Stream 47 Hours of Classic Sci-Fi Novels & Stories: Asimov, Wells, Orwell, Verne, Lovecraft & More

The pronouncements of French theorist Jean Baudrillard could sound a bit silly in the early 1990s, when the internet was still in its infancy, a slow, clunky technology whose promises far exceeded what it could deliver. We hoped for the cyberpunk spaces of William Gibson, and got the beep-boop tedium of dial-up. Even so, in his 1991 essay “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” Baudrillard contended that the real and the imaginary were no longer distinguishable, and that the collapse of the distance between them meant that “there is no more fiction.” Or, conversely, he suggested, that there is no more reality.

What seemed a far-fetched claim about the totality of “cybernetics and hyperreality” in the age of AOL and Netscape now sounds far more plausible. After all, it will soon be possible, if it is not so already, to convincingly simulate events that never occurred, and to make millions of people believe they had, not only through fake tweets, "fake news," and age-old propaganda, but through sophisticated manipulation of video and audio, through augmented reality and the onset of “reality apathy,” a psychological fatigue that overwhelms our abilities to distinguish true and false when everything appears as a cartoonish parody of itself.

Technologist Aviv Ovadya has tried since 2016 to warn anyone who would listen that such a collapse of reality was fast upon us—an “Infocalypse,” he calls it. If this is so, according to Baudrillard, “both traditional SF and theory are destined to the same fate: flux and imprecision are putting an end to them as specific genres.” In an apocalyptic prediction, he declaimed, “fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past.” The “collective marketplace” of globalization and the Borgesian condition in which “the map covers all the territory” have left “no room any more for the imaginary.” Companies set up shop expressly to simulate and falsify reality. Pained irony, pastiche, and cheap nostalgia are all that remain.

It’s a bleak scenario, but perhaps he was right after all, though it may not yet be time to despair—to give up on reality or the role of imagination. After all, sci-fi writers like Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and J.G. Ballard grasped long before most of us the condition Baudrillard described. The subject proved for them and many other late-20th century sci-fi authors a rich vein for fiction. And perhaps, rather than a great disruption—to use the language of a start-up culture intent on breaking things—there remains some continuity with the naïve confidence of past paradigms, just as Newtonian physics still holds true, only in a far more limited way than once believed.

Isaac Asimov’s short essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is instructive on this last point. Maybe the theory of “hyperreality” is right, in some fashion, but also incomplete: a future remains for the most visionary creative minds to discover, as it did for Asimov’s “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon in The Foundation Trilogy. You can hear a BBC dramatization of that groundbreaking fifties masterwork in the 47-hour science fiction playlist above, along with readings of classic stories—like Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (and an audiobook of the same read by English actor Maxwell Caulfield). From Jules Verne to H.P. Lovecraft to George Orwell; from the mid-fifties time travel fiction of Andre Norton to the 21st-century time-travel fiction of Ruth Boswell….

We’ve even got a late entry from theatrical prog rock mastermind Rick Wakeman, who followed up his musical adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with a sequel he penned himself, recorded in 1974, and released in 1999, called Return to the Centre of the Earth, with narration by Patrick Stewart and guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, and the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward. Does revisiting sci-fi, “weird fiction,” and operatic concept albums of the past constitute a “desperate rehallucinating” of a bygone “lost object,” as Baudrillard believed? Or does it provide the raw material for today’s psychohistorians? I suppose it remains to be seen; the future—and the future of science fiction—may be wide open.

The 47-hour science fiction playlist above will be added to our collection of 900 Free Audio Books.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Enter the Pulp Magazine Archive, Featuring Over 11,000 Digitized Issues of Classic Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Detective Fiction

Pulp Fiction will likely hold up generations from now, but the resonance of its title may already be lost to history. Pulp magazines, or “the pulps,” as they were called, once held special significance for lovers of adventure stories, detective and science fiction, and horror and fantasy. Acquiring the name from the cheap paper on which they were printed, pulp magazines might be said, in large part, to have shaped the pop culture of our contemporary world, publishing respected authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne and many an unknown newcomer, some of whom became household names (in certain houses), like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick.

Beginning in the late 19th century, the pulps opened up the publishing space that became flooded with comic books and popular novels like those of Stephen King and Michael Crichton in the latter half of the twentieth century.

They varied widely in quality and subject matter but all share certain preoccupations. Sexual taboos are explored in their naked essence or through various genre devices. Monsters, aliens, and other features of the “weird” predominate, as do the forerunners of DC and Marvel’s superhero empires in characters like the Shadow and the Phantom Detective.

Unlike higher-rent “slicks” or “glossies,” pulp magazines had license to go places respectable publications feared to tread. Genre fiction now spawns multimillion dollar franchises, one after another, purged of much of the pulps’ salacious content. But paging through the thousands of back issues available at the Pulp Magazine Archive will give you a sense of just how outré such magazines once were—a quality that survived in the underground comics and zines of the 60s and beyond and in genre tabloids like Scream Queens

The enormous archive contains over 11,000 digitized issues of such titles as If, True Detective Mysteries, Witchcraft and Sorcery, Weird Tales, Uncensored Detective, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, and Adventure ("America's most exciting fiction for men!"). It also features early celebrity rags like Movie Pictorial and Hush Hush, and retrospectives like Dirty Pictures, a 1990s comic reprinting the often quite misogynist pulp art of the 30s.

There's great science fiction, no small amount of creepy teen boy wish-fulfillment, and lots of lurid, noir appeals to fantasies of sex and violence. Swords and sorcery, guns and trussed-up pin-ups, and plenty of creature features. The pulps were once mass culture’s id, we might say, and they have now become its ego.

Enter the Pulp Magazine Archive here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Digital Archive of Heavy Metal, the Influential “Adult Fantasy Magazine” That Featured the Art of Moebius, H.R. Giger & More

In making a time capsule of the late 20th century, one would be remiss if they did not include at least an issue or two of Heavy Metal magazine. Yes, it specialized in unapologetically turning women in metal bras into sex objects. The gleeful amount of T&A on its covers, surrounded by spaceships, swords, and sorcery, mark it as a relic of its era that appealed to a specific demographic. But Heavy Metal was much more than sexy sci-fi mascots drawn in lurid pulpy styles. Along with its share of erotica, the “adult illustrated fantasy magazine” provided a vivid showcase for some of the most interesting artists and storytellers working in the mainstream and in various subgenres of fantasy and sci-fi. (It continues to do so.)

Debuting in 1977, the year of the first Star Wars film, Heavy Metal was not named after the brand of guitar rock pioneered by Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, though there’s an obvious influence, but after a French magazine that started two years earlier called Métal hurlant, or literally “Howling Metal.” (We've featured it here on OC before.) When publisher Leonard Mogel decided to adapt the original for an American readership, he changed the name, but kept the content, republishing work by Jean Giraud—the artist better known as Moebius—and many other accomplished European illustrators.

Founded and staffed by the creators of National Lampoon, the magazine later featured original work from artists like H.R. Giger, interviews with Dennis Hopper, John Waters, Francis Ford Coppola, John Carpenter, Roger Corman, and even Federico Fellini; and with musicians like the Eurythmics and Debbie Harry. It ran popular serialized stories, showcased graphic literary adaptations (of Paradise Lost, for example), and published authors like Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, and other heavies. Rock, comics, film, and fiction all got their due in between the magazine’s extravagant pinup covers, many of which inspired the art painted on the side of many a carpeted van in the 70s.

You can see a sizable collection of scanned Heavy Metal magazines, from the first, 1977 issue to the mid-90s, at the Internet Archive. Part of’s extensive “Magazine Rack,” a digital library of thousands of scanned periodicals, the Heavy Metal collection was launched in 2012 by archivist Jason Scott. Though it doesn’t contain the magazine’s complete run by any means, it offers a broad enough sampling of all of its major themes and tendencies.

Heavy Metal’s interests are very focused, one might say, but the few things the magazine does, and has done since 1977, it has done exceptionally well. Enter the archive here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

HBO Drops a Teaser Trailer for Fahrenheit 451, Its New Adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Classic Dystopian Novel

From HBO comes the latest teaser trailer for a new adaptation of Ray Bradbury's 1953 dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. Scheduled to debut in May 2018, the new film will feature Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon.

Ostensibly Fahrenheit 451 is a story about government censorship. And some have considered it a response to McCarthyism. But, when asked what the story is really about, Ray Bradbury said this: It's about people "being turned into morons by TV."  As a medium, television "gives you the dates of Napoleon, but not who he was,” spreading "factoids" instead of knowledge. “They stuff you with so much useless information, you feel full.” Just something to keep in mind before and after the new HBO film hits your TV sets this spring.

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The Strange, Sci-Fi Sounds of Skating on Thin Black Ice

This gives new meaning to "skating on thin ice." In Sweden, a filmmaker named Henrik Trygg likes to take his chances skating on pristine sheets of black ice, measuring only five centimeters/two inches thick. It's a risk. A natural thrill. It's also quite a sensory experience. Just listen to the "high-pitched, laser-like sounds," of which sci-fi films could be made.

Watch Trygg's film, "The Sound of Ice," above. And, below, a version annotated in English by National Geographic.

via The Kids Should See This

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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What’s the Origin of Time Travel Fiction?: New Video Essay Explains How Time Travel Writing Got Its Start with Charles Darwin & His Literary Peers

The idea of time travel is probably as old as the feeling of regret, but the desire to go back in time is not the same as the theoretical notion that it might actually be possible to do so. Where, the Nerdwriter wonders above, did this idea originate? And where did time travel narratives come from in general? Time travel, he argues, “as a device to tell stories, is a relatively recent phenomenon.” And time travel as a specific genre of literature is just a little over a hundred years old.

An important point of clarification: We find instances of time travel—or at least a kind of parallax—in many ancient texts, where some characters experience time differently in different realms and dimensions and can thus see the past or future in our world. In the Ramayana, a figure named Kakbhushubdi lives like the Watchers in the Marvel Comics’ universe—outside of time, observing millennia passing. (It is said he sees the same events happen over and over, with different outcomes each time.)

This is not strictly what we mean by time travel. Yet many ancient stories do show humans going back in time, or going to sleep and waking up in the future, through divine agency. In the Buddhist Pali texts, we learn that the Devas experience one hundred human years as a single day (an idea echoed in the Bible). In the Japanese legend of Urashima Taro, a man visits the palace of the Dragon God, and when he comes back 300 years have passed. But the Nerdwriter is talking about something different than these many narrative instances of time dilation (hundreds of years before Einstein elaborated the concept), though the same devices appear in modern time travel stories.

A significant distinction, the video suggests, lies in the very concept of time. Many ancient people believed that time was cyclical—hence the many variations on the same themes in Kakbhushubdi’s experience—or that time was malleable, subject to divine interruption and disruption. After Darwin’s Origin of Species and the rapid acceptance of evolution (if not natural selection), popular notions of time changed. The modern time travel genre begins with broadly Darwinian ideas as a central premise. In the popular imagination, evolution meant inevitable, linear progress, and thus was born a form of literature called the Utopian Romance.

One such novel, Edward Bellamy’s 1888 Looking Backward, has the distinction of being the third-largest bestseller of its time, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur, with over one million copies sold. Why haven’t you heard of it before? Probably because the book envisions a character who falls asleep and wakes up in a socialist utopia 113 years in the future (the year 2000). It exerted significant influence on the many socialist movements of the time, and “Bellamy clubs” sprang up around the country, advocating for the nationalization of private property. Few Americans, at least, have learned about the widespread popularity of socialism in the U.S. during the late 19th century because… well, you tell me.

But Bellamy’s ideas are embedded in the genre, in work after work we are familiar with (take the parody version in Futurama). In the modern time travel novel, utopias “are no longer on a lost island or a different world, they were in the future.” This observation applies most readily to a more famous foundational text from 1895, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which borrows from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, but sets the action not in a distant land but in the very distant future, the year 802701. Wells’ “subterranean workers, the Morlocks, and the decadent Eloi” who profit from their labor, notes the British Library, do not differ that much from humans of the past or the present—they have evolved technologically and physically, but are still subject to exploitation and violence.

Where Gulliver’s Travels can be read as a misanthropic undermining of notions of cultural superiority, Wells’ novel satirizes the idea that human evolution implies an improvement in human beneficence. The book set a pattern "for science-fiction to critique extreme developments of class." In both Bellamy and Wells, time travel—whether achieved by science or a Rip Van Winkle sleep—presents an occasion for utopian or dystopian allegory. The time travel genre took on a new dimension after Einstein, when the science of relativity replaced Darwinian evolution as the central preoccupation, and paradoxes and rules became central concerns. This shift highlights another important feature of the modern time travel genre—its obsession with cause and effect, and therefore with the very nature and possibility of story itself.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Ursula K. Le Guin’s Space Rock Opera Rigel 9: A Rare Recording from 1985

In her remembrance of recently departed sci-fi great Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood describes “an absurd vision” she drew from Le Guin’s fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea: “There was Ursula, moving calmly down a hill of whispering sand under the unchanging stars; and there was me, distraught and running after her and calling ‘No! Come Back! We need you here and now!’” Atwood longs for Le Guin’s responses to the crises of the present, the old hierarchies of power and privilege reasserting their cruel dominance over men, women, children, and an already overburdened environment.

The problem of power and its abuses is one Le Guin returned to over and over in her work. “As an anarchist,” writes Atwood,” she would have wanted a self-governing society, with gender and racial equality.” As a keen anthropological observer of human behavior, she saw how and why technologically-advanced, yet psychologically reactionary societies stray from these ideals, destabilizing the ecological balance they depend on to survive and thrive. Le Guin fought back in her way. She was a prolific builder of poetic new worlds. Through them, we will always have her wisdom, and in a few rare instances, we have her music.

No, Le Guin didn’t compose, but she did write librettos for three different collaborative projects. Above, we have her “most noteworthy melodic undertaking,” according to Locus magazine’s Jeff Berkwits, Rigel 9, a space opera with music by avant-garde composer David Bedford, recorded and released in 1985. (It's also streamable on Spotify. Listen below or here.) Rigel 9 “tells a pretty classic space story,” Cara Giaimo  writes at Atlas Obscura. “Three astronauts, named Anders, Kapper, and Lee, are sent to explore a strange world. After Anders goes off to collect plant samples and is kidnapped by extraterrestrials, Kapper and Lee argue over whether to rescue him or save themselves.”

Amidst this drama of tiny red aliens, a double sun, air that smells of cinnamon and yellow and orange trees, we learn a few unsettling facts about what has happened back on Earth. “The Earth has no more forests,” sings Anders, “no wilderness, no still places.” Evoking a Sartrean horror on a planetary scale, he gives us an image of “only human faces, only human voices…. The Earth has no more silence.” The resources we need to replenish not only air and water, but also weary minds have disappeared. These revelations set up Anders’ seduction by the lushness and quiet of Rigel 9, and the gorgeous soprano voices of its inhabitants.

Bedford’s music is transporting, with “Bowie-esque synth sweeps” and saxophones, thrilling choral movements, and a pounding rhythm section that puts one in mind of Queen. Scottish New Wave duo Strawberry Switchblade make an appearance, as the lead voices of an alien funeral procession (top). The dialogue and spoken performances can be a bit corny, but the space rock opera has never been suited for subtlety, and Le Guin and Bedford purposefully created the drama as a radio play of sorts. “We had talked about the composition as ‘opera for ear,” she explained, “That is, a ‘radio opera… We liked the idea of being able to imagine the scenery, and then putting that scenery into the words and the music.”

That same year, Le Guin released another musical effort, teaming with musician Todd Barton for a cassette-only production called Music and Poetry of Kesh, released together with her novel Always Coming Home. And ten years later, she worked with classical composer Elinor Armer on Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts. This eight-movement work features Le Guin herself, narrating a text about “a fantastical realm,” Berkwits writes, “the Uttermost Archipelago in the fifth quarter of Island Earth—where sound literally sustains life.” Just above, hear one movement, “The Seasons of Oling,” a further reminder that Le Guin, who never shrank from the violence of our world, could always imagine enthralling alternatives.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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