Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Tributes to Ursula K. Le Guin

It was only a couple of months ago that The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin was featured on this blog - not for the first time - in my post about planetary physics and inter-world relations in SF. Le Guin's double planet system is rendered to powerful effect in her exploration of power and freedom in the societies of capitalist Urras and anarchist Anarres, and this contrast provides the framework for the ambiguous utopian currents that run through the novel.

It is often these themes - of living and being otherwise - that have come to the fore in the tributes to Le Guin, following her death on the 22 January. Here, I'd like to give a round-up of those that struck me the most, alongside some interesting interviews and sources that I've come across during the last few years.

Among the more comprehensive and interesting obituaries of Le Guin are those published by the Guardian, the New Yorker and the New York Times. The novelist Julie Phillips, who's currently working on a biography of Le Guin, writes in the New Yorker, 'Le Guin never stopped insisting on the beauty and subversive power of the imagination. Fantasy and speculation weren’t only about invention; they were about challenging the established order'. Meanwhile, SF critics John Clute (Guardian) and Gerald Jonas (New York Times) draw attention to her distinctive narrative style. Jonas writes, 'the conflicts (her characters) face are typically rooted in a clash of cultures and resolved more by conciliation and self-sacrifice than by swordplay or space battles'.

Fellow writers have also paid tribute and, in some cases, shared their recollections of Le Guin; Indian SF writer Vandana Singh knew the author over a number of years and quotes the famous line from The Dispossessed, 'True journey is return', in the title to her blog post. She also recalls of their correspondence, 'our exchanges, though infrequent, were always interesting. We talked about writing, but also about our mutual interest in non-human others [...] We discussed the tendency of modern humans to succumb to the techno-fix, even for complex issues like climate change. I think it was clearer to her than to most people that technology by itself can never solve anything if the underlying paradigm remains unchanged'. In Neil Gaiman's piece, 'A Magic of True Speaking', he recalls reading The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time, and writes that the book 'opened my head and made me view gender differently - not as something fixed, nor even as something important, but as something mutable and less pertinent than what kind of person you are; the trilogy made me look at the world in a new way, imbued everything with a magic that was so much deeper than the magic I’d encountered before then'.

Ursula Le Guin (1929 - 2018)

What better way to end this post than to hear from the author herself. Some links to Le Guin's wonderful and thought-provoking public speeches and interviews include:

The BBC radio programme 'Ursula Le Guin at 85', featuring commentators including Neil Gaiman, in which Le Guin speaks about her upbringing and her early encounters with otherness through her Father's anthropological work with Ishi, the last Native American of his tribe.

A clip from Arwen Curry's 2018 feature documentary film about Le Guin called Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. In this clip, Le Guin talks about the creation of the Earthsea novels: 'I start pretty much with place, and then the people grow up in the place'.

Transcript of Le Guin's 'Left-handed commencement address' to the 1983 graduating class of Mills College (Liberal Arts women's college in Oakland, California): 'Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own [...] I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is'.

Le Guin's speech, upon receiving the National Book Awards' Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014. She says, 'I rejoice in accepting (the award) for and sharing it with all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long - my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction'.

Le Guin writing on the competing forces - or the yin and yang - of utopia, published on the Electric Literature site. In this piece, she suggests, 'my guess is that the kind of thinking we are, at last, beginning to do about how to change the goals of human domination and unlimited growth to those of human adaptability and long-term survival [...] involves acceptance of impermanence and imperfection, a patience with uncertainty and the makeshift, a friendship with water, darkness, and the earth'.

Lastly, here's a nice blog post from staff at the Free Library of Philadelphia, who have shared memories of reading Le Guin and some of their favourite novels and stories.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Arthur C. Clarke’s Centenary

December 2017 marks the centenary of the birth of a British science fiction pioneer, Arthur C. Clarke. A prolific author and visionary who anticipated the moon landings and the use of telecommunications satellites, he is perhaps best known for his association with Stanley Kubrick’s seminal psychedelic sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

With an interest in mystery, science and space travel from childhood, Clarke became a keen fan of science fiction in his adolescence, when he avidly read the emerging American magazines such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. His collection of these early sf publications totalled several hundred, before being dispersed during his travels in World War Two. In 1936, Clarke had moved from Somerset to London, where he worked in the Civil Service as an auditor at the Board of Education – he lived firstly at Newport Square, Paddington, and then from 1938 at 88 Gray’s Inn Road, Bloomsbury, where he shared a flat with his friend and fellow science fiction fan, Bill Temple. Already an active member of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), of which he was eventually to become Chairman, Clarke wrote to Sam Youds that, given the flat’s spacious rooms and central location, “no doubt many SFA [Science Fiction Association] and BIS meetings will gravitate here eventually.” The address 88 Gray’s Inn Road shortly became the Society’s headquarters. It was also here that Clarke, now writing in earnest (though primarily non-fiction), met fellow enthusiasts, including several influential figures in the formative years of UK science fiction. Among the visitors were E.J. Carnell and Walter Gillings, John Wyndham (then known as John Benyon Harris) and Maurice Hanson, editor of the UK’s first fanzine, Novae Terrae; Carnell, Clarke and Hanson were co-editors from the November 1937 issue, and it was the former who re-named it as New Worlds on becoming sole editor in 1939.

Walter Gillings, Arthur C. Clarke & E. J. Carnell at Leeds, 1937

Clarke was a delegate at what has been described as the world’s first science fiction convention, in January 1937 at Leeds, West Yorkshire, together with Carnell, Gillings, Hanson and the author Eric Frank Russell. It was at that meeting that it was decided to designate Novae Terrae as the official publication of the SFA. Clarke’s first published short story, ‘Travel by Wire!’ appeared later that same year in a fan magazine, Amateur Science Stories, edited by another of the convention attendees, Douglas W.F. Mayer at Brunswick Terrace, Leeds 2. Clarke’s wartime work in the RAF on a classified radar project, the prototype Ground Control Approach system, introduced him to the potential of micro-waves and radar. He prided himself on basing his fiction on scientific fact and anticipating developments in technology, notably the exploration of the moon and the launch of geostational orbital satellites for telecommunications. After the War, Clarke consolidated his scientific credentials by taking a degree in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics at King’s College, London.

His 1948 short story, ‘The Sentinel’, originally submitted (unsuccessfully) for a BBC competition, was later adapted by the American Director Stanley Kubrick as 2001: A Space Odyssey – Clarke worked extensively with him on the preparation and writing, having been installed in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel as early as 1964. Kubrick had abandoned the traditional screenplay; instead, as Michel Chion relates, he “decided to write a novel with Clarke that would serve as the basis for making the film.” As the production became ever more protracted, Clarke’s 2001 ‘novelisation’ was published separately, after the film’s release, to be followed by various sequels: 2010 (also filmed, in 1984), 2061 and 3001. He also gained wider recognition from well-received works such as Childhood’s End, The City and the Stars and Rendezvous with Rama.

Arthur C. Clarke with astronaut Neil Armstrong, 1970
Clarke moved to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1956, where he pursued a long-standing interest in deep-sea diving, but maintained his position as the UK’s best-known science fiction practitioner. The 1969 Moon landing, which Clarke had long predicted and regularly incorporated into his work, reinforced the scientific basis of his fiction, together with developments in telecommunications satellites. His status was confirmed by a knighthood in 1998 and, in his later career, lending his name to various TV shows investigating well-known mysteries and paranormal phenomena: Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World (1980), Arthur C. Clarke’s World of Strange Powers (1985) and Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe (1994). He died in March 2008.

Photographs from the 1937 Leeds Convention were taken by Harold Gottliffe, and reproduced with thanks to his daughter, Jill Godfrey, and Rob Hansen, whose site is an invaluable resource on the history of UK science fiction fanzines.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Earth-sized Planets Discovered Orbiting Nearby Star

It was around this time last year, when I posted about exoplanets and the possibility of habitable life beyond Earth. Perhaps, then, a year on, is an apt time to revisit this theme and one of my favourite space stories from 2017 – the discovery of exoplanets found orbiting Trappist-1. Trappist-1 is a red dwarf star, located 39 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. As such, it is one of our nearest neighbours in the Milky Way.

2015 was the year of the first discovery of Earth-sized planets orbiting Trappist-1 but, early in 2017, astronomers announced the news of additional exoplanets around the star, seven in total. The Guardian first published a story on the discovery in February, with follow-up stories in May and August.

The seven planets are, to date, the largest number of exoplanets found orbiting a neighbouring star, raising hopes that the search for alien life might be within reach using the next generation of astronomical telescopes. Trappist-1 shines with a light 2000 times fainter than our sun, meaning that the planets are more likely to hold liquid water and surface life. Researchers hope to obtain this information within the next decade.

One of the most exciting aspects of the story – alongside the possibility of discovering aliens, or a planet capable of supporting human life – was the incredible orbits of the planets and the prospect of the Trappist-1 star looming large in the sky from the planets’ surface (see illustration below). Because the planets are so much closer to the cool Trappist-1 star, each of their orbits is more compact than those of the planets orbiting our sun – the closest with an very short orbit of one and a half days, the furthest away taking 20 days.

Illustration of the view of Trappist-1 from the fifth planet by Nasa/JPL-Caltech.

These phenomena put me in mind of SF narratives that hinge on inter-world relationships, and the planetary astrophysics underpinning such stories. A famous example is Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’, a 1941 short story, later adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg. The action takes place on Lagash, a planet located in a multiple star system with six suns, which keeps it constantly illuminated. The coming of an eclipse is a cause for concern for the planet's scientists, who fear that the general population will be unable to cope with the darkness. However, ultimately, it is the discovery of other stars and planets, which become visible during the eclipse, that sends Lagash's inhabitants into a frenzy.

The double planet (or binary planet) system of Urras and Anarres in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed is another memorable example, in which the juxtaposition of capitalist Urras and anarchist Anarres functions as a device for Le Guin’s exploration of ‘ambiguous’ utopias. In a variation of this theme, the planet Solaris, in the novel of the same name, orbits a binary star system with one red-coloured and one blue-coloured sun.

Geographies of the double planet system Urras and Anarres.

Finally, returning to our solar system, the Twilight Zone episode, ‘Midnight Sun’, imagines a scenario in which the Earth's orbit has been disturbed, causing it to move slowly towards the sun. In the end, it transpires that this was only a fever dream experienced by the protagonist Norma, and the Earth is in fact, inexplicably, moving further away from the sun.

SF experimentation with different star systems and planetary configurations adds to the other-worldliness of the stories, even while often offering a critical lens on real world issues. The Trappist-1 discovery begins to shed light on just how distant or close such other worlds may be.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Communist Post-Apocalyptic Film

The dogged band of survivors in the aftermath of apocalypse – whether alien attack, environmental disaster, nuclear war, or worldwide pandemic virus – has become a preoccupation of science fiction, especially since World War Two and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Developing from H.G. Wells’ visionary The Shape of Things to Come, filmed in 1936 by William Cameron Menzies, the theme has proliferated in the post-War years, becoming a sub-genre in its own right; notable novels and film adaptations range from On the Beach and I Am Legend (filmed as The Omega Man) in the 1950s, through The Day of the Triffids, to the contemporary 28 Days Later and The Road. In the distinctive Eastern European version of the post-apocalyptic film, at its peak between the 1960s to the decline of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the last representatives of humanity are typically corrupt, cynical, disillusioned, and dishonest – the nobler qualities having vanished in the struggle for survival. The bleakest examples portray the ragged remnants of mankind, often diseased or mutated, reduced to scavenging among the post-industrial ruins, occasionally emerging from improvised shelters to salvage a few precious relics of civilisation – from libraries, museums, and schools. As they gather in claustrophobic and spartan enclaves waiting for the inevitable end, there is a stark contrast with the initial optimism which followed the October Revolution of 1917. 

In the early years of Soviet rule, the Bolsheviks actively encouraged the population to look forward to the expansion of Communism, spreading a Utopian message both on earth (‘world revolution’) and into the cosmos. The Party enlisted artists to promote their vision in state-sanctioned productions, notably the film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), itself preceded by leading Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star, which effectively transplanted Marxism to Mars. That expansive mood had long since been dissipated; firstly by the dictates of ‘socialist realism’, aggressively promoted under Stalin, which disdained science fiction in favour of heroic portraits of the Soviet workers’ struggle, and later by economic stagnation and social decay, Cold War paranoia and pessimism. The 1966 Czech film The End of August at the Hotel Ozone depicts a group of virtually feral female survivors wandering the desolate countryside, anticipating a bleak, cruel and violent future. 1985’s O-Bi O-Ba (subtitled The End of Civilisation) by Polish writer/director Piotr Szulkin, is set in a particularly grim underground bunker, whose inhabitants endure a hopeless wait for a new Ark. Both represent a widespread disillusionment with the project of international Communism, and express subtle dissent against the central control exerted by Moscow over its satellite nations of the Eastern Bloc.


Above: Poster for Aelita

Right: Poster for Voyage to Mars

Though still closely overseen by the state after the death of Stalin, film-makers, artists and writers were able – often avoiding censorship by using science fiction as a metaphor – to articulate these fears. In 1972, Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky filmed Solaris, based on Stanislav Lem’s novel, set on a near-deserted, distant space station; a meditation on an aborted mission which paralleled the abandonment of the space programme. With the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin’s historic orbital flight four years later, there had been a brief rush to glorify the triumphs of the cosmonauts; after the American moon landing of 1969 effectively marked the end of the space race, the focus largely shifted from the conquest of the stars to the struggle for survival on an ailing earth. 

Tarkovsky returned to science fiction themes in 1979’s Stalker, adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by the brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future considers Roadside Picnic in terms of problematic or ‘failed’ Utopias, with professional scavengers, or ‘stalkers’, entering the Zones (sites of alien visitation, now sealed by the authorities) in search of bounty, though they run the risk of encountering inexplicable dangers and death. As it transpired, the filming locations close to the Estonian capital Tallinn proved deadly; an abandoned electrical generating station and the Jägala River, polluted by an upstream chemical works were linked to the early deaths from bronchial cancer of Tarkovsky, his wife Larisa, and actor Anatoly Solonitsyn. The Zone, mysterious centre-piece of book and film, was not only the name later applied to the contaminated area of exclusion around Chernobyl but, as James Norton noted in an article for Vertigo magazine, ‘Stalking the Stalker’, “was also the term by which the Gulag was known, as the Russian audience would have recognised.” 

Location map for Stalker

 The loose trilogy of post-apocalypse nightmares by Tarkovsky’s protégé Konstantin Lopuchansky – Letters from a Dead Man, Visitor to a Museum, and The Ugly Swans (another adaptation of a novel by the Strugatsky brothers) – focus unflinchingly on the decline of the Communist dream. This trio of films, the first two made in the later 1980s, are alike set in landscapes blighted by industrial pollution, radiation fall-out, and toxic waste, resulting in mental illness and physical mutations. These futuristic visions were thinly-veiled echoes of a catastrophic reality; the 2016 documentary City-40, exposing the once-hidden ecological devastation in one of the Soviet Union’s uranium-processing ‘closed cities’, was part of a gradual process revealing the extent of environmental destruction. Just as the locations of Stalker offered a haunting precursor of tragic things to come, the ravaged nuclear fall-out setting of Letters from a Dead Man pre-figured the Chernobyl disaster, which occurred in the same year as the film’s release, 1986. Combined with an escalating arms race between the USA and USSR, which by the 1980s threatened to become a full-blown conflict, world-wide apocalypse no longer seemed a film-maker’s fanciful notion.

Friday, 29 September 2017

African SF

A few months ago I met a researcher, based at SOAS University of London, who works on African SF and ecocriticism. Knowing little about these topics myself, I asked her to recommend some readings to me.

Going through the links and articles she sent me, I’ve been struck by how wide-ranging the field is. Like many forms of SF, some writers are reluctant to be identified with the genre. For example, one of the most prominent AfroSF writers Nnedi Okorafor has described her work as closer to ‘organic fantasy’: ‘What I’ve realized I’m writing is something organic. This type of fantasy grows out of its own soil’. Okorafor suggests several possible reasons for the fantastical elements in her fiction: ‘The first is my complex African experience, which on many levels has been a series of cultural mixes and clashes between being American and being Nigerian. The second being my personal world view. The world is a magical place to me’.

The cover of Okorafor's 2007 novel The Shadow Speaker.

These insights connect to another important theme in AfroSF; that of estrangement as a dimension of black African experience. Citing Greg Tate, the literary theorist Kodwo Eshun writes:

The form itself, the conventions of the narrative in terms of the way it deals with subjectivity, focuses on someone who is at odds with the apparatus of power in society and whose profound experience is one of cultural dislocation, alienation and estrangement. Most science fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual is going to contend with these alienating, dislocating societies and circumstances and that pretty much sums up the mass experiences of black people in the postslavery twentieth century.
Eshun recasts SF in light of Afrodiasporic history and argues that this powerfully articulates experiences of dislocation, alienation and estrangement, all of which are longstanding tropes within the genre.
Environmental disaster and post-apocalyptic scenarios are also familiar terrain for AfroSF; Okorafor’s ‘Moom!’, Efe Okogu’s ‘Proposition 23’, Nick Wood’s ‘Azania’, Mia Anderne’s ‘Brandy City’ and Martin Stokes’s ‘Claws and Savages’ are exemplary here, and Matthew Omelsky proposes that they constitute a subgenre of ‘postcrisis fiction’ in their own right.

After reading about these stories and writers, I’m really interested to discover more of their work and the ways in which their science fictions apprehend the different possibilities and limitations of the present.

For an introduction to African SF, read Mark Bould's piece for this special issue of Paradoxa journal:

Thanks to Michelle Clarke for drawing my attention to this topic.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Cyberpunk 1990

Oxford English Dictionary – Cyberpunk: A genre of science fiction set in a lawless subculture of an oppressive society dominated by computer technology

The heyday of Cyberpunk was captured in a 1990 documentary by Marianne Trench and Peter von Brandenburg, providing an insight into its guiding ideas and featuring leading lights such as William Gibson, Jaron Lanier, Brenda Laurel and Timothy Leary. As a movement, it was primarily concerned with developments in technology, particularly artificial intelligence and virtual reality (the ‘consensual hallucination’ of a computer-generated world); “information wants to be free”, a phrase echoed by several participants in the documentary, symbolized their vision. Cyberpunk drew on influences from, and in turn influenced, art, fashion, film (Blade Runner was a major visual precursor), and literature (Gibson’s Neuromancer is its key text, while Jeff Noon’s Vurt and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash are both highly regarded); it manifested in computer hacking, ‘industrial’ music, rave culture, and video game graphics, all considered in the film. Whilst most commentators see a trend toward liberation, others strike a cautionary note; that the Utopian technology which can empower, may also enslave. Very much a product of its time, the documentary’s imagery and production values illustrate how quickly the cutting-edge can become obsolete. It remains a valuable document of what the future looked like in 1990, at the dawn of the ‘computer age’, though its main protagonists have enjoyed contrasting fortunes over the subsequent 27 years... 

William Gibson – the American novelist is regarded as the Godfather of Cyberpunk, many of its central themes originating in his 1984 novel Neuromancer, the biggest single influence on the sub-genre. Gibson famously created his vision of the future on a manual type-writer, didn’t have an e-mail address until 1996, and has stated that he has “never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don't watch them; I watch how people behave around them.” By the 1990s, as advances in technology brought some of his concepts toward reality, he was in demand as a spokesman, reflected in his extensive contribution to the documentary. Neuromancer (the first book of his ‘Sprawl’ trilogy) portrayed a post-industrial, high-tech society dominated by multi-national corporations – zaibatsus – where national boundaries have been dissolved, and individuals define their identity through consumer products. He coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in his 1982 short story ‘Burning Chrome’, to denote the virtual territory contained within computer networks, before the worldwide phenomenon of the Internet. Another of his early short stories, ‘Johnny Mnemonic’, was filmed in 1995, with a pre-Matrix Keanu Reeves in the title role, as a cyber-courier who carries information in his brain – the acting, simplified plot and already-dated setting brought widespread derision (a fate shared by the same year’s risible techno-movie Hackers), although most critics recognised its distance from Gibson’s original conception.

William Gibson. Photo: Christopher J. Morris/Corbis via Getty Images
The 2000 documentary by film-maker Mark Neale, No Maps for these Territories, provides an introduction to Gibson’s biography and preoccupations, as he makes observations on the ‘mediated world’ we live in, during a road-trip across America. The author remains closely associated with Cyberpunk; though his later work has taken him in different directions, he continues to examine consumerism, corporate influence and globalisation, the evolution of the Internet and social media, believing that “the digital has become the constant; it’s becoming where we all are, all the time.”



Timothy Leary in his 1960s pomp
Timothy Leary – best known for his notorious role in the sixties counter-culture, associated with the use of mind-expanding drugs (which he not only advocated, but experimented with enthusiastically), and coining the phrase ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’. A clinical psychologist, researcher and Harvard academic until his drug-related dismissal in 1963, Leary became a major media figure, later described by then-President Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”. After multiple periods of imprisonment, and a relatively low public profile during the 1970s, Leary embraced the coming ‘cybernetic’ era – the concept of technological revolution embodied by Cyberpunk in the mid-to-late 1980s – adapting his former phrase to ‘turn on, boot up, jack in’ and declaring “the PC is the new LSD”. He saw the potential of home computing, virtual reality and the web as forces for personal liberation, able to free individuals from state control, and to subvert governmental and other power structures. His involvement with new technology extended to creating video games (including a project to produce a version of Neuromancer), endorsing the Mattel Power Glove – a gaming device “unique for its time, allowing players to use motion to control their games” – and acting as ‘technical consultant’ on Billy Idol’s somewhat opportunistic 1993 album Cyberpunk. Leary died in 1996.

Timothy Leary at the time of Cyberpunk

Jaron Lanier, then (above) & now (below)
Jaron Lanier – although only featuring briefly in the documentary, Lanier has since established himself as a leading figure in emerging technology, addressing its philosophical implications and the shortcomings of the Internet. His credentials are both practical and theoretical, as a computer science pioneer, early adopter of virtual reality and software developer. He has been involved in the field since the early 1980s, first working for Atari and then forming his own company, VPL Research, concentrating on visual programming language and virtual reality applications. Lanier has retained his status as a credible commentator and an independent authority, becoming a successful author and public speaker, outlining potential future developments and their impact on wider society in books such as You Are Not a Gadget (2010) and Who Owns the Future? (2013).

Michael Synergy – an enigmatic figure, clearly enjoying the attention bestowed on him by the documentary makers as a man with “the power to bring down governments”, Synergy has, for whatever reason, not enjoyed such publicity since its release. In fact, he has all but vanished – even from the cyberspaces of the Internet – personal details are scant, and information on his subsequent career hard to come by. 

Michael Synergy – current whereabouts unknown

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Esperanto and SF: A Potted History

Esperanto was invented as an international secondary language by Ludwig Zamenhof, who published his first book on Esperanto in 1887. He believed that a common mode of communication between people would eliminate the problems and misunderstandings of translation and ultimately lead to a more harmonious world system.

Zamenhof was not the first to come up with the idea of an international language. Like many others, he was motivated by the utopian impulse to create a better world, a universal vision that could, through language, overcome the divisions created by humankind. Esperanto is, however, perhaps one of the most famous – or infamous – of such languages, partly because of its widespread uptake and partly because it has been the subject of various parodies and criticisms. For example, it is believed that Esperanto provided the inspiration for Newspeak in George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which the introduction of a simplified universal language operates as a form of social control to restrict thought.

This leads me on to the topic of this month’s post: Esperanto and SF. While Orwell was sceptical about the implications of a language like Esperanto, many other SF writers have been fascinated by the positive reconfiguration of the world it might bring about, or the kinds of societies that might be amenable to a shared secondary language.

Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels are perhaps among the most famous works to make use of Esperanto – in the second volume it is the language of the peaceful religion of the Church of the Second Chance. Likewise, the stories of lesser known writers such as Mack Reynolds often explore issues of universal basic income and universal religion and language. In his 1974 novel Looking Backward From the Year 2000, a re-writing of Edward Bellamy’s 1888 work, the protagonist finds himself in a future where the revolution in communications and transportation has led to the large-scale adoption of Esperanto as an interlingua.

Morojo with Ackerman in costume in 1939
SF fanzines also have their notable Esperantists. Myrtle Douglas, known by her Esperanto name ‘Morojo’, was a fanzine editor from Los Angeles, who was active between the years 1939 and 1958. From 1939 until 1947, Morojo co-edited the fanzine Voice of the Imagi-Nation with the SF writer, Forrest J Ackerman, who she met at an Esperanto meeting. With Ackerman, she also attended the first World Science Fiction Convention (1939), for which they wore matching futuristic costumes (see image). From 1941 until 1958, Morojo published the zine Guteto, which promoted Esperanto among science fiction fans. After her death, Ackerman wrote of her, ‘she was an expert Esperantist’ and ‘a real science fiction fan’.

These examples reflect the overlap between the imaginary communities explored in the works of SF writers and the radical aspirations for Esperanto as a means of achieving societal transformation. Such experiments in invented language have been sporadic and, at best, only partially successful. However, like language, SF works to both represent and translate cultures, echoing the hopes and fears of the societies from which it is produced.

More information about the inclusion of Esperanto in literary works can be found in the online book The Esperanto Book by Don Harlow.