I’m a big fan of Project Gutenberg and related efforts like Manybooks. They collect older, out-of-copyright books and create electronic versions of them, free for everyone, without restrictions of any kind. They make sure that older, almost-forgotten books are preserved, and make the great works available for easy reading and reference.
My biggest frustration with the free eBooks projects–and this is certainly something that is not at all their fault but rather has to do with overzealous intellectual property laws–is that the books they post are, well, classics. As in old. As in works from a century or more ago, ones with dated language, well-explored ideas, and viewpoints that don’t always translate well into modern terms. Particularly in the Science Fiction genre. If you want to read the complete works of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells, or all of the adventures of Allan Quatermain, you’re in luck. But if you’d rather dig into some SF written within the past few decades, forget it.
However, that is changing. And to me, this change is both pleasing as a reader and disturbing as a wanna-be SF writer.
Now some of the greats of Golden Age SF are starting to pop up:
- Poul Anderson
- Leigh Brackett
- Marion Zimmer Bradley
- Algis Budrys
- John Campbell
- Avram Davidson
- Edmond Hamilton
- Harry Harrison
- Frank Herbert
- R. A. Lafferty
- Keith Laumer
- Murray Leinster
- Andre (Alice) Norton
- H. Beam Piper
- Frederick Pohl
- Robert Silverberg
- Clifford D. Simak
- E.E. “Doc” Smith
- Olaf Stapledon (you’ll need to scroll down to his listings)
- and others.
And while many of the currently available books are fairly obscure, some of them are the true masterworks of early-modern science fiction. And more are brought on-line every day.
As a reader, I am thrilled to see this happening. My “to be read stack” of eBooks is growing faster than the real-world stack on my nightstand. With all these classics to burrow through, why should I spend money on the new stuff being published? Especially considering that a lot of the new stuff is the classics, just repackaged, rederived, and rehashed.
As a writer, this makes me wonder: Is SF in danger of dying? Of being killed off by the very technology that it trumpeted? Perhaps. Or perhaps SF is moving beyond the traditional printed form, and reappearing in more interactive media, such as video games. When I think of the overall story arcs of the Marathon and Halo series, which explore the idea of “insanity” in an artificial intelligence, and the implications when the AI is far more intelligent, subtle, and capable than its creators, I find new approaches to familiar terrain. Better still, rather than presenting an unchanging tale with a predetermined arc, the game hands the reins of the protagonist to the player, and plunks him down right in the middle of the mess created by multiple AIs trying to outgame each other.
There are other games which have strong and interesting SF themes. Bioshock explores the results of a failed attempt at technological Utopia. Half-Life gives us the ability to play with SF’s more interesting gadgets.
There is something comforting about the idea of SF changing forms. Because that’s what SF has always been about: change. What will the future look like? How will it feel? Why will the differences matter to me? It only makes sense that the SF genre would be the one that would pulls itself up by its own bootstraps.