Recently I highlighted ten novels championed by the literary elite that I have argued are science fiction or fantasy, precisely the kind of books that a certain class of reader and critic routinely turn their nose up. These are the kind of books such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go that are lauded in the press and loved by conventional reading groups. However, if this science fiction take of dystopian England and clones was written by a mainstream SF author such as Greg Bear or Charles Stross, I doubt the reaction would be the same. It is of course the case that most of these types of novels are one offs or a tip in the water by mainstream authors.
That being said, there are a number of very successful science fiction authors that are accepted and enjoyed by the non-geek fraternity. Here are the best five (with mild spoilers).
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)
The novel: Aliens destroy the Earth. The last human and an alien escape just in time, eventually stumbling on the Galaxy’s President who has just stolen a brand new space craft. There are robots and poetry and mice and Slartibartfast. Of course, this is the best known comedy science fiction novel every written, and the plot and characters are as familiar as any in the science fiction universe. Arthur Dent is the classic everyman hero and Marvin the Paranoid Android is well known throughout popular culture.
The author: Adams wanted to be a writer on TV and radio and had never really planned to be a novelist. His early professional days were spent with the likes of the Monty Python team and this is clearly evident from his style of humour. The original script for H2G2 (as we know it) was for the radio and his idea came from lying drunk in a field in Austria. Adams went onto write several sequels and the Dirk Gently novels before his untimely passing in 2001.
The mainstream: Radio series. TV series. Hollywood film. One of the biggest rock bands in the world, Radiohead, naming a song after the aforementioned miserable Marvin. The novel was number 1 in the 1979 Times best seller list and number 4 in the BBC’s Big Read in 2003. The adaptations, extended universe books and sequel by Eoin Colfer highlight the legs that this science fiction has had. That means that not just the humour or the characters but the story is what appeals to the readership.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
The novel: In 1984, after the devastating war, Winston Smith lives in Airstrip One (cf UK), part of Oceania, one of three global superstates. He is having an affair with Julia and he rebels against the Party. He is later imprisoned and tortured by the Thinkpol, and then subsequently re-educated. The story is about freedom, control of the population, government surveillance, and the affects of war. It is also a love story, albeit one of the forbidden variety.
The author: Orwell has been called the best chronicler of British culture in the Twentieth Century. He is clearly intelligent and has a sharp wit and keen eye for social injustice. His is a satirist almost with comparison with Animal Farm and in Down and Out in Paris and London brilliantly captures a life in poverty. Orwell was declared unfit to fight in World War Two but found work in the Home Guard. He was a passionate journalist who wrote for left-leaning newspapers and literary magazines before completing his dystopian masterpiece.
The mainstream: What can be said about the impact of Orwell’s novel that hasn’t already been said. The modern lexicon teems with Orwellian language. Orwellian itself describes a destructive social condition. The Big Brother society, Room 101, thoughtcrime and others are common in modern culture. The book itself is required reading in most literature courses and every library has a copy. We haven’t even covered adaptations in other media. It was listed as the 13th best novel of the Twentieth Century by The Modern Library.
Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
The novel: Dune is a far future tract based around the idea that humans have scattered across the galaxy. However, humans being what we are, there is still war, politics and struggle to contend with. Planets are rules by aristocracy. Artificial intelligence and computers have been banned, replaced by highly developed humans who mimic computers called Mentats. The source of this development is ‘the spice’ which also allows instantaneous space travel. The plot centres on political and personal battles to control the spice and the planet Arrakis, the only place it is found.
The author: Frank Herbert spent six years researching and writing Dune and it shows. Fortunately for him, he didn’t have to worry about an income during that time. Afterwards, success was assured, although it took a little time. He began with an idea about actual sand dunes for a magazine article which was never written. Herbert has also produced a number of other novels and short story collections, most of which are relatively unknown.
The mainstream: For such a complex plot and vastly imaginative ideas, Dune is an eminently readable novel and despite a lack of mainstream cultural cross-overs (a derided film notwithstanding), Herbet’s novel is very much in the public eye. First editions of the novel have been known to sell for over £10,000. Some critics have noted that it is the best science fiction ever written. Perhaps this is why it transcends the traditional fan base, or perhaps that it focuses on people and politics rather than science.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
The novel: Set in a dystopian future, The Handmaid’s Tale concerns a woman called Offred (Of Fred, the man she serves) who represents a class of concubines that reproduce for the ruling classes. She lives in what was the US but has been taken over by a male chauvinist military coup. A terrorist attack killed the President and emergency laws striped all women of their rights, allowing the military to take over. The book is the tale of Offred’s life during her relationship with the Commander, a high ranking official.
The author: Atwood is adamant she doesn’t write science fiction, despite authoring this and Oryx and Crake, and winning the Arthur C Clarke award in 1987. She claims it is speculative fiction, as science fiction is about ‘monsters and spaceships’. The Canadian is perhaps best known as a Booker winner for The Blind Assassin about relationships during WWII, including that of a pulp science fiction author.
The mainstream: This is proper science fiction. Regardless of what Atwood herself claims. The tropes are clear as day. The dystopian setting is as SF as Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four or Fahrenheit 451. However, its success amongst the mainstream is undoubtedly due to Atwood’s non-SF works, and her constant nominations for literary prizes and her distancing herself from ‘squids in space’ and suchlike. The Handmaid’s Tale was nominated for the 1986 Booker Prize.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)
The novel: The Modern Prometheus is a tale of caution and the limits of science, as relevant today as when it was written. Victor Frankenstein is a gentleman scientist, common of the day. He suffers loss as his mother dies and his beloved Elizabeth is ill with scarlet fever. Spurred by grief and excelling at chemistry, he creates life and instantly regrets his creation. A battle across nations ensues between the creator and his creation, who learns and grows and seeks a mate. Victor looses more than he could ever gain from his endeavours and our sympathies flow from one side of the conflict to the other.
The author: Shelley was famously part of the romantic and gothic scene of the nineteenth century, married to Percy Shelly and daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft. Sadly, she is known more for this and Frankenstein than for her other contributions to literature, such as The Last Man (1826) which sees a future world ravaged by plague. Frankenstein was influenced by the work of Erasmus Darwin and a rainy summer in Geneva, where Shelley came up with the idea after an evening of supernatural tales.
The mainstream: Frankenstein has been described as the first science fiction novel, as there were scientific rules to the plot, as opposed to fantastical. However, the mainstream success is as much to with the Gothic movement of the time and Shelley’s cohorts. As well as the myriad of adaptations, like Nineteen Eighty Four, Frankenstein has transcended literature to be part of the language of modern life. Everyone thinks they know who Frankenstein is, although most confuse the scientist and the monster.
Be it far future or near, be it dystopia or comedy, proper science fiction has a place in the mainstream. With the right bit of marketing, or the acceptance of the author by other strands of literature critics, a science fiction novel can achieve mainstream success. There are many others I could have cited and I’m sure, many more to come.