Culturally-significant texts – Across genres, across the ages


Science Fiction

Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land
Robert A. Heinlein

A “disastrous mishmash of science fiction, laborious humor, dreary social satire and cheap eroticism”, said the New York Times of Stranger in a Strange Land, a book that has since been called by more than one critic the most famous piece of science fiction ever written. Now, that may be an overstatement. But it is certainly a seminal text of the genre, and of 20th century fiction more generally, and Heinlein remains a giant among sci-fi writers, his importance rivaled only by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And without him, we wouldn’t have the word grok. Continue reading “Stranger in a Strange Land”


The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds
H.G. Wells

One of the earliest books about human-alien conflict, H.G. Wells’ story is a classic of science-fiction whose direct remakes and influences continue to shape our collective imagination about space and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Journalistic in style, The War of the Worlds is a fictional documentation of Martian invasion by a mid-level scientist who manages to hide out in a partially-destroyed building while Martians and their mobile, tripod weapons wreak havoc across England. Continue reading “The War of the Worlds”


Carl Sagan

Planned initially as a film, then written as a novel, then made into a film after the book’s massive success – Contact is a classic of sci-fi, one of the best-loved, top-ranked, and most-influential books of the genre in the last few decades.

Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (named for Eleanor Rooselvelt and Francois-Marie Aruoet, aka Voltaire) is involved in a project to send transmissions into space in the hopes of locating and intiating contact with extraterrestrial civilizations. Contact is indeed made, and is followed by an expedition to meet the senders – beings who appear as humans significant to Ellie and her companions, and provide some suggestion as to the existence of a universal creator. On return to earth, though, Ellie and the others do not receive the hero’s welcome or excited congratulations they might expect. For the individuals involved, and for the world as a whole, contact raises more questions than it answers.

A scientist as well as a popular novelist, Sagan’s work on life in the cosmos is significant and far-reaching, and relied upon by university and NASA scientists exploring similar issues. This ain’t just space-adventure; it is serious consideration of the possibiities of extraterrestrial life and the question of contact, and it’s impact extends far beyond the literary to the cutting edge of scientific research.

The Foundation Trilogy

Foundation,  Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation
Isaac Asimov
1951 – 1953

The Foundation triology is a classic of science fiction, and perhaps the best-known of Isaac Asimov’s many, many influential and important works. The three books which comprise the trilogy are themselves only part of the larger Foundation series, which spans 7 books and has spun-off into whole other series besides.

Inspired by the real-world history of the fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation books tell the story of mathematician Hari Seldon, who develops what he calls psychohistory, a socio-mathematics which can, with some general accuracy, predict future developments based on laws of human mass action; the theory, however, is less than accurate on the small-scale, its efficacy increasing with the move from the particular to the general. Seldon predicts the collapse of the galactic empire, but his theory indicates two futures – one envisages a new dark age of 30,000 years; the other, a new empire within the next thousand. In hopes of securing the accumulated knowledge of the galaxy for the next empire, and to prevent the 30,000 year dark age from coming to pass, Seldon establishes two distinct Foundations – havens to safeguard knowledge – at the far-reaches of the galaxy, safeboxes of wisdom for the years ahead.

The Foundation books have made an enormous contribution, and not only within sci-fi or literature more broadly. Psychologists and sociologists and economisits – most notably Nobel Prize-winner in Economics Paul Krugman – have also been inspired by the concept of psychohistory and the possibility of using principles of psychology to develop a large-scale, predictive sociology.

No dystopian morality tale this. The Foundation trilogy is an exercise in predictive history based on much-respected psychological premises. To be sure, this is fiction, not fact, art, not science. But unlike the future histories of Orwell, Huxley or Bradury,  the active ingredient in Asimov’s vision is not moral crossroads but rather logical prediction of social evolution based on twentieth century cultural norms.

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