Alright, so, I’ll admit that sometimes trans-related issues get the majority of my writing efforts here, which wasn’t (and really still isn’t) my goal with this project. My interests are wide and varied, and dammit, I’m going to work harder on actually talking about them! One of the things I’m absolutely crazy about (as I think I’ve mentioned before) is books and literature. I’m particularly fond of the wide range that makes up science fiction, but my reading certainly isn’t limited to just sci-fi. So in the vein, I’m starting a new column series about books, with the goal of posting one a month (on the the first day of the month). Sometimes it might be a list of five book suggestions on a particular theme, sometimes it might be a book review, and if I’m tenacious enough to corner an author at a convention, it might even be an interview! So, on that note, let’s get to our inaugural post in this series: 5 Science Fiction Books for People Who Don’t Think They Like Science Fiction.
Sci-fi gets an awfully bad rap from a lot of people- one that I feel is rather undeserved! A common perception is that science fiction is written for men, and that it mostly involves space ships, ray guns, and aliens. Unfortunately, the science fiction world doesn’t do enough to shed itself of that kind of image. The Sci-Fi Channel (sorry, SyFy…*eye roll*) is dominated by space-and-alien kinds of movies and show, and portions of the convention scene (particularly WorldCon) are still dominated by the writing of white men talking about spaceships. Heck, even the two biggest awards for science-fiction writing- the Nebula and the Hugo- have trophies with space themes. Don’t get me wrong, all of that certainly IS science fiction. But the world of sci-fi is so much broader than that. And I’m not talking about fantasy bodice-rippers, and Twilight-esque teen vampire lit (because that’s fantasy, which I will continue to insist is a separate (though still worthwhile) genre, no matter how much book retailers want to cram them together in the same shelves.) Fortunately, many publishers and lots of conventions are embracing the diversity of science-fiction, and bringing lots of new fans into the sci-fi community.
So, let’s talk about sci-fi ACTUALLY is. On its face, science fiction is simply speculative fiction (set in the future- either near or distant), where there is some form of driving premise involving science. This can range from the sweeping cultural space epics of Iain M Bank and Isaac Asimov, to the mind-bending cyberpunk works from Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, to dystopian literature by the likes of Ray Bradbury and Margaret Atwood, to imaginative biopunk works from Paulo Bacigalupi and China Mieville. Often, science fiction leverages this speculation to make subtle (or sometimes quite overt) commentary on modern social and political situations including capitalism, race, sexism, and religion. And while there’s a certainly an abundance of white male authors, people like Ursula K LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Connie Willis, and Lois Bujold have been prominent writers in the science-fiction realm for decades, several of whom are recognized Grand Masters of the Science Fiction Writers Association.
In crafting this list, I strove to entirely avoid anything that’s space-related, so it leans heavily on the dystopian types of stories. I tried to include a variety of writing styles and themes, and did my best balance out the heavily serious entries with some more light-hearted fare. I also wanted to demonstrate some of the diversity in authors, so only 2 of 5 are white guys. Lastly, I shied away from anything from the “hard” science fiction realm, it can put off people who are new to the sci-fi world. In any case, if you’re the sort of person who has previously thought of sci-fi as nothing more than a lot of permutations of Star Wars and Star Trek, I highly suggest you give at least one of the following a try and see if I can’t change your perspective:
1. “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro – This one is sneaky. You’ll be halfway through the book (at least) before you realize it’s anything but a touching coming-of-age story. It’s a beautiful example of the subtle premise reveal, and it makes the realization of what’s really going on that much more impactful. Ishiguro’s writing here is too good to spoil by sharing details, but the broad points he makes about the nature of what it is to be human are powerful.
2. “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut – I’ll be the first to admit that I’d look to sneak Vonnegut into almost any book list. But “Cat’s Cradle” is beautiful in its absolute absurdity, and manages to take pokes at both religion and the arms race. It’s perhaps one of the best pieces of satirical dystopian fiction that’s ever been published. And if you’ve never read Vonnegut (shame on you), it’s a really good entry piece to his work.
3. “A Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood – This is perhaps my favorite book on the list. Despite being written nearly 30 years ago, its stark warning about the dangers of viewing women’s bodies as little more than incubators for fetuses remains just as relevant now as it was in 1985. It stands as one of the pillar works of feminist science-fiction. It’s also another fantastic example of the slow-reveal, and Atwood’s use of flashback is brilliant.
4. “The Children of Men” by PD James – Yes, you might have seen the movie. But, while the film adaptation is quite good, it’s a significant departure from the even-better novel. It’s a bleak look at potential consequences of a world where nearly everyone has become completely disillusioned and uninterested in the politics and government, as well as the prospect of human extinction. It also explores the dangers of power dynamics, and implications of a generation of spoiled, entitled children.
5. “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” by Michael Chabon – If you happen to be love detective stories with lots of word humor, this last book is the one for you. Set in a hypothetical future where the Jewish State has been relocated to Alaska with an wonderfully intricate alternate history, it’s mostly a murder mystery, but with subtle commentary on our actual history and on the Zionist movement in Israel. Chabon’s writing is actually laugh-out-loud funny at times, and his word-play is masterful.
“A Canticle for Liebowitz” By Walter M Miller, Jr
“The Giver” by Lois Lowry
“Wild Seed” by Octavia Butler.
Next month on 5 Books: 5 Essential Reads for Young Feminists