10 Great Books on Science Fiction (4)
Special thanks to Megan, blogger of From Couch to Moon who put together the list of 10 Great Books on Science Fiction (2) last year and 10 Great Books on Science Fiction in 2014. She has graciously returned for a third list of books on science fiction.
Megan’s Blog: http://couchtomoon.wordpress.com
Something old, something new, something backlist, something debut… something from twenty years ago that eerily depicts current social unrest and the political legitimacy of white supremacist Trumpery. Here’s a list of SF books that might interest you:
Starting with a couple of recent, yet relatively unknown, award winners…
Making Wolf (2015) by Tade Thompson
Bleak, sick, gritty, action-packed– this ultra-violent, neo-noir detective thriller is set in Alcacia, a vaguely imaginary nation in west Africa. A refugee of the country’s violent past, Weston Kogi returns home for a funeral and is lured into the world of crime. It feels more realistic and adult than the cover would suggest, as it probes into the nature of criminality and personality, especially as the compelling anti-hero spirals deeper into his own troubles and self-interested actions. This debut will satisfy fans of bloody and brutal thrillers, and though the SF elements are minimal, they are critical to the story. Despite its Kitschies award-winning success and uncomfortable character arc, discourse about Making Wolf has been surprisingly minimal.
Radiomen (2015) by Eleanor Lerman
A spooky E.T. tale written as a convincing post-911 memoir, Laurie, a washed up, forty-something NYC airport bartender, calls a nighttime radio show and finds herself revisiting a hazy childhood memory of sitting on a fire escape, listening to Sputnik 10’s signals on her uncle’s Haver kit radio. Psychics, dogs, and a Scientology-like cult enter her life and leave her grasping for meaning and authenticity as she pursues contact with an elusive shadow-being that’s as shadowy and oblique as her untrustworthy human allies. This award-winning poet and “literary outlaw” injects new life into sci-fi while reminding the digital generation of the fascinating and spooky science of radio waves. The most recent winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and a worthy one, indeed!
Destiny Times Three (1945) by Fritz Leiber
Full of nerve, verve, and an an abundance of em dashes, Leiber’s 1945 Astounding serial, Destiny Times Three, blends Nordic myth, Persian poetry, and a little bit of Wells into a multiverse story that explores a provocative moral question: What would you do if you found out your multiverse twin exists in a miserable dystopian universe and they resent you for having the better life? Written on the tail end of WWII, Leiber’s tale is more than a little perceptive when read in a Cold War context, and his critique of “The Great Man” theory of history is a rare moment of humility in 1940’s pulp SF. Leiber is hit-and-miss for me– he is often ill-equipped for his reckless New Wave button-pushing, and his sword-and-sorcery stuff bores me to tears– but DT3 is nothing short of brilliant.
Elysium (2014) by Jennifer Marie Brissett
With comparisons to Gene Wolfe and David Mitchell, Brissett is another experimental architect who rejects narrative conventions and arranges SF elements as they suit her. In short, Elysium is a computer codified, Imperial Roman love story, but it’s also a post-apocalyptic tale on the fritz, with settings, characters, and plots rebooting into new configurations at every plot turn, making the reader grasp for the elements that remain unchanged. Stripping SF of its chrome veneer, Elysium reveals its underlying ones and zeroes, while also revealing nothing at all. While the attenuated setting leaves little room for plenitude, the strange combinations of styles and tropes and symbols will get under your skin.
The Exile Waiting (1975) by Vonda McIntyre
At its core, it’s a story about breaking away from home and family, in which the hero yearns for the freedom of outer space, but the underground setting of this post-nuked earth is an obstacle. Disorienting and blurry, the subterranean city hosts a confusion of social structures that aren’t easily deciphered, along with more straight-forward adventures against the ruling class. Disjointed journal excerpts by an outsider named Jan intensify the narrative haze, while gender deconstruction details, such as ambiguous names and delayed use of gendered pronouns while casting women in typically male-dominated occupations add another appreciated element to the tale.
Doorways in the Sand (1976) by Roger Zelazny
Gangsters, G-men, and a talking alien wombat hound Fred Cassidy for the location of the missing star-stone, but all he wants to do is prolong his career as a lackadaisical university student. New Wave’s prose poet takes Lewis Carroll down his own rabbit hole and skiffies up the fantasy classic with an inversion machine instead of a looking glass, talking animals that are actually aliens, and a nagging phantom smile. Comedic in tone, but full of style, Zelazny’s playfulness with genre tropes is infectious and raucous, and his flair for phrasing is stunning.
The Vegetarian (2015) by Han Kang
Wait! Just hear me out! Yes, this Man Booker International Prize-winning novella, lauded for its penetrating elegance, layered complexity, and balance of beauty and horror, is shelved on the other side of the bookstore, but Kang’s depiction of a woman who gradually rejects the cruelty of humanity by rejecting her own humanity will plant readers right in the fertile ground of uncanny valley. Not only does the protagonist think and, at times, behave like a plant, but she might convince you that she really is transforming into a plant, and, most intriguingly, she might convince you it’s a good idea. What’s more SF than that? (It’s also just a brilliant book and overshadows most everything I’ve read this year.)
Missing Man (1975) Katherine MacLean
Not traditionally sci-fi enough? Try Missing Man, where elements of hard SF mingle with soft SF in this psi-detective story set in a re-engineered, future Manhattan. Character complexity and moral uncertainty add depth, while MacLean’s Heinleinisms spark humor and innovation (and sometimes seventies’ worldview cringe). Thanks to MacLean’s imaginative city scapes and unusual NYC burroughs, this novel is bursting with a million sci-fi concepts; each page could inspire its own novel, making it one of the more entertaining seventies sci-fi novels I’ve read.
The Clone (1965) by Theodore L. Thomas and Kate Wilhelm
For something even more traditionally sci-fi, Thomas and Wilhelm’s The Clone turns The Blob on its unscientific, reactionary head, as four crucial, every day ingredients mix in the sewer to create… the Clone! As the slimy Clone rampages through the city’s sewage system to consume innocent civilians, we learn tidbits about chemistry, biology, and plumbing, turning silly B-movie fodder into something educational and, well, even sillier, despite the all-important message that we have more to fear on earth (including our treatment of the earth) than any threat from outer space. You’ll laugh, you’ll flinch, you’ll think twice about pouring anything but water down the drain.
Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents (1993/1998) by Octavia E. Butler
Sure, there are lots of reasons it’s cliche to put Octavia Butler on a Best of list–and I’m already breaking the rules by listing two books!– but in what’s become a horrific political year, 2016 might be the best time to check out Butler’s Parable series, which spans the 2010’s through the 2030’s and features a dystopian U.S. where poverty, racism, and sexism spin out of control. In Butler’s disintegrating California, neighborhoods build walls, corporations institute indentured servitude, and a demagogue is running for US president. When you get to the part where the violence-inciting presidential candidate adopts the slogan “Make America Great Again,” you might feel compelled to break out the prescience meter and start collecting recipes for acorn bread.
There you have it: Ten Great SF books from a variety of styles, topics, and decades that should please any budding or veteran SF fan.