Recently I have re-read some old-school science fiction / dystopian fiction and have been shocked at my own selective memory of the works.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (stories published late 1940s; collected in book form in 1950)
I first read The Martian Chronicles in a high school English class. The only story I even vaguely remembered from it was one about a human settler running into a Martian from a different era. Upon re-reading it, I was struck by how ridiculously the 1950s gender stereotypes play out in the years between 1999-2026 (or 2030-2057 if using the 1997 version) on Bradbury’s Mars. I know it’s not totally fair of me to judge this aspect of a book written in the 40s and 50s (the stories were written first and then subsequently aggregated into the book), but I still feel deeply disappointed in his lack of foresight on that front. And now, I think I will forever remember that gender roles shortcoming concept over any of the individual stories or the themes he explores in the book.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931)
I read Brave New World my freshman year of college – not for a class but just because. I dimly remember the Gattaca-like themes, but upon re-reading it, I was again struck with the really limited creativity Huxley has around gender equality. Again, it is what most sticks out in my mind upon re-reading. In many ways, this book is even worse with its gender assumptions and norms. But, it’s not as though the gender issues were what Huxley (or Bradbury) were satirizing. Whether my feelings are justified or not, I just feel deflated and disappointed about that.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
To round out my middle of the 20th century dystopian / futuristic / science fiction, I’ve just picked up Nineteen Eighty-Four from one of the greatest public libraries in the world.* I distinctly remember reading this at Crane’s Beach (the best beach in the world while we’re talking about best in the world categories) before senior year of high school for my English class while my friend read All the President’s Men for hers. Again, I remember so little: really just big brother & mind control. But, I gather the main plot centers on a love affair… I am not hopeful that my criticism of Huxley and Bradbury will change for Orwell. Sigh.
And some new stuff
Recently, I’ve read quite a bit of John Scalzi recently – namely the Old Man’s War series, but a few others here and there – and what really strikes me about Scalzi’s work is how he subtly challenges your gender assumptions as you read. As a reader, you’ll be introduced to a character – perhaps the captain of a ship or someone in charge – and about a page later you realize this person is a woman and you had just assumed it was a man! Well, maybe YOU didn’t assume the character was male, but I bet many people do until they learn she’s not. I did on quite a few of them. This happens over and over again in his writing. I love it. I love it because it reminds you and challenges you about your own assumptions. And he doesn’t call it out in neon letters (“Hey! I’m challenging your gender assumptions here!”), he just does it. A lot. So, for that and for many reasons – I highly recommend Scalzi’s work.
I suppose I do feel a bit guilty praising Scalzi so much; he’s writing now not 60 years ago. If I re-read him in 50 years, I am sure I will be disappointed with his lack of vision in some area or another, but for now, I’ll take it.
While I’m on a post about books, I implore you, I beseech you, I urge you to read… Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It’s… so good. I could not put it down – and I think about it fairly regularly. Read it. You will not regret it. Especially if you are a child of the 80s! But even if not… read it and tell me what you think!
* It is so wonderful to live and work in a town with a fabulous public library.