Saturday, September 8, 2012

30 Days of Genre - What Genre Novel Should Everyone Read?

I'm going to cheat a little bit here, and pick two different novels, one for the fantasy genre, and one for the science fiction genre, and I'm going to pick them for different reasons. First, I'll go with the fantasy genre and say that everyone should read:

J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings

I'm not cheating as much as it looks with this, because The Lord of the Rings, although split into three volumes for publishing reasons, was originally conceived by J.R.R. Tolkien as a single long novel. As a result, I'm treating this as a single novel for selection purposes. There are some novels that are foundational to a genre. Although The Lord of the Rings is not the earliest example of fantasy fiction (depending on how you define fantasy fiction, under some definitions one might have to go all the way back to works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, under others, only as far back as Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter), but it is the most influential. Numerous fantasy writers have clearly been influenced by it: Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan, Dennis L. McKiernan, and so on. Even authors like Stephen R. Donaldson and Ursula K. Le Guin who have written non-Tolkienian fantasy seem to be influenced by their effort to consciously turn away from Tolkien's tropes and forge a different path. The entire role-playing game industry is, at its core, built upon the fantasy tropes that Tolkien used in his book.

Tolkien's vision profoundly affected the entire fantasy genre. In order to understand most of the books in the genre that come after Tolkien, one has to understand his master work. So many of what have become the cliches of fantasy fiction find their roots in The Lord of the Rings. Almost the entire modern fantasy conception of dwarves and elves (including the spelling of the plural of "dwarf" as "dwarves") is drawn from Tolkien's work. The epic quest against a dark and terrible enemy to deal with some MacGuffin is firmly rooted in Tolkien's book. Though it is criticized from many quarters now for many reasons - some valid, others spurious - my considered opinion is that the fantasy genre simply cannot be understood or appreciated except in the light of The Lord of the Rings.

On the science fiction front, the picture is considerably more chaotic. While the fantasy genre probably would have wilted and faded away without Tolkien's influence, there is no single science fiction author or science fiction book that crystallized the genre in quite the same way. Without Asimov, we still would have had Heinlein and Clarke. Without Delany we still would have had Anderson and Le Guin. Without Herbert, we'd still have had Zelzany. and so on. One could argue that Hugo Gernsback ushered in the science fiction genre, but that was as an editor, not an author, and he had no seminal work of fiction to his own name. One could possibly say the same for John Campbell, but once again, he was an editor, and although he wrote some decent science fiction, it wasn't particularly influential. So instead, I will pick a book that I think represents science fiction at its most intelligent:

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed

It isn't any secret that I am a big fan of Le Guin's fiction, and I think The Dispossessed is her absolute best book. A Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award winning story of politics, economics, and culture, the novel details the journey of Shevek, an inhabitant of the moon Anarres who visits the planet Urras, which his moon orbits. Urras is divided into two regions, A-lo and Thu. A-lo is a capitalist patriarchal state, while Thu is an authoritarian communist state. Against both of these is the colony of Anarres, which (as the name of the moon implies) is a kind of anarchic collective commune. Two hundred years before the events of the novel, the anarchists were given the moon by the power brokers of Urras, and left alone, with the implied expectation that they would fail.

Instead of failing, they created a very strange society that is somewhat anarchic, but seems to almost deny the existence of the individual, while claiming to extoll the individual. Shevek is a physicist who has been working to build a unified theory of time, and the breakthroughs in his studies have led him to be invited to Urras to be honored by the governments there. By means of Shevek's travels and the nonlinear telling of his career as a physicist on Anarres, Le Guin is able to explore the various forms of government. They key to the novel's greatness is that Le Guin does not shy away from the very real flaws in each society that is presented. A lesser novelist would have picked one society as "better" and highlighted its successes while showcasing the failures of others. But the world Le Guin created for Shevek is not that simple. A-lo is clearly shown to be far wealthier than Anarres - even the "poor" in A-lo possess more physical wealth than any inhabitant of Anarres could ever hope to obtain. And yet the poor of A-lo are unhappy and resentful. To acheieve their utopian vision, the anarchist architects of Annaren society eliminated almost all individual choice: jobs are handed out to citizens by computer selection. Names are also assigned by computer, at random. Parents of children often spend years apart, and some family groups are never reunited. And so on.

But it isn't just the politics and economics that makes The Dispossessed a must read novel. The story is full of science as well - the means by which the Annarens make their resource poor world livable, the means of travel between worlds, and of course, Shevek's quest for a unified theory of time, which leads to the invention of a device that can communicate between worlds at faster-than-light speeds. This device, called the ansible, was so prominent in Le Guin's works that Orson Scott Card thought that it was a generalize trope of the genre, and not her unique creation. As a result, Card incorporated the ansible into Ender's Game and its sequels. Following Card's lead, numerous other prominent science fiction authors have incorporated the device into their fiction as well. The key is that this novel covers so much ground, and does so with such an economy of prose, and so effectively, that it is science fiction at its best, and that is why it should be on everyone's reading list.

No comments:

Post a Comment