Cures for the Common Cult (Lenten Reading for the Non-religious)

5 Mar

As Ash Wednesday draws near, science fiction initiates may be wondering what devotional reading they can delve into this shriving season.  Accordingly, here is the Scattering’s list of the Top 10 classic irreligious SF for Easter (or Eostre, as you’ll have it) 2011:

1. VALIS, by Philip K. Dick

This one’s hard not to see coming.  Not only is it a prominent piece on Benjamin Linus’s bookshelf, VALIS is classic 1980s PKD: incoherently, barely-intelligible, highly theological, and just plain weird.  The back cover description might be a little too lucid:

This disorienting and bleakly funny work is about a schizophrenic hero named Horselover Fat; the hidden mysteries of Gnostic Christianity; and reality as revealed through a pink laser.  VALIS is a theological detective story, in which God is both a missing person and the perpetrator of the ultimate crime.

2. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, by (surprise!) Philip K. Dick

I haven’t written so many posts about my beloved PKD since my stint at OCON 2009 (Objectivist Conference in Boston)–where reality was getting so objectively rational that I had to break out the crazy.  Three Stigmata is classic 1960s PKD: visionary, genius, and a masterpiece of science fiction.  Still weird (of course), but far more understandable.

Not too long from now, when exiles from a blistering Earth huddle miserably in Martian colonies, the only things that make life bearable are the drugs.  Can-D “translates” those who take it into the bodies of Barbie-like dolls.

Now there’s competition–a substance called Chew-Z, marketed under the slogan: “God promises eternal life.  We can deliver it.”  The question is: What kind of eternity?  And who–or what–is the deliverer?

Maybe I should have made this #1, after all.

3. Dune (and the rest), by Frank Herbert

I’ll always have a special fondness in my heart for sandworms and female Jesuits of the future–the first research paper I ever wrote, after all, was a pseudo-biography of Frank Herbert (I don’t think li’l Brian did him justice).  Not to mention that he was a world builder par excellence who mastered above any other single SF author the craft of really, really elaborate backstory.

“A portrayal of an alien society more complete and deeply detailed than any other author in the field has managed…a story absorbing equally for its action and philosophical vistas.” —Washington Post Book World

Considering anyone reading this has probably read Dune and all its subsequent iterations as many times as there are incarnations of Duncan Idaho, there’s not much more I can say.  But with 40 days of penitence looming, I think the Bene Gesserit would approve of a re-read.

4. Nightfall, by Isaac Asimov

Somewhere on the books, there has to be a law that no science fiction reading list of any kind can go to print without including something by the superhumanly prolific Isaac Asimov.  His 1941 short “Nightfall” has a sort of legendary quality about it–and rightly so–but the novelization’s pretty damn good too.  Even if it was co-written with Robert Silverberg.

The planet Kalgash is on the brink of Chaos–but only a handful of people realize it.  Kalgash knows only the perpetual light of day; for more than two millennia, some combination of its six suns has lit up the sky.  But twilight is now gathering.  Soon the suns will set all at once–and the terrifying splender of Nightfall will call forth a madness that signals the end of civilization.

And you thought Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight was terrifying.

5. The Stand, by Stephen King

Yes, it’s 1,100 pages (that’s almost Atlas Shrugged status, there).  But the read is worth it–and the pace gallops along about as rapidly as the four horsemen of the apocalypse.  King called the book a “dark chest of wonders,” and I must humbly agree: this is the End of Days novel to end all End of Days novels.

In 1978, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a scathing review of The Stand in which he exhorted his readers to grab strangers in bookstores and beg them not to buy it.

The Stand is like that. You either love it or hate it, but you can’t ignore it. Stephen King’s most popular book, according to polls of his fans, is an end-of-the-world scenario: a rapidly mutating flu virus is accidentally released from a U.S. military facility and wipes out 99 and 44/100 percent of the world’s population, thus setting the stage for an apocalyptic confrontation between Good and Evil.

“I love to burn things up,” King says. “It’s the werewolf in me, I guess…. The Stand was particularly fulfilling, because there I got a chance to scrub the whole human race, and man, it was fun! … Much of the compulsive, driven feeling I had while I worked on The Stand came from the vicarious thrill of imagining an entire entrenched social order destroyed in one stroke.”

There is much to admire in The Stand: the vivid thumbnail sketches with which King populates a whole landscape with dozens of believable characters; the deep sense of nostalgia for things left behind; the way it subverts our sense of reality by showing us a world we find familiar, then flipping it over to reveal the darkness underneath. Anyone who wants to know, or claims to know, the heart of the American experience needs to read this book. –Fiona Webster

Also, it will give you nightmares.

6. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes

This is, admittedly, an anomalous choice.  It’s more psychology text than science fiction (and it’s definitely not a novel), but if you’ve read anything by that most eminent Canadian Robert J. Sawyer, you’ll know that he uses his characters to mention this book in almost every single one of his own.  The WWW series, at least.  It was getting really annoying, actually, until I made my father track down Julian Jaynes for me for Christmas last year, and then I got it.  Warning: Not for the faint of heart… or the myopic.

At the heart of this seminal work is the revolutionary idea that human consciousness did not begin far back in animal evolution but was a learned process that emerged from a hallucinatory mentality only three thousand years ago.  The implications of this scientific paradigm extend into virtually every aspect of our psychology, our history, our culture, our religion–indeed our future.

Makes you wonder whether Philip K. Dick ever did emerge from that hallucinatory mentality, right?

7. Mindscan, by Robert J. Sawyer

After the star-crossed tv series FlashForward lost favor with…well, everyone, I started reading Sawyer to fill my time before V came back on air (much good that did me).  I quickly realized that, as a writer, Sawyer likes his characters to talk.  And think.  But mostly talk.  The climax of Mindscan‘s “action” is actually a really long courtroom scene, in which various individuals debate philosophy.  Which is fine with me–when the philosophy involves clones, robots, and the origin of consciousness.

Jake Sullivan watched his father, suffering from a rare condition, collapse and linger in a vegetative state, and he’s incredibly paranoid because he inherited that condition. When mindscanning technology becomes available, he has himself scanned, which involves dispatching his biological body to the moon and assuming an android body. In possession of everything the biological Jake Sullivan had on Earth, android Jake finds love with Karen, who has also been mindscanned.

Meanwhile, biological Jake discovers there is finally another, brand-new cure for his condition. Moreover, Karen’s son sues her, declaring that his mother is dead, and android Karen has no right to deprive him of his considerable inheritance. Biological Jake, unable to leave the moon because of the contract he signed, becomes steadily more unstable, until finally, in a fit of paranoia, he takes hostages. Sawyer’s treatment of identity issues–of what copying consciousness may mean and how consciousness is defined–finds expression in a good story that is a new meditation on an old sf theme, the meaning of being human. —Regina Schroeder

There was a Twilight Zone episode kind of like this, if I recall.

8. Kraken, by China Mieville

A deep and abiding love for the much-neglected Mervyn Peake (in the States, that is) led me to China Mieville’s lyrical prose and fantastic urban settings.  For the best contemporary world-building in science fiction today, I commend you to Perdido Street Station.  For the cult of the giant squid, I give you Kraken.

British fantasist Miéville mashes up cop drama, cults, popular culture, magic, and gods in a Lovecraftian New Weird caper sure to delight fans of Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. When a nine-meter-long dead squid is stolen, tank and all, from a London museum, curator Billy Harrow finds himself swept up in a world he didn’t know existed: one of worshippers of the giant squid, animated golems, talking tattoos, and animal familiars on strike.

Forced on the lam with a renegade kraken cultist and stalked by cops and crazies, Billy finds his quest to recover the squid sidelined by questions as to what force may now be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Even Miéville’s eloquent prose can’t conceal the meandering, bewildering plot, but his fans will happily swap linearity for this dizzying whirl of outrageous details and fantastic characters.

Cthulhu might just have a run for his money.  Wait… please… I didn’t say that… have mercy O Ancient Ones!

9. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

He came to my school!  Neil Gaiman actually visited the University of Alabama last fall–and I couldn’t make it.  But I’ll make it up by adding his novel American Gods to this list, so no one else misses out on the dark fantasy writer that is Neil Gaiman.

Shadow gets out of prison early when his wife is killed in a car crash. At a loss, he takes up with a mysterious character called Wednesday, who is much more than he appears. In fact, Wednesday is an old god, once known as Odin the All-father, who is roaming America rounding up his forgotten fellows in preparation for an epic battle against the upstart deities of the Internet, credit cards, television, and all that is wired. Shadow agrees to help Wednesday, and they whirl through a psycho-spiritual storm that becomes all too real in its manifestations. For instance, Shadow’s dead wife Laura keeps showing up, and not just as a ghost–the difficulty of their continuing relationship is by turns grim and darkly funny, just like the rest of the book.

For fans of the New Weird, see Gaiman’s Neverwhere, a somewhat less intense Kraken.

10. Pandemonium, by Daryl Gregory

Julian Jaynes indicates that religiosity might be a mental illness, but Daryl Gregory takes that idea and runs.  Demonic possession has never been so scientific.

In this fascinating alternative time line, thousands of demon possessions have been carefully recorded by scientists each year since the 1950s. Each case is always the same: a recognizable, named strain of the disorder possesses a person, wreaks havoc and then jumps on to its next victim. Del Pierce’s case is unique: when the Hellion possessed him at the age of five, it never left. Now an unhappy 20-something, Del undertakes a dangerous quest to exorcise the Hellion as it fights him for control.

The trim prose keeps the pace intense and the action red hot through some emotionally disturbing scenes and heavy backstory. Absorbing psychological discussions of possession abound, from Jungian archetypes to the eye of Shiva. Readers will delve deeply into Gregory’s highly original demon-infested reality and hope for a sequel.

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