Just Add Water

While kibbitzing with my fellow writers in the blissfully socialist Facebook group Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors I came across a list. Even when they are functional rather than speculative, lists are dangerous because they are compiled by a species of imperfect creatures known as humans. Being imperfect, these humans invariably leave things off the list that either they or others of their kind will later point out should have been included. Worse, they also include items that never had any business being there.

The danger is relatively minor in the case of functional lists. Worst case scenario you’ll end up sleeping on the couch for the rest of the week after messing up the Sunday morning coffee run. “This isn’t soy milk in my latte. You know I’m lactose intolerant. It’s all about you, isn’t it?”

It’s all about you is a lament that at heart really means it should be all about me, because every one of us craves validation. That is what makes speculative lists so provocative even though they contain absolutely nothing essential to one’s survival or sleeping arrangements. The problem is they are reviewed by far more people than functional lists, and each of those viewers has a differing opinion on the list’s composition which they feel is supremely valid.

Of course it’s impossible for there to be thousands of supremely valid lists on any one topic. Even one is too many. Given that such compilations are subjective, the only possible number of ideal groupings is zero. Publishing a list is simply a way of saying, “Here, fight amongst yourselves.”

Understanding this leads to the conclusion that list-makers are either a) naïve masochists vainly seeking validation themselves, or b) sadistic sociopaths who get off on seeing people at each other’s throats.

The list I happened upon proclaimed the ten best science fiction novels of all time [insert heraldic trumpets here]. Its composer was almost surely a sadistic sociopath [and cue the sinister tuba]. That judgment is based on the fact that the poster provided no rationale or criteria for a book’s inclusion on the list nor did he offer up any credentials for the members of the selection committee, if in fact there was one. A masochist would have provided such information in order to further validate his or her list. The sadist understands doing so is just giving your detractors more ammunition.

Being a bit of a sadist I am not going to link or reveal the contents of the list. What is the point? We both know it’s flawed and I’d just be painting a target on my forehead by suggesting any corrections when they are obviously not the ones you had in mind. I’m content with keeping my list to myself and leaving you to yours. List and let list I always say.

There is also an element of masochism in my nature, however, so I will expand on an issue one commenter noted.  All ten of the books were old. Decades old, in fact.  There was nothing that had been published in the new millennia. No instant classics.

The obvious question is whether there should be. By definition a classic must stand the test of time. Books fresh off the press have to pay their dues, become dog-eared, pass from reader to reader, and even spend years forgotten on the shelf before they earn a reputation as classic literature. I suppose, as in other arenas, there can be overnight superstars every now and then. Regardless it’s only a best guess that their popularity will be lasting. Science fiction has had its share of MC Hammers, like any other artistic medium.

If a book is to be an immediate sensation and have legs it has to be more than a well-written story. It must do two other things: 1) connect with society on a serious level, and 2) cross over into mainstream awareness. I won’t say there aren’t any modern novels that fit the bill but let’s face it, science fiction novels haven’t exactly been in the foreground lately.

We’ve just been through a decade wherein Hollywood essentially strip mined the Philip K Dick catalogue for script ideas, Star Trek was rebooted, and Tom Cruise came out with a pair of sci-fi alien invasion flicks.  Two serious films also arrived at the end of that run, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. If tales out of Hollywood are true, at least one of those productions crapped on the book author, refusing to even give her a writing credit.  So despite cinematic success, public exposure for written science fiction is not at an all-time high.

The discussion thread in the survey repeatedly mentioned one candidate for instant classic status: Andy Weir’s The Martian.  I disagree even though I realize taking such a position is a bit unfair when I haven’t read the book.  For some reason Martian stories put me off.  I never read Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and have avoided virtually every film in which the Red Planet features. Maybe the obvious wordplay other kids exploited–“Martin the Martian!”–left an emotional scar when I was a child. I certainly identified with Warner Brothers’ Marvin the Martian whose grandiose plans always went awry. So probably.

My personal quirks aren’t the reason I’m dismissing The Martian‘s future impact on the genre though. Having at least read the synopsis for Weir’s book, I’m not sold that it has the makings of a sci-fi classic. Basically it’s a story of one man’s survival. Aren’t the important science fiction stories an autopsy of society rather than the individual? Asimov’s I, Robot featured a similarly isolated cast but there was sufficient interaction to determine that even an agoraphobic civiliation required physical contact on some level to survive. I’m not sure The Martian provides that sort of commentary. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

Beyond that, however, there’s also the fact that it’s a been-there/done-that plot. Tom Hanks’ Castaway is the obvious example of a similar storyline, albeit not science fiction. If you wish to stick to the genre there’s the aforementioned Gravity and Apollo 13. True, Weir’s protagonist is accidentally left for dead which doesn’t occur in any of those stories. Nevertheless when the film adaption debuts, its star, Matt Damon, will be competing for box office dollars with Leonardo di Caprio’s The Revenant, the fact-based story of Hugh Glass, an American fur trapper intentionally left for dead by companions after being mauled by a bear. Glass recovers and journeys alone across three hundred miles of North Dakota Indian territory to exact revenge. For me, being isolated on Mars with few resources isn’t so significantly different from enduring the same fate in an 1820s North Dakotan winter as to justify labeling The Martian groundbreaking.

There is a recent novel that a) I have read, b) offers a stinging, straight-to-the-heart condemnation of the notion of a free capitalist society, and c) provides, to my knowledge at least, a rather original plot twist. The book is The Unincorporated Man by the Kollin Brothers.

Admittedly it begins with the well-worn trope of a terminally ill billionaire eccentric cryogenically freezing himself to be stored in an abandoned gold mine (because he doesn’t trust the existing cryogenic companies to either preserve him or protect his assets) only to be awakened and cured a few centuries later in a somewhat changed society. You won’t get an argument from me; that’s been done.

What is unique is that the Kollin Brothers’ civilization incorporates every citizen,  issues stock in them at birth, and permits free trade of shares throughout their lives. In order to advance one’s education and career as well as raise the value of their personal stock, citizens must attract investors. Simultaneously they struggle to save sufficient income to purchase a majority holding in themselves.

Societally speaking there are advantages to such a system. Unemployment and crime are low, as the disenfranchised literally become penny stocks. Everyone is motivated to be productive which has lead to advances in several technologies including medicine. Life expectancy has more than doubled and the standard of living is at least an order of magnitude higher than our own.

On the other hand one’s individual rights are in doubt. Investors own you. Our eccentric billionaire realizes this, equates it with slavery, and exploits a forgotten law to refuse incorporation. His stance sparks the flames of a latent rebellion against the  corporate establishment.

In keeping with our own capitalist values, The Unincorporated Man has been serialized, with four books out to date. The sequels do little more than continue the story and generate sales for the authors, and, hey, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. The intellectual value lies almost entirely in the first volume though. As a stand-alone novel, it raises the bar for science fiction as an art form back to the standards set by Asimov, Heinlein, Ellison and Dick. Again, I may be wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this book appearing on future all-time lists. In the interim, it’s the only contemporary novel that, to my mind, deserves to be considered an instant classic.


2 thoughts on “Just Add Water

  1. theyauthor says:

    I enjoyed this post. It is a sprawling essay that might have kept the thesis a little tighter, but the summation brought me back around to considering whether or not favorite lists are worth sharing or even participating in since—what is the point? People look for shared ideas and values in almost any social conversation in order to feel confident enough to partake in one. But overall, lists are only valid as starters, and in some cases shit stirring sticks.


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