Science fiction seems to have the unfortunate reputation of being this exclusive “for geeks only” or “dumb people need not apply” club, where spaceships, green men, and time travel, either singularly or in any combination of the three, are guaranteed elements. But science fiction at its most basic is merely a glimpse into possibility, of what might be. Not so long ago, thoughts of little machines that we could talk to, and have talk back, were definitely considered science fiction (or sometimes the deranged ravings of those who were enthusiastically imaginative before their time). Now there are computers everywhere, in all their shapes, sizes and functions. It’s a universal human proclivity to look forward, imagine, and ask “What if?”
Science fiction varies widely in its approach to this supposition, not always lasered on the purely technological, but also delving into the social, psychological, anthropological, and ecological. If you’re thinking of dipping your toe into the literary waters of sci-fi for the first time, or if you’re an expert swimmer and want to try the unfamiliar tides, here are a few excellent titles that are classics in the genre (or should be, in my opinionated opinion).
The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is a Newbery Award winning juvenile fiction novel, set in a deceptively simple utopian society. A boy is called to fill a mysterious vocation in his community called the Receiver of Memories, a calling that requires he be the sole human repository of knowledge, specifically his society’s history - transferred telepathically to him by his predecessor, the Giver – from which the boy discovers the truth behind his people’s happiness, and the human cost of its seeming perfection.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick, is absolutely a sci-fi staple (as with most of his novels and stories), set in the future after a devastating world war has decimated not just the human population but all life on Earth. Because of the rarity of life, ownership of a live animal is a mark of status (in some instances akin to owning a luxury vehicle today). Synthetic life is much more common, even synthetic humans (called androids) with newer models almost indistinguishable from actual humans except by a psychological empathy test, or bone marrow test. The story follows a bounty hunter sent to find six escaped androids who are the latest model. Not a very long novel, Dick nonetheless manages to instill depth, thought, and human complexity enough for a book twice its length. Inspired the cult classic film Blade Runner.
The Neanderthal Parallax, by Robert J. Sawyer, author of Flashforward which was made into a television series of the same name, is a fascinating trilogy of books that details the discovery of two parallel Earths, ours as it is today, and another where Neanderthals have become the dominant race, and how the distinct evolutionary differences the two Earths have taken in religion (Neanderthals don’t have religion per se), society (theirs is definitely unique) and technology (thought-provoking) compare with each other. The first volume, Hominids, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel.
The Snow Queen, by Joan D. Vinge, another winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, is wonderfully written, and one of my favorites by Vinge. It is set on a world that experiences a bi-seasonal shift (winter or spring) every 150 years that impacts not just the environment but also the planet’s political, ecological, and social aspects, creating two distinct groups of people: the Winters (who believe in technology and progress), and the Summers (who follow more pastoral traditions). A Summer girl named Moon becomes what is called a sibyl, with the ability to answer with scientific precision any question asked of her, leading her to discover the conspiracies behind her planet’s civilization, and her connection to her planet’s Winter ruler, the Snow Queen. It’s definitely original and thoroughly engaging.
The City & The City, by China Mieville, is a brilliant cross between the more speculative and psychological side of sci-fi and detective fiction, and is also a winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, among a slew of other prestigious awards. An inspector pursues a crime investigation that leads from his city, Beszel, to its sister city, Ul Qoma. The catch is that these twin cities occupy pretty much the same geographical space, with the boundaries separating the two imposed in a fascinating psychological (psychic?) manner: citizens of either city are taught from birth to recognize the subtle differences of one city from the other, and to “unsee” those things not from their city, even if they are directly before them. Buildings and roads, vehicles and landmarks, even people, may cross paths, intermingle, or occupy the same space, but if they are of the opposite city, it’s as though they don’t exist. Well-written and surprisingly accessible.
The Windup Girl, by Paolo Bacigalupi, shared the Hugo Award for Best Novel in the same year as The City & The City, and it is rightly deserving of that honor. It is set in a future dystopian Thailand, when the carbon and fossil fuels have run out and common sources of energy are more mechanical, such as the use of spring-wound devices (yep, springs, like clockwork hence the reference to “windup”). Currency is centered more on what can be grown rather than what can be spent or earned, and those in power are the ones who regulate food production. Genetic modification is a common method of creating living products to meet human needs, bioterrorism to enforce economy. Definitely not a light read (violence and politics and sex, oh my), and there isn’t one single determinable protagonist (although my favorite is Emiko, the nominal windup girl), but it is without a doubt original.
Neuromancer, by William Gibson, is the novel that made the word “cyberspace” an official technology term, and is (of course) a Hugo Award winner for Best Novel (I seem to have a penchant for these award-winners). The story follows a disreputable character who was once a promising hacker but as punishment for corporate theft loses the ability to access this future’s version of the internet, a virtual reality network called the Matrix (yep, like the film - it’s a very influential novel). Offered a temporary cure as part of a job (and a permanent one upon completion of said job), the novel dives into this amazingly imagined world of technology (which may or may not be where we’re headed) with cybernetically enhanced samurai, self-aware artificial intelligences, and computer-programmed human beings (these are just a few of my favorite things).
Click on any of the titles to visit the OC Public Libraries website and reserve a copy today! What are some of your favorite science fiction stories?