Ramblings (pl. noun): talking or writing in a confused way, often for a long time
Bardlings (pl. noun): Ramblings from Bard

[tsat home] [#24] [editorials]
Learning From the Masters
by Michael W. Bard
©2002 Michael W. Bard -- all rights reserved

Brainwave Poul Anderson
Midnight at the Well of Souls Jack Chalker
Childhood's End Arthur C. Clarke
I Will Fear No Evil Robert A. Heinlein
The White Dragon Anne McCaffrey
Protector Larry Niven
Cordwainer Smith
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 cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it' [George Santayana, and you're welcome -- QGL]. Interestingly, the same thing applies to writing yet in reverse. It can be phrased that 'those who do not remember past fiction, are condemned to write boring mediocrity instead of new wonders'. Yeah, 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's own 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 proviso 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 here.

Poul Anderson: Brainwave
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 question 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 what we humans regard as our 'innate nature' is a consequence of our level of technology? Re-reading it helped me focus on my TBP character Dr. Sue Carter, who has a similarly advanced IQ.

Jack Chalker: Midnight at the Well of Souls
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 transporn, 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.

Arthur C. Clarke: Childhood's End
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.
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.

Robert A. Heinlein: I Will Fear No Evil
Heinlein was not merely a great author; he was also a great person, given to acts of selfless generosity even to people whose politics and/or philosophy were violently opposed to his own. One sterling example is the extensive editing he did, gratis, on what is arguably the finest SF novel ever written: Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye (which is not really TF based, but if you haven't read it, you should -- now).
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 crotchety 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.

Anne McCaffrey: The White Dragon
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. In my opinion, however, not only is The White Dragon the best of all the Pern 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.

Larry Niven: Protector
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 evolved descendents of an alien race from a planet in the galactic core. In fact homo sapiens is a neotenous juvenile form that, given the proper biochemical stimulus, can and does metamorphose into the adult Protector form. Again, the new form deals with what greater intelligence would mean, but it also brings into it hardwired instincts. Niven's strength is his creation of alien races, and here he has made humans into the alien.

Cordwainer Smith: Norstrilia
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.

Most of Cordwainer Smith's stories and novels, Norstrilia included, are part of his Instrumentality of Man setting. TF is a fundamental part of the setting, from cyborgs (Scanners Live in Vain) to TF-inducing microorganisms (A Planet Called Shayol) to the animal-derived 'underpeople' which serve humankind in roles ranging from slave to savior, but at the same time TF is no more noteworthy in the Instrumentality than automobiles are in 20th Century America. Accordingly, Norstrilia is not a TF novel in the conventional sense. The closest any character gets to an 'on camera' transformation is when protagonist Rod McBann is disguised as an underperson -- and that disguise is purely cosmetic. As is his wont, Smith is little concerned with physical bodies; he's more interested in the state of the souls which inhabit those bodies, or even the cultures within which they interact with one another.

Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men
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.

John Varley: Demon
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 inside a spinning wheel thousands of miles in diameter -- which happens to be a living entity. 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?

H. G. Wells: Island of Dr. Moreau
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.

Wells was both visionary and social commentator, and he exercised both of these traits in the writing of Moreau. The good Doctor can be seen as a sort of embodiment of Science itself, more concerned with what he can learn than with the price that must be paid to learn it; as for Moreau's experimental subjects, lower animals surgically TFed into a semblance of humanity, it is impossible to read the novel and not be struck by how little fundamental difference there truly is between them and actual members of the species homo sapiens.

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.

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