At a conference on Serious Matters of Internet Governance last month, some of the participants kept bringing up science fictional references as a guide to the future; others never did. A straw poll revealed that about half of us had never read any science fiction, while the other half read huge amounts. The non sf-readers asked for some pointers.
So Maria and I, with some suggestions from Henry, have tried to draw up a List of Science Fiction for People Who Don’t Read SF. There might be some overlap there—I think Riddley Walker is definitely a book that gets read for its considerable literary merit by many people who would never dream of filing it as a post-apocalyptic fantasy, even though that’s what it also is. Margaret Atwood may be another author whose books are read in that way.
Note: this is a starter package for adult readers who feel curious as to what is the attraction of sf, and it is intended to introduce them to some of the distinct pleasures of the genre as well as to good books. Almost everyone (hi, Henry) will have different and possibly better ideas for this list. Fire away in comments. But the criterion for success is not whether you know the field better than we do—you do—but whether anyone who has been wondering what is the distinct pleasure of sf as a genre becomes able, through some of these books, to discover it.
Hors d’oeuvre—short stories available for free or cheap download
If you don’t like any of these, you won’t appreciate anything that follows
E.M. Forster, The Machine Stops – Dystopia perfectly imagined, in 1909.
William Tenn, The Liberation of Earth – All you need know about war
James Blish, Surface Tension – What imagination can do
Frederik Pohl, The tunnel under the world – Life inside Facebook
Shorter novels which expect some familiarity with the genre, or at least willingness not to worry about how vital technologies are supposed to work:
William Gibson, Count Zero
The best of his early “hacker” novels: small time hustler comes to the attention of a giant AI which wants a favour of him. Very fast moving thriller style, so the plot emerges only gradually from the action.
William Gibson, Idoru
Middle period: a meditation on fame and fandom. A real life rock star falls in love with a Japanese hologram. Characters not at all cardboard by this stage of his career
Jack Vance, To Live Forever
What would immortality be like in a meritocracy where you had to earn eternal life?
Ken MacLeod, Newton’s Wake
A very good, if erratic writer: this one is not overbalanced by the exuberance of his ideas. Another great book of his is The Night Sessions, a murder mystery involving Calvinist robots. McLeod was brought up a creationist in a fundamentalist family on the Isle of Lewis, so he knows his Calvinism.
Frederik Pohl, Jem
If you’ve wondered what could possibly go wrong in Utopia
Two classics of prediction, from the Fifties
Pohl and Kornbluth, The Space Merchants
The world is run by advertising companies
Pohl and Kornbluth, Gladiator at Law
Sinister conglomerates run wildly popular game shows with real deaths
Books of such literary merit they’re not reviewed as SF
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker
Unforgettable post-apocalyptic journey, written in an invented language, a degenerate form of contemporary English, which takes about ten pages to learn (the trick is to ignore the spelling and sound it out). Very well worth the effort.
Margaret Atwood; Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, MaddAddam
A trilogy which asks whether the human race deserves to survive: a bioengineering genius decides, on the evidence, that it does not so engineers a replacement species
Doorstop future histories: works that are quite literally (ok, figuratively) world-building
Kim Stanley Robinson; Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars
A trilogy about colonisation and terraforming: what would a practical, serious attempt at a better society on an alien planet look like? It would, for a start, have real characters, as KSR’s Mars does.
Brian Aldiss; Helliconia Trilogy (now published as a single volume)
Humans, and others, wrestle for control of a planet with a 5,000 year seasonal cycle, so vast ice ages transform it at regular intervals. Extraordinary scope coupled with vivid, close details.
Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
2,000,000,000 years of human history, starting in 1930, so of course the first couple of hundred are all completely wrong. This doesn’t matter at all. In all, 18 different human species succeed each other, making very slow and partial progress towards wisdom. A book which exemplifies the primacy in great SF of imaginative truth over prediction.
Gene Wolfe, The Book of the New Sun
A haunting and sometimes horrible four-book series. (MF: Revered and often recommended here on CT, though Maria never got past the de-gloving incident early in the first book.)
Iain M Banks, Use of Weapons
So what happens when there is no scarcity?
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game
Classic tale of boy-warrior ‘Chosen One’ trope. Avoid the sequels.
Lois McMaster Bujold; Shards of Honour, Barrayar
Take a boy’s own planet—feudalism with spaceships—and add a sensible feminist outsider. Fast moving, funny, and with strands of disconcerting psychological realism. Very few adventure stories have a pregnancy as their central story line.
Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven
Post-apocalypse world wherein ‘survival is insufficient’. Not utopic. Not dystopic. Just the full richness of human life.
Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz
Original sin survives after the nuclear holocaust: civilisation kept almost going by monks in the American desert