The border between science fiction and mainstream literature is more permeable than booksellers or publishers would have us think. Double Booker prize-winner Margaret Atwood’s recent novels are SF-themed (though she prefers “speculative fiction”), as is Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-known novel Never Let Me Go.
Penguin Classics has launched a new science fiction series to further this cross-pollination, seemingly keen for the general reader to broaden their personal canon. Some of the titles are well established – Edwin A Abbott’s mathematical fantasy Flatland, Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Cat’s Cradle – but others are newer, at least in the UK, and less likely to come loaded with preconceptions.
James Tiptree Jr is well known in SF circles but had been publishing books for a decade before “he” was uncovered as Alice Bradley Sheldon, a former US army major and CIA agent. Her 1973 story collection 10,000 Light-Years from Home is perhaps the most purely – or stereotypically – SF book in the Penguin set, replete with aliens, spaceships and time travel.
Here are postapocalyptic wastelands, alternative Earths and space ports where people and extraterrestrials have close encounters. Sex, in both senses, is a recurring theme: in one story, disfigured survivors of war kidnap a healthy man for breeding purposes; in another, female giants keep men as sex slaves. Tiptree’s view of people is not sunny: the strong will subjugate the weak, as in the story where a man has his pain receptors removed so he can be used to explore other planets without suffering when he’s tortured by the natives.
If science fiction is the literature of ideas, Tiptree’s status as one of its leading practitioners is justified, as is the critical cliche that each story contains enough to fill a novel. That’s not unqualified praise: Tiptree’s techniques of defamiliarisation through jargon (“His gee-sum index was wobbling up the scale, squeezing him retrograde in a field-stress node”) and dropping us in medias res means the reader has to remake the world with every new story. But in the darkness of space no one can see you scratch your head and given that most of the stories require two readings to be properly absorbed and appreciated – and they merit that attention – this may be one of the best value books of the year.
Argentinian writer Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar is another set of stories, connected through the figure of Trafalgar Medrano, chain-smoker, coffee-chugger and interplanetary travelling salesman. The recognisable framing device of the “club story” (Medrano relates his travels in bars) and the concept of visiting new worlds (as old as Lemuel Gulliver) immediately give the book a comforting familiarity that Tiptree avoids.
Trafalgar is not quite comedy but it is light in tone: Medrano visits an “aristomatriarchy” where he seduces a member of the government under false pretences; he winds up on a planet where it’s a different world each morning; and in the court of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492, he gives Christopher Columbus a lift to America.
As these summaries suggest, Trafalgar, which was first published in 1979, feels politically dated, even though it’s clearly intentional that Medrano is shallow and unchanged by his voyages. His thirsty libido is more unsettling than funny (“Blessed be her soul for various reasons,” he says of one woman in his sights, “and blessed be her body for various other reasons”) and although the book does read like a report from a different world, it may not be in the way Gorodischer intended.
Andreas Eschbach’s The Hair-Carpet Weavers, first published in Germany in 1995, is a small masterpiece of what might be called rationed revelation: balancing mystery and knowledge to keep the reader both thinking and turning the pages. The story opens on a world where every adult male must spend his life weaving a carpet from the hair of his wives and daughters. When it’s completed, the carpet is sent to furnish the Emperor’s palace and the carpet-weaver’s son will begin a new carpet. What is going on?
Each chapter progresses the story from a different viewpoint – carpet trader, teacher, tax collector – and moves out and in between the planet and the wider galaxy so we slowly build up a picture of a whole universe. Rumours swell of the Emperor’s abdication, which brings hefty questions: what is the purpose of work? What do we do when our lives are built on a lie? In a culture that demands loyalty, what is the fate of someone “hopelessly addicted to doubt”?
The Hair-Carpet Weavers does the work of the best science fiction: it simultaneously dwarfs the human project and brings it into focus, using strangeness to shine light on the familiar. It’s a miracle and a marvel and shows that Eschbach deserves his place alongside other classic authors in this new series such as Yevgeny Zamyatin, Robert Sheckley and Stanisław Lem.
• 10,000 Light-Years from Home by James Tiptree Jr is published by Penguin Classics Science Fiction (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Amalia Gladhart, is published by Penguin Classics Science Fiction (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
• The Hair-Carpet Weavers by Andreas Eschbach, translated by Doryl Jensen, is published by Penguin Classics Science Fiction (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15