A prime example is Isaac Asimov's monumental Foundation Trilogy, which draws deeply on human political history, particularly Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Like the fine novelist that he was, Asimov places his well-defined characters in a quickly-paced narrative that adds a personal element to historical events and political machinations. Foundation, as a political entity, is the product of individuals and their actions, and we're privy to their conversations and thoughts as they shape the fate of the galaxy. It's not so much a retelling of Gibbon as it is an interstellar Greek drama based on the story of Roman imperial decline, a tale where individual actions have consequences of epic import. But because it's sci-fi, these tales aren't bound by terran limitations: they bounce from planet to planet, providing Greek tragedy with a healthy side dose of intergalactic space flight. Greek with geek, if you will.
My interest in sci-fi comes with a planetary sized caveat: the genre, sadly, is rife with some truly mediocre writing. Sometimes it seems like sci-fi editors will forgive stilted narrative and lame character development as long as the gizmos giz and the zappers zap. Caveats aside, there is plenty of brilliance in the genre, and one master that I've recently caught up with is Kim Stanley Robinson.
Robinson's Mars trilogy has been on my reading list for some time, but I finally got around to it this month. He presents an environmental challenge: given a blank planetary slate, filled with the proverbial "building blocks" to support life, how would humans create a habitable environment on a planet from scratch? Over the course of three novels, Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996). Robinson traces the colonization and terraforming of Mars, where several generations of colonist render a stark, freezing planet into a place fit for human habitation.
Yet as anyone who has paid attention to the environmental movement in our current time and place (Earth, circa 2008), environmental science is constantly battling with corporate interests and an array of related political wiles, ruses, and shenanigans. As it is now, so it is in Red Mars. Without spoiling the plot, a struggle develops among the settlers between keeping Mars in its pre-human contact condition (a group known as the "Reds,") and turning it into another Earth-like planet, with surface water, vegetation, and a breathable atmosphere (these folks are known as the "Greens"). As colonization develops, transnational corporate interests ("transnats"), with an unwavering eye toward profits, bring in settlers from war-torn and overpopulated Earth to work the Martian mines. A corporate police state develops, with eerie parallels to Appalachian coal towns and other dark sides of labor history.
While Robinson's initial acclaim came from the Mars novels, he's gained recent attention with his Science in the Capital trilogy, a set of novels examining the effects of Global Warming, consisting of Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). And it's not just sci-fi fans who have notice Robinson's work; indeed, his environmental literature earned him a 2008 "Hero of the Environment" designation by that bastion of mainstream news reporting, Time Magazine. Last month, AMC announced plans to make a TV series based on Red Mars. His work is quite popular, and the Web's abuzz with information about him. One interesting source is the KSR Encyclopedia wiki.
Inside the Gusev Crater on Mars, from the Mars Exploration Rover Spirit
Credits: Photo of Kim Stanley Robinson by Beth Gwinn, from the KSR Encyclopedia. The tracks were made by Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity when it scampered in and out of the Victoria Crater. The Mars images are from NASA's Mars Exploration Program website. The Asimov ad is blatantly ripped from the Web, but it was so cool I just had to do it. To help offset any guilt I have about stealing a Radio Shack ad, I promise to go to Radio Shack as soon as possible to pick up one of these cool TRS-80s. I've always wanted a color computer!