fickle wrote:I just re-read His Master's Voice by S. Lem (I read it in the 80s). Not all novels I enjoyed in my 20s have had staying power for me, but this one has.
Wikipedia has a good description of it, if a few spoilers. I don't mind spoilers but some do, however, if you can restrain yourself to just the opening paragraph of the wikipedia entry, you'll get a tantalizing hint as to what it covers.
I would classify it as Fictional Science not Science Fiction, and Lem wrote many books of that genre.
This is a translation, but it never seemed awkward, and I think Lem is so beloved, good translators have gone out of their way on his books.
Essentially: a recurring signal not consistent with space's "background noise" is identified by someone looking for a cheap way to come up with a random number list. After a bit of odd punting back and forth, it ends up in the hands of the US government, who sets a virtual Manhattan Project list of talent to decipher it way out in the desert. It is an interesting look at the scientific mind, but isn't dry. There are no buxom women nor chase scenes, but the result is not predictable from the beginning, and is convoluted, as is much of life.
I encourage anyone who likes a slightly cerebral novel to have a look at Lem. He is much better known overseas, and all the lonely years I traveled the subways of NYC, the only time I had non-creepo conversations with strangers was when I was carrying a Lem novel, and everyone who said "Lem!" and started to talk to me was from overseas, and either a professor or a student. One Finnish, one Chinese, one a Spaniard.
The trick with Lem, and with the Strugatsky Brothers (Boris and Arkady) and even indeed Bulghakov (haven't read, but some of his stuff comes damn close to Science Fiction) is that they were operating in an environment of censorship.
Science Fiction, because it was not 'serious', escaped many of the strictures of the censor. Consider by contrast the Great Soviet War Novel 'Life and Fate' by Vassily Grossman
, the censors destroyed the *typewriter tapes* of the original, in a bid to destroy the novel, which has been described as the '20th Century War and Peace'. Since Grossman was writing about very real events and very real things in Soviet Society (military incompetence, repression of people on their own side during the war, anti-semitism that was rife in Soviet society), it had to be suppressed-- Grossman died not knowing that his novel would become the icon of mid 20th Century USSR that it has, the ultimate chronicle of the greatest war in human history.
By contrast SF authors seemed to have more latitude to write about contemporary politics and society, by setting them in Science Fictional settings. And Polish censors less vicious than Russian. In fact, it's clear some authors had 'fans' amongst the censors, who let things through which were dubious, perhaps because they enjoyed reading them. (in the same way, dissidents formed odd friendships with 'their' case officers, who would sometimes brutally interrogate them-- everyone knew they were part of 'The System', and had a part to play).
The analogy I can come up with is Rudard Kapuscinski, the great Polish travel writer. His works about places in Africa (chunks of which he made up) are really allegories about communist Poland (the book about the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Salassie, in particular). Interestingly when his biography came out in Poland, the focus was on the revelation that he had spied on people for the Polish internal security (hardly surprising, for a man who was given a precious visa to travel outside the country). Only when the biography was translated into English was, in response to international critics, was the focus shifted to the fact that he made stuff up about the places he went to.So Lem is telling us something about modern society under communist rule, and its future.
Turn it round. George Orwell wrote a novel about talking animals, Animal Farm, but we call it a political allegory, not 'children's fiction'.
He also wrote a novel about a future dictatorship, locked in a permanent war with other dictatorships. No one demeans this by calling it 'Science Fiction'. Instead we see 1984 as one of the great political novels of the 20th century
, so commonly referenced it is almost a cliche.
In the Western World, if it is Isaac Asimov and Foundation
, or Arthur Clarke, it is 'only' Science Fiction-- read by kids. We'd never demean 1984 or Brave New World by calling them 'Science Fiction
'. One defends Tolkein, say, by talking about his Anglo Saxon roots in the language of the books.
In the communist world, by contrast, Science Fiction had a deeper and more serious connotation.