It will come as no big secret that I am a big enthusiast of Science-Fiction, well I have set it as my life goal to read all the SF Masterwork books, all 121(as far as I have managed to count, no clear list anywhere of the SF masterworks that I can find).
So, this will be a recurring blog post, as I have not read all the books yet. So, I will be doing them in batches.
First out is some classics: “The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney, “I am Legend” by Richard Matheson and “The Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester.
“The Body Snatchers” by Jack Finney (1955).
When Becky Driscoll turns up at Dr Miles Bennell's consulting room after hours one August evening and tells him that her cousin Wilma doesn't think that her Uncle Ira is really her Uncle Ira, it is just the beginning of a nightmare. As the number of similar stories multiplies, Miles discovers the horrific truth.
Let’s begin with a paranoia inducing space invasion story, A book that have been made into movies quite a few times (with varying degrees of success). You keep questioning yourself during the story, wondering if the invasion is real or of it is a shared delusion of the main characters, the paranoia is seeping through the pages of this book!
This book is a linger on the borders between Sci-Fi and horror, the body snatchers themselves are not only alien, but downright evil. The reason why they do what they do and eventual end result is quite bleak. You do get why they to the things they do, but also not.
What I do adore with books from 50s is that you get a good look of how everyday life where, even though this is a Sci-Fi novel, there is a lot of little instances of how it was then, all the men where smoking, all the women know how to find and apron and cook when they come to someone’s house, the women cover in fear when something disturbing happens. But the novel also comes off as quite progressive, the sexual tension between Becky and Miles is quite free and in the open. When trying to get out of a precarious situation, and they are coming up with ideas of how to get out of it, Becky says to Miles “You’re seeing me cowering against a wall, eyes wide and frightened, my hands raised to my face in horror, aren’t you?” she later continues with “and that’s how they’ll think; the stereotype of a woman’s role in that kind of situation”. What you can learn from this book is in a dire situation, use stereotypes against your enemies.
The only regret I have with this book is that I did not read it until I was 36. It is a true classic!
“I am Legend” by Richard Matheson (1954).
Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth... but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville's blood. By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn. How long can one man survive like this?
Another classic, but for this book you have to look away from the countless movie adaptations (ok, its 3 adaptations, not countless, unless you are really bad at counting), they really do not do the book justice! Anyways, this not the longest book (160 pages) so you can read it on a lazy afternoon! But what it does, it packs a punch! Something Matheson is well known for.
For the story itself; Robert Neville is a haunted man, as the only (to his knowledge) living man on earth where everybody else has become an undead monster after a viral pandemic, the world is populated by vampires that retains parts of their personality. He spends his days traversing the land, killing all the vampires he comes across. At night he spends his time preparing for the next day, sharpening stakes, cultivating garlic for protection, researching the vampiric plague, drinking whiskey (Neville drinks copious amounts of alcohol through the book, one believable ending would be that he would die from cirrhosis) and listening to classical music (to drown out the taunts from the vampires outside). Neville is a man who is getting more and more isolated, lonely, depressed and deeply sexually frustrated (does not help with the female vampires striking lewd poises outside his house at night).
It has been described as a timeless classic, something I would somewhat disagree with, considering Neville’s misogyny (of the times) , second page; “He knew he should burn up the paper plates and utensils too, and dust the furniture and wash out the sinks and the bathtub and toilet, and change the sheets and pillowcase on his bed; but he didn’t feel like it. For he was a man and he was alone and these things had no importance to him.”
Otherwise it is a classic apocalyptic tale of survival. With and ending that still resonates and probably always will!
“The Stars My Destination” by Alfred Bester (1956).
This is the official verdict on Gully Foyle, unskilled space crewman. But Gully has managed to survive for 170 days in the airless purgatory of deep space after the wreck of his ship, and now he has escaped to-Earth carrying a murderous grudge and a secret that could change the course of history.
Last book for today is not as well-known as the other two books in this post, most likely since it has not been made in a mediocre movie in the 70s or 80s. Though I would like to see this on the big screen or on the tv as a (at least) miniseries. When it was first released in 1956 it was called “Tiger! Tiger!”
Set in a future where conventional transport has been done redundant with the discovery of “jaunting”, basically non technological self-teleporting. Also, a big part of the population is telepathic.
So, this book is basically a retelling of the classic tale “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas, just that “The Stars My Destination” is set in space. And in the same way it is a book about revenge, Gully Foyle is a haunted character that lets himself become consumed with vengeance, sacrificing not only the people close to him but also himself in the process (feel like this is not a spoiler, but quite obvious). But he is also a very sympathetic character, he cannot jaunt as well as he is not telepathic. And in his escape from the Nomad (the ship he was stationed on) he encounters a tribe of spacefaring lunatics (called The Scientific People), that mark his body and face with a tiger striped tattoo. Yes, he is consumed by revenge, but he has a quite good reason for that, he was abandoned on the ship as well as a passing spaceship did not come to his rescue, he sets out taking his revenge on its crew.
I feel I don’t do the book justice, just read it, it is the best one of the three, considering how good “The Body Snatchers” and “I am Legend” is, that really says something!
In my experience the books that are on the SF masterworks list, are on it for a reason, they are, well, masterworks. It’s a well diverse selection from the history of Science Fiction publishing.
Books from SF masterworks can be bought from any bookshop that has any self-respect!