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Learning from the Masters

From Shifti
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Author: Michael Bard
  • Brainwave (Poul Anderson)
  • Midnight at the Well of Souls (Jack Chalker)
  • Childhood's End (Arthur C. Clarke)
  • Norstrilia (Cordwainer Smith)
  • I Will Fear no Evil (Robert A. Heinlein)
  • The White Dragon (Anne McCaffery)
  • Protector (Larry Niven)
  • Last and First Men (Olaf Stapledon)
  • Demon (John Varley)
  • Island of Dr Moreau (H. G. Wells)<

It has been said, although for the life of me I can't remember by whom, that 'those who do not learn from history are fated to repeat it'. Interestingly, the same thing applies to writing yet in reverse. It can be phrased that 'those who do not learn from past fiction, are fated to write boring mediocrity instead of new wonders'. Yea, kind of harsh, but there is a hint of truth. One must read fiction to see what can be done, how it was done, and learn to apply the methodology to one own's work.

One last bit of introductory madness. The list below was cobbled together by Cubist and I one night when we were otherwise bored. They are not our favourite novels, or our favourite transformation stories, but our favourite transformation SCIENCE FICTION novels with the statement that there is only one novel per author. This list is personal; some of you may agree and some of you may disagree. However, I think they are all worthwhile reading, for the author to learn, and for the reader simply to enjoy. So, here in alphabetical order by author, is the list that Cubist and I came up with along with comments. I have tried to avoid spoilers, but it is not completely possible, so those who have not experienced these and wish the full experience should read the book first and then come back.

Brainwave by Poul Anderson. I admit, Poul Anderson is one of my favourite authors, so it was pretty well a given that SOMETHING by him would be on this list. This one directly involves transformations. Essentially, it starts with the assumption of 'What if IQs suddenly multiplied' and runs with it with a number of characters. He does NOT restrict it to human intelligence, but also includes the animals. For the reader it is an interesting study of what is intelligence, what does it mean, and what would changing it do to humanity. How much of our nature is because of our level of technology? Re-reading it helped me focus on my TBP character Dr. Sue Carter who has a similarly advanced IQ.

Midnight at the Well of Souls by Jack Chalker. Okay, probably just about everyone reading this has already read this. I selected it for the simple reason that it is one of his best works. The sequels are good, but not as good, and kind of destroy the resonance of the ending. Again, physical transformation is used, but running through it all is an examination of what is good about humanity, and what humanity should aim for. Not a good source for those looking for TF Porn, but a good source to make one think about things. Again, like other good novels, it draws in things one would not have expected at first but make perfect sense one you read about it.

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. At some point in the near future (or for us here in 2002 likely the near past), alien ships arrive at earth. Think of the beginning of 'V' or 'Independence Day'. However, there is no warfare, no shooting, no mass violence. The aliens have come on a mission to protect ourselves as humanity itself transforms into a new entity. I can't say more without spoiling it, but the transformation it deals with is of kind. The destination can only be observed and envied, not experienced because it is alien. Unfortunately many many SF novels have aliens that act like humans -- only a few such as C.J. Cherryh (The Pride of Chanur) can get beyond this. Sub-note: For those who want to try to write a story from an alien point of view, 'The Pride of Chanur' is one of the best starting points.

Norstrilia by Cordwainer Smith. Unfortunately I have read this, but not in ages and my copy has been lost, so I'm going to let Cubist discuss it as he has a better memory of it.

I Will Fear no Evil by Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein was a great author and a great person. There are numerous cases of him helping others with their work, at no cost. One sterling example is 'The Mote in God's Eye' by Niven and Pournelle (no, it is not really TF based, but if you haven't read it go and read it now) which is debatably the finest SF novel ever written (in my opinion anyway). Anyway, 'I Will Fear No Evil' is one of Heinlein's later works in which he deals more with people than with adventure. The central character is one of his patented crochety old men, society is failing, government is bad, and the individual wins on their own. Outwardly it is a novel about a man's brain being transplanted into a woman's body. However, very little of the novel deals with the stuff one typically reads in TG fiction. Sex happens, but it is NEVER described in detail. Instead, the whole transformation is more a smokescreen for a discussion of society and of faults that is so cleverly interwoven that it is almost impossible to realize that that is what the novel is really about. It is worthwhile reading for an author as a sterling example of how to dump reams and reams of information at the reader without the reader ever becoming bored. It's a good novel too.

The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey. Technically all of the 'Dragonriders of Pern' novels involve the dragons which are a native species of flying lizards transformed into dragons by human genetic engineering. However, not only is 'The White Dragon' in my opinion the best of all the Dragonrider's novels, it also deals with transformation of a different sort. In it the Pernese find out their origins and their roots and their society continues to change, to transform. It is also about the transformation of a boy into a man, which is often done, but rarely done so well.

Protector by Larry Niven. One of the most famous series in science fiction is Niven's 'Known Space' series of which Protector is a member. It's rather a junior member compared to more famous novels like 'Ringworld', but for us it is one of the most interesting. In it the thesis is put out that humans are the mutated descendents of an alien race from a planet in the galactic core. In fact humans are the juveniles that with the right materials eventually transform into an adult Protector form. Again, the new form deals with what greater intelligence would mean, but it also brings into it driven instincts. Niven's strength is his creation of alien races, and here he has made humans into the alien.

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon. This is a very old novel, but one (along with 'Star Maker') that has had a profound influence on me. It deals with the human race, and its ultimate destiny. Although it was written in the late 1930s, and the first section is kind of dated now, as time passes it becomes an interesting and engrossing story about what humanity does to itself. Through the ages humanity changes itself into different forms, moves to different planets within the solar system, and struggles to survive and learn. It is not a novel but more a series of descriptions of societies. Strange, weird, wonderful, yet strangely human societies for they all are human. Read it and think, as a thousand ideas of what a single change can do to society will wander through your head.

Demon by John Varley. John Varley has created a loosely organized series of novels and short stories that involve people transforming from male to female by the means recording their minds and playing it back into a new clone. They are interesting reads, and some deal with TG issues ('Steel Beach' comes to mind), but Demon is not one of these. It is instead the final member of a trilogy 'Titan' 'Wizard' and 'Demon'. The stories take place in a living entity, a spinning wheel that is alive. The first novel explores it, and the second and third continue that but also explore good and evil and the price of immortality, madness, and power. Through it all there is one human character who changes, but does not transform. Instead the ultimate resurrection and transformation occurs to another character through the second and third novels which is where the transformation comes into it. However, one should not read it for that, but instead for the discussion of what effects changes in our life could have on us, particularly immortality and power. If one is more or less immortal (or very very long lived) and has total power throughout that time, how does that transform a person.

Island of Dr Moreau by H. G. Wells. Another fairly typical entry, but a good novel, and again it's been so long since I've read it that I'm going to let Cubist go through it.

And there they are. A very eclectic and personal list. These could be considered an example of what kind of thing TSAT is looking for. A simple description of a physical transformation is easy; yet it is the results of the transformation on the individual, and on society, that makes stories worth reading.