Book Review: Penguin Classics Sci-Fi Series

The covers for Penguin’s Science Fiction Classics

Between the era of the classic black thorns of penguins (1963, designed by Facetti, sans serif font) to the era of the new black thorns (2003, book title in italics, author in red tones), there were the brief years of the Flash Top Black Thorns. It was a simple color code: red for the English language, yellow for European (which included Russia and Scandinavia), green for “oriental” and purple for the Greek and Roman classics.

I wonder if the design of these new “Penguin Classics Science Fiction” is a slight nod, as they are beautiful books with purple spines. The new emperor would have “taken the purple” – has science fiction now become more important than Sophocles and Cicero? They also have the most beautiful covers: black and white line drawings by Le Corbusier, Hans Arp, Picasso, Saul Steinberg and others. If you expect science fiction to come in full color fluorescence, with a vaguely phallic spaceship, then that stresses a different idea; that science fiction and modernism always went hand in hand.

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The first ten titles are a wonderfully eclectic selection, and prove that science fiction is not a unitary genre. There are collections of short stories, of philosophical speculation, of horror, of satire and this big category, “unclassifiable”. The first dates from 1884; Edwin A Abbott’s Flatland, a “romance with many dimensions” and a mathematical primer. We by Zamiatine (1924) is in my opinion a much bigger dystopia than Orwell or Huxley. There is a judicious selection of three HP Lovecraft stories, from 1927, 1930 and 1935, much more in its vein of cosmic terror than in its more racist tone. While I like Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle (1963), with its polemical, apocalyptic free-wheeling concept, I might have preferred to re-read either The Sirens Of Titan or the more metafictional Breakfast Of Champions.

Another familiar name might be Stanislaw Lem, mainly because his novel Solaris has been shot three times, once by Tarkovsky. It is ingenious to take again a work less known by him, La Cyberiade (1965), since it highlights his other registers. Two “builders” – robots or embodied artificial intelligences – called Trurl and Klapaucius, who are friends and rivals, experience various adventures and misadventures, almost similar to a Bouvard and Pécuchet, or Vladimir and Estragon, or Laurel and Hardy de l ‘ outer space. Even though it’s funny, it’s serious; not just in metaphysical speculations but in the unimaginable nature of what they describe. The pun and the ingenuity in this game make a page laugh.

It was also smart to include One Billion Years Until The End of the World (1977) of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, a piece of Soviet black comedy where Dmitri can never make his scientific discovery due to interruptions, secret policemen and jealous colleagues, leading to increasingly fanciful interpretations of what is really going on. The story “Roadside Picnic”, not here, alas, by the brothers was also the inspiration for Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

I hadn’t read Robert Sheckley before, but based on Dimensions Of Miracles (1968), I definitely will. There is a buzz in this novel, about an unfortunate galactic lottery winner who finds it harder to come home than to take home the prize. The comparisons to Douglas Adams are relevant, but Sheckley seems to go deeper into the weirdness of what the unknown might look like. Plus there’s a comedic dinosaur and my favorite line from one of them: a creation contractor says, churches: “Why should I go to a place where a God wouldn’t go.” ? “

The rest were full revelations. Trafalgar (1973) by Angelica Gorodischer is an interwoven story featuring the eponymous anti-hero. Although the stories are told in contemporary Argentina, Trafalgar himself is a wanderer, leaping from planet to planet without caring about the world except making a profit. The disjunction between a clearly evoked reality and multiple alternate worlds is part of the charm, but here too there is steel. A story like “The González Family’s Fight for a Better World” is gruesome, with the dead having a lethal hold over the living. I had read a few James Tiptree Jr stories, but 10,000 light years from home (1973) opened my eyes. For starters, “James Tiptree Jr” was actually Alice Sheldon, and reading the stories made me wonder why someone was duped by the pseudonym. The range here is astounding. One story, “Faithful To Thee, Terra, In Our Fashion” is a dark satire on Monster Truck derbies. “The Man Doors Said Hello To” is creepy. The stories especially about femininity and bureaucracy (who thought science fiction could make sense of logistics management?) Are superlative.

Finally, there is The Hair-Carpet Weavers (1995) by Andreas Eschbach. I have never read anything like it. On a distant planet, a contracted but respected class dedicates their lives to weaving rugs, made from their wives’ hair, to adorn the Emperor’s palace. Rumors abound that the Emperor is in fact dead. There is no carpet of hair in the palace, but it was always sent on time. Each chapter made me click on “so here is our hero” and each time I was wrong. The ending is devastating, and as a work on what totalitarianism really is, it is second to none. Science fiction is not a genre. It is Literature.

Penguin Classics Science-Fiction, £ 8.99 each

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