It’s a popular cliché that science fiction is just regular fiction…IN SPACE! It certainly doesn’t help that Star Trek was pitched as “Wagon Train…IN SPACE!” and Star Wars is Akira Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress…IN SPACE!,” with a couple of effeminate robots thrown in for good measure.
But the belief that any story can be turned into sci-fi just by slapping blasters and jetpacks on the characters ignores the real strength of science fiction: the exploration of ideas. Great science fiction takes an idea, inspects it from new angles, then shows us how it could affect us and the universe. And when that dedication to exploring ideas is combined with a classic, time-tested story, sometimes the results are even better than the original. Here are four sci-fi stories that took classic stories and improved them…IN SPACE!
The Stars My Destination, by Alfred Bester
The revenge tale is one of the most basic plots in fiction, and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is the classic example of a man slowly building his revenge against the one who wronged him. But Alfred Bester’s take on the story improves on the original by also exploring a world where personal teleportation (or “Jaunting”) has changed every aspect of society. After all, how do you imprison a man who can be instantaneously on the other side of the world with just a thought?
Double Star, by Robert Heinlein
Anthony Hope-Hawkins’ The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure story about a man who has to impersonate a king to save his country. The Heinlein novel expands the kingdom to the whole solar system, with down-and-out actor Lorenzo Smith hired to take over the identity of a prominent politician who has been kidnapped by the opposition. But where Double Star really shines is in its exploration of “The Great Lorenzo.” Heinlein gives us a great character study of a strutting, egomaniacal, and racist (toward martians) actor. And since the book is written as Lorenzo’s memoirs, we get a fascinating look at how that character has to grow and change to fill the role of a responsible leader.
Now and Forever, by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury wrote the script for the 1956 John Huston film adaptation of Moby Dick (an experience he wrote about in his amazing novel Green Shadows, White Whale), so it’s no surprise that he’d also adapt the original Herman Melville story on his own terms. His novella “Leviathan ‘99” sets “Moby Dick” in outer space, with an obsessed captain hunting down a comet that blinded him. And while the original novel is undoubtedly a classic, it’s also a doorstopper with one too many chapters about chowder. But Bradbury distills his version to a more appropriate length, making it more compelling while also keeping the spirit (and beauty) of Melville’s original language.
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
After reading Edward Gibbon’s historical treatise The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, Isaac Asimov wrote this science fiction epic about the decline and fall of a galactic empire. But his biggest change was adding a mysterious organization dedicated to preserving the empire’s knowledge through the dark ages that followed. What started as a trilogy became a five-part series and eventually grew to include his Robot and Empire novels. But even if you just stick to the original trilogy, you’re left with a sweeping thousand-year epic that explores the ideas of fate, statistics and the effect that one individual can have on history.