Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, book historian, small press publisher, computer geek, & raconteur. In her spare time she reads, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes gets a new tattoo. Learn more at carriecuinn.com.
Some of the most read, and most loved, early science fiction novels are set in places where only the hero of the tale has a chance at a enviable life. Golden Age SF especially, with its focus on adventure stories and cold-war era morality plays, often describes bleak home worlds from which the main character has to escape to survive, or dystopian worlds from which escape is impossible. Though usually presented as the highest form of man, even the heroes have lives absorbed by trying to break free from an oppressive or rigidly controlled society. If the landscape doesn’t kill you, the locals probably will.
Here are five more examples of terrible vacation spots (continued from Part 1):
Government: Governments have been replaced by corporations. States and countries still exist but only to hold voting power and to run the protection units of the corporations. Consies, people who want to conserve the planet in whatever way is still possible, are hunted down as criminals and considered terrorists. Well, they do blow things up, but it’s for a cause.
Society: The book gives us a society marked by massive overpopulation and an intense ad campaign to convince people they can only be happy if they’ve bought the latest market goods. Status is conveyed by your ability to buy shiny things. Privacy is barely a concept here – only the very wealthy can afford a room they don’t have to share. People eat hydroponically grown food stuffed with additives, and for protein carve off pieces of Chicken Little, a mutant chicken heart that keeps growing and growing and…being eaten. It’s the kind of place that can spawn an anti-hero ad man who makes Don Draper look like a sweetheart.
Sex: Short-term marriage contracts mean you only have to stay with someone until your term runs out, so if you’re bored or unhappy, move on! Of course this is all a plot point to make it so our hero actually being in love with his wife seems strange to the rest of society. Still, at least you have options.
Religion: Advertising is the religion. Advertising is love. Don’t you love advertising too?
Real Estate: They’ve paved the planet, cut down all of the forests, and crammed people into every available space except parts of Antarctica. From this fictional future, a few generations spent terra-forming Venus seems like a brilliant idea.
Where: United States, Earth
Government: While there appears to be a democratic government and the illusion of the right to vote, the candidates are set up to have one obvious winner pitted against a physically ugly and morally reprehensible villain, so that the outcome can be controlled. The television stations feature staged “news” in order to support this illusion. Other staged events include murdering innocent people so that the viewing public thinks the police are catching criminals in a timely fashion.
Society: Books are burned because the ability to think in longer than a sound bite is deemed dangerous. People are addicted to the television, installing wall-sized screens in every room of their home so that they don’t have to be without it. Tidbits of information, carefully processed and sanitized, and broadcast to educate and entertain the nation’s citizens, 24 hours a day. Educated people are mocked, emotions are stamped out with medication, and your neighbors are encouraged to turn you in if your behavior seems suspicious. You know, if you start thinking, or using big words, or being different from the status quo in any way.
Sex: When your wife takes a sleeping pill every night to fall asleep, usually before you get to bed, there probably isn’t a lot of sex happening.
Religion: I’m sure there’s a television station for that too.
Real Estate: Toward the end of the book a new war begins, and major cities are burned by nuclear bombs. Good for those who love a little irony in their fiction; bad for the people actually living there.
Where: Earth (and a brief trip through the Solar System)
Government: The rise of telepaths both for police surveillance and commercial use means the government take a back seat to corporations, because corporations pay better. Criminals still exist, such as the blind albino gangster (yes, really) who runs a pack of hoodlums for hire, but in theory the criminal element is kept out of the government.
Society: Espers, psychics of varying grades who are employed as spies, lie detectors, and police officers, are fully integrated into society. The book centers around the first murder to take place in 70 years. Before that, the psychic cops kept things safe by detecting crime before it happened. So what’s the down side? Crazy people run the place. No, really. Wealthy madmen, telepathic cops with split personalities, women who can’t function unless they’re being stalked or humiliated by men. These are the people everyone else wants to be. Also, Bester named people with typographic symbols. Just a heads up.
Sex: If you like your women subjugated, off-kilter, and a bit telepathic, you might do all right here. Plus they have brothels.
Religion: Not mentioned.
Real Estate: For once the problem is the people, not the land. Bester creates a “future 50s” world that isn’t in better or worse shape than the one we have now. It’s the lack of freedom caused by the presence of both the Espers and the people who control them that makes this a world I wouldn’t call home.
Where: Earth Government: Basically non-existent.
Society: All dead. Well, nearly all dead. Well, except for the vampires who have made their own society. Does that count? Also, all of the survivors are white people. Given that they’re also undead, the book takes “homogenized culture” to a whole new level.
Sex: Our hero finally meets a nice girl and has to kill her. He doesn’t even get to take her to bed first. He had a wife at the start of the book, and a child too, so he knows what sex is, but after years of solitude is more interested in a good conversation.
Religion: The vampires are repelled by crosses and obsessed with a church, so the assumption is that everyone who survived is at least a little bit Catholic.
Real Estate: An abandoned and empty city, with no human companionship. No power, no grocery stores, no libraries, no hospitals. Your house smells of garlic, your lawn is decorated with broken mirrors, and you can’t sleep because the moans of the undead calling your name is a bit loud, even with a pillow over your head. I wouldn’t call this a vacation spot.
Where: We start in an abbey in Utah, and then travel to “New Rome,” aka Las Vegas.
Government: At the beginning of the book, the Church governs itself, and everyone else is on their own. Over time society and the scientific community rebuild, giving rise to new world powers and new governments to war against each other.
Society: War, then deprivation, then anti-intelligentsia book burning. They’re not exactly party people. The survivors lived through the apocalypse known as the “Flame Deluge”, which is considered a warning to future generations – until the Earth rebuilds itself enough to start the same old squabbles all over again. Even knowing that they nearly killed themselves off isn’t enough to make people be kind to each other for very long.
Sex: The main character in part one is a monk. In fact, most of the characters in the book are monks. So, not a lot of sex. Some people must be hooking up, somewhere off camera, since there are still children being born, but they’re mostly irradiated mutants. Ha! Learned their lesson, didn’t they?
Religion: Catholicism, with a twist. The Order of St. Leibowitz has formed to try to get a long-dead engineer canonized for the great virtue of having died with some technical documents in his briefcase. However, the Catholic Church did retain its territorial ways, including the use of Church-approved assassins. Historical!
Real Estate: The Earth at the start of the story is shattered and scorched in the aftermath of a massive nuclear war, basically turning into an attractive combination of desert and parking lot. Or, you can choose later-day post-Deluge Earth, where we’ve reinvented traffic, smog, and found ourselves on the brink of another nuclear war. Hard to pick, isn’t it?
While I can’t say I’m wishing travel to these worlds was possible, I do understand the appeal of a hero rising above the odds to get away from these places. I think it takes a great author to make an awful place interesting, and these authors used their worlds as more than simply a setting. In most cases, the bleak and dangerous backdrops to the story became another character, right alongside the hero. Not all of the books have stood up to the test of time, but they are all classics for a reason. I have read and enjoyed each one of these stories, and still have most of them on my bookshelf. They represent a solid look at the SF that was popular during the Golden Age of fiction, and they are books that inspired our favorite authors from the 70s, 80, and even today.