10 Great Books on Science Fiction 3
Our thanks to Jesse Hudson from the blog, Speculiction, for his list of 10 Great Books.
If there is any genre lacking in lists, it certainly isn’t science fiction. The internet littered with ‘ten best this’ and ‘top one-hundred that,’ it begs the question: what to do for a list for Science Book a Day? I guess I have to take the next step: a scatter shot—or at least something like it.
Accordingly, the following are not mainstream books that have taken bestseller lists by storm. They are not warmhearted stories that make you cry or laugh on the last page. And they are not what I think are the GREATEST science fiction novels ever. The books I chose are simply well-written, thought-provoking science fiction stories that appeal for the rigor of their vision as well as enjoyment of story. In no particular order, they are:
1. Blindsight by Peter Watts – More neuroscience fiction than science fiction, Blindsight is the story of a spaceship crew encountering an object they can’t explain. More revealed about their own state of existence than the object’s in the encounter, Watts does not play nice. Exploring the darker nooks and crannies of the human psyche, the novel is hard, edgy stuff that anything but romanticizes mankind in space.
2. The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson – Social media will certainly be one of the main points in any history of our current era. In The Affinities, Wilson posits the discovery of an algorithm that is able to link people with compatible (not always similar) personalities. People forming extremely strong social bonds as a result, the novel puts to the test the notion that blood is thicker than water. Plot is a bit thin, but the book nevertheless strikes a chord that nicely echoes our increasingly non-nuclear unit society and its growing dependence on the technology linking our interaction.
3. The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett – Brackett’s name will forever be attached to pulp fiction in the 40s and 50s, a medium in which she was very successful. In 1955, however, she buckled down to examine one of humanity’s biggest quandaries: If indeed social movements occur in cycles that over time have a net result of zero, what is the value of scientific pursuit? If humanity will inevitably revert to primitivism, of what use is maneuvering toward that fuzzy idea of ‘civilization’? Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz also wrestled with this subject matter, but with its subjective take on religion was unable to achieve full potential. Bypassing Christianity and focusing on humanity, The Long Tomorrow achieves its potential; Brackett answers the questions above without cheating, all in a style that John Steinbeck or Pearl S. Buck would have nodded once or twice in approval of.
4. Flatland by Edwin Abbot – I will hazard this is the first and only piece of geometry fiction. About Mr. Square who lives happily in Flatland with pentagon children and a line wife, his two dimensions are thrown upside down (figuratively) one day by a thing claiming to come from an unthinkable place: a third dimension. Satirical allegory of the finest, Abbot takes to task political and social assumptions of late-19th century England through the symbolism inherent to shape and dimension. In other words, don’t be thrown by the goofy premise; Abbot had something to say that remains pointed (sorry) to this day.
5. River of Gods by Ian McDonald – The big, colorful pinwheel on this list, McDonald’s vision of 2047 India is one of the most dynamic, interest-building novels to come out in the past decade. Stretched across many characters, bits of dazzling imagination take flight and set the story moving across a variety of near-future scenes in an India both revitalized and downtrodden by technological change. Sexless humans, AI soap opera stars, space anomalies, longevity treatments—the vibrant ideas seemingly never stop. All cohering upon the climax, however, this is an exciting novel that manages to also be conceptually complex—not an easy feat.
6. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor – A delight, but an intelligent delight, this tale of aliens coming to Nigeria takes Robert Heinlein’s rather acidic A Stranger in a Strange Land and spins it in more colorful, cultural, and certainly less polarizing fashion. The aliens’ arrival evoking a variety of responses from the Nigerians, outright fear to religious fervor, zen calm to profiteering, the novel evokes in its readers as much quiet laughter as it does quiet understanding. Though a romp through African culture, Okorafor has her finger on the pulse of humanity throughout.
7. Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner – If we take Yvgeni Zamyatin’s We as the most symbolic, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four as the most cutting, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World as the most defiant, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale the one that balances them all across gender lines, people often miss out on John Brunner’s superb Stand on Zanzibar. Perhaps the most realistic dystopia of them all, with each occurrence of a crazed maniac killing innocent people in the US, Brunner’s vision of a world squeezed ever tighter by population and economy comes eerily more true.
8. Fools by Pat Cadigan – A lot of science fiction likes to play games with sentience due to changes brought about by new technology. Most such stories over-simplifying the workings of humanity’s most complex organ, Cadigan’s take on the subject of mind-altering tech is a kaleidoscope that sets the reader’s healthy, normal brain reeling in an attempt to comprehend how messed up our world might be if we started playing with memory and personality, perception and consciousness. And it’s precisely that the mind is not a mechanical device to be tuned like an engine that makes Cadigan’s vision all so engaging. A bit of a tough read due to the complexity of the narrative, but rewarding for the active reader.
9. Slow River by Nicola Griffith – Environmental science, regardless of genre, may be the most difficult subject to build a novel around. Its scale typically not playing well into demands for drama, Slow River nevertheless concocts a scenario that makes the subject matter appealing. About a well-to-do young woman cast out by her family, she is left to fend for herself in a relationship with a self-destructive lover and an undesirable job at a wastewater treatment plant. Griffith nicely brings together setting, character, and theme to prove the environment doesn’t have to be boring in fiction.
10. Gradisil by Adam Roberts – Mankind in space is a common enough theme in science fiction—perhaps even the identifying one. But what about mankind in the atmosphere? In Gradisil, Roberts portrays humanity’s next step toward inhabiting the stars as inhabiting modules in orbit in Earth’s stratosphere. Essentially pressurized cans outfitted for zero-g living, the US government gets involved when more and more people begin populating the skies and forming their own, frontier-style government. At heart a family saga, Roberts nevertheless vividly realizes the possibility of living in the stratosphere, as well as the all-too-common response by governments afraid of groups controlling increasingly large amounts of resources and territory, or in this novel’s case, “territory.”
Bio – By day, Jesse Hudson spends his time at the corporate grind, and by night is a husband and father. And if there are still a couple hours remaining, he plays in a rock band, goes hiking, bicycling, enjoys board games, travels, blogs, and, of course, reads. Though born in the US, he has spent the past decade of his life living in a few different countries, Australia, Czech Republic, and China among them. He currently resides in Poland and can be found blogging at Speculiction, a site devoted to book reviews, mostly science fiction and fantasy, though the occasional post of his travels and rants on the escalating cheapness of fiction in the 21st century can be found.