There are a fair number of SF novels that focus not on individual characters but on the society of which they are a part. Often the novels do so by focusing on the development of those cultures over time. Societies evolve; individuals come and go like mayflies. There’s a narrative, but not the sort of narrative we usually expect to enjoy.
You might think that it would be hard to make such books interesting. (I don’t think that anyone has ever described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a cracking thrill ride: “Could not put it down!”) The following five novels show that it is possible to write interesting works that take the long view.
The Healer by F. Paul Wilson (1976)
Wilson has written a novel that spans generations but nevertheless has one consistent viewpoint character. Steven Dalt takes refuge in a cave on a backwater world, only to fall prey to an alien “alaret” lurking on the ceiling. Luckily for Dalt, while “of every thousand struck down [by alarets], nine hundred and ninety-nine will die,” Dalt is one in a thousand. Instead of painful death, he acquires an alien symbiont, “Pard,” who shares his body. Apart, both faced short lives. Together, they survive centuries.
Dalt’s native LaNague Federation is named for founding father and ardent libertarian Peter LaNague. Rather atypically for states founded by libertarians in novels written by libertarians, the Federation proved largely disinterested in LaNague’s political philosophy. They preferred more state-based solutions. Dalt and Pard’s immortality allows them to observe as the consequences play out over centuries.
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Industrialization brought unprecedented wealth to humanity. Admittedly, this had certain regrettable consequences, like widespread pollution. Which has led to mass extinctions of various species. Oh well…omelet, eggs, we got rich. Then humans discover that humans are not immune to the mass sterility sweeping the world. Absent heroic measures, the current generation of humans will be the last one ever.
The wealthy Sumner clan owns a vast estate in the Shenandoah Valley. There the Sumners intend to wait out doomsday. It just so happens that the estate is equipped with an advanced medical facility that includes cloning technology. Human infertility will not end the Sumner clan. Instead, each new generation will be populated by carbon copies of those who came before. This might seem like a recipe for eternal stagnation, save for the fact that even clones are not identical and change is inevitable…
The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss (1998)
Bold visionaries uninhibited by practicality created orbital habitats. Reality then asserted itself in the form of total life support collapse in said habitats. A community of Quakers with a fancy to travel to a nearby star system (there to colonize its terrestrial world) have acquired the habitat for a reasonable fee, refurbished it, and equipped it with a vast solar sail. A failed experiment became the starship Dusty Miller.
The Dusty Miller is blindingly fast compared to 20th-century rockets, but it’s still going to take many, many years to reach the stars. One hundred and seventy-five years pass before the Dusty Miller reaches its destination. Once it arrives, the Quakers face the task of settling a marginally habitable world. The challenge is monumental and survival comes at a terrifying price!!!—that is, embracing the Quaker values of community spirit, frank dialogue, and peaceful compromise.
Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005)
The breakneck pace of progress in the 20th century was merely foreshadowing for what was to come in the 21st. Accelerating technological sophistication took Earth up to and past the Singularity. What fate awaits that Quaternary relic, humanity, as its creations match and then exceed human intelligence?
Just as other primates didn’t vanish simply because humans came along, so humans like “venture altruist” Manfred Macx do their best to prevail in a world where humans are no longer the apex of intellect. Over three generations, the Macxes watch as their Solar System is transformed by increasingly alien beings. Ultimately, however, human ingenuity has cost the species the Solar System—if humans have a future, it lies elsewhere.
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)
Doctor Kern did not personally terraform the nameless world twenty light-years from Earth but she plans to shape its destiny. Kern intends to seed what she dubs Kern’s World with monkeys infected with a nanovirus. The virus has been designed to force the monkeys along a deterministic path towards a new and better species, one far superior to disappointing humanity. Alas, her bold vision has failure points. Points which doom it.
The monkeys die on their way to the surface. The nanovirus, on the other hand, makes planetfall. Lacking its intended host, the nanovirus abandons Chordata in favour of Arthropoda. Kern’s World is ruled by generation after generation of very bright, surprisingly social spiders. Humans will one day make their way to Kern’s World, where they will either find some way to deal with the spiders or perish.
Of course, these are not the only five authors to take the long view of society. After all, I mention a sixth, even a possible seventh, in the footnotes. Feel free to mention your own favourites, and works you might even consider the foundation of this sub-genre. Comments are below.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and the Aurora finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award and is surprisingly flammable.