Sunday, February 21, 2016

Science-fiction as mind bomb

I came across the term 'mind bomb'  in a documentary film last year on the early years of Greenpeace (How To Change The World - highly recommended as a slice of history and as a story in its own right) 

Coined by Greenpeace co-founder Robert Hunter, a mind bomb is an action which captures the public imagination and redefines something - how we view the world, what we think of as being possible or desirable. 

If we must - a mind bomb changes the paradigm.

And it strikes me that one of the things that keep drawing me back to science-fiction after these years is precisely its potential to be a mind bomb, in a way that a lot of other genres can't or won't. That's why when I think about the genre at its best, I do mean SF as a literature of ideas, a concept baked and built-in since Isaac Asimov, since HG Wells - heck, since Mary Shelley.

Of course, storytelling and language matter - and the great books of SF usually combine the two to dazzling effect. But it's possibly the only branch of fiction where you'll find a willingness to tolerate an, ah, idiosyncratic approach to prose stylings in an author (hello, HP Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon) if the aforementioned author has something to say. 

To pick a more modern example, while I can't speak for the original, in translation Liu Cixin's writing is no stranger to the clunk. But what mindblowing clunk it is!

But then in counterpoint to this we also have the link between intellectual and linguistic ferment. We have the 60's and 70's New Wave to thank for the suggestion that any dislocation or derangement - physical, psycholgical or topographical - any alien experience, really - can be represented in the breakdown and remixing of language itself. 

So while it might forget on occasion, SF is as much a heir to the experimental literary movements of the twentieth century as it is to the pulp tradition.

Pretty high-faluting, huh? But none of this stops SF being fun. And if I were to express a little frustration at the way the subterranean literary debate beneath the Hugo controversy had been conducted, it would with the idea that you can't have both, or that one undermines the other.

Let me put it this way - it's possible to produce perfectly enjoyable work that is just a rearrangement of established SF tropes and conventions - see The Force Awakens. A lot of genre fiction is just that. But just a sprinkling of new ideas, a little bit of forward view - for me that's often what turns good into great.

I'll wrap things up with a list of SF works that are both amazing reads and that have changed the way I think and view the world. It's certainly not a definitive list, as it's been sourced from a brief look of my bookshelves, but hopefully it illustrates my point.

Isaac Asimov - Foundation
John Brunner - Stand On Zanzibar
Octavia Butler - The Parable Of The Sower
Liu Cixin - The Three Body Problem, The Dark Forest
Thomas M Disch - Camp Concentration 
Cory Doctorow - Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom
Ken Mcleod - The Star Fraction (and the rest of the Fall Revolution series)
Walter M Miller - A Canticle For Liebowitz
Olaf Stapledon - First And Last Men
Neil Stephenson - Snow Crash
Bruce Sterling - Heavy Weather, Schismatrix
Charles Stross - Accelerando
James Tiptree Jr, Stories
Jeff Vandermeer - Annihilation

Please do feel free to add your mind-bombs in the comments section.


  1. I read the first two Cixin Liu books last week. Really good stuff - enough to put anyone off taking an active approach to SETI!

    1. Glad you liked them - I'm nominating The Dark Forest for the Hugo shortlist!