Archive for the ‘Dystopian Visions’ Category


“Feedback” by Katherine MacLean

December 26, 2011

The Book: “Feedback” by Katherine MacLeanOriginally published by Astounding Science Fiction in July 1951. Read in The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy published by Avon (G-1143) in 1962.

The Setting: Earth, in the future. Everytown, USA.

The Story: In the future, everyone is free to be exactly like everyone else – it’s democratic.  Conformity bounces against conformity creating a feedback loop, with unfortunate consequences for individuals.

The Science: A social science problem. It’s not hard to imagine a world where anything outside the norm is met with swift reprisal. Or is that called middle school?  It’s a nice story that takes you to the end of a slippery slope and points and how nasty it is down there.

The Reaction: A good story, which is probably why it’s been retold many times in many ways.

The Cover: Same as the first time.

Next Up: “Pictures Don’t Lie” by Katherine MacLean


The Alien by Raymond F. Jones.

October 31, 2011

The Book:  The Alien by Raymond F. Jones.  Originally published in 1951, the edition read was published by Belmont in 1966.

The Setting: Earth, space, a distant planet, in the future.

The Story: Scientists bring an alien creature back to life and then fight said alien creature when it takes over planet Earth with charisma and mind powers.

The Science: Space archaeologists find the craft holding the life force of the alien, but have to decipher the language to learn more. Which they do, using a made up linguistic principle called Carnovon’s frequency. Which I think has to do with the frequency of concepts in a language, but it’s kind of unfortunate that the author didn’t explore actual properties of language. Also, that the so called language experts didn’t realize that one set of characters represented numbers and mathematical principles. It took the main character to realize that.

The Reaction:  Not a fan. I had hope for the book, briefly, early on, but that hope was dashed for good when a motley crew of scientists who hate everyone else fight their way out of the solar system and then procure amazing mind powers. The societal side of the story is very unfortunate. Not a classic of science fiction, despite what the cover asserts.

The Cover:  No cover art credit. A bunch of folks in bubble helmets look at a great big naked guy. Of note is the fact that there are two women on the cover and only one woman in the entire book. And I don’t think she, an important scientist, was running around in that outfit.

Next Up: “Son of Two Worlds,” by Edmond Hamilton.


“The Pedestrian,” by Ray Bradbury

September 12, 2011

The Book:  “The Pedestrian,” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in “The Reporter” in 1951. Story was read in The Golden Apples of the Sun by Ray Bradbury published by Bantum Books in 1961.

The Setting:  2053, Earth

The Story: A lone man walks the streets of a city after dark, instead of watching tv.

The Science:  Bradbury sees a future where people watch tv and no one reads. People still read, though, obviously, even if we watch a lot of tv, and even if the reading we do is on the internet, or the kindle, or the nook. One can see where Bradbury could imagine such a future, but I’m glad it isn’t here yet.

The Reaction:  Another quick bite of fiction, but not his best.

The Cover:  Same as last time. 

Next Up:  “The Fog Horn” by Ray Bradbury.


The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

August 26, 2011

The Book: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. Originally published in 1951, the edition read was published by Crest (TI322) in 1970.

The Setting: Great Britain, sometime in a near past or present.

The Story: Civilization is destroyed and carnivorous walking plants begin the mopping up. Survivors band together and try to figure out a successful society and a potent herbicide.

The Science: The story hinges on two catastrophes. It is hypothesized in the novel that the catastrophes were not natural, nor alien in nature, but rather that they were orbital weapons accidentally detonated by one or the other of the super powers.  At a time when the Cold War was underway, it was not unimaginable for the super powers to be placing horrible, novel weapons in orbit around Earth. Both the US and the USSR had planned such devices, but the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 explicitly disallows them. So it is unlikely that we will all be destroyed by our own space guns. 

The Reaction: This is a good book. A genuinely good story, an interesting confluence of ideas, characters that are worth their salt, and angry plants. The social science of it is strong as well. Highly recommended.

The Cover: No art credit. Plant tentacles, green and yellow, and zombie looking people. It certainly sets the mood of uncertainty and fear. Not my favorite, personally, but very effective. 

Next Up: The Illustrated Man  by Ray Bradbury.


The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov

April 11, 2011

The Book: The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov. Originally published by Doubleday in 1951, the edition read was published by Lancer Books in 1968.

The Setting: Outer Space! The Future!

The Story: My name is Biron Farrill. You killed my father. Prepare to die. Or, prepare to run around the galaxy and participate in incomprehensible political intrigue of the highest order.

The Science: There’s a fair amount of science-y things in this book. One item, established for the sole purpose of using it to get away later is a device called the Visionor. The visionor impresses electrical impulses directly on the brain – apparently only visual and auditory impulses. The inventor supposes it can be used like a piano – to create future-symphonies, but it also freaks out a brain not accustomed to dealing with stimuli that don’t exist in the physical world. As for the question of whether such a device is probable or even possible, I couldn’t even begin to guess. Well, I will, I suppose. It seems rather like something people would invent for “defense” purposes, which is the end to which it is used just a few short pages after its introduction.

The Reaction: When I finished this book, I put my head in my hands and wept. No, I sighed heavily. It took me a while to get in the groove of this book, and it ended like an Encyclopedia Brown story – the main character explains everything that happened. Except that he makes some leaps that are completely impossible, given the story. It’s ridiculous. And there’s this mysterious Earth document that everyone wants for some reason, but no one knows what it is. They think maybe it’s coordinates to a secret planet. But no. It’s a plan for how planets might rule themselves when they’re freed from the rule of the Tyranni – it’s the US Constitution! *headdesk* Oh, and Tyranni? Really? Tyranni. Well, that’s one way to establish the character of a race. I can’t think of a good reason for anyone to run out and track down a copy of this book. Sorry, Isaac.

The Cover: What? What is that? Some guy holding “the stars like dust?” Is that what that is? Lame. And I’m not even sure the guy on the cover is supposed to be a character in this story. No one in this story is happy like that guy is happy. I am not impressed.

Next Up: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham


“To People a New World” by Nelson Bond

April 10, 2011

The Book: “To People a New World” by Nelson Bond. Originally published in Blue Book Magazine, November 1950. The version read was inBeachheads in Space, edited by August Derleth, published by Berkeley Books in 1952.

The Setting: Earth, the future.

The Story: A family lives an isolated life without any metal.

The Science: Something happens which disrupts the atoms in metal, making them, I presume, highly radioactive and making those who come into contact with them highly sick. This is a nice bit of pseudo-science. It’s hard for me to imagine that any sort of chemical reaction that resulting in unstable and radioactive metals would affect only metals and not other materials. So I think it’s just a convenient plot device, not really science.

The Reaction: I was interested in this story – a family lives in a strange new world with strange new rules – until the end. Then it got biblical. A boy killed his brother. The boy’s name? Cain. Oy. So cliche. Not even a twist. Just something that’s supposed to make you go “oooh… what a clever thing this is.” But it’s not. The ending ruined it for me.

The Cover: Alas, no cover art credit for this book. Because it has got a really awesome spaceship on the cover, and an outpost on a hill, and is very lovely science-fictiony in general. Awesome.

Next Up: The Stars Like Dust by Isaac Asimov.


“Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald.

April 8, 2011

The Book: “Spectator Sport” by John D. MacDonald. Originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1950. Read in Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Groff Conklin, published by Berkeley Books in 1956.

The Setting: Earth, the future.

The Story: A time traveler is upset that no one notices him, but finds himself in a position envied by most of the future residents.

The Science: The story revolves around virtual reality, but a very immersive sort that involves getting lobotomized and wired up. It’s sort of like being addicted to your Blackberry, but way more fun (except for the part where they flay your hands…). It’s a perceptive look at the future, one that might be easier to imagine today when so many people spend their time in non-physical based pursuits.

The Reaction: Short, quick, fun. It’s the right length for the story. No one gets fully developed, but that’s not the point. The point is: The future sucks more than the present, Cold War and all.

The Cover: It’s an anthology and clearly this cover has nothing to do with this story, but it’s gorgeous.  I mean, look at all those spaceships!  And they’re such space age spaceships of the future.  Love it.  But I’m a sucker for retro-future spaceships and rayguns.

Next Up: “To People a New World” by Nelson Bond.


The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

April 4, 2011

The Book: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Originally published by Doubleday in 1950, the edition read was published by Bantam Books in 1966.

The Setting: Mostly Mars, the future. Also, a little, Earth.

The Story: A series of short stories and vignettes chronicles the fall of Martian culture, then the rise and fall of human society on Mars.

The Science: Science is not really the strong point of this book. It’s much more social. That said, the Martians fend off/murder several expeditions of human explorers with/because of their mind powers. However, the humans ultimately win because of disease. Chickenpox wipes out nearly the entire Martian race – near enough so that it doesn’t matter if any are left. The people can come and take over. Interestingly enough, no disease travels in the opposite direction.  Decimation (understatement: decimate technically means only 10% reduction) by disease is common on earth, and would probably be a very serious issue if mankind ever encountered biologically similar alien life forms.

The Reaction: A good set of stories with an interesting variety of focuses. Classically Bradbury with an interest in the social and lack of interest in exactly how and why things work the way they do. 

The Cover: Elegant, simple, evocative of Mars and Earth. Two thumbs up.

Next Up: Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov


1984 by George Orwell

December 26, 2010

The Book: 1984 by George Orwell. Originally published in 1949, the edition read was published by Signet after 1962.

The Setting: Earth, London. 1984.

The Story: A man living in a totalitarian society doesn’t conform to the ideal. This leads to a desire for history, love, and privacy. It ends badly for him.

The Science: The world of 1984 is a world in which most science has retrogressed, except those which can be applied to war, torture, and spying. The telescreen, a television like screen which can simultaneously transmit and receive, is ubiquitous and feared by Winston, the main character. Such a device is certainly possible today. In fact, laptops with webcams can be used as such by unsavory individuals. And surveillance cameras are pervasive in much of the modern world – often even in public spaces. While the resolution of such devices is probably not high enough to capture a comparable level of detail to what those in the book could capture, it’s still very much a part of this modern world.

The scientific angle in the final third of the book has to do with torture, brainwashing, and the ability of the brain to control itself. Sadly, this has all been done in the real world. And I imagine it’s all a great deal easier when the brain in question has a compelling desire to be controlled.

The Reaction: 1984 is a good book. It’s a classic cautionary tale of a possible world to be, one which seems almost as possible today as it did in 1949. But not only that, it’s great writing, good characters, and just damned compelling. If you haven’t read it, you probably should. I hadn’t read it in probably a decade and I was struck by the fact that I still liked it and found it important and relevant.

The Cover: The cover is fine. It conveys information. In this corner, it’s George “1984” Orwell! But the Schoolhouse Rock font is perhaps a bit too friendly for such a story.

Next Up: “Those Men from Mars” by Robert Spencer Carr. I like that title!


Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner

October 14, 2010

The Book: Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner.  Originally published in 1947 as Fury, the edition read was printed by Avon in 1956.

The Setting: Venus, 600 odd years in the future.

The Story: Sam Reed, short squat and bald, lives in the undersea domes of Venus and makes a pretty good living as a criminal. He gets mixed up in some bad business with the Immortals, a race of long-lived genetic mutants, and disappears for 40 years. Wakes up and finds he’s immortal too! Hey, how about that? Through intrigue, bullying, and keen instinct he gains power and influence. He colonizes the violent, Jurassic-type surface of the planet, and gets power mad. And deposed. And put into a sleep state until he’s “needed” again…

The Science: We’ve already discussed how earlier perceptions of Venus were pretty much wrong. It’s not ocean-y. There are no jungles. And the plant life won’t eat you because there is no plant life. Kuttner also draws on the theme of plant life that’s just as vicious as animal life if not more so. Because Kuttner’s Venus is so violent, people live in undersea domes which are pretty much just cities.

Some of the story involves a metal, korium, which seems to be a very important radioactive power source, but isn’t really involved except for being demanded as ransom. The science-y bits of this book are more incidental than anything.

The Reaction: I had some trouble getting into this book. But about a third of the way through I was really drawn in. The writing in this book varies tremendously.  There’s a lot of pointless foreshadowing (something like “this would be the last time he saw her alive”) and a couple instances that made me laugh out loud (“Sam searched and pondered, pondered and searched.”). But the intrigue is pretty intriguing and the character in the central part of the book is really where it comes into its own. And the epilogue might be great, or it might be horrible. I can’t tell. Worth the read, I think.

The Cover: I wish there was an art credit for this cover because I love it, even if it’s a tad inaccurate for the story. City in dome, check. Space bombers, check. Dynamic use of italics, check. Love it.

Etc: Fury is a much better title for this book.

Next Up: “The Blinding Shadows” by Donald Wandrei