Jul 13, 2012

Death, Take a Holiday

I recently blogged about death in science fiction stories and that got me thinking about death of science fiction authors.

When I was young (probably around 1970) I was just discovering science fiction and I read about Halley's comet. 1986 seemed so far in the future (further away than the number of year I had yet lived).

When 1986 finally arrived, the comet was a flop and I started treating the turn of the century as the next great calendar milestone to be anticipated. Haley's comet was a visual flop, but its arrival corresponded to a true disaster...the start of a long chain of deaths among science fiction authors I knew.

1986. By 1986 I had been reading science fiction novels at a fairly good rate for more than 10 years. I was going to school at the University of Washington and there were some people I knew who treated Frank Herbert like some sort of guru...they'd stay up all night playing the Dune board game. I had read Dune, but I was not inspired to read the entire series and I did not see the movie. Still, it was a shock when Herbert died in 1986 at the age of 66.

1988. Then in 1988 it was Robert Heinlein who died. Heinlein was among the first science fiction authors that I read (Orphans of the Sky). I also rediscovered Heinlein in his late period of science fiction writing through The Number of the Beast and Friday. Since he was one of the "big three" science fiction authors I felt a certain obligation to read his work. However, for me, he came in third behind Asimov and Clarke.

1990. When I was first starting to buy science fiction novels I would often look for the DAW logo. It was through DAW that I came to know many science fiction authors such as Andre Norton, John Brunner, M. A. Foster, C. J. Cherryh, Robert Trebor, Tanith Lee, and Jack Vance. Donald A. Wollheim died in 1990,  having been one of the most influential people in science fiction publishing.

1992. When Isaac Asimov died in 1992 I felt betrayed. I still wish that he had lived long enough to create a sequel to Foundation and Earth. Alternatively, we can make one ourselves.

1995. John Brunner died. When I was young I enjoyed his stories such as Born Under Mars.

1996. Death took a holiday in 1994, but while I was still recovering from Asimov's death, Carl Sagan died in 1996. Somehow he was able to push Contact to the brink of completion before he died. I wish he had lived long enough to bring us the needed sequel. However, I'd settle for a Contact television series.

1998. In 1998 Michael Crichton suffered his Hollywood death with the release of Sphere.

The first Crichton movie I saw was The Andromeda Strain, which was also the last Crichton movie I wanted to see. I actually had to buy the novel in order to see if it was better than the movie. As a budding biologist I was astounded by the idea of a lifeform from outer space that just happened to be perfectly suited to infect and kill humans, and it can also digest plastic! It is amazing how evolution by means of random mutations can work out just right so as to make possible Hollywood horror movie$.

After Sphere crashed and sank, Carlo Cavagna wrote, "Michael Crichton is a hack. He comes up with innovative concepts, but his characters are cardboard cutouts. Given the psychological foundations of the story, that's an egregious flaw, and the ending is absurdly dissatisfying." Siskel and Ebert, along with the rest of the world, gave Sphere a thumbs down (see the video below):

1999. James White died in 1999. When I was very young I read one of his Sector General medical science fiction stories. It was amazing that patients were treated and cured...that is, with distractions like nurse Murchison around. There is an amazing website devoted to White's Sector General Saga.

Alien cook book.
 2000. L. Sprague de Camp died in 2000. His novel Lest Darkness Fall was influential for time travel fiction and alternative history. It would be interesting to know how much this one novel influenced other authors such as Asimov (both his Foundation saga and The End of Eternity).

2001. Gordon R. Dickson died, the man who taught me to dislike military science fiction.

2002. Damon Knight died in 2002. His 1950 story To Serve Man became a famous episode of the Twilight Zone. In addition to his short story writing skills, Knight had the luck to be married to Kate Wilhelm who wrote stories such as Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

2006. In 2004, Death again failed to take any science fiction authors who I've come to know during my life time. Stanislaw Lem died in 2006. His story Solaris was one of the first science fiction novels I read and it remains one of the most disturbing first contact stories I've ever read. It would be interesting to know how much influence Solaris has had on authors such as Asimov (Nemesis).

2008. Arthur C. Clarke died in 2008. The City and the Stars was one of the first science fiction stories I read. Many others followed including Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise. Clarke is best known for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I'd like to see remade.

2009. Philip José Farmer, author of Riverworld. Online story: The Biological Revolt.

2010. When I was young I enjoyed the early novels of James P. Hogan such as Inherit the Stars and The Genesis Machine. By the 1990s Hogan had "jumped the shark" in novels such as Paths to Otherwhere. I'm not sure that anyone was really sad when Hogan "retired" in 2010.

2012. Ray Bradbury died about a month ago. Of all the dead science fiction authors discussed on this page, Bradbury was the only one that provided assigned reading when I was in school: Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man.

So many authors who have been important to me died in even-numbered years. Strangely, 1984, 1994 and 2004 were exceptions. I'm ready for death to take another holiday in 2014. With any luck, no other science fiction authors will die before 2016. Mr. Vance, this means you, in particular.
May 30, 2013.
John Holbrook "Jack" Vance died May 26, 2013.

Related Reading: Jack Vancereflections


June 9, 2013.
Iain Banks died.
I've read quite a bit about his Culture Series, but I've never read any of his work, mostly due to a long standing personal dislike of military science fiction. Maybe I should skip over Consider Phlebas and find a less war-oriented entry into The Culture.

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