories, to discover that I am a science fiction fan. The signs were there, I suppose–I spent eleven years researching and writing Konstantin, a novel about the origins of the space programme – but even so I’m amazed by how many of my favourite books I’ve been able to squeeze into the genre. I have not troubled much with a sci-fi definition. If it’s fiction and it contains a bit of science, I was happy to include it. Konstantin would certainly have been eligible, and that’s a story about a deaf boy growing up in 19th-century Russia.
So, and with apologies to Stanislaw Lem:
- Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban.
I first read Riddley Walker when I was twenty, and I’ve read it again four or five times since. It is a tale of technological speculation, but it is set two thousand years after a nuclear war, written in a strange, mutated form of English, and the characters are speculating not about the future but about our technology today. It isthe conventional idea of science fiction turned inside-out – a story of regression, a tangle of myth among the relics of machines. When Hoban died at the end of last year, we lost a truly great writer.
2.The Sandman, by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
The Sandman is a short story from 1816 about a young manplagued by the image of the Sandman, a nightmarish character who steals the eyes of children who refuse to go to sleep. He falls in love with an eerily perfect woman called Olimpia, the daughter of a physics professor. Hoffmann fascinates me. By transposing folk tales to an urban setting, hepaved the way for the likes of Nikolai Gogol, and,to my mind at least, you can trace the influence of The Sandman through Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, all the way to Philip K. Dick and Blade Runner.
3. Lost Boys, by James Miller.
For me, Lost Boys is science fiction not because it speculates but because it understands. It is quite the best book I know about the insulating, alienating effect of technology: in one sense a thriller about an epidemic of missing children in cossetted Kensington, but far too dark and uncanny for easy conclusions, and haunted by a sense of looming catastrophe – something, perhaps, like the hellish eventsthat Miller depicts in Sunshine State.
4. The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien.
Flann O’Brien? Science fiction? Well, no – and yet The Third Policeman is filled with bizarre, irrational scientific concepts. Besides,it is high time for some humour on this list. Sergeant Pluck’s atomic theory of the bicycle, in which the bicycle and its rider exchange atoms on the rough Irish roads until they come to acquire one another’s characteristics –oldercyclists spending most of their time leaningagainst walls or propped against kerbstones – remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.
5. From the Earth to the Moon, by Jules Verne.
One thing I love in 19th-century science fiction is a seamless blend of visionary ideas and hare-brained dangerousness. From the Earth to the Moon was a great inspiration to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and other space pioneers, and I read it a couple of times as I was researching Konstantin. It is written with a passion for technological progress and a defiance towards the natural world that is, I think, less alien today than it seems. Essentially, Verne describes an American project to launch three men from Florida to the moon – except that he has them shot out of a 900-foot cannon, which would have flattened them in an instant…
6. We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
It is bad enough to miss out 1984, but to have missed out We would have been unforgivable. We is,of course, is the mother of all dystopian novels: a story ofthe One State, a ‘perfect mechanical world’ surrounded by a great glass walland populated by ‘unifs’ (citizens) with numbers instead of names. I love We because it is all so understandable: a hopeless attempt, by humans, to control their own nature. The scene in which D-503 finds himself staring through the wall into the yellow eyes of some unknown creature was playing on my mind when I wrote the first chapter of Konstantin.
7. Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
On any other list, I would have had to have chosen The Master and Margarita, but scientificit is not. Heart of a Dog is a simpler affair – rougher, wilder, but all the more enjoyable for that. It concerns a surgeon, Preobrazhensky, who takes it upon himself to transplant a human pituitary gland and testicles into a dog named Sharik, which promptly transforms into a vain and slovenly man calling himself Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov. As a satire of the Soviet project it could hardly have been more wicked, or more likely to be banned. It was published in the USSR only in 1987 –sixty-two years after it was written.
8. Lanark, by Alasdair Gray.
There are not many parts of Lanark that might feasibly be described as science fiction, but since it opens in a dystopian Glasgow named Unthank and presently descends (via a digestive tract) into The Institution, a sort of subterranean hospital, I can just about defend its selection. It is both the beautiful, realist story of Duncan Thaw, a young man growing up in Glasgow around the Second World War, and the fantastical story of Lanark – except that the two men are probably the same. Suffice to say that I have papered my hallway with two identical copies of Lanark, so as to be able to read it round the walls.
9. Tintin’s Moon Adventure, by Hergé.
Happily, Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon exist as a single volume, so that is one decision spared. I am a lifelong Tintin fan, and Hergé’s vision, his immaculate research and attention to detail remain anabsolute inspiration. Destination Moon is all anticipation, a series of almost inconsequential episodes, in the way of The Castafiore Emerald. Explorers on the Moon is all release and, frankly, I can think of few things I would prefer to flying to the moon in a red and white rocket, floating around among balls of whisky.
10. Free Space, by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.
This list would hardly be complete without at least one book by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose early life Konstantin describes. Tsiolkovsky was a scientist – the father of the Russian space programme – but he also wrote numerous works of science fiction and mystical philosophy, and while storytelling was never exactly his forte such novels as Beyond the Planet Earth saw the first outings of some of his most prescient ideas: an orbiting space station with an international crew, tethered spacewalks,multi-stage liquid-fuel rockets. Free Space was written in 1883. It is cast as a diary, and has no story whatsoever, but it develops a vision of a spherical spacecraft powered by the principle of reaction (cannons at this stage) and stabilised by a gyroscope. Fundamentally it is not so different from space capsules today, and it is as prophetic and as dangerous as you could wish for.