Crabmonsters and Sentient Darkness: Ten Great Scifi PoemsS

Poetry has a reputation for being an indulgent way to yammer on about a subject everyone's already tired of. Sure there are needless epics, but good poetry is actually designed to emphasize the strangest and most dramatic aspects of a situation as quickly as possible. That's why it can be a perfect venue for science fiction. Nothing needs to be over-explained or grounded in reality. Scifi poetry is about taking an original idea to its extreme, and stripping everything else away. Take a look at ten poems that do science fiction awesomely.

10. The Pern Poems by Anne McCaffrey

One of the great advantages of making up new worlds is the ability to make up new cultural touchstones along with them. There are plenty of books that have lyrical poetry as part of the story's universe, and Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern is one of them.

Seas boil and mountians move,
Sands heat, dragons prove
Red Star passes,
Stones piles and fires burn,
Green withers, arm Pern.
Guard all passes.
Star Stone watch, scan sky.
Ready the Weyrs, all riders fly;
Red Star Passes.

9. A Quiet World by Jeffrey McDaniel

Sometimes going scifi is just a matter of impossible an impossible condition on the world. A Quiet World is a snapshot of a love story in a world in which people have an allotted amount of words they can use per day.

Late at night, I call my long
distance lover and proudly say
I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn't respond, I know
she's used up all her words

The poem is about quality and quantity of communication, and how we need both.

8. Eighteen Years Old, October Eleventh by Joe Haldeman

Many science fiction narratives use time, not social conditions, to show the change in the world. Joe Haldeman's poem centers on a lost earring, uncovered after millennia by someone with a very different body, but a kindred spirit to the original owner. The discoverer looks over the piece:

felt the sense of loss in that silly girl,
dead as a trilobite;
felt the pain that had gone into penetrating
the soft hyperbolic paraboloid of cartilage
that then displayed the decoration;
felt its sexual purpose:
to attract a dissimilar pattern of genes
to combine and recombine a trillion trillion times,
and become herself.

7. Aniara by Harry Martinson

A reaction to Cold War fears and general anomie, Martinson wrote a whopping 103 canto epic poem about the struggles of would-be space colonists. Originally bound for Mars, they get knocked off course and out of the solar system. Faced with unsolvable problems, the colonists try to distract themselves with shallow pursuits. It's not a fun read, but it's a major scifi poem.

We listen daily to the sonic coins
provided every one of us and played
through the Finger-singer worn on the left hand.
We trade coins of diverse denominations:
and all of them play all that they contain
and though a dyma 1 scarcely weighs one grain
it plays out like a cricket on each hand
blanching here in this distraction-land.

Good times.

6. Six Haikus by Karen Anderson

This series of poems, each building on the last's supposition and getting wilder all the time, manages to do the impossible three times over.

Those crisp cucumbers
Not yet planted on Syrtis -
How I desire one!

First, it makes science fiction story eighteen lines long. Second, it makes me kind of like haikus. And third, it gets me interested in vegetables.

5. The Migration of Darkness by Peter Payack

Payack published a whole slew of poetry in Amazing Science Fiction Stories and Asimov's Science Fiction, as well as Rolling Stone and The New York Times. This particular poem, which attributes darkness to a biological phenomenon, won the Rhysling Award for science fiction poetry.

Darkness, it has been found, is composed
of an almost infinite number of particles,
which roost and reproduce up north
where they have fewer natural enemies:
Forest fires, lampposts, lasers, blazing sunlight,
torches, candles, lighthouses, limelight, and electricity
are relatively rare in the polar regions.

4. Reasons for Numbers by Lisel Mueller

Mueller's poem reconstructs the base ten number system through a psychological narrative. It sounds awful, and slow, but it's actually a light, short poem.

1.
Because I exist.

2.
Because there must be a reason
why I should cast a shadow.

. . .

10.
Created functionless, for the sheer play
of the mind in its tens of thousands of moves.

3. Timesweep by Carl Sandburg

I was born in the morning of the world,
So I know how morning looks
morning in the valley wanting,
morning on a mountain wanting.
Morning looks like people look,
like a cornfield wanting corn,
like a sea wanting ships.
Tell me about any strong, beautiful wanting,
And there is your morning, my morning,
everybody's morning.

Look, say what you want about the Americana-worshipping, hippiefied old socialist, but that is a hell of a lead-in. He then proceeds to take the reader through the creation, population, and destruction of planet earth in a chapter-long poem that would put Tolkien's epics to shame.

2. Space Oddity by David Bowie

This is one of the best known science fiction poems in the world, in one of the best science fiction poetry collections. See? They don't all have to be dusty books. Some come with pop stars.

This is major Tom to ground control, I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
Here am I floatin' 'round my tin can far above the world
Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do

1. Attack of the Crab Monsters by Lawrence Rabb

Lawrence Rabb wrote one of best scifi poems of all time based on, no fooling, a Roger Corman film. You can see the film - it's precisely what it sounds like - but the poem is a better use of time. It takes us on a tour of the usual silly monster-movie cliches such as a heroine who walks around in underwear, and explains how human consciousness is tranferred into a crab monster bodies before building up to a final emotional punch at the end.

And everyone is surprised
and no one understands

why each man tries to kill
the thing he loves, when the change
comes over him. So now you know
what I never found the time to say.
Sweetheart, put down your flamethrower.
You know I always loved you.