Great Book of Science Fiction—Yet to be Written?

In our last episode, we encountered Mortimer Adler’s definition of what constituted a ‘Great Book’. There were three criteria:

* TIMELESS: Great Books should be works that are as much of concern to us today as at the time they were written, even if that was centuries ago. They are thus essentially timeless — always contemporary, and not confined to interests that change from time to time or from place to place.
* INFINITE: The second criterion was their infinite re-readability. Few books are worth reading more than once. A great book is inexhaustibly re-readable. It cannot be fully understood on one, two, or three readings. More is to be found on all subsequent readings. One re-reads a great book with greater pleasure and more insight on each rereading.
* RELEVANT: The third criterion was the relevance of the work to a very large number of great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last twenty-five centuries. The authors of these books take part in the great conversation, reading the works of many of their predecessors, and answering them. In other words, the great books are the books in which the great conversation occurs about the great ideas. It is the set of great ideas that determines the choice of the great books.

Adler is kind enough to list the Great Ideas. There are 102 of them:

Angel, Animal, Aristocracy, Art, Astronomy and Cosmology, Beauty, Being, Cause, Chance, Change, Citizen, Constitution, Courage, Custom and Convention, Definition, Democracy, Desire, Dialectic, Duty, Education, Element, Emotion, Equality, Eternity, Evolution, Experience, Family, Fate, Form, God, Good and Evil, Government, Habit, Happiness, History, Honor, Hypothesis, Idea, Immortality, Induction, Infinity, Judgment, Justice, Knowledge, Labor, Language, Law, Liberty, Life and Death, Logic, Love, Man, Mathematics, Matter, Mechanics, Medicine, Memory and Imagination, Metaphysics, Mind, Monarchy, Nature, Necessity and Contingency, Oligarchy, One and Many, Opinion, Opposition, Philosophy, Physics, Pleasure and Pain, Poetry, Principle, Progress, Prophecy, Prudence, Punishment, Quality, Quantity, Reasoning, Relation, Religion, Revolution, Rhetoric, Same and Other, Science, Sense, Sign and Symbol, Sin, Slavery, Soul, Space, State, Temperance, Theology, Time, Truth, Tyranny and Despotism, Universal and Particular, Virtue and Vice, War and Peace, Wealth, Will, Wisdom, World.

I offered a working definition of what one needed to be a science fiction book:

* SUNSAWUNDA: Great Science Fiction Books should be works that lead the reader to a sense of wonder by means of speculation starting with science that has reality or verisimilitude of realism, but extrapolated to a fantastic, awe-inspiring, or horrific, yet plausibly logical conclusion.

Here are some candidates readers have offered as possible ‘Great Books’ to fit this bill:

* DUNE by Frank Herbert
* The Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov
* Book of the New Sun sequence by Gene Wolfe
* CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
* BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley

Here is what I notice about the Great Ideas and the Speculative Sense of Wonder — in this list, at least, they seem to be inversely proportional.

A book that has a lot to say about Democracy and Good and Evil (such as the dystopias of Huxley and Orwell) actually have the least amount of scientific speculation. The futuristic parts of Orwell and Huxley, such as two-way television screens or genetic conditioning, are in some way the least arresting part of the book.

Likewise, the actual machinery of the future portrayed in STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, things like flying cars, rockets to Mars, waterbeds and living-room carpets made of grass, this is not the part that engages in the great dialog of the ages, it is the Martian’s criticism of Monotheism and Monogamy.

Of these candidates, the one that has the least to say in the great conversation is Asimov’s Foundation. The idea of predicting human history and using it to guide mankind into a unified imperium in that book is treated as shallowly as any gadget in a gadget story: the issue of the moral or immoral use of Psychohistory, whether it should benefit the common man or the imperium, is simply never brought up. The fall of the galactic empire is bad, and the restoration of imperium is good, and that is that. You can find more profound treatments of the same idea in IN THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND by Mike Flynn or PSYCHOHISTORICAL CRISIS by Donald Kingsbury: both these authors draw out some of the human implications that Asimov did not get around to examining. (For example, no character in the original trilogy actually says, “But Dr. Seldon! What if the people in the far future do not want to live under an totalitarian imperial government? Doesn’t anyone get a vote?”). Unlike STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which addressed topic as varied as life after death, the folly of monotheism, and how fun it would be to have sex out of wedlock, or BRAVE NEW WORLD, which addressed using the fun of sex out of wedlock as a type of state control over the masses, or NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR which addressed the desirability making sex no fun any more to control the masses, Asimov’s Foundation never even brought up the topic of sex out of wedlock. But, on a more serious note, Asimov also did not bring up any of the great ideas relating to good and evil, tyranny and democracy, God and happiness, and so on.

The book that covers the most of these Great Ideas (by my count), and therefore the one that has the most to say in the great conversation, is LORD OF THE RINGS by Tolkien. The drawback is that this is not a science fiction book at all. The sense of wonder comes from archaic and mythical ideas and archetypes, kings and destinies, elves and dragons, and not at all from speculations extrapolated from the known to the unknown.

Let me offer the idea that there is a paradox involved between finding a Great Book and finding a Great Science Fiction Book: because by the definitions given above, a Great Book is supposed to be timeless and always relevant, whereas a science fiction book is supposed to be futuristic, dealing with a particular extrapolation that will astound us.

What is less timeless than yesterday’s tomorrows? Does anyone read Jules Verne for the sake of being astonished at his speculations about futuristic submersible ironclads or heavier-than-air flying machines? The stories might still have appeal, as curios, or as nostalgia, but they have no power to invoke wonder at the scientific possibilities of the future, because we have already passed that future.