I’ve been running a science fiction reading group for a year and a half now. Not sure whether it will continue much longer, as participation has fallen off a lot and I’ve been pretty busy myself, but we’ve had some great reads and discussions over the last 18 months or so. I started the group because I have been thinking of teaching a course in science fiction (should the opportunity arise), and I wanted to read and reread some major and/or representative books in the genre–so in case you are interested in doing the same, here are some of the books we felt were worth covering. I hope to review some of these books in more detail, but as I seem to be on a “review lots of books all at once before the New Year” kick, I thought I would run through them all with brief comments, and save the fancy stuff for some other time. I am probably not going to get these in the right order– but oh well. This is just a quick list with a comment or two per entry.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. This is the science fiction book that all my friends who don’t read science fiction say they have enjoyed. It’s pretty classic, and pretty engaging. Another “messiah” story, sure, but it is well done for all that, and it is especially interesting read against our contemporary “gamer society” (just made up that term). If you don’t read sci-fi and just want a fun book, read this. If you are trying to cover the basic canon of science fiction… read this. Pretty much everyone should read this. Not that I think it is perfect, but I find it accessible at the same time that it rewards contemplation.
Dune, by Frank Herbert. Well duh, of course we read this. A bit harder to get through, if you do not LOVE world building and exotic stuff. New Wave era “post-human” messiah story (yes, two already!). Similar to Asimov’s Foundation in the grand scope (“galaxy” building, really), but also a bit of an anti-Foundation in the more cognitive and mystical elements. I like the first book. I tried reading the sequel and hated it. I hear they get worse. Still, you should probably read the first book, at least if you are interested in the history of sci fi. This is as canonical as it gets, and the book leaves its genetic trace in Star Wars, Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, and many other places.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick. I first read this and saw the movie based off of it (Bladerunner) when I took a course in science fiction as an undergrad, and enjoyed revisiting both this time around. Dark (even noir in the movie), dystopian, post-apocalyptic look at the idea of artificial intelligence and the semantics of life. Or something like that. Anyway, also very canonical, and short too– so even if you don’t like it, you haven’t wasted much time!
Solaris, by Stanislaw Lem. This is one of the books which I loved, but which was harder to get through for the non-humanities PhD students in our group. Not so accessible… but VERY interesting. Apparently the science isn’t so good (“they’re made of neutrinos??? psh”), but the book is a very well done meditation on the project of science and various levels of Otherness and our attempts to bridge that Otherness. I hope I will find time to reread it and write a full review– this is a fascinating book. Actually, i think I will be teaching this next semester (not totally sure yet). Fairly canonical, but be prepared to work at it if you read it.
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell. MDR is a PhD in biological anthropology, and you know, being an academic myself, I REALLY like it when people bring their specialties to speculative fiction. This book is a fascinating story of Jesuits in space. Yes, Jesuits in space. Well, more specifically, it is a first contact story gone wrong, with the story of the mission itself framed by the rehabilitation of the only surviving member of the mission back on earth, while the Vatican tried to find out exactly what happened. Although she is not a Christian herself, MDR gives a very nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of the spiritual life of the main character, and her expertise in biological anthropology shines in the revelation of the evolutionary “novum” at the end of the book. There is a sequel, which I have yet to read. I can’t really say this book is canonical, but it is high quality and fairly accessible. It was particularly popular with the non-sci-fi crowd when it first came out.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. LeGuin is a great example of accessible New Wave science fiction, and also brings a bit of anthropological familiarity to her books (her father was Alfred Kroeber). This book is one of her most famous, and understandably so. While it pushes the boundaries of traditional sci fi with its problematizing of gender (a great example of a well done anthropological novum), it is very readable and enjoyable. Yes, I know, that can’t be said about all New Wave science fiction… In any case, this is fairly canonical (maybe more so than Ender’s Game) and I recommend it to those interested in the history of sci-fi, those who want a more accessible example of New Wave sci-fi, or those who are just interested in examining the treatment of gender in fiction.
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville. I loved it–fascinating take on the idea of the “City”, as well as a critique of the excesses of capitalism (CM is a communist). Bits of science fiction and fantasy throughout. We might call it steampunk, but “New Weird” is probably better. The book inspired comparisons to Dickens, but also frustrated some in the group with the lack of closure (it isn’t a “happy” book–sorry to spoil that part…) and the abrupt change from a story about a complex metropolis to a supernatural thriller. Well, I was OK with it, but while I think this is a fascinating bit of the expanding canon, I will admit that it is not especially accessible. Enjoyable for me, but not so much for more casual/escapist readers.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume 1. Great selection of the best of the late Golden Age. Well, OK, I found some of these awkward, or even ideologically noxious, at times, but it was a great piece of history, and all of the stories were engaging at some level. Some even edge towards New Wave. For post-Golden age short stories, check out the Norton Anthology of Science Fiction. I would say both volumes are must-reads for those interested in the history of sci-fi. If you’re more of a casual reader, well, both are still fun. You can always skip a story if you don’t like it.
The Warrior’s Apprentice, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Everyone loved this book. Look, just go buy the omnibus that it is reprinted in. Or check it out free online here. Great space opera, escapist but thoughtful. Not canonical maybe, but really, no one’s life will be complete without reading this.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson. Cyberpunk, or post-Cyberpunk, depending on who you ask. Originally meant to be a graphic novel, which explains the feel/pacing of the book, and the weird/abrupt ending. Great book in any case. Tries to tie in computers, neurolinguistics, ancient Assyria, Giglamesh, televangelists , samurai swords, motorcycles, the mafia, and many other things into one dystopian thriller. OK, I don’t think the neurolinguistic novum really works, but hey, you could say the same about most science fiction. Very accessible, and relatively canonical, esp. in the emerging canon.
Foundation, by Isaac Asimov. Well duh, of course we read this. As canonical as canonical can be. Mostly we enjoyed it, but some wanted a more developed story, rather than bits of stories spread out along a larger history. Oh well. Lots I could say about this, but no time. Golden Age classic. THE Golden Age classic. Read it.
Kallocain, by Karin Boye. Swedish dystopian fiction. I plan on teaching this book next semester, along side other books about “Other worlds”, dystopian, fantastic, romanticized, etc. She wrote this after her disillusionment with Stalinism, after a visit to the Soviet Union in the 40s, I believe. Yes, it’s pretty much a downer of a read. It’s Swedish after all. Still fascinating, I think, and a big part of the extremely tiny canon of Swedish science fiction.
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. OK, this one is also a downer, but also fascinating. I think most of the group didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. The chapters are really short, the voice of the narrator feels pretty weird, and the overall tone is quite pessimistic. Challenging to read, sure– but rewarding. At least, if you like things that are different. I do.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow. Post-scarcity as a novum. I found it a pretty disturbing world in any case, but a great book. The melding of brain and computer, and the immortality that comes with it, feels very fresh and edgy here–but I will note that Iain M Banks, at least, has had this in his Space Opera books since the 80s (and I believe it’s shown up in other science fiction even before that). This book is very much NOT focused on space. Actually, it’s focused on the Haunted Mansion in Disneyworld. Unusual science fiction, pretty readable, and free online. SO READ IT!!!! Not my favorite, but I would call it an “important book”.
Babel 17 and Empire Star, by Samuel DeLany. Now this is more what I think of when I think of “New Wave”. Still, even though I was worried it would be very inaccessible, most of the people in the group enjoyed it. Everyone was happy. Delany is one of my favorites, so I was glad we got to cover something by him. B-17 and ES are both space opera. Originally the novella ES was supposed to be packaged with B-17, but it is only in the last 10 years that that has been done. B-17 was included in the reading list b/c it had a linguist-novum like Snow Crash did. Both B-17 and ES involve a degree of meditation on the nature of the poet as well. Ah, I’m running out of time, and these deserve a lot more–so I will talk about them (and the rest of Delany’s work) another day.
Bone Dance, by Emma Bull. I assigned this thinking it was cyberpunk. Whoops. It is a genre bending (as well as gender bending, in the same way as Left Hand of Darkness) combination of fantasy/magic realism, science fiction (psychic powers), and a nuclear post-apocalypse. This book is little known, but I loved it and strongly recommend it. Pretty accessible at the same time that it plays with some Big Ideas. Very well developed characters and a strong plot. READ IT!!!!
And then we are also reading The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (a fascinating futuristic, third world, postcolonial bio-thriller which has gotten a lot of attention lately) and A Fire on the Deep by Vernor Vinge (New Space Opera, early exploration of the idea of the Singularity, a term which Vinge coined). I haven’t read these yet, so I will not say anything for now.
OK, I hope this will be a useful overview of some of the “big books” in Science Fiction. Not all are central to the canon, but I do recommend them all. Here’s hoping I will find time to discuss some of them more thoroughly.