We Think These Are the Best Science Fiction Authors

On June 26, 2018, I published the following post on Book Riot.

We Think These Are the Best Science Fiction Authors

best-science-fiction-authors | Book Riot | The Boomerang

In this post, I name eight authors as the best science fiction authors for the past 150 years. Curious to see who they are, and if you agree with me?

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


Wesley Chu’s THE LIVES OF TAO and the Spanish Inquisition

Wesley Chu’s novel The Lives of Tao is the first part of a trilogy that tells the story of the Quasing, an alien race who crashed on Earth and who need to live inside a host to survive. By merging science fiction with alternate history, Chu takes us through the history of the Quasing on Earth, explaining how the alien species split into factions—the Genjix and the Prophus. When Chu introduces us to the Quasing in the twenty-first century, these factions are at war with one another.

Tao of the novel’s title is the Quasing Tao of the Prophus faction, who merges with slacker Roen Tan when Tao’s previous host Edward is killed in a confrontation with the Genjix. In an effort to get to know the alien who now resides within him, Roen asks Tao to tell him about his previous hosts, which enables Chu to roll out an alternate history of the world of epic proportions.

This alternate take on history is interesting for several reasons, e.g., it is revealed that every major event in Western European history has been caused by the Quasing, such as the Mongol invasion under Genghis Khan (1162–1227), the Black Death (1347–1350), the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), and even World Wars I (1914–1918) and II (1939–1945).

The one part of Tao’s life story that I found particularly troubling, and therefore would like to discuss here, is the Spanish Inquisition. According to Tao, he and his friend Chyiva felt disillusioned regarding the Quasing’s approach to humans. Together, Tao and Chyiva decided to work for this approach to change. Soon, they attracted a following among other Quasing. The backlash against these betrayers was the Spanish Inquisition. According to Tao, the Spanish Inquisition came about in the following way.

The Council did not tolerate our dissension, and in retaliation called for a cleansing. The Spanish Inquisition spread across Europe, a cover for the Council to rid itself of the hosts of renegade Quasing. They called us Prophus, betrayers. They referred to themselves as Genjix, the old order. (Wesley Chu, The Lives of Tao, p. 274)

There are several problems with Tao’s relation of events. First, let’s take a closer look at what the Spanish Inquisition really was.

Within the Catholic Church of medieval Europe there was a need to stamp out what was considered heresy and instead enforce Church doctrine upon the population. The judicial process through which this was achieved was called an inquisition, from the Latin verb inquiro. In other words, the Spanish Inquisition was preceded by several other inquisitions,  arguably the most famous ones being the inquisition that eventually led to the destruction of the Knights Templar, as well as the persecution of the Cathars in southern France, both taking place during the thirteenth century.

The Spanish Inquisition was established through the issuing of a Papal bull in 1478 by request of Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabella. The Spanish Inquisition was different from previous inquisitions in that it was the most organized. It has been argued that unlike other inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition took the step from being a judicial process to being a judicial institution.

The Spanish Inquisition according to Monty Python

The Spanish Inquisition according to Monty Python.

Another reason why the Spanish Inquisition was different is because unlike previous inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition did not target fellow Christians who failed to follow Church doctrine. No, the Spanish Inquisition was created to target Jews, in particular so-called conversos, i.e., Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity to avoid persecution.

The purpose of the forced conversion of Spanish Jews was to eradicate them as the political and religious threat they were considered to be towards Ferdinand and Isabella. The only problem was that once enough Jews had succumbed under pressure and converted, the conversos were deemed an even greater threat. Indeed, they were suspected of continuing to practice Judaism in secrecy. Enter the Inquisition and its infamous methods to extract confessions and conversions through the use of torture.

The most famous of the Grand Inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition is Tómas de Torquemada (1420–1498), who is believed to have been personally responsible for the torture and execution of at least 2,000 Spanish Jews. In the history of European Jewry, the Spanish Inquisition and the actions of Torquemada, which culminated in the expulsion of all Jews from Spain in 1492, is a wound that has never healed.


The Spanish Inquisition according to Mel Brooks.

Moreover, Spain itself is grappling to come to terms with the atrocities committed against the Jewish population of Spain by the Inquisition. On June 11, 2015, a new law was passed granting citizenship to more than 4,000 descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1492.

With this knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition in mind, Chu’s decision to include the Spanish Inquisition in the war between the Prophus and the Genjix becomes most unfortunate. This sentence is particularly problematic.

The Spanish Inquisition spread across Europe, a cover for the Council to rid itself of the hosts of renegade Quasing. (ibid.)

In other words, according to Chu’s alternate history, the Spanish Inquisition was a cover-up for an internal conflict within an alien species, not a systematic persecution of Spanish Jews that cost over 2,000 people their lives and an estimated 160,000 people their homes. Or perhaps we are to believe that the Jewish victims were mere collateral damage that need not be mentioned?

Overall, The Lives of Tao is a highly entertaining read and I do recommend that you read it. As an historian, I support all inclusion of history in fiction, be it in the form of historical fiction, alternate history, or speculative history. However, as I have stated several times before here on The Boomerang, it is of utmost importance that an author is aware of the many complicating aspects of the historical process he or she decides to include in their story.

Wesley Chu, The Lives of Tao (Angry Robot, 2013)
Britannica Online, “Inquisition.”
Britannica Online, “Spanish Inquisition.”
Britannica Online, “Tómas de Torquemada.”

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.


In Search of the First Science Fiction Novel

On August 18, 2015, I published the following post at Quirk Books.

In Search of the First Science Fiction Novel

Sci-Fi Beginnings HeaderName-checking of early science fiction authors usually includes Mary Shelley, H.G. Wells, and Jules Verne who all wrote during the nineteenth century. But could the origins of Science Fiction go much further back than that? And how far back? We take a look at the various titles that may have a claim to being the first Science Fiction novel.

If you would like to read the rest of the article, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE and the Perpetual Present-Day

A Little LifeHanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, is a wonderfully written, heart-wrenching novel about four friends—J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude—who form a life-long friendship while being roommates in college. More than 700 pages long, I finished the novel in less than five days, on more than one occasion staying up reading until three in the morning. While reading A Little Life, I found myself wondering during what time period the story is supposed to take place. The story has the feeling of a tale of the twenty-first century, but it follows the lives of J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude for approximately forty years. It is as if the story is suspended in some kind of perpetual present-day.

One of the reasons why I wanted to find out during what time period the novel takes place is because there are certain aspects of Willem’s Scandinavian heritage that puzzle me. To be able to understand what Yanagihara might have been thinking when creating his backstory I needed to know what year Willem was born. In trying to figure out his year of birth, I discovered that Yanagihara is a sophisticated manipulator of time, who has written a novel of speculative fiction in the guise of literary fiction.

Yanagihara creates the feeling of a perpetual present-day by not mentioning any years or dates. Moreover, she makes no mention of any political or cultural events that can help anchor the story in time. However, she does mention the birthdays of the four friends and what age they have reached at that particular time.

At first I assumed that the novel, like most novels of literary fiction that span several decades, ends at the point in time when Yanagihara stopped writing, presumably in 2013 or 2014. Towards the end of the book, we are told that J.B. is sixty-one years old. If the story ends in 2014, that would mean that J.B., Malcolm, and Willem were born in 1953 and Jude, who is two years younger, was born in 1955.

But that doesn’t make sense when reading the novel. The friendships formed and the relationships entered into could only happen in the twenty-first century. Moreover, throughout the story, there are references to e-mails, cell phones, text messages, and digital photos.

What is going on?

The clue can be found in a brief mention of an art exhibit at the very beginning of the novel. The art exhibit consists of dioramas depicting Asians in America during each decade from the 1890s until the present-day. Through J.B., Yanagihara tells us that the artist has already completed the diorama for the two-thousands, i.e. the decade that lasted between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2009. From this brief mention, we can conclude that A Little Life does not end in 2014; it is more likely that it begins in 2014.

Through Malcolm, Yanagihara lets us know that at the time of the art exhibit, he is twenty-seven years old. Consequently, J.B. and Willem are also twenty-seven years old while Jude is twenty-five. If the novel indeed begins in 2014, this would mean that our friends were born in 1987 and 1989, respectively.

Therefore, if the four men were born in 1987 and 1989, and J.B. at the end of the novel is sixty-one years old, the story told in A Little Life in actual fact ends in the year 2048. The story of the friendship between J.B., Malcolm, Willem, and Jude takes place entirely in the future.

Stories about the future is considered to belong to the realm of science fiction, where technological advances has transformed the world into something very different from the one in which we live today.

Personally, I believe that Yanagihara’s vision of our future is a more accurate prediction of what is to come. Our little lives take place in a perpetual present-day which does not change much over the decades. Yes, forty years ago we didn’t have the internet and today, one single smart phone is a more powerful machine than all the computers that brought us to the moon combined. But forty years into the future we will still live in houses, drive cars, and speak on the phone. We will still find love and make friends. And we will still read fantastic novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

H.G. Wells, Feminist Author

On February 8, 2015, I published the following post on Book Riot.

H.G. Wells, Feminist Author

H.G._Wells_,_c1890Author H.G. Wells (1866–1946) has left an indelible mark on popular culture through science fiction novels such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. But a novel that was especially notorious during his lifetime had nothing to do with the future or with space. Instead, Wells caused a scandal with his feminist coming-of-age novel Ann Veronica.

If you wish to read the entire post, please click here.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

HG Wells The Time Machine and the Issue of Race

We can all agree on the classics, right? The classics are great pieces of literature that show us the true nature of the human condition. The classics are classics because their content stand the test of time. Right? Well, actually it’s not that easy.

Many of the classic literary works of our canon were written during time periods when the ethics, morals and values differed from ours. For example, the sexism of classic literature has been discussed on numerous occasions. But what about race?

Over at Book Riot, Amanda Nelson analyzed the issue of racism in classic literature, using the example of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. Nelson points out that Gone with the Wind is a novel which portrays slavery as a non-problematic institution and the KKK as an organization valiantly defending the values of the South, something that is rarely mentioned when discussing the novel.

Nelson’s post falls in line with the thoughts I’ve had since I read the science fiction classic The Time Machine by HG Wells (1866–1946). The Time Machine (1895) is a story about a man simply called The Time Traveler, who has built a time machine. He arrives back from an adventure where he has visited the far future just in time to sit down and tell his friends about it over dinner at his house.

HG Wells (1890)
Source: Fredrick Hollyer/Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science

The Time Traveler tells his friends that he visited a future where a peaceful, docile people, called the Eloi, lived above ground, and a brutish, carniverous people, called the Morlocks, lived under ground. The Eloi lived in fear of the Morlocks who after dark would arrive on the surface to capture Eloi individuals, bring them down and devour them.

In his foreword to the Signet Classic edition of The Time Machine, Greg Bear chooses to interpret the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks as an expression of the Victorian class struggle:

For Victorian England, the picture of humanity divided into the diminutive, weak, and sun-dwelling Eloi and those technological dwellers in underground darkness, the Morlocks, must have seemed particularly grotesque— mirroring as it did the tottering class system: quite literally, Upstairs and Downstairs. (p. viii)

In one way, I agree with Bear that the relationship between the Eloi and the Morlocks can be interpreted as a class struggle. The idea of the time was that if the working classes are not kept in check they will rise to devour the middle and upper classes. Wells himself touches upon this theme when he lets The Time Traveler say out loud to himself that the future world he sees looks like Communism (p. 32).

Upstairs Downstairs (BBC, 1971–1975)

However, the way Wells describes the two groups makes it evident that the relationship between them is just as much about race, as it is about class. When The Time Traveler for the first time meets an Eloi, he describes the individual as follows.

He was a slight creature—perhaps four feet high […]. He struck me as being a very beautiful and graceful creature, but indescribably frail. His flushed face reminded me of the more beautiful kind of consumptive—that hectic beauty of which we used to hear so much. (p. 25)

Meanwhile, the Morlocks are described as dull-white monsters with greyish-red eyes that either runs on all fours or with their forearms very low. The Time Traveler describes them as something between a monkey and a human spider (p. 53) and later refers to the first Morlock he spotted as a Lemur (p. 54).

Just as well as the relationship between Eloi and Morlocks can be described as a class struggle, the relationship can also be described as the fear of the inferior creature rising to take revenge on the superior creature, an idea that is ingrained in racism as an ideology as well as in slavery as an institution. Whether we’re discussing class warfare or racial warfare, the only thing that prevents it from happening according to this way of thinking is the strength of the resolute white man. What Wells lets The Time Traveler see in the future is what will happen if that strength wavers.

So what do we do with The Time Machine? Do we throw it to the side because it is archaic and racist? No, I don’t think so. The Time Machine was first published in 1895, when Imperialism was at its peak. India was the jewel in the crown of the British Empire and the agreement at Fashoda between France and Great Britian where the two nations divided Africa between them was only three years in the future.

In my opinion, The Time Machine by HG Wells can be called a classic for two reasons. First, the book is a groundbreaking work of science fiction that  in the twenty-first century still appeals to readers of the genre. Second, it is a document of the frame of mind of the Victorian Age at its height. It provides us with an opportunity to try and understand the world view of the citizens of the British Empire, a worldview that still to this day shapes the world we live in.

A Brief Explanation of the British Empire

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

HG Wells The Time Machine (Signet Classic, 2002)
Encyclopedia Britannica United Kingdom Late Victorian Britain
Book Riot Amanda Nelson Let’s Talk About Racism in the Classics

This post is featured at Suvudu Universe.

Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

There are some books that are eye-openers. They hold the promise of a good read and then they end up being so much more.

My previous blog post was on the topic of historical science in science fiction. The books that made me realize the possibilities, and relevance, of connecting the two were those included in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy where the science of psychohistory plays a vital part.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was born in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of three. He pursued a career of a university professor of biochemistry while he simultaneously was a highly prolific science fiction author. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics and in 1966 received the Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series for Foundation.

The plot in the Foundation-trilogy centers around so-called Seldon Crises. A Seldon Crisis is a crisis in society which has been mathematically predicted by Hari Seldon within a scientific discipline called psychohistory. Asimov’s psychohistory is not the same thing as can be found in historical biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective, utilizing methodologies and theories as brought forward by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Instead, Asimov defines psychohistory as follows.

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a billiard ball. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation and Empire (2010) p. 205)


Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Second Foundation (2010) p. 411)

What these quotes demonstrate is that psychohistory in Foundation is quantitative methodology and historical determinism taken to its extreme. Let me explain.

To explain certain developments in society, historical science uses what is called quantitative methods, most often in the form of statistics. When doing so, the main subject of historical research, the human being, is reduced to a number that can be used in mathematical calculations. By using statistics the historian can explain patterns of, for example, mortality and nativity and how these patterns changed throughout history. The peak of quantitative methods within historical science came in the 1970s and 1980s when seemingly everything could be explained through statistics. For example, the role played by the development of the US Postal Service in the emergence of towns and cities in North America during the 18th century was explained through the use of quantitative methods.

Historical determinism means that history is set on a predetermined course that was decided at the outset of the development of human society. This determined course of development cannot be changed. For example, Marxism, created by Karl Marx (1818–1883), is a historically based theory which is deterministic. According to Marxism, society develops in predictable stages where the slave societies of Rome and Greece by necessity were replaced by the feudalism of the Middle Ages which by necessity was replaced by industrial capitalism of the modern era which by necessity will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in other words Communism. That a parallel can be drawn between Marxism and Seldon Crises is not a coincidence. Asimov took the totalitarian ideologies of his time – Communism, Fascism, and Nazism – and extrapolated them into space.

Asimov’s psychohistory also leads one to think of the theory of structures, which divides human actions in two categories: subject versus object, with emphasis on object. In psychohistory, it is not the individual human being, the subject, that is of interest but the masses of human beings. When human beings are referred to as masses, all the individuals that constitute the human masses become objects. Objects lack free will and their behavior can be predicted by analyzing the structures that uphold human society.

What is interesting about Asimov’s psychohistory and its mathematically predicted Seldon Crises, is that it indicates that time is both linear and absolute. History can only develop in one direction, namely forward. And there is only one chronology that is possible, namely a clock ticking from one Seldon Crisis to the next. Asimov wrote the first Foundation short-story in 1941. By that time the Theory of Relativity was established among scholars and the ideas of a linear and absolute time, which had permeated the natural sciences for centuries, had been abandoned.

After he had finished writing Foundation, Asimov continued to keep an eye on history and how human beings related to it. This fact can be demonstrated by a quote from his book And the Gods Themselves…

[…] there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.
(Asimov, The Gods Themselves ([1972] 1990) p. 292)

In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Isaac Asimov, Foundation Foundation and Empire Second Foundation
(Everyman’s Library, 2010).
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (Doubleday/Bantam Books, 1990).
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984).
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998).
Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information. The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

This post has also been published at Suvudu Universe.