If you’ve ever had to spend more than a few days away from home, then you probably remember that “same but different” feeling your place had when you returned.
Perhaps your nose, no longer acclimated to the various smells of home, now re-notices them (and you seriously need to change the cat litter). Maybe you’ve never noticed just how soft the light looks as it falls through those drapes you chose last year. It’s possible you can now notice flaws you didn’t see before, because you were just used to them. Things are just the way you left them, but the time away has given you a new perspective on them.
If you’re looking for a good escape read, then science fiction has what you’re looking for. It will take you to far-away worlds and distant futures. You will encounter alien races and near-miraculous technologies. It won’t just be a trip, it will be an adventure. Trust me.
But, like any adventure, it will end. You’ll come back home once you close the book and put it back on your shelf or return it to the library. If the book has done it’s job, then you’ll experience that “same but different” feeling. Did you really expect to come back from Mars, or Centauri Alpha, or the center of Earth exactly the same as you left?
Science fiction changes our perceptions of ourselves and our world, because it is about our world. It takes you “out there” to show you what’s going on “right here.”
Don’t take it from me, consider renowned author Ursula Le Guin’s thoughts on science fiction, and the work science-fiction writers do. Le Guin challenges the commonly held assumption that science fiction is only about the future or far-away planets. Despite the fact that science fiction has “predicted” technological advancement such as space travel and artificial intelligence, Le Guin claims,
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.
Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the busniess of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”
Just to clarify: when she uses the term “lying,” Le Guin doesn’t mean that science-fiction writers, or novelists in general, are uninterested in the truth, it’s just that they reflect on the truth in non-literal ways. Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and, one of my personal favorites, Oscar Wilde all put forth similar claims about how art and literature tell the truth by “lying.”
As a “descriptive genre”, science fiction describes something in the world around us. By displacing us momentarily (for example, sending us to a galaxy far, far away . . . ) it helps us see what is going on around us. You could say that science fiction combines the best of escapism and enlightenment.
For those who want to “get into” science fiction, but don’t know where to start, I’ve compiled this list of 15 science-fiction novels (technically 12 novels and three novellas). Rather than categorize them by common genres or sub-genres, such as “hard” versus “soft” science fiction, I’ve decided to group them by theme, that is, what particular ideas and issues these works reflect on, question, or celebrate.
Yes, this is a terribly incomplete list. And yes, the thematic groupings are ultimately arbitrary. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive or authoritative list of “the best” that science fiction has to offer. I have a particular disdain for “best” lists, so you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want someone’s harder, crustier opinions on science fiction.
This is simply a place to start – a launch pad, if you will, to start your exploration of our own world through he weird, compelling, and oftentimes dizzying (in a good way!) world of science fiction.
Early Science Fiction
Science fiction is an old genre, much older than people usually suspect. It has been around since at least the early 17th century, though scholars argue that precedents can be found in texts as ancient the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Suffice it to say that, by the 1600s, writers were conversant enough with “science” as a branch of discourse that they could write stories celebrating, questioning, and in some cases, deploring scientific attitudes and advancements.
In terms of literary history, these three texts helped establish the widespread use of many recognizable themes, tropes, and styles we associate with modern “science fiction.” Examples include space travel, time travel, encounters with intelligent alien life, futuristic world and technology, and characters types like the well-meaning, but over-reaching scientist.
Thematically speaking, if “science” is a necessary condition for the emergence of the modern world, then these stories act as reflections on how this emergence opens radically new possibilities for humans, both exciting and terrifying. They remind us that the truths we take for granted were once new, exciting, and just a bit terrifying.
1.) The Blazing World, by Margaret Cavendish (1666)
Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was something of an oddity in her day. Her enthusiasm for science, not to mention her – gasp! – willingness to write and converse with men about science set her apart from other, more “proper” upper-class women. Her deep thirst for knowledge, enthusiasm for new scientific advancements (don’t even get her started on telescopes!), and love of adventure are qualities she shared with the unnamed heroine of her proto-novel The Blazing World. This early science-fiction adventure story follows a young woman – loosely based on Cavendish herself – to another planet inhabited by intelligent, talking animals, and multi-colored people, and her ascension to Empress of the Blazing World.
2.) Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (1818)
No list of science fiction is complete without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Just as tragic as it is terrifying, Shelley’s novel tells the intertwined tales of Victor Frankenstein, a “modern Prometheus” with an all-consuming obsession to find the scientific basis for life, and his physically deformed and persecuted, yet eloquent, sensitive, and highly intelligent creation. This novel explores the dark side of scientific ambition and human prejudice.
3.) The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (1895)
This classic novella offers a glimpse of the distant future that is at once fascinating and horrifying. Ina conversation among scholars all referred to by their professions, the eponymous Time Traveler recounts his journey to the year 802, 701 A.D, where he encounters the gentle, childlike Eloi, and the violent, subterranean race of Morlocks. In addition to a riveting science-fiction adventure story, Wells also offers readers a non-obtrusive view of Victorian attitudes toward science, and a critique of nineteenth-century class structure. Credited with popularizing the trope of time travel as a narrative device, The Time Traveller is a must read for anyone interested in science fiction.
Close to Home: Exploring the Darker Side of Science Fiction
It’s no secret that science fiction has a dark side. Even people who have only a passing familiarity with science fiction can recognize the “Mad Scientist” or “alien invader” tropes. Many of the books listed in this post contain dark and disturbing elements that force the reader to face uncomfortable aspects of the human condition.
These three titles are uniquely disturbing because they are set close to “home,” the familiar, modern, “real” world that we live in.
Two of these texts are set in the future, but not that far; one takes place only a few decades ago, in a world that many readers will still recognize. Their power to disturb us emerges from their sheer proximity to our own lives. Far from outlandish and alien, the technologies and scientific principles woven into these narratives are all based on existing scientific knowledge and capacity. It’s not too much of a stretch for our imaginations, and so the “buffer” between ourselves and the events of the page shrinks to an uncomfortably small size.
4.) The MaddAddam series, by Margaret Atwood]
If Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale shows what happens when we let Christian fundamentalism run wild, then her MaddAddam series presents us with capitalism on crack. Atwood’s trilogy moves back and forth between a not-too-distant future in which large corporations operate unchecked by any governmental body, and a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with genetically engineered animals, a new species of humanoid known as the Crakers, and the few human survivors of a massive biological attack. This dystopian vision of the near future forces us to confront the ramifications of a society that has abandoned its humanity in the pursuit of profit. The individual titles in this series are Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013).
“It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”Attributed variously to literary theorist Fredrick Jameson and philosopher Slavoj Žižek
5.) Carrion Comfort, by Dan Simmons (1989)
We’ve all met the kind of people who author Dan Simmons refers to as “mind vampires,” individuals who seek to impose their will on others as an act of psychic violence. They include your petty, power-hungry manager, and the manipulative ex you’re lucky enough to have dumped. Based loosely on evolutionary biology and criminal psychology, Carrion Comfort pushes the phenomenon of mind vampires to the extreme. Simmons’s novel tells the story of three individuals who attempt to track down a group of ruthless, mind-controlling psychics, and forces us to confront the violence and cruelty that lurks under the quiet veneer of civilization.
6.) The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey (2016)
There’s a good chance that you’ve heard of zombies, but have you ever considered things from their perspective? The Girl with All the Gifts let’s us do just that. Set in a near future in which a parasitic Cordyceps fungus infects human beings, M.R. Carey’s novel is told from the perspective of Melanie, a young girl infected by the fungus. Fiercely protective of her uninflected companions, yet a danger to them, Melanie acts as a bridge between our world and the one her kind will inherit. Fun and disturbing fact: cordyceps is an actual fungus that makes literal zombies out of insects and other small invertebrates.
Humans and Their Environment
Despite capitalism’s apparent goal narrowing us down to abstract numbers on a page, humanity does not, and cannot, exist in a bubble. We are creatures whose very identities are determined by the kind of place and time in which we find ourselves. As the writers in this category express in fascinating ways, we are part of our world, not just objective observers of it.
Each of these three authors asks questions about how humans exist in relation to . . .
. . . The natural world of creatures and landscapes that exists independent of, yet in relation to, humanity. How does our relationship to, and treatment of, this natural world affect who and what we are?
. . . Our historical environment. We are historical creatures, and so our place in time is just as important to ours identities as our physical location. How does our when affect who and what we are in addition to our where?
. . . Our social and symbolic environments. To be human is be a symbol-using, value-creating, meaning-making creature. Our social and symbolic environments are indeed “constructed” (a much maligned, yet rarely understood buzzword in the humanities and social sciences), but that doesn’t make them any less real. How do these quasi-physical environments affect our identities and perceptions of the world?
7.) Foundation, by Issac Asimov (1942-1950)
First written as a collection of short stories, and later published as a part of a Hugo Award winning series [link here], Issac Asimov’s Foundation is considered a classic work of science fiction. Foundation begins with the story of “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon, who has predicted the course of human history through his work in mathematics. Sensing the imminent collapse of the seemingly powerful Galactic Empire, Seldon sets up a foundation that will guide humanity through the ensuing dark ages. Borrowing from both “hard” and social sciences, Foundation is history writ large in the most literal sense.
8.) Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)
When it comes to classic science fiction, it’s hard to overstate just how big of a deal Dune is. Winner of the inaugural 1965 Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the 1966 Hugo Award, Frank Herbert’s debut novel remains an iconic example of New Wave science fiction. It is often cited as the bestselling science fiction novel of all time. Dune tells the story of Paul Atreides, the son of a murdered duke who comes of age on the desert planet Dune, or Arakis. Highly philosophical, yet action-packed, the novel explores the relationship between human societies and harsh natural environments, the impact of human greed on said environments, and the affect of natural environments on human political organizations.
9.) A Door into Ocean, by Joan Slonczewski(1986)
Looking for an environmentally-conscious science-fiction novel with a feminist bent? Look no further! Joan Slonczewski’s A Door into Ocean takes place on Shora, a water-covered moon inhabited by Sharers, a passivist, all-female species with highly advanced genetic engineering technology. Brought to Shora by the Sharer Merwin, the young human Spinel becomes the first male to embrace the Sharer way of life. Informed by their eco feminist ideals and expertise in biological sciences, Slonczewski, a professor of biology at Kenyon University, offers the reader a compelling vision of intelligent beings unequivocally committed to peace with each other and with the natural world.
Encountering the Other
If you’re given to over-generalizations, as I sometimes am, you could claim that all science fiction – in a way, all literature – asks the Big Question, “who are we?” Or, put another way, “what does is mean to be ‘human’?” In the face of technological advancements and scientific breakthroughs that challenge our conceptions of who and what we are, science fiction asks, and often tries to answer, however incompletely, these age-old questions.
Here are three science-fiction stories that raise this Big Question, and explore possible answers through the use of commonly recognized science-fiction tropes, such as space travel, alien life forms, and sentient, human-made robots. Just as we are forced to question our most closely held beliefs and values when we encounter someone from a different culture, so too must the readers of these stories face, and question, the most fundamental aspects of themselves, not only as individuals, but as members of an oftentimes flawed species.
10.) The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Meet the Gethen, a race of “ambisexual” beings who can change their gender at will. Ai, a human from the planet Terra, has been sent as an emissary to Winter, the home planet of the Gethen, in order to persuade them to join the Ekumen, a political coalition of human-inhabited planets. Before he can persuade the Gethen to join the Ekumen, though, Ai will have to breach significant cultural and linguistic barriers that have hitherto prevented humans from understanding the Gethen’s unique social system. Le Guin’s Hugo and Nebula Award-winning novel is an engaging adventure and an insightful reflection on how gender affects our perceptions of ourselves and our world.
11.) The Sparrow, by Maria Doria Russell (1996)
Perhaps the most tragic book on this list, Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow imagines humanity’s first contact with an alien race. Jesuit priest and linguist Emilio Sandoz is the only member of a space mission to the planet Rakhat to return alive. Mutilated physically and spiritually bereft, Sandoz tells of his interactions with the Runa and Jana’ata species and how an initially hopeful meeting between alien peoples devolves into tragedy due to profound cultural misunderstandings. Part science fiction novel, part theological reflection on hope and redemption, and a stark reminder that human perspective is fallible, The Sparrow will both haunt and fascinate readers.
12.) Sea of Rust, by Robert C. Cargill (2017)
Imagine there’s no humans, it’s easy if you try . . . or at least it seems easy for Robert C., Cargill. Set on Earth after sentient robots have overthrown and exterminated humanity, Sea of Rust follows Brittle, a former caretaker robot, or “bot”, who must navigate a post-human wasteland searching for desperately needed parts. Brittle and a group of bot survivors must also outrun the constant threat of the OWI’s (One World Intelligences) who seek to incorporate Earth’s remaining bots into their hive-mind. Cargill’s bots appear both radically “other,” and yet recognizably “human,” as they fight for their right to a future while struggling to make peace with their violent pasts.
Becoming the Other
Humans are terrified by the concept of mixing and mingling with the Other. Just look at the kind of horror stories we come up with – zombies, demonic possession, alien invaders, vampires (before freakin’ Twilight, that is) all play on our fears of incorporating the Other into ourselves. As a matter of fact, we’re so terrified of the Other that, here in real life, we have spent an incredible amount of energy passing laws, creating institutions, and developing methods to kill the human Other.
Science fiction can force us to confront the other, to see ourselves through an alien mirror. It can also push this dynamic just a bit further and force us to question our notions of a stable or “pure” humanity. It can force us to re-evaluate our revulsion at the thought of mixing, mingling, and becoming something “others” than what (we think) we are.
Of course, reading always changes us – this version of science fiction challenges our attitude toward change itself.
13.) Dawn, by Octavia E. Butler (1987)
Variously described as “disturbing,” “frightening,” and “brutally unsentimental,” the first installment in Octavia Butler’s Hugo-winning Xenogenesis trilogy paints a stark picture of humanity. Dawn’s protagonist, Lilith Iyapo is among the survivors of a nuclear war that wipes out most of humanity. Her rescuers are the Oankali, an alien race that mixes its own genetic material with other species. Whether or not they agree, humanity will pay a price for Earth’s restoration: their children will be genetic mixtures of Human and Oankali. Though the human characters, including Lilith, are initially horrified and disgusted by this prospect, Butler’s sober portrayal of humanity’s violent and hierarchical nature makes us question exactly why this is a bad thing . . .
14.) Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor (2015)
The 2016 Hugo Awards were a resounding victory for women’s and minority scicne fiction writers, despite pushbacks from right-wing reactionaries (yes – even science fiction awards get political). That year’s winner for Best Novella, Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, tells the story of it’s eponymous protagonist, a young lower-caste woman from Earth who is the first of her people to be accepted to the prestigious Oomza University. En route to the planet-university (the various “departments” are the size of cities), an alien species, the Meduse, attacks the ship, and Binti is the sole survivor. Determined to make peace between the Meduse and Oomza University, Binti gains first the trust, then the friendship, and finally the bodily characteristics of the Meduse. Okorafor’s tightly-packed novella celebrates peace as an antidote to conflict, and emphasizes the heroic nature of embracing the Other.
15.) The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders (2019)
Humanity clings to life on January, a “ribbon world” planet that doesn’t rotate, thus leaving a small sliver of twilight between uninhabitable cold and deathly hot environments. Sophie, a young student, finds herself exiled into the Night for the paltry crime of stealing a few food tokens, and is rescued by a creature referred to by January’s humans as a “crocodile” (no resemblance to the Earth animal). Sophie soon realizes that the crocodiles are an intelligent and compassionate species who have been trying to help humanity survive. As the crocodiles point out, long-term survival on January will require humans to change both physically and mentally. In The City of the Middle of the Night, Anders forces us to confront the limits of our humanity, and our reluctance to embrace even the most necessary of transformations.
So there you have it, a terribly incomplete reading list to help you start your own science fiction journey!
Any thoughts about the suggestions here? Let me know in the comments below!